Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
A week from today marks the beginning of the busiest U.S. travel season of the year as people travel to their home of choice to celebrate Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season. In honor of this pilgrimage let’s take a look at the journey home of one Elder Smithson in Labor of Love.
Labor of Love is the second in a new wave of missionary films that began with The Prodigal Son. Branding in the film includes only a Labor of Love title card and the classic church logo and it ends with a call to action to speak to a missionary or a member of the church to learn more. Labor of Love It was also released in 1990, like The Prodigal Son.
The film opens with people boarding an airplane. Individuals are stowing luggage and getting settled for a flight. Two men get into the same row and begin small talk. Dean is a photographer who has been away from home for several weeks on an assignment. Elder Smithson is heading home after being away for 2 years. Dean is surprised and asked if it was for school. “No,” the elder says. “But I did receive an education!” He tells dean he has been serving a mission for his church. Dean gives him a “that’s nice” and immediately shuts down.
Having served a mission for 2 years Elder Smithson is well schooled in the social brushoff and breaks the ice by saying “There are 30,000 missionaries around the world. I guess this is the chance you take when you fly non-smoking.” Ba-doom, CHING!
The flight attendant begins her safety demonstration and Elder Smithson tells Dean how his experience serving a mission parallels the crew’s experience. How what she says is important but no one is really paying attention.
The flight gets underway and Elder Smithson turns his attention to a letter from John Simons. We flash back to a scene in his apartment building where John is standing in the hall looking rather dejected. Elder Smithson’s companion recognizes him from the paper. Wait. What is he doing reading a newspaper? FORBIDDEN! John is a local basketball player and had a great game. Elder Smithson comments on how he doesn’t look too excited for someone who won the big game. He is met by a curt “Who hired you to be my analyst?”
The companionship is sitting on a bench and Elder Current Events is reading another newspaper. He learns that John had been hurt in the second half of the game. Since their hallway meeting went so well Elder Smithson says they should go see him in the hospital. Sounds like something many earnest missionaries would do. I hoped they got to use a clergy parking spot like I did once on my mission.
They show up in John’s room, and John is sure they have the wrong room. They insist they are just there to check up on him as he is the “biggest star in [their] apartment building.” They ask him if they can get him anything. John sits up in his bed and doesn’t ask for much. Just a new knee, a new girlfriend, and a new life. Elder Smithson says they can’t help with most of that, but if he ever wants to talk about life maybe they can help. Elder Media Savvy gives him some magazines to read and they walk out. Clearly to go read the white handbook because he shouldn’t be buying magazines.
Later John stops by the Elders’ apartment and catches them during dinner. He apologizes and nearly leaves, but the Elders invite him in. NOT ALLOWED! They begin to talk and he asks them why they seem so happy when they don’t do any of the things that he turns to for happiness. They testify that the message they share is a message of hope and that he can do the work and find out if it is true. The scene shifts back to the plane with John as a voice over. We hear him say thanks to Elder Smithson and how the “therapy on [his] knee was easy compared to the therapy on [his] soul.”
As Dean and Elder Smithson’s conversation continue it shifts to what Elder Smithson learned from a companion. He relates how he learned something different from each one. We cut to a snowy road. A curmudgeonly man rebuffs their offer to help. He is going through a hard time, but suddenly softens and agrees to have them come and visit. They begin to meet regularly with the Soderstrums, and things are going well, until they aren’t. They arrive on a snowy night and Mr. Soderstrum has no time for them. The storm is coming and he has animals to tend to. As they walk away Elder Grey refuses to accept what just happen, while Elder Smithson says that’s just how it goes sometimes. He closes the car door and runs back to find Mr. Soderstrum and simply says they are there to help. He throws them some gloves and cold weather gear and they help him with his chores in the forbidding storm. As they head back Mr. Soderstrum jokes he doesn’t know which direction they are going and maybe they will be found in the spring. Dad Joke!
Back on the airplane Dean asks what is the best thing about being a missionary. Elder Smithson quickly replies “It’s seeing other people’s lies change for the best. I feel I was called by a Prophet of God, and even with my shortcomings I was able to help.” Dean is again skeptical. “Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but I’m suspicious of easy answers.” Elder Smithson never said it was easy.
We then flash back to a snowy door step. I guess he never served in a Colorado summer? The person at the door says no thanks to their classic door approach and the elders begin to walk away. When they are nearly at the street they are called back and they meet Neal and Eileen. Eileen says she felt something when they were at the door and wanted them to come in so they could talk about it. A little Help Others Feel and Recognize the Spirit occurs and we are treated to a montage of teaching, learning and serving.
Later the missionaries teach a lesson on eternal families and are surprised at the cool reception this principle of joy receives. As Elder Smithson ponders before retiring for the evening he thought maybe they were having marital problems. He writes his dad for advice. They go back to visit and learn that is the case. Neal and Eileen decide to stop meeting until they have that worked out. Elder Smithson gives them an unopened letter from Elder Smithson’s parents and wishes them well.
Not too much later the missionaries are invited to Neal’s office at lunch. He invites them in and shares the information he received in the letter. Elder Smithson’s father related a story about a marital argument. As he slept on the couch he saw a cross-stitch of Ephesians 5:25 on the wall. “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” He then felt the need to truly pray for his family. Neal was touched by the letter and asked the missionaries to teach him to pray for his marriage. Ummm. I served in the 90s. You teach people to pray in discussion 1. I guess they were too busy reading magazines. But it works out. Neal and Eileen reconcile their marriage and we see them at their baptism.
Dean asks “How many other families did you convert?” Elder Smithson says none but reminds Dean that conversion is personal between you and the Lord. He also thanks Dean for letting him talk his ear off. Dean thanks him for the conversation and they touch down in what I am pretty sure is the Salt Lake airport. He was also traveling alone. When I flew home from Fort Worth to SLC we had quite a few and we were all sitting together. Per The Google a flight duration from SLC to Denver is 1 hour and 35 minutes. You get the sense that this is a really, really long flight from all the in depth stories he shared. But maybe there was food service. It was the early 90s.
The film ends with Elder Smithson meeting his family and Dean stopping to take their reunion photo. He also passes a business card to Elder Smithson and asks him to reach out. Perhaps to learn more about the message Elder Smithson shared for 2 years.
Labor of Love’s focus on the missionary enables the viewer to see both the benefits of a mission and the message. We see the transforming power of the gospel message and the highs and lows mingled with service and sacrifice. Missing from this account are any bad companions, but I guess you can’t fit it all in a 24-minute video.