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We witness tender mercies and mini-miracles every day as we find joy in pressing forward. We are immensely grateful for our time of service as missionaries in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Life and opportunities continue. See our missionary and life story in pictures by clicking here: http://rayc.shutterfly.com/

Monday, April 30, 2012

First Transfers and A Special Moment

The past week brought more new experiences.  It was Transfer Week!  A group of new missionaries arrived on Tuesday and eight elders and two sisters left for home on Thursday.  Transfers create a monumental three days for President and Sister Wolfert and the Assistants and Elder and Sister Bolt. After meeting the new missionaries and picking up their luggage at the airport; the President and the Assistants take the new missionaries and board MARTA and ride the train to North Atlanta so the new missionaries can enjoy their first experience proselyting.  The Bolts transport the luggage to the pickup point and then take the missionaries with their luggage from the train station to the Mission Home. Sister Wolfert is responsible for dinners on Tuesday and Wednesday for incoming and outgoing missionaries, breakfast (quite the menu we understand) on Wednesday and Thursday, plus housing them all (a dozen beds plus mattresses and several bathrooms). Sister Wolfert has some helpers but does most of the cooking herself.  Don't know has she does it! 

Wednesday is a big day in the Mission Office.  The day begins before 8 a.m. with a half hour of training by Elder Connors on the vehicles (5 minutes for Sis Connors on mail and baptismal records).  More training by the Finance Coordinator and President Wolfert. Then Elder Connors has to do paperwork for switching drivers and cars. Areas (a companionship) that are gaining and losing companions travel to the Mission Office on Transfer Day, so we have lots of missionaries in the parking lot, Church, and Mission Office for several hours. We saw several missionaries graciously leave overcoats coats and bikes behind which were welcomed by some of the new arrivals who came from humble circumstances and had great need. What a happy morning it was. Missionaries leave with bittersweet feelings, and missionaries arrive with enthusiasm and trepidation.  (Other companion changes not involving new or departing missionaries take place at additional locations throughout the mission.) About noon the various new companionships team up and drive off to their new locations. President and Sister Wolfert take the departing missionaries to the Atlanta Temple; then back to the Mission Home for dinner. 

At 7 p.m. a fireside is held in the Lilburn Chapel. The Wolferts speak and each departing missionary bears his or her testimony. As President Wolfert said, they bore "pure" testimony, with direct and appropriate witness of Gospel truths; their testimonies were sweet, strong, and "pure."  Sweet Sister Thomas (from Richfield, UT) sang a solo. She has the most beautiful voice, eyes, smile and spirit. We'll miss her. We were glad we got to meet several departing missionaries we had not met in person before. Outstanding all!  Members and investigators are invited to attend these farewell meetings; we had a record turnout this transfer and ran out of refreshments. We helped with the setup and cleanup. Sister Wolfert has asked us (the Connors) to manage the entire refreshment activity in the future. With all else she has to do (they also go home to a private meeting at the Mission Home after the Fireside), it will be a big relief for her.

Thursday night Sister Connors attended the ward Relief Society's Talent Show. Members here seem to love Broadway - quite the performances with hubbies and solos. We also enjoyed refreshments and craft displays. Sister Black (the Atlanta Temple Matron) is the most amazing quilter! The ward member names are finally starting to stick. Friday Sister Connors did a chapel walk-through with another new investigator - Jenny - who had walked into the Mission Office the week before and wanted to learn more about our Church. Using the paintings in the Stake Center, Sister Scott and Sister Harnish (on her 2nd day in Lilburn) taught her and I assisted. We invited her to Church on Sunday and gave her a Book of Mormon. She agreed to begin reading  and "try" to attend if she didn't attend one of the other churches she was investigating.  She did come Sunday! 

We came home Wednesday night late to see that Don Clark (landlord) had started trimming trees. After being gone for so many years, there is much outdoor catch up for the Clarks. Saturday started out with Ray and Don going to the driving range to hit a bucket of balls (with a round of golf planned for a future free day), and Linda shopped for shoes she forgot to pack. By noon we could be found helping the Clarks with raking, cleanup, and creating a small rock-lined path to direct rainwater (that has meandered through the sloping yard and prevented grass growth) to the adjacent flood control creek on the side yard. They have broken sprinklers, a major sink hole, overgrown trees, and tree roots; we want to help them out, and it's a good way to get some exercise, provide service, and be a bit creative, too.

We were introduced to Dos Hermanos, a great Mexican restaurant, Friday evening with the Clarks. It's the strip mall restaurant, and you would drive by it without a recommendation, But it is great! We enjoyed another nice family dinner with them on Sunday. We were promised by our home Stake President that we would make eternal friends on our mission. That promise has already been fulfilled. Saturday night we drove about 30 minutes north to the Sugar Hill Stake Center in Suwanee where the 50-member Stake Choir was putting on a public patriotic concert with the Gwinnett County Band. The band and choir were excellent, and it was a great program. We met several additional missionaries in person and were glad we made the effort.  Suwanee is a lovely community. 

Now for the Special Moment.  After a great experience in our Sunday meetings with a skilled teacher who navigated the complex questions from investigators in the Gospel Principles class, we stayed after Church and met with the Lilburn Sister Missionaries and their investigator, Dana Roca. Dana was referred to the sisters by ward member, Susan Mancilla. Dana was joined by her daughter, Sarai (6), son, 6-month old Jasper, and Joanna (Dana's friend's 6-year old). Dana has been coming faithfully to Church and special events, bringing the children. She has felt the spirit and understands what she has been taught, but is still trying to understand the differences between the Doctrine of Christ and the teachings she has learned in her Catholic faith. Again Sister Scott (and new Sister Harnish on her 4th day in the mission) asked her to pray and invited her to ask for confirmation to prepare herself to be baptized the end of May. Dana is fearful of making a wrong decision, but knelt and offered a beautiful prayer. The spirit touched Elder Connors, and as Dana stood she found him tearful. The spirit then touched her and all of us. He said, "You know it's true."  Dana walked over and took our hands and cried openly.  Elder Connors was the conduit, and Dana did commit to baptism. We pray she will stand firm in her decision.

Whew!  It was a busy week! Things are starting to hum and our fellow missionaries are reaching out to us for assistance in many areas. It's a great and grateful feeling. Only a sure knowledge of the importance of the work could accomplish the wondrous good we see around us.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Busy and Happy Week

Another busy week here in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission.  It was our first week in our roles as Mission Secretary and Vehicle Coordinator without our trainers. The Coes will return this coming week to assist us through our first Transfer Day (new arrivals, departures, and new companionships). Days are becoming a bit more routine. We open the doors at 8 a.m. and leave about 5 p.m.  This week, however, we stayed until nearly 7 p.m. two nights because we had technology issues and repairmen were working on systems. (As our mission progressed and we were able to assume more responsibilities, our typical office day was at least nine hours.)  Small offices are not like working in a corporate environment. We will surely learn to be flexible and resourceful as needed.  By Friday, all systems were humming again. We hosted Elder Briggs and Elder Astel, the Assistants to the President, and the Sister Missionaries assigned to the Lilburn Ward (Sister Scott and Sister Thomas) for dinner on Friday evening. We love them more and more each day.

A highlight of the week for Sister Connors was her first team up with the sister missionaries. It was a great experience. When our investigator at the first appointment was not home, Sisters Scott and Thomas immediately turned to see a car parking on the street outside the apartment. They marched up and introduced themselves to Virgilia and invited her to Church on Sunday, providing her one a "I'm a Mormon" pass along card with phone numbers and addresses. President Wolfert has challenged all missionaries to speak to at least ten people a day about the Church - regardless of the number of actual appointments on the calendar. The young sisters and elders are indeed, bold, and confident. What a great example! Our second visit was to the home of a young less active mother with three children and one on the way. Sister Knudsen's husband suffered a very serious head trauma in a work fall and is still in a semi-induced comma state after 4 weeks. It's such a sad situation. I immediately came home and went on line to learn more about them by reading their story on Sister Knudsen's blog (a luxury the young missionaries don't have). The Relief Society is reaching out and she has family nearby, but I will return with or without the sisters to offer help and a listening ear. We have seen first-hand some of what she must be experiencing when Elder Connors' brother had a serious aneurysm a decade ago. The sisters gave a great lesson related to the organization of Christ's Church and the resurrection, inviting the 8- and 11-year old to pray about setting a date for baptism. Mom seemed pretty indifferent and resolutely said she was not interested in regaining activity, but she welcomed us back anytime to work with the girls. That says something. Sister Thomas has completed her mission and will be going home this week, so the next visit will be a first for another new sister in the mission field.

Inspired by that evening, I talked openly on Friday evening to the owner of a local salon while there as a patron and Gloria accepted my offer to bring by a Book of Mormon. I'm personalizing it for her tonight and will deliver it to her on her on Tuesday when she works again along with information about golf in St. George. (She and her husband fly to Sedona, AZ to golf, and I suggested she check out St. George). Today we attended a baptism for the newest member of the Lilburn Ward, Sister (Yaman) Smith. We look forward to getting to know her personally in the weeks ahead. It's starting to feel like missionary work.

Another highlight for this Sabbath is that Sister Connors' (hard to refer to myself by full name and not a pronoun in blogging this way, but I'll do it often) brother, Ron Petersen, and sister-in-law, Leslie, drove from North Carolina where they have been vacationing to attend Church with us. It was good to feel their support and let them see our surroundings. They graciously attended the baptism, and we enjoyed some missionary talk over dinner at our apartment before they returned to North Carolina. Sister Thomas sang in Sacrament Meeting and has a beautiful voice to match her beautiful spirit.

One last item to record.  Behind my desk in the Mission Office is a large reproduction of a wonderful 1831 painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner. The prior mission president, Stephen King, found and purchased it. It is the same painting (President Monson referenced in an April 2001 Priesthood Session talk entitled "To the Rescue."  (Long name: Lifeboat and Manby Apparatus going off to a stranded vessel making blue lights of distress)  President King felt a personal connection to it since he lost a family member who died while taking part in a rescue mission in stormy seas off the northern Pacific coast. Missionary work is the work of rescuing souls. If you look closely, you can see the form and light of the Savior in the clouds.  I can see why President King put it front and center when you enter the Mission Office.    

To The Rescue

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Lovely Spring Day

We ended this day having the Spanish speaking elders to dinner. Elder Tarver comes from Cleveland (6'8" semi-pro basketball player who has dramatically changed his life since joining the Church and is learning as he teaches); we love him and his enthusiasm. Elder Dowdle comes from the Portland, OR area; he is quiet, sincere, and finishes his mission at the next transfers on April 26. They wanted a simple home-cooked hamburger dinner and that's what we fixed - pan fried burgers, macaroni salad, chips, and they loved it. We discussed a few scriptural questions and learned a bit more about their work. The mission here has many Spanish branches; also Portuguese speaking elders. Next Friday, we'll have the missionaries assigned to the Lilburn Ward to dinner (the two APs and two sisters) since Sister Thomas is also leaving on the 26th.  

After a week of cooler weather (we had to use a space heater in our bedroom for a couple of nights), warm spring has returned. Sunny and nearly 80 degrees; it's been a beautiful day. Bit by bit we're doing the deeper apartment cleaning after our initial settling in. We noticed an unusual flower on the grass this afternoon after washing off the winter-dirtied patio. It had fallen from a tall, stately tree with beautiful white and yellow flowers in the top branches. It's a Yellow Poplar, also called Tulip Poplar. Beautiful! The trees here grow so tall and so straight with no mountains to create growing shadows. We're going help the Clarks with the lawn mowing (both have bad backs) while we're residents.

After getting more settled, we decided we'd better start exercising and found a great walking trail at the nearby Gwinnett County Mountain Park. Gwinnett County seems to have many parks-clean, busy and fitted with nice walking trails. They meander through groves of trees, curve around ponds, border rail lines or near- dozen baseball diamonds. We're living in a class A community. An average building lot here is probably 2 acres! The new subdivisions are more like the west with 1/2 acres lots; but any house 20 years or older is dwarfed by its large acreage with trees and rolling lawns. There is little flat ground in Gwinnett County (unless flattened for structures). We see winding roads, gullies, and rolling hills everywhere we go, but few high spots (except Stone Mountain). Everything has a very woodsy feel. We walked a couple of times this week and plan to make it a regular habit. The ongoing youth baseball, bonnet ball, and whatever ball games give us chances to stop and watch the eager sportsmen and supportive parents. We enjoyed a short walk this evening.

We took Elder and Sister Coe to lunch yesterday; it was their last full day of service in the Mission Office.  They will return to help on our first "transfer" day experience and want to attend all of the departing missionary firesides for the next year or so to say goodbye to the missionaries they have come to love so much. We love and appreciate them. It was a tearful day for Sister Coe who has no children of her own (some stepchildren) and knows each of the missionaries well. Elder Coe and Elder Connors have much in common, and they've brought out the "character" in one another. We'll miss them but plan to connect from time to time. We'll take a prep day in the future to drive the hour to their home and see Elder Coe's car collection.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter in Georgia

The azaleas were fading when we arrived two weeks ago and flowering bulbs were long gone, but the signs of spring in Georgia are everywhere. Homeowners are mowing lawns and pruning the ever-growing shrubs as they tidy their homes. Mulch (usually dense pine straw) is being freshened. The baseball diamonds, walking trails, and play fields at the Gwinnett County Park down the road (ironically called Mountain Park Park) are packed every night. It's prime outdoor time in Georgia with temperatures in the 70's to low 80's.

Easter Morn was bright and pleasant in Georgia. Our meetings at the Lilburn Ward begin at noon; the Centerville Ward precedes the Lilburn Ward and the Stone Mountain Spanish-speaking Ward shares the same Primary and Mutual, with their Sacrament Meeting ending the day. We enjoyed a lovely Sacrament Meeting and attended the Gospel Principles class with the other full-time missionaries. Elder Briggs, one of the Assistants to the President in the mission, taught a lesson based on the atonement. About a dozen new or prospective members were in attendance. There were 40-something sisters in Relief Society - everything feels pretty much like attending Church along the Wasatch Front. We continue to meet people who know people we know back in Utah. The Church network becomes family and it was a sweet, memorable Easter day. Our missionary preparations have helped us understand and appreciate more than ever the love and atoning sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. We are humbled.

After Church, our landlords, the Clarks invited us to dinner along with their daughter, Jackie, and her three daughters. Jackie's husband Blaine is working in Dubai. (Sunday dinners would become tradition during our mission.) It was great to get better acquainted. Brother and Sister Clark met each other in Iowa where she was attending school as a young 18-year old. They joined the Church after marrying and returning to Brazil. They returned to the US so Don could obtain a degree from BYU. After living for many years in several South American countries in the for-profit world, he took a job under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric as a Director of Temporal Affairs. Those opportunities led them to live in Peru, Puerto Rico, Brazil, the Southeast States, and elsewhere. They just returned to Lilburn after being away for nearly five years as mission president, MTC president, temple presidency in Brazil and Spain and are getting settled and catching up . Sister Clark (Zaza) is petite and adorable; born in Czechoslovakia with interesting stories of difficult years with family in refugee camps. We laughed and laughed over stories as we got acquainted. We sense a good fit, and we are so grateful. We're anxious to get to know and fellowship ward and mission families in the weeks ahead. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Busy and Happily At Work in Georgia

We have arrived in Georgia, and things are going great.  Now that we again have internet, it's time to update the blog. So much has happened; this report will be very condensed. 

Our travel to Georgia was pleasant, other than the extreme windy weather leaving Utah on March 26 enroute to Denver. We made short visits on Wednesday morning to Liberty Jail and Independence after leaving Kansas City. As we sat down to dine at a Chili's in Mt. Vernon, Missouri that evening, we struck up a conversation with a young family across the aisle. We soon discovered the family of six Latter-day Saints was traveling to Florida for a medical school rotation. We then leapfrogged with them on the interstate and motel parking lots for the next half day as we both had a hard time finding a vacancy. As we traveled through Tennessee on Thursday we stopped in Murfreesboro for lunch with Elder Josh Pantelakis, son of our good friends. He is in his last weeks of service, but still so excited and dedicated. We had taken him to lunch when traveling through Tennessee in the summer of 2010. Another hour or two on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga was a pleasant diversion. We arrived in Georgia on Thursday evening and spent the night in Kennesaw, GA. Our waitress that evening was the daughter of a former BYU student and thanked us for our service while pleasantly making it clear she was not a member. You get noticed with the missionary name tags and common connections are found everywhere. 

Friday morning, March 30, we met President Wolfert and the other office staff, Elder and Sister Coe (vehicles and mission secretary), and Elder and Sister Bolt (finance and housing) in the Mission Office which is attached to the Lilburn Meeting House.

After short introductions, President and Sister Wolfert took us to our apartment – in the basement of Brother Donald and Sister Zaza Clark’s  home. We were flabbergasted at our comfortable and large apartment. Two bedrooms, large kitchen and eating area, and a living, sitting room. The Clarks’ daughter and family had lived her for a while, and it has been rented to other senior missionaries. Sister Wolfert had already purchased some get-started groceries, and the list of urgent shopping needs was short. We were encouraged to take it easy and report to the office on Monday. But we have 18 months to get settled, so we quickly unpacked the basics and returned to the office on Friday afternoon to get better acquainted and start training. The Bolts and Coes invited us to go out to dinner with them that evening; it was great way to get acquainted with the former IBM Project Manager and nursing home staffer (the Bolts) and the retired military vet and school teacher (the Coes). Both couples live locally and have been serving part-time for a year (often full rather than part days). 

Our first Saturday we made the trip to the local Walmart for bedding and other items before attending General Conference sessions. Since then we’ve made several trips to the nearby Publix grocery store as we begin to stock the cupboards. We had just a bit of light housekeeping to do and picked up a vacuum from the mission storage area. As Lilburn is a suburban community only about a half hour from Stone Mountain, all our commercial services are conveniently in or near town. We have picked up a part for our Honda at the local dealer and drive to the post office every day as part of our duties. We found a co-op Credit Union next door to the Post Office so banking will be easy. Life is good. It’s Saturday, April 7 now, and we ate at Atlanta’s Best Wings for dinner on Friday evening. It's a "welcome to the mission" tradition for the young elders. Casual and yummy! 

The more impressive experiences involve the good nature, courtesy, and happiness of everyone in Georgia. You can’t help but feel happy and want to reflect the same friendliness. “Missy” a non-member checker at the beautiful Publix grocery store down the street immediately called me “Sister” and asked me if I was replacing Sister (Michelle) King. I thought to myself, only if I can earn her former Utah news anchor salary!  When a young teenager tried to read our name tags at the Kohls checkout today, his mother from Missouri welcomed our explanation ("Have you seen the billboards that say I'm a Mormon? That's us.") and said she loved the Mormon TV ads and we had the nicest missionaries. People know who we are. Really, we can take a lesson in Utah. People are friendly there, but so much more so in the South. Loving it! 

We attended General Conference Sessions our first weekend in Georgia at the Lilburn Meeting House. Like Utah, most members here in the Lilburn Stake (a fairly affluent suburb) watch Conference on BYU TV or cable, so other than the Stake President’s family, the sister and elder missionaries serving locally, it was a small group of participants. The Stake President can drive to church, but the family chooses to walk the mile to Church for each meeting. Sister Weiler (his wife) watched conference in her bare feet! We had bumped into their son at the MTC. The connecting threads keep appearing. (We would come to respect and love the Weilers deeply during our time in Georgia.)  We met a few new converts and single sisters at the broadcast, but attendance averaged about 30. There were a few more on Sunday morning. The mission has a YSA Branch, several Spanish branches, and a Portuguese branch.  Elder Connors enjoyed meeting other ward members at Priesthood Conference. Spring break week for Georgia began on March 30, so that contributed to lower attendance. We really enjoyed the Conference messages and the connection we made with those who attended the small  sessions. Getting to know people and our surroundings bit by bit is working well. 

Our days at the office have been full. We begin every day at 8 a.m. and lock the doors about 5 p.m.  President Wolfert pops in from time to time, but properly prioritizes spending time with the proselyting missionaries. He is articulate, enthusiastic, and down to earth. Sister Coe is very organized, and she and Linda have been working ahead on many tasks that are not due until May or June so that I can see the processes from beginning to end. She knows the missionaries and the information so well; I’m grateful she’ll be around for another week and several additional days through the month until we’ve experienced transfers and other major events. The tasks are pretty much like those associated with any small office – phones, correspondence, filing, equipment, jack-of-all trades.  The mail is a big item since all mail is sent to the mission office, and then I have to re-address it for forwarding to the specific apartments of each missionary.  We then drive boxes of forwarded items to the post office each afternoon.  It’s been Easter week, so we’ve been amazed at the volume of letters and packages coming and going out of the office. It's initiation at its best! Again, the people are so pleasant.  The mailman is cheerful and best-friendly. 

It was a big week for Ray, too. Vehicle records and reports are submitted and reported at the end of each month, so he started off learning the largest task of the month. Elder Coe is a real character, and he and Ray have a lot in common-cars and guns and stories. To add to the excitement, we picked up five new Corollas for the mission on Thursday morning. Zone Leaders and others returned five cars to switch out and preparations began to sell the replaced vehicles. Several other companionships also brought in cars to be fitted with the black box (Tiwi). There were lots of introductions and farewells (to the Coes) and activity with the vehicles in the Mission Office this week. We bought the elders pizza to keep them content while they waited for the boxes to be installed  The Atlanta North Mission is one of the pilot missions for the new black boxes (a type of parental monitoring device that is monitored at Church Headquarters).  Missionaries know they are being monitored with prompts from the box and calls to the President if thresholds are exceeded.  The possibility of losing driving privileges without an accident is real; the goal is to reduce citations and injury. The entire fleet is now fitted. In the past two weeks all of the companionships have received new cell phones and black boxes. We arrived at a busy time. It was good preparation for what will turn out to be a busy 18 months!

We met the Clarks last night. They had been in Salt Lake for General Conference. They are wonderful, warm people who have invited us to share Easter dinner with them and visiting friends from the Czech Republic. Zaza is originally from Czechoslovakia. She met Brother Clark in Iowa, and they spent their early married years in Brazil with her parents (Zaza's family relocated to Brazil as refugees from the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia). Don has been both a mission and MTC president there in Brazil. The couple just returned earlier this year after serving for a time in the temple presidency in Madrid. We're humbled by our generous living circumstances.

It’s been a busy ten days in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission! We feel like we’ve been here for weeks and have known these wonderful people and young missionaries for a long time. The Lord blesses us every day.  We’re looking forward to the days ahead. Today was Saturday, our Preparation Day, so we slept in a bit. We then reset some paving stones to make the path that lead to the backyard entrance to our apartment a bit safer and enjoyed a lovely spring day. We look forward to Easter tomorrow and to meeting the members of the Lilburn Ward.