Round Three in Garanhuns

I’m sorry about the long delay in sending anything from my end. We spent the first part of the week from February 24th to February 28th handling the transfer. Whereas before I was with Elder Patriota from Rio de Janeiro, we were now divided and given two new companions. So now I’ve been put with Elder Gustavo from the interior of São Paulo and Elder Patriota was put with Elder Daniels, a powerhouse who was in the MTC with me in August of 2012 (saying that makes me feel old…)

My new companion, Elder Gustavo, is a bright young fireball with just 10 months on the mission. He never actually served as a District Leader – he was just called straight up from being a trainer to become a Zone Leader in a zone that was recently created in our mission. Some two transfers later he was called into the office with three other Assistants who all have 1 year and six months on the mission. It brings a refreshing new aspect to our work. Not that we older folk on the mission become calloused, but sometimes we come to believe that our personal perspective and set of experiences is more or less the same as the others on the mission. But newer missionaries have a vision and a fire that’s just…different.

It’s fun to have Elder Gustavo as a companion. He’s remarkably intelligent, but pleasantly simple, and all-around loving and optimistic. He likes to work hard and pushes the rest of us to expand our vision of what’s possible. But, at the same time, he’s also open to receiving feedback and input as he becomes acquainted with the office duties and responsibilities particular to an AP.

The transfer went by smoothly, there’s not a whole lot I have to report. It was fun to see the faces of the new missionaries. I distinctly remember how I felt and more or less what I was thinking when I came off the plane. Mostly I remember how stinkin’ tired I was… he he… I remember imagining how my first days in the mission field would be – who I would teach, what it would be like working in the street proselyting every day. I had always been so timid about sharing the gospel with friends and acquaintances, and to a great extent I was terrified about the prospect of doing it in a language I didn’t understand or speak. At the same time, I can still remember the raw excitement that surged through my soul in those first weeks. I thank the Lord for the will to study, seeking “learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). I remember eating my first plate of rice and beans in the mission field and spilling feijoada all over my tie. I remember just staring vapidly into the face of the woman who was speaking to us in a language that I swore I had never heard before in my life, though I had studied it for 9 weeks in Brazil.

I remember how much I struggled in those first weeks. I had so much desire and so little talent or technique. Never had the Lord’s counsel to Hyrum Smith had so much meaning: “Seek not to declare my word, but first seek to obtain my word, and then shall your tongue be loosed; then, if you desire, you shall have my Spirit and my word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men” (D&C 11:21). In the beginning of the mission it seemed like everything was possible but it was just out of my reach. After a year and six months, looking back, I recognize that my reach has grown, though there is still so much growth for me to realize. I’m so grateful for the teachers I have had and the experiences and trials and struggles the Lord has given me to pass through. Sometimes the mission seems like a full life span compacted into two years – so much so that sometimes we talk about starting our mission as “Being Born” and finishing our mission as “Dying”. We start out, quite often blinded by the light here in the Recife sun, and without the ability to speak. And as we grow in stature we start to reason and converse more effectively. And as our middle age comes to its peak, we start to understand more and more Boyd K. Packer’s words on growing up:

“If I could now turn back the years,
If that were mine to choose,
I would not barter age for youth,
I’d have too much to lose.
I am quite content to move ahead,
To yield my youth, however grand.
The thing I’d lose if I went back
Is what I understand.”

 
Not in any sense that I’m growing old, lest any be left with the wrong idea – but rather, I’ve come to feel that the mission is my life. I don’t feel anymore as though as I were “someone from California temporarily serving a mission in Brazil”. I don’t feel as though my life in the past was real and my new life is a dream. Rather, as though I’ve been here my whole life and the life I lived before is but a dream. I certainly haven’t forgotten – but what I’m to express is that… I’m here. And I’m glad and comfortable and so happy being here on the mission.

I digress.

On Thursday, the Mission President called us into his office in the morning. We were really unsure of what our plans would be during the week of Carnaval due to the movement and (worldly) festivities not so conducive to proselytism. So Thursday morning, President called us in, rubbed his temples for a couple seconds, thought, looked up at us, and said – “You’re all going to spend the week of Carnaval in Garanhuns”. So, thirty minutes later, we were packing our bags for an 8-day stay in the farthest interior zone of the mission. And three hours later we were on a bus heading to the Zone to which the Lord just keeps sending me back.

For those who haven’t been able to keep close track or have forgotten, this last week was officially the third time I’ve passed through Garanhuns. The first time I was in Garanhuns, I stayed there to finish my own training and soon after begin training. The second time I was in an area called Boa Vista as a Zone Leader. This time I can back to do the week-long division with a handful of areas in the zone.

Our first division was with an up and coming Elder who had recently been called to train and serve as district leader in Garanhuns (the same area where I trained and more or less ‘came to’ on the mission). I worked side by side with his brand-new companion from São Paulo, Elder Moreira, while Elder Ross led Elder Gustavo around. Given that both Elder Ross and I are acquainted with the area, we were able to divide effectively.

The newbie I worked with, Elder Moreira, had all the deer-in-the-headlights look of a missionary fresh out of a quick 11-day Mission Training Center stay and blasted to the far interior. That said, it was inspirational for me to see his faith in action. There’s so much desire and so much fear – or not fear, but unfamiliarity – mixed up in those first few days. So I said to him, “I’ll teach you how to make a street contact”. We talked to the first man we saw – a young man of about 17 years of age sitting down on the curb. We told him we were representatives of Jesus Christ and that we wanted to bless him and his family. He smiled, nodded, agreed, and led us to his family’s house. So we briefly explained our purpose, left a prayer, and invited the whole family to church. Then his Mom said, “Alex, why don’t you take them to your cousin’s house – I’m sure he would love to also hear their message. He’s in need of the Word of God.” So Alex led us to Robson, where we also explained our purpose, left a blessing in their home, and invited the family to church. Then Robson said, “You need to get to know my mother”. So Robson led us to his Mom’s house, where we prayed with everyone together and explained our purpose and invited all to go to church. This time they told us we should go to their other nephew’s house. Within a matter of about 2 hours I think we had met, prayed with, and invited the entire family tree of some 10+ relatives to go to “The Church of the Mormons”. Everybody was excited.

It’s incredible the faith the people of Brazil naturally have in God. We asked Robson’s Mom and aunt if they wanted us to pray for God to help them in some specific aspect of their lives. They mentioned that they just needed peace and health in general. But we felt we ought to dig a little deeper, so I asked, “Do you have any relatives that are in need of the Lord’s help?” Robson’s aunt didn’t say a word, but her head sunk into her hands and she began to cry. We all sat in a moment of silence. Up until that point, I hadn’t heard anything about children or other relatives. But the distinct impression came to ask about her child – “What’s the name of your child that is in need of help?” She began to explain how she had a daughter who had practically given herself to drugs and was dating a man who wasn’t helping. It seems like such a simple thing – asking about a child in need of help – to the point that I suppose in another stage of life I may have even questioned if it was inspiration. But I’ve come to learn, come to understand, to a much greater extent, the way in which the Holy Ghost whispers to us what the Lord would have us do and say. I’m so grateful for the Lord’s hand and the way He guides our work.

Our division in Garanhuns proceeded in more or less the same fashion. It was gratifying to pass on to Elder Ross all of the neat tricks and ideas that I had come up with and learned from other missionaries to help him organize and follow up with other missionaries as a District Leader. I was pleased to see that he was making the best of his new resources when I left. It’s hard sometimes to “treasure up” and pass on knowledge effectively, given restrictions of time and space. (Our house, holding everything we own, has four wheels and a zipper and moves from city to city about once every five months). But when information is stored and passed and used, there’s an added efficiency that makes even the coldest and mechanical of hearts warm.

I received one of the best phone calls I’ve received in my life on Saturday morning. Some six months ago, I began teaching a young woman named Pamela in Boa Vista. She’s the wife of a member in that ward, Marcondes, who came back from his mission in Minas Gerais some years ago. Pamela was born and raised Catholic, and still had the custom of visiting the Catholic Mass with her mother once a week. Elder Withers and I began teaching her the first lessons, proceeding ever so carefully and ever so slowly, and Marcondes was always by our side, encouraging her reading and studying and praying so that she could make the leap of faith into the Church of Jesus Christ. On my last night in Boa Vista, I taught the Restoration of the Gospel with Elder Withers to Pamela and the lesson ended in tears of hope, of the Spirit, and probably of fear as she faced the prospect of transplanting deep, deep roots into a different religion. Often, it seems what’s most difficult for investigators in her situation is that they have to separate faith in an institution, or faith in tradition, or faith in family expectations, from faith in Jesus Christ. Pamela had to pass through the difficult process of discovering for herself what it was she really believed and what it was that she was simply accustomed to. When I taught on that last night in Boa Vista, we invited her to be baptized for the first time and a door of opportunity had opened. But time passed, and passed, and passed. The week before I traveled to Garanhuns, I spoke with my ex-companion, Elder Withers, about the progress of the investigators he was teaching in his area. He mentioned Pamela’s name, saying that he had established a goal with her of doing a fast so that God could help confirm the truth of what she had learned, calm her soul, and give her the strength necessary to do what she believed was right. I told Elder Withers that I would pray and fast along with him. So we all prayed and fasted together – Pamela, with her husband; Elder Withers, with his companion in Garanhuns; and I, in Recife, some four hours away.

Fast forward a week and a half, I received a phone call while I was in the division with Garanhuns, and Elder Withers explained, “Elder Fleming! I just got a phone call from Marcondes! Pamela’s getting baptized tomorrow!” So Sunday morning, Elder Gustavo and I packed our bags and walked the journey to the chapel in Boa Vista and I was able to see Marcondes baptize Pamela, beginning the process of an eternal family. I don’t think there was a single person in that room who wasn’t brought to tears as Marcondes’ brother, a long-time friend of Pamela’s deceased father, and a dear friend of Pamela in the Church bore their testimonies that all of this – Marcondes being led to the church as a young man, Pamela meeting Marcondes, the two of them getting married, Pamela being taught by the missionaries, and the both of them starting a family in the Gospel – all of this was divinely coordinated and executed. I feel so blessed to be one more quiet cog in the wheel that makes God’s Eternal Plans roll smoothly – but determinedly – through the eternities.

Saturday night (the day before Pamela’s baptism) I was able to participate in a baptism of a young woman who had also been led carefully by the Lord to the Gospel. This young woman was the niece of a family of long-time church members who had passed through Belém de Pará and Minas Gerais before finally landing in the same city as her. Within weeks of this family and this young woman finding themselves in the same place, this young woman was led to the missionaries and began receiving the missionary discussions. Er…lessons? Conversations? In any case, she was deeply moved spiritually throughout the small baptismal service that was held, and I saw in her face what I imagine my own mother would have looked like some 40 years ago when she was baptized. The same sincerity, the same gratitude, the same awe at the grace and mercy of the Lord in leading her to a new life, mixed with all the anxieties of what a new pattern of life would hold. I thought for a moment on what her family would look like 40 years from now, if she too would have a son on a mission in a foreign country, if she too would teach her children by example to pray, to have faith, to trust in the Lord, even and especially when it is most difficult.

But I couldn’t think for too long. She brought a friend from the Baptist church and we showed her the all of the rooms and closets and paintings and walls and books and everything else there is to explain there – how marvelous and unique it is when the opportunity finally comes to share something that makes you profoundly happy. We stopped in the Sacrament Hall, one of the quietest and most sacred rooms in the chapel. She started to ask some questions about the origins of the church and our basic beliefs, so, we more than willingly explained about the Restoration of the Gospel. When we finally got to the part of the First Vision, when God appears to Joseph Smith, a young and simple boy sincerely looking for truth, she began to cry. She looked to us and her member-friend, trying to grasp exactly what it was that she was feeling and could only utter, “The story is just so beautiful”. We explained that God was witnessing to her in that same moment the power and truthfulness of our message. It’s nice to have the Holy Ghost as our third companion. He’s a much more powerful teacher than any.

I went to visit Keven and Victoria, a young man and woman that I had baptized some six months ago. It was such a great experience to see them happy and well in the gospel. I was reminded of Paul’s own tender feelings towards his converts in his Epistle directed to the Thessalonians: “We were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us”. There’s part of our soul that stays behind with every one of those we teach and bring into the fold of God. For truly the Spirit works to edify both the student and the teacher (D&C 50:22) When we see our converts, all of the moments of peace and love and happiness that were created come back, to the point where it’s almost like seeing a distant child for the first time in years. Paul explains the joy: “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” (1 Thessalonians 2:2-13)

In a sense, working on a mission is literally like creating a massive family that spans across barriers of time and distance. I miss you all dearly. I’m grateful for all your love and support. Another week and set of experiences to come.

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