March 11th – March 18th, 2014
This week was one of our fuller weeks as Assistants. We started out Tuesday morning early going to one of the zones that sits in the city limits of Recife called Cordeiro. I’ve become accustomed to landing in an area, opening the planners of the missionaries there, and seeing just one, big long appointment – “Contatos” (or “Contacts”). It’s not that the missionaries in our mission are generally inadequate planners – for a great number know how to plan, and do so with great diligence – but rather, those areas with which we do companion exchanges are the areas with the most needs. They are the areas in which the missionaries are having difficulties in their companionships, or difficulties with the area, or difficulties with something that happened at home, or just difficulties in general. To add insult to injury, or rather, to place the cherry on top of the sundae (depending on how happy you are right now), we often arrive in the area as a surprise to get a “clean sample” of a normal day in that designated area. And the normal day in these areas with difficulties is often left unplanned and without any fixed appointments. So we sit with the missionaries, divide the one or two marked appointments between the two companionships, and brainstorm some ideas to find new investigators. Our days are thus usually filled with finding activities and long conversations with the missionaries as pseudo-counselors or training specialists or friends-for-hire or whatever you want to consider us for a period of about 24 hours. But, as I said, it’s something that I’ve come to even enjoy. Using a common phrase in Portuguese – “Tô nem aí” (“I’m not even phased”, or “I ain’t even trippin’”).
This type of division work is our week from Tuesday to Friday. There’s a different kind of push and urgency in the divisions that I do now as an Assistant. I feel, in a very real and pressing way, the fact that every moment I’m with a missionary has to be the very best moment that missionary has had. For us, we do divisions every day, so the difference between doing a division in area 1 and area 2 is minimal. It’s quotidian, almost rote in the sense that our work is almost entirely street contacting. But the work never degrades to being mundane or banal. For every person we meet is different, and the Spirit of God reveals a different combination of needs requiring a different set of solutions with every new investigator. (Sometimes I almost feel like a doctor of sorts, walking the streets, getting to know my patients, making spiritual diagnoses, taking metaphorical temperatures, and prescribing medicines for their souls. Rather, I feel like a Physician’s Assistant, for Christ is the Doctor of Doctors, and he walks by our side.) So given that every division for us is one more division, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that for that one missionary we work with, that day becomes “The day I did a companion exchange with the assistant”. Their “Division with the assistant” is something that happens just once in their mission, a watershed, and our performance on that day often establishes his perception of the mission’s expectations of obedience, effort, and efficiency. So whereas sometimes as a missionary in a given area I would have an awful day with 2 or 3 lessons and 6 contacts, every day of division as an assistant has to have 6-7 lessons and 10-20 contacts.
This last week, for example, from Tuesday to Friday, between the four days of division that Elder Gustavo and I did with the various areas, we made some 92 street contacts and taught some 36 lessons. I say this not at all to boast, for truly our mission and the areas in which we work our blessed, and, truth be told, our work could and ought to be much better, but I say this to show the difference between the normal weeks I used to have as a normal missionary and the weeks I have now. We usually spend 3-4 nights out of our apartment, sleeping in a wide array of apartments on an even wider array of mattresses. We come home Friday night, throw our clothes in the wash, and thank the Lord for our Preparation Day on Saturday.
Pondering on the different form and rhythm of our work as an assistant, I’ve felt so blessed to be pushed to the point of being able to truly feel the Lord’s mantle lifting me and keep my feet moving. I’ve developed so much more love and respect for the Savior and his own diligence and persistence in bringing about the Salvation of all mankind by way of the Atonement. Would that I could have a fraction of His humility and obedience with which he so readily abnegated his own will to take upon him the Work and Will of His Father.
Sometimes I feel the longing to have my own area again – to have a group of friends to help and guide along the path of conversion, day by day and week by week. But the Lord mercifully provides ways to feel his Love and witness his Hand in the work, even though I am what so often seems like merely a passing breeze in so many different areas. After dividing in Cordeiro, I slept in the Zone Leaders’ house with Elder Gustavo and the next day we went out to Bom Pastor, another area nearby. We met a woman who said that she works in the recycling center of Recife. She said that often sees abandoned copies of the Book of Mormon being recycled as unwanted refuge – a precious pearl neglectfully abandoned in the bottom of a garbage can – and that she has kept various copies of the books, curious to learn more. She mentioned that she had visited several churches, but that she and her husband were in doubt as to where they should formally establish themselves. As we spoke, as we explained and testified of the Restoration of the Gospel, I had the subtle though distinct confirmation that our encounter was not unplanned. (Even though she wasn’t in the Daily Planner when we set out that morning J).
We spent our Thursday and Friday in one of the more interior cities – a city that I had always had a curiosity to get to know but never had a chance to visit – Vitória de Santo Antão. We paid a surprise visit to the Elders there to make sure everything was in order at the house and to follow up with their plans for the day. I stayed with an Elder who fell much more on the quieter side. He’s been on the mission for less than 6 months, and he’s what I would consider shy in a relatively normal way for an American, but here in Brasil that type of behavior is considered antisocial. So he’s passing through some hard times in the present. But we had a good talk through his experiences.
March 19th – March 24th, 2014
This week was an administrative one. I had come to imagine that the day would never come, that the job of an AP on this mission was all divisions and trainings, but I was surprised with the amount of administrative details that had to be taken into consideration with our Mission Conference this week. I think it’s probably the first time in my life that I had to fully plan a large-scale event for more than 20 people. Quite the contrary, instead of 20 we had to plan for 200 people – we had to plan how missionaries would get from the interior to the city, where they would sleep, what they would eat, who would sing in the conference, what they would sing, who would lead, who would play piano, the minute by minute program for the conference in and of itself, down to the smallest of details – who would get the whiteboard markers, who would get the whiteboard eraser, when we would set up the slideshow for the President’s presentation – SO MANY DETAILS.
We also had to manage a change that the Area Authorities asked for in our Transport costs. We’ve had to run through the day-by-day transport logistics of all of the areas in the mission to see where the missionaries could reduce costs without jeopardizing the proselyting work. It’s an aspect of the mission that I never really touched nor thought about touching. In fact, generally the task would be left to the Financial Secretary of the mission, but given that the Financial Secretary is relatively new on the mission and given that most of the Assistants have passed through a handful of zones as Zone Leaders, the President wanted the whole Staff to work as a team in cutting costs.
Life this week has, to a certain extent, been a series of meetings and conferences and spreadsheets and phone calls and planning and follow-up. Weird… I had never really thought about administration as a career option, but I’d be lying if I said that part of me kind of liked it. For now, I think I’d much rather be in the field than in the office as much as possible, but the thought dawned on me that I might incorporate management into a career choice in the future. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I’m thankful for the wide girth of experiences that I’ve had on the mission. And for the lessons.
I’ve come to learn that no amount administrative excellence can make up for failure in ministering personally. Every once in a while, on the administrating end, I’ve felt myself pulled towards the paradigm that systems are the ends and people are the means rather than its opposite, the truthful paradigm: Systems are the means and people are the ends. Systems are a way of helping people live more effectively (happily, integrally, with a higher quality of life). People are NOT merely the means of making systems run more effectively.
What matters how many clients you wait on working at a restaurant if the clients leave unhappy. Similarly – though obviously with the understanding that life is not a restaurant and the Gospel isn’t an ice-cream sundae – what matters how many people I teach if those I teach do not progress in their understanding and commitment to follow Christ’s Doctrine?
And the work isn’t just with investigators, either. This last week I did a companion exchange with the missionary who trained me in the very itsy bitsy beginning of my time in Brasil. Some 17 months afterwards, there I was doing a division with him. He’s one transfer away from going home, and it seemed that he had passed through some difficult times recently. He mentioned that it didn’t help that his Zone Leaders and District Leaders were breathing down his neck to try and get him and his companion to pull up their bootstraps and work. We talked the whole day through, and I remembered all of the good moments and difficult moments we had passed through together. He mentioned that a close relative had come down with cancer – but that until that moment, nobody had asked or seemed to take the time to find out. I remembered how fundamentally good he was, even if in that moment perhaps he wasn’t performing as much as his leaders expected, or he expected. Certainly, there were points that would help him refocus and improve, and we talked about those points and made plans, but I was glad to have one more moment with him before he left.
In that light, I’ve read a couple artciles this last week on the subject of the power and purpose of charitable service that have helped me to get my grip on what’s most important.
The first is a narrative.
The second is a quote:
“My dear sisters, your Heavenly Father loves you—each of you. That love never changes. It is not influenced by your appearance, by your possessions, or by the amount of money you have in your bank account. It is not changed by your talents and abilities. It is simply there. It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there.” (Thomas S. Monson, “We Never Walk Alone,” General Conference October 2013)