It was the sweltering summer of 1978 and Bro. Rhee Ho-nam had just started his service as President of the Korea Pusan Mission. Baptized almost 25 years earlier as one of Korea's founding church members, he was a man of immense faith who trusted that the Lord knew him better than he knew himself, and would empower him to shoulder the overwhelming responsibilities of a mission president.
Not long after he settled into his office and began reviewing the tasks looming ahead of him, one of the Assistants to the President sauntered in and calmly informed him, “President, we have five missionaries who will be dying next week. We should probably start getting ready.”
President Rhee, however only heard the first sentence- five missionaries dying. The shock was overpowering; his mind raced wildly into the hyperspace of conjecture and panic. “How did this happen? Why wasn't I told earlier? What hospital are they in? Have their parents been informed? No one prepared me for this! Why was this mission so dangerous?” His heart immediately turned towards the Lord for inspiration and comfort. He would rush to the hospital and administer to them. Surely God would bless these elders for their ultimate sacrifice.
He hurriedly finished his mental task list and prepared to issue emergency instructions to the mission office staff. He then overheard two other missionaries working in the office casually discussing other morbid events. “We had four missionaries die last month, and next month seven more are dying. President Rhee has some big decisions to make before next month's transfers.”
“What is going on in this mission?” he pleaded in his soul. “Why are so many missionaries dying?” He marveled at the cool, calm demeanor of the missionaries working in the office in the wake of such terribly tragic events.
He jumped up from his desk and began furiously interrogating mission office staff about what had to be done next. Of course he would have to call the Missionary Department in Salt Lake City, and someone would have to notify their parents.
It didn't take long, however, for his missionary assistants to calm him down. “President Rhee,” they began gently and somewhat embarrassed, “We are sorry for the terrible misunderstanding. The missionaries use the word 'die' as slang for 'returning home.' That is what it feels like for them when their two years of service come to an end and leave the Korean people they have learned to love so much.”
President Rhee was simultaneously embarrassed but relieved. His solution to this misunderstanding was one of his first mission rules. “The Elders,” he proclaimed, in a slow, deep, authoritative voice that bore only a hint of a Korean accent, “are not to use the word 'die' anymore to talk about returning home from their missions.”
Almost three years later, however, as he was preparing himself to finish his missionary service and reflecting on the multitude of blessings he had enjoyed as he witnessed the work of the Lord roll forth in the Pusan region, he came to a quiet, comfortable understanding of what it meant to “die.” He had taught and bore testimony of the Plan of Salvation enough times to understand with sensitive spiritual instincts that death was not the end, but merely a passage from one stage of immortality to another. It was a huge and momentous passage, but surely that is what it was. He realized that just as facing death required immense stores of faith to trust that there was something beyond it, after completely devoting all his heart, might, mind, and strength to the Lord's work, more faith was required to believe that there was life beyond three solid years of inspirational prayers and talks and interviews and meetings.
“Elders,” he said, “It is ok to die at the end of your mission.”