So we’ve officially begun President Bigelow’s first full round of interviews. It so happens that it is also my first time planning and carrying out a normal round of interviews. Our mission is large in and of itself (200+ missionaries) but on top of that it is relatively disperse, with some 14 zones scattered around Pernambuco. The difficult bit is that, on top of all the planning and logistics that go behind a series of interviews like this, President Bigelow came in the second week of the transfer, has been here but one week, has the normal (overwhelming) quantity of emergency interviews, transfers, and hospital visits to make, and is trying to establish himself and his vision to give the missionaries and this mission a sure footing on which to establish themselves. President Bigelow expressed his desire to avoid superficial interviews with the missionaries and to have time to really get to know each one of the 200+ missionaries for whom he is responsible. So that puts his interview time at about 20 minutes per missionary. At 200 missionaries, that puts him at 4,000 minutes, or 67 hours, or roughly 3 straight days of interviews. Which would be fine and dandy, but interview time must be confined to non-Preparation Days and non-weekends. So, in theory, that puts us at roughly 6-8 hours a day for 4 days a week for the next 3 weeks. He could basically be a paid psychologist. But I suppose the purpose and price of the consultation are quite different…
We’ve stacked all of his Interior Zone visits for the weekends so that he can spend time getting to know Pernambuco with his family during the day and meet with stake presidents, bishops, branch presidents, and members in a series of counsels and firesides at night. What that means for us is that we run the trainings in the Zone Conferences Tuesday-Thursday and do divisions with those respective areas until 21h and then pack our bags Thursday night to spend Friday-Sunday in division and training in the interior zones. We get back Sunday night or Monday morning, receive the Zone Reports from the Zone Leaders, prepare the trainings and logistics for the following week, meet with the President Monday afternoon to handle the rest of the normal Mission Office/Staff duties and necessities and then start everything up all over again on Tuesday. We travel to the Interior with the President early Friday morning and come back by bus at the end of the weekend. One of the interesting consequences of this new schedule is that we have basically had just to drop the idea of being able to be in our own ward for the next 3 weeks. Sunday mornings we spend in Divisions helping the missionaries search out their investigators and take them to church in the far interior. We passed all of our investigators to the Secretaries in our area and are trying to follow up by phone wherever possible. I couldn’t imagine a better last three weeks.
This last weekend brought an almost unexpected surprise when we traveled to Garanhuns and we were able to help the missionaries in Boa Vista (one of the areas I passed through as a Zone Leader in October-November) with one of their ward activities. So many tender feelings and deep joy flooded through me as I saw many of the less actives, investigators, and recent converts I had worked with there over the course of the brief 6 weeks I had passed in Boa Vista. The Zone Leaders currently in the area have done an extraordinary work in giving continuity to the teaching and nourishment of every fledgling and returning member there. It so happens that one of those Zone Leaders is Elder Withers, my ex-companion of 3 weeks when I passed through Boa Vista. Yes. He is still there. 8 months on and still going strong.
It was a strange experience, having the privilege of seeing that ward change over the course of literally two years (first as a missionary in the zone in December through March of 2012, then as a zone leader in Boa Vista in October through November, then some three times to do divisions as part of the Office). It struck me how deliberate and long-term missionary work really is. Visiting Boa Vista over the course of these last two years has been like watching a decelerating strobe light. As a missionary, I saw the daily progress of those investigators, recent-converts, and less-actives. But as I’ve returned, I’ve begun to see larger portions of their progress pass all at once. One member I taught and invited to be baptized but had to leave; the next time I visited some 4 months later she was baptized; and now, some 3 months after she is preparing to go to the temple. Another member I taught for the first time in my very last week in Boa Vista and we didn’t really even get the chance to teach her; now, she’s an integrated member of the ward and has introduced her sister-in-law to the missionaries.source)
Progress in the Gospel is decisively delineated and deliberate. The changes those people who accept fully the gospel make over the course of the year are as marked and evident as the strata in sandstone carved over the course of millennia. They are tangible and visible changes that happen in the matter of just weeks or months. Countenances change, attitudes change – it’s almost as if their aura and entire being has an added light. On the other hand, the stagnation and lack of progress in those who never decide to fully embrace the gospel is just as remarkable. Those we visited and taught who lived drinking and smoking and angry and sad but didn’t embrace the gospel continue just as angry and sad and just as addicted to drinking and smoking as they were when we found them. They continue with the same excuses and the same results. Eternal progress is what we make of it. I’m so happy and feel so lucky for the opportunity to have known the Gospel and to have a clear course charted by God. That we may all share the same happiness and opportunity with those around us.
Thank you all dearly for your love and support.
I love you dearly.
I can’t believe it’s only been one week… Ever since President Bigelow has touched down on Brazilian soil he’s been practically sprinting at full speed and we’ve been trying to stay alongside him. As the Brazilians would say, “Pense num Presidente animado!” Which would roughly translate to, “Talk about an excited President!”. It’s been great. We’ve basically been preparing for this transfer of Presidents since I got into the office. When Sunday rolled around, two days after Pres. Bigelow had landed in Recife, we went to the Mission Home with orientation materials that we had been preparing for him – a map of the city; a map of the state; key indicator analysis over the last five weeks, last month, last six months; a brief definition of our role as assistants; a snapshot of the normal missionary week in MBR; the orientation given to every new missionary; the divisions of the districts by geographical proximity; a list of which missionaries are where; a list of all the phone numbers in the mission; trainings that were recently given on the mission – and that was just a glimpse of our part of the orientation. The Financial Secretary and Executive Secretary also prepared an equal number of materials to give to both Sister and President Bigelow. I thought that would already be too much information, but as we started talking I realized there were so many more things that we would have to prepare to aid in the President’s understanding of the every-day tasks in the office.
On the bright side, President Bigelow came entirely prepared in every other aspect. He served directing Seminaries and Institutes for all of Latin American, serving simultaneously as Stake President after a brief stint of 2 years as a Bishop, to which office he was called at age 27. Though relatively young, he is in every sense a Gospel scholar and his spiritual knowledge emanates from his countenance. Every conversation with him is a teaching moment. Without trying to be blasphemous, sometimes I feel how the early disciples must have felt walking by Christ’s side. It turns out he had actually searched for some of the missionaries’ blogs from the Brasil Recife Mission and found a few, including mine. I turned bright red as I tried to review in my mind every word I’ve written over the past year and 10 months, but was quite relieved when he said he liked it.
It’s a very different sort of environment having a President with his family. With President and Sister Lanius, the Mission Home maintained somewhat of an executive, hands-off feeling. Not to say, in any way, that the family reduces the professionalism or dignity of the President’s home or calling – but it does create a much more organic and natural air both in the President’s home and in the office. Included in our conversations about scheduling a series of meetings with all the zones in the first week and the nature of the mission phone plans were questions about how the two youngest children would get across town to school and if Sister Bigelow would be able to text her children if they were lost and needed help. As we tried to figure out the President’s office schedule, we had to address the importance of President Bigelow’s call-free presence in the mornings and evenings with his kids. For a moment my mind flashed forward 10 years to when (who knows) I’ll have kids and a family and somehow I’ll try to have to find balance between work and school and family. It’s so complicated… One thing I’ve discovered watching President Bigelow work is that he creates space and time for God first, his family, the missionaries, but at the end of the day there’s very little time for his “Me”. After this week, I’m exhausted! And I know I’ve slept twice as much as President Bigelow! Truly, President Bigelow has had the mantle of Mission President placed upon him and the Lord carries him, giving energy and sanity at all moments.
Tuesday we had a meeting with all the interior zones. All of them went by bus from their various and scattered locations and met in Caruaru. Elder Gustavo and I went in President Bigelow’s car, together with the rest of his family. I’ll admit that it was a very strange experience. Once more I was in the 7-passenger van on a family road trip. Sister Bigelow gave Dramamine to the Bigelow daughters cooped up in the back seat, shortly after which they fell asleep, one on the shoulder of the other. The littlest Bigelow, Spencer, played games on the iPad, while Sister Bigelow held President Bigelow’s hand in the front seat. It was like the epic family road trip from the epoch that has come and gone in the Fleming Family. I felt right back on our way from Salt Lake City to California. I almost felt the urge to ask, “Are we there yet?” But then I remembered that I was the only one in the car who knew how long it takes to get from Recife to Caruaru…
President Bigelow speaks Portuguese like a returned missionary from Brazil. Actually, he speaks better. Sister Bigelow makes her way along and wrote her talk for the meeting with the interior zones in Portuguese. And the little sibs? Well, Elder Peixoto and I translated for them on the pulpit. But they also understand a fair amount of Portuguese. The oldest Bigelow daughter, Sara, studied Portuguese briefly at BYU and will be returning there in the fall, given that her expenses are not covered by the church due to her age. They all show a maturity and a love for one another that softens even the hardest of missionary hearts. There was a brief moment open for questions at the end of the meetings with the missionaries, so I took the opportunity to ask President Bigelow one thing that his wife does to show affection and love for him that he appreciates. He said that the way Sister Bigelow smiles when she looks at him gives him all the support and feeling of self-worth and acceptance he needs to move forward with the work! And it’s true! All of them smile with one another and with the other missionaries in such a way that there’s really no way to keep a frown without pulling your cheeks down with your fingers! That’s what the temple is for, I suppose. Celestial families effuse a tangible celestial spirit.
Speaking of the importance of temples and missionary work, one of the topics we discussed in our conversation with the president was this talk given by Russell M. Nelson at the Mission President’s Seminar that will significantly change the way in which we teach and follow up with investigators.
It’s nice to have an apostle confirm what I think excellent missionaries naturally do and what many missionaries have been feeling ought to be done for some time now. Now we have an excuse to follow up with those we have taught and baptized because – whether we wanted or not, the system of depending solely on the members to follow with recent-converts just hasn’t been producing the retention that the Church needs.
So this week we put on three meetings with the missionaries and fit in a division somewhere in the middle of it all. Much of our work these days, though, has been planning, planning, planning. We had to do a mid-transfer transfer recently and… man… Transfers are a lot harder than I thought. We, of course, have no authority to be receiving inspiration for transfers nor have we the role of giving suggestions. But. Given that the President is new, he has been very open with his thought process about the transfer and we’ve had to discuss the needs and personalities of each missionary – what can be done, what can’t be done, questions of logistics, all in light of the fact that here in another 5 weeks we’ll receive a whole new batch missionaries and we’ll need to open areas and close areas assign trainers and every transfer decision has a million consequences down the road that are so difficult to find but must be found. Thinking through the transfer process and running through the possible transfer scenarios is like laying down fifty different railroad tracks, then scanning each one for a missing nail, knowing that any defect or deficiency in our planning could easily through a locomotive with precious cargo hurtling down a deep crevasse.
And President Bigelow, poor thing, has to think through all of this having slept just 2 hours the night before because he was passing the early morning hours with a Sister Missionary in the hospital. While his family waits at home for him with dinner because he still hasn’t eaten yet. We’ve been running a tight ship. But the Lord administers the full measure of his grace in the third mile.
Thank you all for your support and prayers. Here’s to more miracles and more saved souls in the mission field!
It does seem like I have been away for a very long time. Some people say that the mission passes by in an instant – but I think what they mean to say is that we have the privelege of living completely in the moment, without having to worry about rent or a job or school or the future. All we have to worry about are the next baptisms. So sometimes it can all just seem like a blur. But as time passes and there is significant progress in understanding (and in the knee-joints, he he…) there does come a sense of time passing that is not insignificant. I don’t really remember anything about what home looks like or what my friends look like. It seems kind of like a dream of a life that I’ve only imagined. But I have never forgotten any of it 🙂
Your description of a desk with a lot of papers and calendars and a phone to each ear and rapidly striking keys and sending emails and instructions and doing searches on maps, and key locations, and missionary needs, and orientations for the new President, and protocols to pass for the missionaries to keep them out of the path of danger, is pretty much 100% correct. In fact, I think you’re the first person to really pinpoint what it is that we do here, he he… Most people just think that we sit back and relax while drinking milkshakes. But, you can’t please everyone I suppose.
Our new Mission President came yesterday. The President had us call three zones to be at the airport when the new president arrived. All of the missionaries were there singing the “Mission Hymn”? (Hino da Missão) to greet him. It was so cute… He came with his wife and three kids and we took his bags to his new home. His poor wife just couldn’t take it all in at once and she began to cry. It’s one thing to move. It’s another thing to move to a different country with a different culture and language. It’s another thing to move to a different country with a different culture and language with three kids and be responsible for 200+ youth in the middle of the world cup in the host country. But we’re figuring it all out…
We helped load up the car of one of President Bigelow’s friends, Elder Soares, an area Seventy who lives here in Recife. President Bigelow came with 25 bags! I suppose that’s almost reasonable, given that he came with a wife and three kids and is planning to stay three years. But 25 bags! We loaded up 4 cars worth with the bags. The executive secretary and I got a ride with Elder Soares to the new President’s home. On the way, Elder Soares told the story of how his Dad was baptized and became the very first member of the Church in the entire state of Pernambuco. We drove past the spot where his Father lived and the spot where he was baptized and the spot where the rest of the family was baptized. Apparently, the missionaries used to meet in the apartment where they lived. When the missionaries invited Elder Soares’ Dad to be baptized, he said, “I love you both, but you simply just don’t have a church!” But as he prayed more, he received an answer that he should be baptized. So he was. Elder Soares’ Dad worked as the private pilot for the governor of the State of Pernambuco and later that week the governor brought the decision up in conversation, asking, “So where is this new church you were baptized in?” And Soares’ Dad explained, “On the Rua Imperial”. The Governor thought for a moment, then commented, “That’s funny, I don’t remember a single church on that street!” Soares’ Dad had to explain that they were in some temporarily humble conditions. Then the Governor asked, “How many people are part of the church there?” And Soares’ Dad replied, “Well, just me. But my family is going to get baptized next week!” Imagine! Now, some thirty years later, the state has 16 stakes and a Temple. What an awesome legacy…
Our new Mission President speaks almost perfect Portuguese. It’s incredible, really. He speaks better than a lot of American Missionaries that are going home. And he just got here! That’s a good thing, though. It’ll be a little strange for him, though, because American Missionaries are a dying race here in Brazil… I attached a photo of one of the recent arriving groups. There were 15+ missionaries with just 2 Americans. And the Americans that came having already been trained and were training other missionaries in the field! All we’re receiving right now are Brazilians and Latinos! But it’s great to see the church here becoming more self-reliant.
We’ve been throwing together all of the documents necessary to leave the new President completely self-reliant and well-oriented as possible in as little time as possible. Tomorrow we’ll be putting together plans for a series of “Meet the President” multi-zone conferences. It’s been a host of interesting experiences.
I will admit that it was difficult to see President Lanius go. I gave him one of my ties and he gave me one of his as a memorial. I’ll never forget his example of honesty, integrity, and love unfeigned. But 3 years is 3 years and he has done very well…
I’ve had a series of experiences these last weeks that have caused me to reflect a little on my role and the role of the scriptures and the Holy Ghost in the teaching environment.
I suppose I’ll start by saying that, in the beginning of my mission, I began to see a side of the scriptures and a power in the scriptures that I had never before seen or experienced. The scriptures take on a whole new meaning and purpose when seen as a tool for conversion, and I think I got so excited about that fact in my first few months in the mission field that I began to base most of my teaching out of the scriptures. Scriptures that had a lot to do with a lesson, scriptures that had somewhat to do with the lesson, and scriptures that I thought were just too interesting to pass up even though they may have had little or nothing to do with the lesson – I would share them all with the investigator. Between the difficult language of the Bible (perhaps even more so in Portuguese than in English) and my thick American accent, the result was fatal. Looking back, I see that much of my teaching must have seemed dry and unintelligible to those whom I taught. So I started to move in the other direction. But as I began to memorize the scripture passages we most often used and as I began to feel more comfortable with the doctrines of the lessons, I think I may have swung a little too far in the other direction. These last few weeks, I’ve come to feel the power of the scriptures in the teaching environment, and the role they play in helping those we teach feel a personal connection with the Word of God.
The first experience was one of the most recent. There’s a less-active in our ward who was in the process of becoming active but had a little bit of a fall and started to drink a little bit again. His mother, a faithful member who also has passed through the process of reactivation, asked that we visit her struggling son. As we discussed his experiences and the fact that he feels weak and vulnerable because of what he’s done, but also feels as though he sometimes feels the need to be prideful or the temptation to not humble himself and repent for fear of the vulnerability required in making his return to church activity. As he spoke, the scripture Ether 12:27 came into my mind. We opened the passage and read together. He read it out loud. Then read it more to himself, mouth the words but without producing sound. Then he just sat there and stared at the passage for a moment. After a few seconds of silence, he looked up at the two of us and said, “That verse is exactly for me”. He committed to go to church this Sunday (tomorrow) and resolved to do better this week.
The second experience was, in fact, not my experience but the President’s experience in his conversion. In this series of “Farewell” meetings, President Lanius has left a time open for the missionaries to ask both doctrinal and personal questions. One of the questions that was asked in every meeting without fail was, “What’s your conversion story?” The President explained that for 20+ long years he lived with his wife, Sister (Tanya) Lanius. He explained that Sister Lanius, as a member, always went to church by herself, and that he (Pres. Lanius) sometimes visited other churches with his daughters. There came a time in his life when he fell very ill and lost much of his strength. He devoted himself to reading the Bible and was marked by the passages in Hebrews chapters 5 through 7 that discuss the concept of the Priesthood following the order of Melchizedek. He said that, in a sort-of-prayer, he directed his thoughts toward God and felt that he should be baptized, but didn’t know where. In that moment, the thought came to him, “In your wife’s church”. So that day, after 20 years of Sister Lanius waiting for her husband to accept the missionary lessons, Sister Lanius came home and President Lanius, said, “I’m going to get baptized”. Sis. Lanius said she laughed and asked, “in which church?”. Pres. Lanius responded, “in yours!” Sis. Lanius laughed even harder… She had joked that in the day that Pres. Lanius was baptized the whole city would show up at the baptism just to see if it was true. President Lanius purposefully marked his Baptism on a quiet Wednesday afternoon so that nobody could attend but his wife, his home teacher, and the mission president. Pres. Lanius expressed the fact that his conversion and his feeling the need to be baptized came wholly through a careful study of the Bible.
The third experience was perhaps one of the most powerful experiences I have had with the Book of Mormon while on the mission. We were teaching the wife of a less-active man whose son is currently serving a mission. She had visited church the previous Sunday and felt a peace and solace ever since her experience there. We wanted to try and help her understand exactly what it was that she had felt, so we turned to 3 Nephi 11. I won’t go into great details, but suffice it to say that without us needing to say hardly anything, she came to understand through the Spirit exactly what it was that she had felt at Church (the power of the Spirit of God, bringing peace and unmatched happiness) and the meaning and purpose of God giving her those feelings (that she might follow them and be baptized in the Church, fulfilling a commandment of God). I recognized in that moment that everything I need to say has already been said, and could be said much better through the witness of the Holy Ghost. I felt, in the power of the scriptures, my role as a missionary. Not as a traveling salesman, not as a marketing manager, not as merely a minister of just another church. I came to understand my role as a Representative of Jesus Christ – a conduit of His words, His power, and His Gospel.
I’m so glad to be here on the mission. I’m so grateful we have the opportunity to search the scriptures. Thank you for all your love and support.
These last two weeks have been a series of what could be considered the “Farewell” of our President Lanius. It’s really strange to seem him preparing to go. There are some times when the President has to leave for a Conference in São Paulo or Salt Lake and he doesn’t tell anyone outside of his immediate staff. When he’s gone, it feels kind of eerie on the mission – as though we were all on a boat and there were no captain at the helm. Part of me feels like him departing will feel similar. But I trust that the new President will leave no room for doubt. It sounds like he’ll be a real fireball. We’re all excited here in the Office to see what Fortune holds.
As the number in our team has been cut down and the logistical difficulties have increased, we’ve had to spend more time in the office. It’s not necessarily what I always had in mind – I’ll admit that my heart is in the field – but it’s nice to be able to help the Proselyting Work move forward in any way, shape, or form.
One of the logistical hurdles that is currently rearing its ugly head is the upcoming transfer. It’ll be President Lanius’ last full transfer (he’ll pass about a week after the Transfer hits until the new President arrives). The transfer day, which usually falls on Monday here in Missão Brasil Recife, happens to be the same day that there will be a World Cup Game here in Recife, a World Cup Game between Brasil and another country in Brasília, and the Eve of São João, one of the biggest Winter (remember that we’re in the summer hemisphere) activities in the Northeast. To make matters even more interesting, there’s an unusually large group of incoming missionaries and an unprecedented number of Sisters. So we have to coordinate who stays where, when the old missionaries leave, where the new missionaries will sleep, etc. etc. etc. All of this has to be taken into account to make a smooth transition. It seems like every time we talk about the transfer there’s always one aspect that we forgot to consider and we have to go back to the drawing board.
It’s hard for me to talk a whole lot about my experiences in the office – one, because, well, they’re probably just not all that interesting to most; and two, because much of it is sensitive information. But suffice it to say, my mental capacities have been stretched and turned to angles I had never imagined.
All that being said, the proselyting work doesn’t stop. We’re either working in our own area or doing divisions (mostly doing divisions) most every day of the week from just after lunch to the end of the missionary day (21h00). It’s really nice to still have the contact with the missionaries and be able to have a handful of sweet spiritual experiences that remind me of my purpose here.
As my days have passed on the mission field, I’ve felt myself becoming more and more frank, and clear, and forward with who I am and what I’m here for. I’ve learned a great deal from President Lanius about honesty – at all times, and in all places. If there’s one vice or sin that President Lanius does not tolerate its dishonesty. And it’s been – I don’t know – cathartic, in a way, being pushed to be transparent in every aspect of my interactions with others. Perhaps it’s a culture thing, but I think I had become desensitized to “Fooling” other people in a joking way to provoke a laugh or to try and lighten the mood. Anything and everything from to telling someone I had less time on the mission than I actually do, or telling people I was actually Brazilian to see how long they would believe it. Even sarcasm, though innocent in appearance, I’ve come to see is not in accordance with my calling or responsibility. That’s not to say I’ve turned into a square. But it is to say that I’ve become more sensitized to falsehood in all of its wily and crafty shape-shifting forms.
We say, in the Church, that the Spirit of God is like the Refiner’s Fire. And truly, I’ve come to see that and feel it in the mission. When we listen and follow the small and most subtle inspirations, our capacity to feel God’s guiding hand and progress in becoming more Christlike dramatically accelerates.
I love this quote from Joseph Smith, the first President of the Church of Jesus Christ since it was restored in 1830:
Tell the people to be humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right. Be careful and not turn away the small still voice; it will teach you what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the kingdom. Tell the brethren to keep their hearts open to conviction, so that when the Holy Ghost comes to them, their hearts will be ready to receive it. They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits; it will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts; and their whole desire will be to do good, bring forth righteousness and build up the kingdom of God. Tell the brethren if they will follow the spirit of the Lord they will go right. Be sure to tell the people to keep the Spirit of the Lord. . .
We’ve been reduced from four assistants to two here in the office, so I’m sorry if my communication has become even less frequent. There were a handful of mini-transfers the week before the big-boy transfer that happens every six week, and the president needed the other two assistants to help out a few zones as Zone Leaders. This left Elder Gustavo and I, the newbies, here in the office all by our lonesome selves. The transfer fortunately ran quite smoothly. Elder Gustavo and I were able to dot all of our I’s and cross all of our T’s in time for the Monday morning transfer. We’ve had to be a little more exact and meticulous about the way we divide our tasks in order to get done everything that needs to get done, but it is in doing more with less that we become more efficient and effective. So that’s been fun.
I had the privilege some time ago of seeing a young woman who I interviewed for baptism almost a year ago while in a division back in Zona Casa Amarela. It was incredible to see the way the gospel had changed her life, lifted her countenance, and given her added strength in a time of great need. She had recently been diagnosed with Uterine Cancer, which would be bad enough, but to add insult to injury she felt that all of her friends started treating her differently when she let everyone know about the diagnosis. In a dark cycle, cancer led to perceived estrangement by her friends which led to added stress and subsequently a more aggressive cancer. She decided that she would move to a small city in the interior – not so much to run away or to hide, but to regain her peace of mind – and invited friends and family in to a “Farewell Party”. She invited the missionaries to give the message, and there was a sweet spirit as all came to grips with the fact that she might not see any of them again. Understanding changes perspective, and it was clear to see that the Lord had opened her mind to a much deeper understand of where she came from and her purpose here on Earth. I felt so happy to see the sprouting tree growing from what I had seen as just a small seed not so long ago. The gospel does not often change our immediate circumstances, but rather changes our immediate perspective, giving us the power and Faith to lean on the Lord and change our own circumstances, lifting those around us in the process.
I had another similar experience returning to an investigator named “Rodolfo” in a part of Recife called “Camaragibe”. I met Rodolfo in the beginning of my time as an assistant – about 4 months ago. I went to Camaragibe to do a division, nothing out of the ordinary, and one of the marked commitments for that day was the mother of a recent convert they had baptized that same month. Rodolfo just happened to be at the house of this recent convert and sat listening to the message. We prayed and taught and explained and showed pictures to the mother of the Recent Convert but it appeared as though, in spite of our best efforts, all of our teaching just wasn’t having any effect on her. Then, subtly, but very perceptibly, the Zone Leader I was on exchange with and I felt impressed that we should shift our focus. So we started teaching Rodolfo and everything changed. He asked inspired questions, made insightful comments, and mentioned in the end that he would consider being baptized. We marked his visit to church and I left the division with great hopes for what seemed like a marvelous young man’s prospects in the future. Fast-forward some 3 months, the Zone Leaders (this time two entirely different ones) were in the office and mentioned that they had double-booked their teaching commitments and baptismal interviews. I slipped into the President’s office and said “President, we need to help the Elders in Camaragibe. Can I do all of this tomorrow?” He said yes and in an hour the Camaragibe Zone Leaders, Elder Gustavo, and I were on our way to Camaragibe. They mentioned that we were going to teach a wonderful young man who was still on the fence about baptism. When we got to his house, I could hardly believe my eyes. There he was, Rodolfo, the same young man I had taught not 3 months ago! We sat down, we prayed, and he began, “I want to tell you a dream that I had”. He mentioned that he had been reading the Book of Mormon and praying to know it was true and, one night, he had an interesting dream. In this dream, he was speaking with two missionaries – one of them being the Zone Leader by my side – and that they were talking about baptism and he just felt something deep down inside of him say, “Everything will be okay”. One interesting aspect of the dream, he mentioned, was that the whole dream was with subtitles – so that he could read what was being said as the words played through his mind. And he mentioned that one of the missionaries had the first name, “Taylor”. So he kind of laughed, disbelieving, and asked Elder Kirk, the Zone Leader by my side, what his name was. Elder Kirk responded, “Taylor”. We all just sat in silence for a moment as the Spirit testified in all of our hearts what had happened. Rodolfo said, “My dream was the confirmation I’ve been waiting for. I’m going to be baptized on Sunday.”
The Spirit has such a subtle but powerful way of making a lasting impression in our hearts. Rodolfo was just one of many who received a spiritual witness of the truth. But the spirit leads those who are just getting to know the missionaries for the first time as well as those who are actively reading and praying to know the truth. Some time previous to my experience with Rodolfo, Elder Gustavo and I did a division in an area called “Jaboatão”. The division we had planned fell through, so we made a quick scramble for a nearby area that was in need of help. When we called Jaboatão, they said “Well, you can come, but we’re opening the area so it will be basically be knocking doors all day”. We prepped our knuckles and hopped on the train. The day was basically as it was made out to be. There were a lot of knocked doors – some opened, many closed – but it seems that every door knocked led us to the last and final door. We were just about ready to call it quits on the street where we were working, but we felt we should knock just one last door. Frankly, I thought it was some sort of garage or studio, given the girth and bleak appearance of the gate, but I’ve learned better than to pass up a “Last Door” prompting. So we knocked and, after simply mentioning who we were, the man who came to the door asked us, “Do you want to come in?” Elder Moura and I looked at each other, smiled, and responded, “Yes”. The man, it turns out, was a math teacher who held private tutoring sessions in his little back-door studio and who was scheduled to teach a class that night. He mentioned that normally he would have simply answered the door and told us he didn’t have time due to his class schedule. “But,” he said, “Something told me I should let you in.” We taught the first half of the message of the Restoration, and it was wonderful. So many brilliant questions, so much understanding packed into such a small amount of time. Everything we taught stuck like glue and it was as if we could literally see the Spirit opening his mind to understanding. We were about to get up and go when it started to rain and he said, “No, just wait a little bit for the rain to stop – tell me more about the Book of Mormon”. So, we explained the Book of Mormon and gave him a copy. We read a passage together, and he said, “It’s so clear and so true. I can feel that it’s true, what I’m reading.” The rain stopped, as did his and our time, but we invited him to be baptized and he said it was a definite possibility that he would sincerely ponder and pray about. The disadvantage of doing what I do is that I have no idea how he’s doing. But I’ll seek to find out and keep all of you updated.
These last few days the Mission has been on lock-down. All of the police in Pernambuco decided to go on strike all at once. The result has been that many normally civilized people got the crazy idea that they could do whatever the want without any fear of justice. Well, they were wrong, and the Army stepped in, and there were a handful of Citizens Arrests and you can probably inform yourself better than I can just looking on the internet, but, suffice it to say – all of the missionaries are safe and sound. It was actually really interesting to be where I was when I was. The President has kept a very open line of communication, leading methodically and carefully the missionaries out of harms way. I have never seen so clearly just how divinely-inspired the missionary hierarchy is. Within a matter of minutes, every message that was passed to us by the President was propagated to 200 different missionaries spread out across the State of Pernambuco. Truly, the Lord is using cutting-edge technology to guide his work. We are all giving prayers of thanks for the way in which the Lord has protected each and every missionary. Not even a single missionary has been robbed – not their cellphone, not their wallets, nothing. The Lord protects His missionaries.
I love you all dearly and hope this message finds you all well.
March 25th – April 28th
Well, I’m really sorry for the extended delay in my writing. These last weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster. The last time I wrote we were in the process of preparing for a transfer. Right now we’re coming up on the second-to-last week of this transfer, which may well be my last in the office. Nobody’s really sure how the President will make his decisions, but in preparation for the new President in June, many of us Assistants are thinking that the President will leave the classic “2 AP” organization and let the new President make his decisions. I’m itching to get back into the field as a normal missionary. (Currently, we do actually pass most of time in the field, but the difference we pass almost all of our time in someone else’s area). That being said, I’m still awed and humbled by the way in which the Lord guides our work in divisions.
I did a division with the Elder who trained me in my first transfer on the mission, Elder J. Vargas. It was kind of a weird flashback, the two of us working together again, but at the same time everything was different. It was pleasing and impressive to see the significant changes that have occurred in the both of us. About one year and 6 months ago, Elder J. Vargas was serving the first time as a Trainer with little over 3 months on the mission and I was fresh out of the Missionary Training Center. Our teaching was mechanical, our understanding comparatively little, and our faith fledgling. This time, I worked side-by-side with a missionary who had quite literally transformed over the course of his two years on the mission. His grasp of doctrines, our ability to work together as a companionship and in general his attitude about missionary work had changed.
The mission passed through some hard times in the end of the month of March and the beginning of the month of April. Perhaps due to logistical complexities in taking investigators to General Conference or some other reason, the quantity and efficiency of the mission’s teaching fell, and with it the general morale of the missionaries. From our perspective in the office in particular, the changes were troublesome. We all sat together with the president, analyzed the work of the missionaries, and put together a training for the Zone Leaders and Sister Leader Trainers (a new addition to mission leadership, for those unacquainted – they do divisions with the Sister Missionaries and help in training).
What we came up with was that by and large the missionaries were having trouble making clear, concise, and firm invitations to those they taught to be baptized. It’s a question of faith, of focus, of courage, and of technique, and we tried to address all the issues in our training. It’s hard to find something you’re not looking for, and when the missionaries are focused on “just teaching” or “just finding”, our purpose – which is not just to “work” but to produce change and conversion in those we teach, can quickly fall by the wayside. And when that happens, the mission becomes a group of “Mormons” who “not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, [missionaries] who pat [people] on the head, make [them] giggle, then tell [them] to run along and pick marigolds.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, The Cost–and Blessings–of Discipleship, April 2014 General Conference) In other words, unless we continually remind ourselves as missionaries of the what, the why, and the how of our purpose, we run the danger of becoming missionaries with pretty messages that ultimately leave people exactly where they were found.
I wax rhetorical…The whole process of analyzing effort and performance on a large-scale (200+ participants) and planning the large-scale training meeting and power-points, together with organizing a catered lunch, and the projector, and the slides, and the schedule, the minutes of the meeting and the transport for all the participants – sometimes it can seem like the work I did in the first year and a half of my mission is completely disconnected from the work I do know. I don’t think I’ve ever had to handle so many administrative details in so many different aspects all at once, but the challenge is an interesting and gratifying one. I don’t think planning or keeping a planner or making a checklist ever made so much sense or seemed so important to me. Good life skills, I guess…
I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this already, but the President here in our mission maintains a certain distance from the Assistants. It’s not that he doesn’t like us (I hope, he he) but rather that he gives us a lot of space to work. Whereas some Assistants spend their time glued to the president’s side (going to Firesides, talks, visits to other zones, etc.) we spend probably no more than an hour a week with the president, and the rest of the planning, and working, and divisions, and transport we organize for ourselves. Instead of saying he “maintains distance” I should say he “gives us the power to direct our part of the work as we find most adequate, so long as we follow the Lord’s guidance”. In that sense my time in the office has been not just an executive but also a creative exercise. And I find myself struggling sometimes, searching beyond just the “How” to the “What”. As a missionary in the field, the objective seemed so simple, and the schedule so well organized. My responsibilities as a District Leader or Zone Leader were predetermined and I simply had to figure out how best to perform them. Now I sometimes find myself asking the question, “What really are the responsibilities of District Leaders in our mission?” So then we put together some new analytical and teaching tools, plan mission-wide trainings, travel to meet with leadership of each zone, and execute companionship exchanges to implement our ideas. I “grew up” on the mission being fed with orders and guidelines and checklists and all of a sudden I got into the office and searched for a “Checklist for Assistants” and couldn’t find one and had an existential crisis. So I’ve been passing these last few transfers trying to figure out how to most effectively use my time here, and writing everything – everything – down. All in a hope that the one that comes after me can find benefit in the trail that I blazed.
In that sense, my time as an AP has been unique – ever since I got into the office, I’ve known that I would soon be leaving to make way for a new assistant who would make way for the new President. Sometimes I feel like John the Baptist, trying to prepare the way for something even bigger. And as I’ve done so, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the idea of leaving family legacies and family journals. I’ve come to feel more urgently and poignantly the fleeting nature of thoughts and memories. And I’ve had to check my priorities. More than ever there are so many things I could do and so few things I can do.
But I’m comforted by the words of the Lord to one of his servants:
For many times you have desired of me to know that which would be of most worth unto you. …And now, behold, I say unto you, that the thing which will be of the most worth unto you will be to declare repentance unto this people, that you may bring souls unto me, that you may rest with them in the kingdom of my Father. (D&C 15:4,6)
When I find myself feeling like I’m spinning my wheels without any traction or that my efforts are fruitless, there are always endless opportunities to do what I was called to do – Preach His Gospel.
This last week we did another round of divisions in the interior. It seems like just yesterday we packed up our bags to go to the Interior zones to pass Carnaval, but the president wanted us to return once more and pass the special training we were doing with the leadership of the zones closer to home. We slept in Caruaru, the second farthest-interior zone of our mission, and did a division with the District Leader there. As we left Caruaru for Palmares, our next zone to visit, I started to feel a little sick. I felt some uncomfortable movements in my little belly, and thought that maybe it was just some indigestion. We had eaten yogurt in the morning that had a funny taste, but I didn’t think much of it. As we looked at Palmares’ plan for the day, I’ll admit that I became a little bit discouraged… the area had passed through some recent changes and the missionaries in Palmares didn’t have a whole lot of people to teach, which would mean that our day would be largely a finding day, which meant that the day would be almost entirely on foot. After lunch, my twisting and turning became stronger and I started to feel weak, but I said a little prayer that the Lord might help me carry on throughout the day’s work so that our time in Palmares could be worthwhile. I’d be lying if I said that I miraculously started to feel better from that moment on, but I found that I wasn’t quite so distracted by the uncomfortable nausea. It didn’t get any worse, and I felt added will and courage to press forward. We worked the day through, and met some incredible new investigators that had insightful comments and questions that showed real potential for spiritual growth. We marked one of their investigators for baptism two weeks from now and she seemed excited about the opportunity. Our last commitment was their most important – the girl that would be baptized that very week. We ran through everything she had learned and worked on a list of friends and family she wanted to invite for her birthday. When we left the appointment, it seemed like all of the weakness, and pains, and aches that the Lord had been repressing for the whole day came all at once, and I started to feel really, really sick. But I recognize that the Lord was sustaining me, literally lifting me up and holding my hand so that we could find and teach all of those people we taught that day. I prayed that night that the Lord might help me heal, so that I might continue in his work the next day. I slept like a rock, and the next morning woke up completely better. I felt as though I had never been sick. Being a missionary – it’s incredible the way the Lord takes care of us. It seems he is always protecting us and curing us so that His work can move forward.
Thank you for all your love, and prayers, and support.
I send my best,
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)
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:
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.
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.