What's New?

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/

Friday, November 8, 2013


We started this blog to share and record our missionary experiences.  We're now happy to say we can continue the record.  A service mission at the Bishops Storehouse begins on November 5. The details of that calling fall into a busy month and year of transition, so a new post will follow to open a new chapter in Pressing Forward.

It's been a month since we returned to our Bountiful home. Our prior entry marked the closure to our mission. However, much will always be unsaid, and we want to include memories of our last day(s) in Georgia and our trip home.

Our return flight from the baptism arrived in Atlanta about 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, the 1st day of October, 2013. The Atkins picked us up, and we enjoyed pizza with them before driving to the Clark's home. We now had only carry-on luggage, and were ready to pack our car the next morning. When Don and Zaza returned from teaching mission prep, we enjoyed a last night of quiet visiting on the family room sofas and retired early to start packing. We agreed to enjoy breakfast the next morning before departing.

Wednesday was the after-transfer New Missionary and Trainer followup meeting. We drove over to the Mission Office and spent an hour or so going over things with the Residoris. The mission experienced three vehicle accidents in the three days we were gone. Good timing or bad? We gave grateful, but cheerful goodbyes to our colleagues, some of whom were setting tables for the infamous post meeting formal luncheon. When we first began with the prep and table serving for this regular meeting, the participants numbered about 25. This day over 70 would have lunch! President and Sister Wolfert graciously invited us to step into the chapel to say goodbye to the missionaries during a break in the meeting. After some sweet words from the Wolferts, the missionaries stood and sang Called to Serve. Our tears flowed as we looked at those wonderful faces and smiles. What a sight to remember - always. I tried to memorize each face, but then remembered they were already embedded in my heart and mind from our personal interactions and the wonderful photo wall that I directly viewed everyday in the mission office.

We had hugs with the Wolferts and our senior counterparts, and we were then off to pack our car. After packing, the car ended up just a tiny bit less crowded than it was on our trip out from Utah. We enjoyed a lingering breakfast with Don and Zaza at nearby Metro Cafe. It was hard to say goodbye.

It had been a sweet morning. After a quick stop to pick up some last minute Georgia gifts (Atlanta Braves hats) for family, we made our final westbound drive on the Stone Mountain Highway, leaving the Georgia Atlanta North Mission behind. It was a bittersweet few miles! We had hoped to leave Lilburn by 11:00 a.m. since our destination for the night was Savannah, some four hours away.  By the time we hit the Atlanta "perimeter" interstate, it was nearly 1 p.m. We had one last stop enroute to Savannah and before departing mission life. Because we had enjoyed frequent calls with the Georgia Atlanta Mission staff, we wanted to meet the Seelys and Huffakers in person. So we took a one hour detour to Fayetteville to shake their hands. They were as delightful and dedicated in person as we imagined, and we were glad we took the time to say hello and thank you. Over our months as office specialists, we had occasion to talk to other mission offices from time to time. We will always gratefully feel a bond with these wonderful saints who strengthened our love for the Lord and commitment to His work.

It was nearly dark when we arrived in Savannah, and we wandered a bit in the dark, driving through much of the town only return to our motel street to eat. We started the next day with a visit to Tybee Island and a sandal walk in the waters of the Atlantic.

The 2013 federal government shutdown had closed the National Monument at Fort Pulaski. We headed back to Savannah's riverfront to enjoy a stroll, some shopping, and a bistro lunch. Then we drove the historic streets to Lafayette Square to snap some photos and traveled out to Wormsloe, a state-run historic plantation with an amazing 1.5 mile lane arched by towering oaks. A last minute decision, it was a great end to our day in Savannah.

We drove a few miles out of town and spent the night in Statesboro, a college town. The rich Georgian accents of nearly every patron at the local Chick-fila brightened our evening. If we had served there rather than in suburban Atlanta, we may have acquired some lasting southern tones in our conversation.

The next day we left the freeways and took old US highway routes to Birmingham, AL. We passed miles of cotton fields and abandoned agricultural countryside. We gave Elder William Sarniquet (now released) a call in Birmingham, hoping to take him to dinner, but he and his mother were driving to Atlanta for a birthday party with one of his converts. At his suggestion, we visited Vulcan Park to end our evening and shot some sunset photos of Birmingham from the tower.

We knew nothing about Birmingham, but found its hills and history interesting. We met William at Panera Bread the next day for breakfast and had a great visit. We consider his friendship, contagious smile, and positivity as one of the greatest blessings of our mission. After breakfast we headed to Little Rock, AK for our next night's stay. Don Clark had tipped us off that Tupelo (Elvis's birthplace) was along the way, so that short detour was a pleasant travel break. It was a great "checked off the list" for a couple of our generation.

I-40 through Mississippi had few highlights but led us to Memphis where we stopped for lunch and spent an hour or so walking the redeveloped riverfront. Unlike our visits to the Mississippi River in Illinois, the river here felt open, with few trees and more industrial shoreline. The landscape changed as we entered the Ozarks. We were pleasantly surprised to see the rolling hills that bank the Arkansas River and Little Rock.

Our next travel day was General Conference Sunday. Unable to catch a radio signal, we figured out how to listen to the broadcast on our cell phone. We've always found ourselves better at "hearing and feeling" the messages of Conference through sound rather than TV, so our travel across Oklahoma and Texas to Amarillo went by quickly, uneventfully, and pleasantly. We were again surprised by the size and prosperity of Amarillo. We considered a side trip the next day to the Canyon area, but after looking at the photos of what is called the "grand canyon" of Texas, we felt we have seen similar scenery in great quantity in Utah.  It was time to choose routes back to Utah- either through New Mexico or Colorado. We picked New Mexico and ended up in Albuquerque for lunch. Our goal was to spend the night in Farmington, N.M. and take the Lees to dinner. Unfortunately, they were in Utah. We learned they had been traveling with family for nearly the entire month since they departed the GA Atlanta North Mission and Hartwell, GA. Tuesday took us to Cortez. As we headed to Blanding, Linda convinced Ray to take the back road to Moab through Naturita, CO.  The drive was spectacular - through farmland, red rock, and high mountain passes south of the La Sal Mountains - on a pristine fall day.  It helped us feel back home as we returned through country we loved.

We lunched in Moab and drove into our driveway at home just before dark. Home. Mission behind us. Our road trip had helped us emotionally make the transition to non-missionary life. It had strengthened our gratitude for the Gospel, for our mission experience, for God's creations and our nation, and all the amazing blessings that fill our lives. We are humbled by the Lord's goodness and grace.

What's ahead?  A report at Church, putting home and yard back to normalcy, reconnecting with friends and family, and a new missionary opportunity. They are topics for our future posts. The time for writing and pressing forward as full-time missionaries in the Georgia Atlanta North Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has come to an end.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Endings, Beginnings, and Continuations

Over six weeks have passed since our last post. Our lives have been filled with emotion and activity. Much has transpired and changed. Our energies just seem to run out of steam for writing with clarity and thought (despite good intentions). This will be a long post, so be prepared!

I begin to write this on a Sunday night, the night I traditionally find myself recording our missionary experiences. But now we are no longer full-time, "called" missionaries. We are home in Utah, basically unpacked, and beginning to resume a normal routine. The past weeks sped by. Our lives and spirits were significantly impacted by our mission. But ironically our mission experience already feels isolated. Like many other emotionally charged, profound events in life, it feels like a chapter begun and closed. It was real, but feels surreal. We know our missionary experiences will continue to bless us forever. We can go back and treasure and learn; we can continue to treasure and strengthen the friendships and spirit we built. We must move forward to see what the Lord has in store for us now.

Four days ago I took the plunge and friended dozens of Georgia Atlanta North missionaries and other associates on Facebook. There are others we want to stay connected with, so the list will grow. We love to see their faces, their new diversions and activities, and emerging romances. Our glimpses into their lives have removed a bit of the reluctance and writer's block for talking about endings. Missions begin, missions proceed, and missions end, and every step along the way is a shared, natural, and God-blessed event.

We found ourselves a bit blue the last weeks of our mission; a blue tinted with joy in service and the anticipation of returning home along with the sadness of leaving Georgia and our mission behind. Once we made the decision to fly home to Utah, however, we were able to give ourselves emotional permission to become eager about reunions and begin to make plans and decisions. We packed up several large boxes of clothes and shipped them home in an attempt to lighten the load for our drive home. We cleaned our apartment in bits and pieces, trying to still enjoy our Saturdays, including a drive to Marietta to have one last P-day lunch with missionaries (Sister Sanders, Sister Paepaetaata, Elder Rindlisbacher, and Elder Whedon).

We took an extended hour to visit the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Hindu temple) in Lilburn. This magnificent building awed us as we drove into Lilburn for the first time in 2012. Why did it take us so long to get there? Open to the public for self-tours, its intricate workmanship and quiet interior left us with a feeling of reverence.

We also caught a soccer game with the Obers, mowed lawns, and spent time in the mission office cleaning our work areas and finishing our now detailed desk manuals during a delightful, heavy Georgia rainstorm.

With just two weeks to go, we began our round of farewells to favorite people. We enjoyed goodbyes with Nick, our mail carrier for 18 months. His visits were a daily bright spot. He's considering moving west to Arizona or New Mexico in a year or so. We gave him a Utah calendar and Book of Mormon to say goodbye.  It caught him off guard.  He sent us the first "welcome home" email we received at home after leaving Georgia. We baked cookies and made a last visit to Brad and his crew at White's Detail shop.

The best of the friendliest service people anywhere, we felt like friends upon our first meeting with Brad and his crew. We found ourselves almost hoping for service time with new cars or repairs on damaged cars so we could make our car shuttles and have a conversation with Brad. The final photos and handshakes were with dear friends. More goodbyes followed, with Michael and the crew at the Lilburn post office and the team at Pep Boys. The folks in all the locations were pleasantly surprised with the donuts we took them. We have a whole new appreciation for the postal service after working with the Lilburn post office. The Nickerson family invited all the office couples to a Sunday dinner. We fed the sister missionaries and took the assistants to dinner. We bid goodbye to Sister Cefalo and two elders who departed in emergency situations. We found ourselves getting home very late and hoping we would have time to visit our investigators and converts the following week.

Our replacements, Elder and Sister Residori, arrived on Thursday, September 19. We tucked most of our items into a corner of one closet in the apartment, filled suitcases for the airplane with items that would not return to Georgia, and moved upstairs to the Clark's spare bedroom with a week's clothing. After the Residoris met with President Wolfert and enjoyed introductions that first day, we helped them unload their car. They spent the remainder of the day getting settled in the Clark's basement.

Our spirits were lifted as we knew it would be a pleasure to work with the Residoris; they are another warm and dedicated senior couple The five days of training began on Friday. They learned quickly, but like we had been 18 months before, they were exhausted after each long day. All of the office couples went to dinner at a small local eatery on Friday evening. It was the perfect quiet, linger easily atmosphere for getting acquainted.

Our last week as full-time missionaries began with witnessing a baptism after Sunday meetings for Itzees and Mortezees Walker, the 9- and 10-year old sons of Tisha Walker. Itzees entered the font eagerly. However, his nine-year old brother simply could not get in the water. Bless his heart. After several failed attempts, his family and Brother Boyd, the new ward mission leader, invited everyone except Walker immediate family to leave the room. We patiently waited back in the Relief Society room. After 30 minutes, the family returned. Frightened Mortezees would need a bit more preparation and courage before taking the "plunge" sometime in the future.

We were planning to spend every evening this last week visiting people and spending time with the Clarks. We were tiring, emotionally and physically. As anticipated, last minute invitations came, and we somehow squeezed them into the schedule and were grateful for them. We enjoyed dinner at Longhorn Steakhouse with the Wolferts and Bolts. It gave us the chance to give them a gift we had for each of our office brothers and sisters - a framed saying "When God comes first, whatever comes second will always be right," that Linda had hand stitched.

The Kotters invited us to their home for dinner, and the Halls and Atkins joined us. We visited way too late, but it was great. One evening we visited Dana Roca and the children. Dana was out of town on business, but her new friend was there with the kids so we enjoyed hugs as we dropped off some fruit and promised to send Sarai and Joanna a note when they get baptized in a year. We'll always remember those smiling faces!

We called Mercy Ansah and stopped by for a short visit. We met Mercy and her daughter, Malyssa, our first Saturday in Georgia at the General Conference broadcast. We fell in love with this sweet girl that day. Their current circumstances are one of the most heart-breaking stories from our mission. Malyssa asked Ray to baptize her, but it never happened. Temporarily away from her mom now, they will always be our prayers.

We had a great visit with the Howards, enjoying our usual laughter and love. Marcy's new job is going well; Jerry's work pressures are easing; Dale and Nick and Miriam and April are doing great. They have so richly blessed our lives; we have seen their lives blessed as they learned the fullness of the gifts available through our loving Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our office colleagues prepared a nice Hawaiian haystack luncheon on Thursday - how yummy and thoughtful. We delivered the mail to the post office just before it closed, a fitting ending to our last day in the office - busy and happy!  It was dark when we left the office. Our hearts were at peace, but we had two more stops to make. We didn't have a photo of the Chase family. We couldn't leave without expressing our love to them. Tyler's recovery from his stroke is slow; Ariel is unable to work because she's at the doctor with Tyler or one of the kids almost every day. But the family is happy and optimistic about life. Victoria and Matthew, the two older children, continue to be the spiritual strength of the home. Dad makes sure they get to their Church meetings. And little Abby, who a year ago was a 3-year old in a stroller or playpen because mom couldn't manage her, has a cute new hair cut and glasses. When we shared some apples and extras from our cleaned cupboards, she went to the kitchen and brought back a potato for us.  She wanted to share, too. Bless the children!

One last stop was to Lila Andriamaromana. She hadn't answered phone calls, so we just stopped by to drop off the Tabernacle Choir CD we'd been saving for her. She is an amazing woman, and we want to stay in touch with her. She is back to attending Church elsewhere with the full family, we pray she will continue to study and learn and build upon her baptism. She was at school with the oldest daughter that night, so we left our love and note with the younger children. It was good to get a letter from her several weeks later (from Europe) in which she expressed her love and appreciation for her increased understanding and knowledge of the plan of salvation. We will stay in touch.

Our last day as a mission office couple had become a 12-hour day. Sweet! We enjoyed a quiet visit with Don and Zaza upon arriving home, Yes, their home is filled with love and will always be a much appreciated, much loved home in our hearts. Don drove us to the airport on Friday morning. We arrived in Salt Lake about 1 p.m. Utah time. The air was crisp after snowfall from the prior day; it still covered the foothills. There was no fanfare, and that felt right. Son, Dave, was out of town for work; the grandkids were in school. Mike (son) picked us up at the curb. He drove us to the local shop where he had dropped our pickup truck off to be cleaned (he had been using it to haul lumber for his garage interior finishing work).

Our neighborhood and home were tidy and quiet as we opened the door. Mike invited us to share dinner with the family and left us to unpack. Wendy and Mike had made some preparations for our arrival. Our bed was clean and made; we moved boxes from our bedroom (it had been the storage area for our personal items for 18 months) with no sense of urgency. It was good to be home; but we still felt our hearts back in Georgia. After all, we would only be in Utah for three days. And a busy three days, it was.

We decided to do a bit of grocery shopping. While on that errand, we got a phone call from Leonard Tarver, the former elder in our mission who had been released on September 5.  We had invited him to stay with us for several months while he attends sound engineering school in Salt Lake. He had been staying with a member in Lehi and was in Salt Lake and wondered if we were home. We had mail and a package for him. One of his former bishops from Pittsburgh (in SL on business) brought him out, and a bit to our surprise, they unloaded Leonard's luggage. He was here to stay! We made another quick trip to the store so Leonard could do some shopping and then all of us enjoyed dinner with Mike and Wendy and the grandkids Friday night. On Saturday we arose early to attend the baptism of our grandson, Ammon, and his cousin, Wyatt. Our grandchildren had grown and matured, but again, it felt like we had never been away. Got to love "love." It's comforting and amazing how it bridges physical absence. That is the nature of spiritual gifts! Grandma Witt gave the talk on baptism and Linda (Grandma Connors) gave the talk on the Holy Ghost. We enjoyed another family meal, and then we returned home to continue unpacking. We moved the spare bed down to the basement so Leonard had private space. He started job hunting.

On Sunday morning we met first with the High Council to report and then with Stake President David Webster to be released. We had a nice visit with him, making us late for our Sacrament Meeting. He kindly invited us to leave on our missionary tags until after our meetings were over. That made the release a bit easier. (Still after nearly a month home, we feel that we've simply taken them off for the evening (because we're home) and that they belong on us rather than in a drawer.) While we met with President Webster, Leonard visited with his counselors, President Gardner and President Farnes. As Leonard does with everyone, he immediately charmed them. All three of us returned missionaries bore our testimony in Fast and Testimony meeting that day. One of the best things about a mission is the way you are liberated from the fear of bearing testimony! David had been out of town for nearly two weeks and stopped by Sunday afternoon for a good visit. Leonard attended our meetings and the YSA ward that day, met David, and enjoyed another dinner at Mike and Wendy's.

Leonard wanted help buying a car, so Ray helped him on Monday morning as Linda did a bit more deep cleaning in his basement retreat. We're reminded every day of the energy and ambition of the young. By Monday, Leonard had found a good-paying security job with McDonald's and needed transportation for Tuesday. In the afternoon we made errands with Leonard to obtain car insurance.Our three days in Utah had flown by. Wendy would take us to the airport on Tuesday morning for our return flight to Georgia.

Before moving on to our truly last days in Georgia and trip home, we'll just state how wonderful it is to have Leonard with us. He's found two security jobs that allow him to work early and late and study mid-day at home or in the sound studio. He attends at least two full blocks of meetings on Sundays, FHE's with multiple Young Single Adult branches, Institute each week, dates, and hangs out with new friends.  He is busy almost every evening.  He has spoken in two sacrament meetings and other settings, too. With his height, color, and Cleveland accent, he loves the surprised reactions he gets when strangers learn he is a Spanish-speaking return missionary. It often gives him opportunities to continue teaching and witnessing. We enjoy our daily conversations with him; we share meals in a very casual, spontaneous way. His enthusiasm is contagious. His height and strength have come in handy for simple things like changing light bulbs and tough jobs like lifting old concrete so we can replace a broken gatepost. He's acclimating to the Utah Mormon culture, although it often surprises him how casual we are about less actives here. He gets along with everyone. It's been a blessed win/win for us.

Our story continues..... more about leaving Georgia and returning home in a few days.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Home is Where the Heart Is

Dare we say again that our days have been very busy? However, without exception our minds turn to home each day - both our 40-year old home in Utah with family and friends and the home that is the collective of our lives' experiences and associations. For years when people asked us, "You couldn't leave your home, could you? You've put so much work and love into it," our response has been, "Of course we could, because what is truly home is in our hearts." Now that we are preparing to return to our Bountiful home, our conviction has only deepened.

Heartstrings have led us to a flexible return home plan. Our replacement couple, the Residoris from North Ogden, UT, will arrive on September 19.  Our release date is September 27. Our grandson, Ammon, will be baptized on the 28th. That leaves no time to adequately train the Residoris and drive to Utah by the 28th, so we're going to fly home for the baptism, then fly back on Tuesday to begin our drive home. Our hearts want to stay here with our friends and missionaries, our work and convert baptisms. Our hearts want to be home with family and friends for the special occasions in their lives. Yes, it will be nice to sleep in our own bed, to wax the car and groom the flowerbeds, but the house is not what is drawing us. It's home, and home is the love that draws us in many directions. How grateful we are for the love that has supported us here in Georgia and back in Utah. How grateful we are for the conveniences and resources that will allow us to flex the time and travel of our mission release. In the next month we'll somehow squeeze in five days of intense training in the Mission Office (and a push to document our jobs well), a round trip flight for a baptism and birthday celebrations in Utah, a drive across this country that we love that will help us transition our minds to different priorities and shed a few tears along the way, a General Conference on the road (will bring our minds back to attending General Conference broadcasts in the Lilburn building the day after we arrived in Georgia on March 30, 2012), and speaking in Church on October 13th. Then we can focus on putting our home back into operating mode, a few early doctor/dentist appointments, and possibly having a released missionary house with us for a while. Sounds like we'll need to be flexible, and definitely we will continue to be busy.

Our office staff continues to be incredibly busy with the addition of 31 new missionaries last week; 34 are scheduled to arrive in October. Another ten visa waiters will arrive next Monday. We said goodbye to a smaller group of missionaries last Wednesday at the Farewell Fireside: Elder Baker (Marysvale, WA), Elder Johnson (Gunnison, UT), Elder Indriamiarina (Madagascar), Elder Smith (Centerville, UT), Elder Vaha'i (Tonga), Elder Yates (Utah County), and Elder Tarver (Pittsburgh, PA).

The farewell testimonies are always wonderful. We were invited to share ours. We expressed our love for our work, the missionaries, and those we met and taught. Along with deteriorating use of hands, Elder Connors voice has been shaky, and it's been hard for him to enunciate and project his voice many days. This night his voice was clear and strong as the Spirit helped him bear witness. As I listened to Tess Wolfert and another young woman on strings, accompanied by Hilary Duffield, play How Great Thou Art during the fireside, I reflected on our experiences here in Georgia. I was surprised by a simple memory that surfaced as something for which I am profoundly grateful. It's the privilege I had of entering baptism records into the Church's data systems that thereby creates a member records. I shared that gratitude along with my witness of the truths of a loving Heavenly Father, our Savior and His atonement, the restored gospel, prophets and scripture. Each time I process a baptism record, I look at the names and wonder about the story behind the conversion. I see children of God who have been led to the truth and families that will be blessed. While I definitely pondered these thoughts as I typed entries, the reality that I was feeling connection with these people hadn't really hit me until the evening of the fireside. It reminds me of the intimacy and pertinence temple work; the records are sacred and the people are real. I find myself hoping for continuing learning and growth experiences. All pieces of the missionary work puzzle bring blessings, even those that can seem routine.

Another missionary recently had to return home in unusual medical circumstances. He passed out and hit his head and has lost the recent past from his memory. It will be challenging and complex recovery. Elder Loertscher will be in our prayers. (We were sad to learn about a year later that Elder Loertscher passed away; after struggling since childhood with complex nerurological and mental health issues.) It was particularly hard to see Elder Indriamiarina and Elder Vahai go home, knowing our paths may never connect again with their distant homes. Yet again, letters arrived recently at the mission office from Sister Bulouniwasa in Fiji. Perhaps we will connect again. We do expect to see a great deal of Elder Tarver. He is moving to Utah to attend sound engineering school and may live with us for a while. He bore a long testimony in Spanish at the last Zone meetings. With his distinctive personality, there were chuckles and obviously what he said was more than pure testimony. But there was also love and joy in change and accomplishment. We have a new Assistant to join Elder McGary. Elder Vandertoolen will replace Elder Blake Miller. We've grown close to Elder Miller, and he will be returning home to Sandy in October. He's now hard at work in a zone leader role for his last six weeks and has several baptisms lined up. We are very grateful to have been witnesses to the growth of these modern day warriors.

This post has gone on too long, so I'll just summarize other events of the past weeks so they are not forgotten.
  • Tisha Walker was baptized and confirmed two weeks ago along with Chineesa Harris.With a husband and young children being taught in the Walker home, there may be additional baptisms. It began when Tisha's friend, Sister Cannon, invited her to meet with missionaries.
  • The Lilburn Stake is involved in some great public awareness activities. It was the Lilburn Ward Conference this past Sunday, and the speakers were wonderful. There was a great emphasis on member missionary work. Many wards already have two sets of missionaries and could potentially gain a third. That means the ward members have lots of  "finding" to do. Members find; missionaries teach. 
  • President Frost has set things in motion to cut down the band of trees that hide the church's parking lots and bowery from Cole Drive. "We want the world to see that we are here, often, and that we have a sense of energy in our church." 
  • Our missionaries have been involved in passing out flyers to other local church leaders about the Gwinnett Emergency Preparedness Summit. It is an interfaith, community event coordinated through the Red Cross and several non-profits. This is the first year that the event (training for 300+ pastors and congregational leaders on how to care for their congregations in the event of emergency) has been held at an LDS building. We expect additional service opportunities for our missionaries related to parking and other services during the Summit. Right now there is a training and challenge push in the mission to do more "building" tours where missionaries teach the gospel while touring a meetinghouse. 
  • We took in one last opportunity to experience Atlanta culture last Saturday by attending a Braves game with Elder and Sister Atkin. We also drove through downtown Atlanta (they had not been there) and found ourselves in the congestion of the Dragoncon (super hero convention), an Alabama - Virginia Tech football game at the Georgia Dome, and other festivities bringing throngs into the city for Labor Day weekend. Congested, but enjoyable. Atlanta has a healthy community feel and pulse. 
  • Last night we enjoyed a final Empty Nester Family Home Evening at the Kotters.  We'll miss these dear people. We've had much in common with this group of peers, and much to learn from one another.

  • In early August we also took a Saturday afternoon to drive to Ellijay to attend a baptism. It was another meeting to enjoy in another corner of the mission. We had meet the Chesters (ward mission leader) when we helped deliver mattresses to the new apartment in Jasper, and it was nice to see them again. The branch is large, but they have a lovely building in Ellijay.  Dad and daughter, Sean and Shyanna Holcomb were baptized, and Mom sang a lovely solo. Brother Michael was baptized two weeks later. It was a great opportunity for new elders, Elder Higginbotham (Canada) and Elder Flake (Ely, NV). Their trainer, Elder Bushaw, has been instrumental in many baptisms for the branch since assigned there several months ago. Sister Baylee Smith and Sister Megan Mitton also serve in Ellijay and were in attendance. It was a beautiful drive home after a very warm and happy occasion. Our last visit to the northwest corner of the Georgia Atlanta North Mission.

  • And we are still working hard to get ready to leave our jobs in order and train our replacements. There are meals with friends, cookies to bake, people to visit, an apartment to deep clean, missionaries to say goodbye to, and photos to take before we depart.  
All this activity can be draining, but we press forward with desire and joy because our hearts are full. This is our today home, and we care deeply about it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sweet Connections

Last Sunday we attended Church in the small branch building in Madison, GA, the small tourist town just off I-20 about an hour east of Atlanta. Its streets are lined with stately pre-civil war homes. The branch meets in a remodeled old painted brick house adjacent to a trucking warehouse. When we visited with President Wolfert prior to entering the MTC, we thought we might be headed to Madison to replace the Robinsons who were soon to be released. A mid-MTC phone call from the mission department changed that destination to our mission office assignment. We felt we should connect back to Madison again (it was one of our first drives when we arrived 17 months ago) and attend a meeting block before we head home. Today was the perfect day. We met Sisters Gibb, Grimnes, Mellott, and Pabst, the sisters who serve in Madison and in Greensboro which is about 15 miles to the east. Both companionships had a baptism yesterday (Brother Allen, a grandfather with a limp and arm prosthesis, and a young mother, Katie Guyton). They are two of the few baptisms that have occurred in the branch while we've been here in Georgia. President Dale Monson (formerly of the mission presidency) is the Branch president, and the branch attendance is growing. Unfortunately, only five brethren attended the combined High Priest and Elders Quorum meeting during our visit; it will take more than the 80+ in priesthood attendance to move the unit to ward status. But the members seem dedicated and competent and faithful that it will happen. Madison is centered in agricultural countryside, old Georgia in the purest sense we have seen. There were many new converts, families with three generations of members in attendance, and a few young couples with children. We encountered happy, homespun, noisy greetings as we gathered for Sacrament meeting, and a feeling of genuine love and warmth.

Our past two Saturdays were highlighted with beautiful temple experiences with the Howard family. But before recording those events and impressions, we'll summarize Zone Conferences held this past week - our last Zone Conferences. Tuesday the meetings were held in Athens for the Athens and new Cornelia zones. Wednesday, Sugar Hill and Lilburn zones met at the Lilburn building. Thursdays took Roswell and Marietta zones to the Marietta stake center. Elder Connors, the Atkins, and Halls attended all of the meetings, inspecting cars and making short presentations. Sister Connors stayed at the mission office, putting together desk manuals and the 33 binders for the missionaries arriving in 10 days. Our office internet was knocked out for two days by a two-hour lightning storm that rumbled during the Lilburn meetings. It was nice to spend most of our time sitting in quiet safety that day and bear testimony and feelings of love for the missionaries there. Elder Connors got pretty emotional as he spoke at each meeting. We love group meetings with the missionaries, but this time it made us a bit sad, too. We're sure going to miss these wonderful young saints!

We enjoyed making a nice connection as we sat at the lunch table with Sisters Alvey, George, Carrigan, and Macedone on Wednesday. Sister Alvey led music at the meeting; Sisters George and Macedone sang "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" beautifully, and Sister Carrigan accompanied them. (BTW, Mom Macedone, here's a shout-out from your lovely daughter!)  I knew I had a connection with Sister Alvey before she arrived.  I worked with her dad, Jim, for many years and watched as he and her mom courted at Beneficial Life. As we conversed, I learned that Sister Carrigan is the granddaughter of other Beneficial associates - Duane and Aleen Gardner. These young sisters are beautiful inside and out, and we are blessed as these dozens of wholesome sisters with strong testimonies strengthen our mission. And their musical talents are a great addition as they perform in small groups and bolster the congregational singing!  We have another 20 sisters arriving on September 2nd.

During the Zone Conferences we enjoyed presentations about the Abrahamic Covenant and learned how we are personally tied to Abraham and how our missionary work helps to close those connections for others, too. The missionary testimonies are always a highlight. At the Lilburn meeting we were particularly touched by Elder Hamer's testimony in which he acknowledged that he arrived in the mission thinking he could and would do it all. But he has learned humility through trial and has made the connection between humility and spiritual power. He expressed his gratitude for learning to lean on the Lord and be His instrument. Elder Tarver had us in tears as he shared his love for us, for President Wolfert, and for the Gospel. The stories are too long to record, but Elder Tarver truly is living reality of the cliche "the hardest and best two years of my life." From inner city life to semi-pro basketball, to 6' 8'' new convert, this capable young man had an amazing bishop who encouraged him to go on a mission. Beginning with his time in the MTC, he wanted out many times and openly vocalized his feelings. He was older and definitely more world-experienced that his peer missionaries. As Elder Tarver recounted, when he would complain or push the boundaries, President Wolfert would just smile at him. "I could never get him to contend back against me; I love that man."  Both we and the President were determined to help him finish his mission. And he did it! And he says the last year of his mission was the best year of his life, and his testimony is now sure! He knows the connections! Elder Tarver hopes to move to Utah soon. His estranged father recently died, he's returning to his bishop, not his family; his mom's situation would put him back in the city and environment that he knows could be regressive. He plans to do his father's temple work in a year. He asked Elder Connors and President Wolfert to give him a blessing for his future after the conference. Father figures he never had have changed his life. We plan to continue loving and helping him become the man and priesthood holder he can be. He has so much potential. We had other missionaries express their love and appreciation to us; they know we'll be leaving soon. It was both humbling (we simply loved them) and gratifying that we were the Lord's instruments in influencing these young people. Elder Hokafonu acknowledged in his testimony that he had taken the Book of Mormon for granted until Sister Connors counseled him and Elder Tarver to exercise the Moroni 10:4 invitation personally (and periodically throughout life). The Holy Ghost teaches when we follow his promptings. So grateful!

Two Saturdays ago we enjoyed a rainy wedding celebration for Alex Ober and Matt Price, another couple who connected at BYU. Don and Zaza (grandpa and grandma) traveled to Salt Lake for the wedding celebration. Grandpa Don performed the marriage and sealing on Thursday. The family headed back to Georgia on Friday. Ward members (Kim Gibb) prepared a beautiful cupcake cake and homespun outdoor Georgia reception at a house on Lilburn's tiny historic Main Street. Unfortunately our record-breaking summer rain was not yet over, and it sprinkled or outright rained most of the candlelit evening. We huddled under the tent and had a wonderful time despite the showers and mud. Another special blessing connected with the wedding was that the occasion helped Blaine Ober to finally break his tie to Dubai employment and return permanently to his family in Georgia. Not sure why we didn't take photos of the happy day and beautiful decorations. We're disappointed we don't have any - probably because of the rain.

That same Saturday began as we accompanied a dozen plus Lilburn Ward members to join Jerry and Marcy Howard as they received endowments at the Atlanta Temple. The quiet, drizzly morning added to the sense of joyous peace we felt as we left the temple. We love the Howards and were so happy for them. A week later found over 35 ward members and missionaries (Sister Wolfert, us, and returned from Idaho, the baptizing missionaries, Elder Hanny and Elder Astel) at the temple to support the family as they were sealed for time and all eternity. The officiator, Brother Sharp, did an amazing job. His demeanor and words were riveting and exactly perfect for the Howards. Those of us who witnessed had more tears in our eyes than the couple; likely because we understand even more deeply the sacred joy of the occasion. Of course, the tears increased as Dale (14), Miriam (13), Nick (11), and Autumn (10) entered the room. What a highlight for us to observe this supreme connecting of a family we deeply love. That afternoon, friends from the ward gathered at the bowery for a cookout to celebrate the occasion. The connection of fellowship and ward kinship warms our hearts. This family we love has flourished and will continue to do so.

The wonderful connections of the past weeks are heartening, but also make us feel a bit sad that other connections have not been as successful. We have much to do to prepare to depart, but also much we want to do to encourage others to learn and grow in the gospel. On Wednesday we took the Strickland family on a picnic. It was good to get to know Sister Strickland and her three children (Rowan, Caleb, and Autumn) better. She was baptized several months ago. I remember my first time picking Heather up and driving her to join in a teaching session with Elders Edmunds, Miller, and Chugg. She was so nervous and anxious. Despite continued unemployment challenges, she now has an amazing sense of calm and confidence. The real Heather is emerging. And husband, Josh, who suspiciously cracked the door about 4 inches during our first conversation, now opens the door wide to missionaries! He's gradually expressing interest. Unfortunately he wasn't able to join us for the picnic (job hunting), but we hope that that the music CD we gave them will continue to increase the spirit in their home.

We enjoyed a Senior Missionary Couples' Family Home Evening on Monday, the last for the Lees (Broomfield, New Mexico), the Connors, and the Barksdales (Orem). We joined in bearing such sweet testimonies!

Yes, it's been a few busy weeks. We're tired, and our heads are swimming with thoughts and checklist of things to do. Next week is Transfer week. We'll connect briefly with another group of new missionaries. The fellowship and binding that comes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ means more than ever to us as we have witnessed its influence on lives. Yes, we marvel, and "sweet is the peace the gospel brings."

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Change of Season Approaches

The countdown is now official - we have a release date, of sorts. The past week or two found us in preparation for that event, a change of season in our lives that will coincide with the calendar seasons. And just like those seasons, we are yearning for time to slow down a bit. We just pray the slowdown will not feel like winter (figuratively and literally). We have loved our experiences here in Georgia and the mission field and will leave dear friends and relationships behind. Other changes loom on the horizon for the mission as well; another office couple, the Halls leave for home the first week of November. Elder and Sister Lee, the couple assigned to the Elberton Branch, also leave in early September, and the Barksdales in the Cornelia Ward leave in October. A new couple, the Robert and Vicki Henderson from Cedar Hills, UT, arrived three weeks ago and are sharing their service with both the Peachtree Ward and the Johns Creek Ward. We took the time to make the short drive north and took them to dinner after they arrived. While at the restaurant, we overheard the people at the booth behind speaking in LDS-speak. We introduced ourselves and discovered it was the Stake President of the Roswell Stake and his family. Always a small world in the Church.

It's going to be a busy and emotion-filled seven weeks before we depart. We expect our replacement couple, the Residoris from North Ogden, Utah, to arrive sometime the week of September 16-20. We plan to spend time training them before we leave and have set our release date as September 27. Stay tuned to learn when we'll actually begin the drive home. We're looking at the activities and places we want to pursue in the weeks ahead as well as thinking a bit about cleaning and packing. It feels strange to grocery shop cautiously. It's also easy to tell we have moved infrequently in our lives as we have to think through the process. But there isn't really a lot to do; we've tried to minimize our nesting and shopping while in Georgia.

We celebrated the 24th of July with another Transfer Day. We had to do some serious logistical planning to efficiently man the two Church 12-passenger vans, a mini-van and a rented van, a pickup and two trailers for luggage during the airport pickup and shuttle run to and from the Mission Home/Office. To that we added shuttles to and from the 16 rooms we rented at the nearby Holiday Inn Express on July 23. This transfer meant single seniors in the vans and lots of missionaries! Since the Atlanta Temple was closed for cleaning, the departing missionaries substituted service at the Tucker Bishops Storehouse (one of the largest in the U.S.) in lieu of the normal temple outing.

Things ran well; it was a good trial run for a repeat in September and October. Our November numbers are still unknown. There could be no MARTA run for these large groups. The president needs every minute he can get to do his arrival interviews and make final companion assignments. It was the last airport run for Sister Connors. The Halls will begin driving in September and October along with the Atkins. Bicycles have become a huge job. When we arrived in 2012, only English speaking elders were required to bring/buy and use a bike. Now the pickup of purchased bikes at our recommended bike shop in Duluth, storage, and then bringing them out of storage and having the bikes and helmets ready, along with bike racks forall trainer cars has become a big job for Elder Atkins.

He is training to back up Elder Connors' vehicle job and may have to let go of his other materials and library jobs to take it on. Our vehicle numbers have increased 40%, just like our missionaries. If and when the incoming numbers of arriving missionaries go back to the dozen + rather than three dozen, duties related to bicycles, airport runs and the like will return to a two vehicle task rather than a fleet-feel event.

With the pending changes in office couples, we've been working in the office to look at future responsibilities and workflow. Sometimes we wish we had a crystal ball to see how things will look in 5-6 months. But we felt the same when the announcement came out about the age change and predictions of increased numbers. We've adapted and succeeded. Yes, we may have spent more hours, but the rewards have been well worth it. Elder Stanley G. Ellis encouraged the Assistants to the President to be the examples of hard working missionaries and to get out of the office and away from administrative work. Somehow we graying seniors have picked up the slack. The Lord is helping us succeed beyond our expectations. We pick up and deliver mattresses and shuttle cars throughout the mission. Sister Connors took over all of the spreadsheet reporting of numbers to the mission and stake presidencies nearly a year ago. (When we arrived the assistants would be in the mission office until 11-12 p.m. on Sunday nights to gather the numbers and prepare the reports). We hold a Training Followup Meeting with the new missionaries and their trainers about a month after they arrive. Sister Wolfert used the lunchtime as a formal etiquette teaching opportunity. When she first started, she purchased the food and Sister Weiler (the stake president's wife) helped to cook. We stepped in for a few minutes to help wait tables with food service for about 25 people. We'll have that event again this week, but we'll be serving 60 missionaries and trainers. Seniors are now buying and cooking all of the food, along with Sister Weiler and our new stake president's wife, Sister Frost. See several trends here? We're hoping we can train the Residoris in one week when we now do double what we were assigned when we first arrived. Thank heavens I had lots of practice at Beneficial Life in documenting how-to guides. We're starting on the Vehicle Coordinator's desk manual already.

With all of the labors that now bless us, we have fewer opportunities to teach, but we try to stay involved. The Lilburn Stake goals this year are for members to complete study of the Preach My Gospel, spend more time with the full-time missionaries, and get involved in temple work. The Lilburn Ward, where we reside, is really focusing on member involvement with missionaries by sponsoring splits with the young sisters and elders. Occasionally we are included, but we've come to see the wisdom. These members and ward missionaries are the long-term fellowshippers of these investigators and converts. And in looking back, those baptized here are still attending (except those who have moved). Bishop Baron is inspired, indeed. We've enjoyed working with Brother Sanders; the former Ward Mission Leader and a great instructor of the Gospel Principles class. He was recently released. Brother Boyd is the new Ward mission leader, and we look forward to getting better acquainted with him and his family. They have six children, and have lived in the ward less than a year; his wife is in the RS Presidency. They are great examples to everyone of Christ-like action and dedication. 

Okay, I'm rambling. It must be triggered by the long list on our minds of things we need and want to do. The daily rain finally came to a stop in late July, but this may have been the wettest July in a long time. We heard flood warnings nearly every day. Now it rains only 3-4 times a week. Between showers we've been able to mow lawns and help the Clark lay additional pavers and finish up a few other yard changes that came after they had a new partial driveway poured and their house trim painted. We just put our patio back together last weekend after two months of projects. It's nice to finally be able to sweep it and keep it dry and clean for at least a day or two.

A North America Southeast Young Single Adult Conference was held at the Lilburn Stake buildings this weekend. There were over 900 attendees. Our dear senior friends, Doyle and Eulalia Kotter, were heavily involved in the planning and arrangements. The Conference meant the Lilburn Ward would have only a late afternoon Sacrament Meeting today. We used the opportunity to drive up to the Peachtree Corners Ward for Church. We have been promising Todd and Heather Benson that we would attend Church there for many months. We've seen them a time or two at departing missionary firesides (Todd was a former Ward Mission Leader). Their son spoke in Sacrament Meeting today; it was good to see them and learn they became grandparents two months ago!  How does that former Cub Scout of Sister Connors' become a grandfather? It seems that relative time and age gaps compress in our youth and expand with aging. Most curious! And the Hendersons attended the Peachtree Ward today, so it was fun to continue to build on the dinner date we had with them a few weeks ago. 

We'll end this entry with the beginning of a future entry. Our dear friends, Jerry and Marcy Howard and their children, will soon launch a blessed season of their lives. The parents will receive their endowments on August 17, and the family will be sealed on August 24. We are so grateful for their example and love. I can still remember sitting next to Marcy on the first day she attended Relief Society as an investigator last spring. We have picnicked with them, gone apple picking in the Appalachian foothills, and shared testimonies in their living room as Elder Astel and Elder Hanny taught them. Yesterday we took Jerry and Marcy to the Distribution Center on the Atlanta Temple grounds to purchase temple clothing. As Marcy stated, it feels like waiting for Christmas!  She's been looking for work for nearly a year and has found a substitute school janitor job that is a perfect fit and will help them financially. Her goal is to back to school and obtain a degree. She loves photography and wants to study that. Both Marcy and Jerry have Church callings. They are eternal friends and testaments to us of the blessings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A thought just occurred to me. Marcy's name is really Marcelia. We shouldn't forget to mention that Ray's Aunt Marcella celebrated her 101st birthday on July 22. What blessings!

All of the sister missionaries serving the Lilburn Ward were asked to share a few minutes in Relief Society two weeks ago and explain how to prepare for a mission. My suggestions were simple: Just do it!  Commit; be flexible (your call and experiences may not be what you expect); and exercise faith. The Lord is in charge and will help you succeed in the ways He needs. We are so grateful that we had the opportunities to spend time inviting others to come unto Christ early in our mission and that we can now devote the necessary time and our talents to help support the swell of work associated with a swell of arriving missionaries. We look forward to temple experiences with the Howards over the next two Saturdays. We gratefully acknowledge the Lord's hand in their lives and in our lives and service!  

Sunday, July 14, 2013


With a post title like "Memories," one might think our mission has come to a close. That will be an unfortunate fact in just two months or so. For now, however, "Memories" fits the odds and ends that we want to record today. We don't want to let these current-moment memories fade into the forgotten.

We just returned from making a Sunday afternoon visit to the Howard family. Marcy and Jerry will receive their endowments on August 17, and they will be sealed with Dale, Miriam, Nick, and Autumn on August 24. We are so excited and happy for them! It's been a challenge and goal they accepted early in their conversion process. Once they first experienced baptisms for the dead they became more motivated, and it's clear they are approaching the upcoming events with faith and obedience. We are grateful for their invitation to be there with them on both Saturdays. We're also happy that Elder Hanny and Elder Astel will return from Idaho to be there with them also. What fine young men and close friends they are. They were great assistants to the president.

Elder Hanny extended one month to spend time in several zones completing one-week assignments to mentor other missionaries in proselyting skills. He returned home on July 2 and is now in Idaho rising at 5 a.m. to help his father on the potato farms. He and several other of our missionaries will attend Utah State this fall. We plan to stay in touch.

Several other memories stick out from the past week. We take photos of each arriving missionary, and it is posted on a large magnetic board across from Sister Connors desk in the mission office. What a treat to look at the faces of these wonderful young people (and couples) every day! It's a favorite pastime of missionaries who visit the office as well. We give the missionaries their photo when they go home. We've had four missionaries here since last transfer who been waiting for their travel visa so they can fly off to the Australia Brisbane Mission. President Wolfert doesn't spend a lot of time in the mission office, working mostly from his home office and car. However, Friday afternoon he was there as we waited out yet another cloudburst so Elder Connors and I could give him a ride to pick up his car at the detail shop. Because he was taking the Australia-bound missionaries to the airport on Sunday, I took down their photos and gave them to him. While the rain poured, President Wolfert began looking at the photos as we exchanged casual conversation about the personalities of the various missionaries. Then in what to me was a very tender moment, he quietly re-positioned the photos of the ten missionaries who are going home on July 25 to a tidy little row at the bottom of the board. "What a great group of missionaries; we're really going to miss them," he said. While to him it was a simple conversation as he was passing time, I could feel the tender love and respect he has for our missionaries - the deep love of a mission president. I don't think either the President or Elder Connors noticed what I noticed, but it was a very sweet and telling moment for me.

President Wolfert has begun sharing portions of the weekly missionary letters with us in our Monday morning staff meetings. We often cry together over the tender mercies, faith, and testimony that evidence the Lord's hand and love for these young missionaries and those they meet and teach.

Speaking of rain - it started on July 1st and is still going on July 14. Many mornings we have fog. It rains every afternoon and evening. Last year we experienced record heat; this year it's record rain. On Wednesday, we attended the Lilburn Ward mingle at the stake bowery. It's a weekly event in the summer months. The ward provides the hot dogs; members bring pot luck for the rest. Fortunately, the bowery is large and secure so we could enjoy our conversation (what little we could hear of it) in a 40-minute thunderstorm. Children were out running and splashing in muddy puddles (despite the active lightning); nothing like warm rain to entice play. Yesterday we mowed a very long and wet lawn, laid out some of the pavers we picked up several weeks ago, and helped Don trim apple tree branches. It was a good four hours of hard work; it felt great!

Last Saturday we drove to Hartwell, GA (on the South Carolina border) to spend the afternoon with Elder (Larry) and Sister (Annette) Lee. They will be released on September 10 after two years serving in the Elberton Branch.  Bloomfield (near Farmington), N.M. is their home; Elder Lee had been a bishop for just over a year when his Stake President called him in and told him he felt strongly impressed to release him and invite them to go on a mission. Now Elder Lee is in the Branch Presidency and Sister Lee is holding down the YW program for three young women. They are down to earth and delightful. We visited,, checked out a potential new apartment for sister missionaries in Hartwell, took a short ride to view a few area highlights like the Georgia Guidestones (a monument to conservation with inscriptions in eight languages) and Lake Hartwell (a Savannah River reservoir) and enjoyed dinner on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday we drove to Elberton, the granite (monument) capitol of the world and attended Church in the small branch (again, we were there last June) with the 60 or so attendees. There are challenges and amazing dedication in branches within its 2600 square mile boundary, and the congregation is made up largely of retired people. We really enjoy seeing how faith and testimony work in the lives of people from varied backgrounds. It was really sweet to visit one-on-one with Katina, a young mother of three. She sat in her wheelchair, with IV and other support tools attached. She just moved closer to family after release from Shepherd, Atlanta's premiere spinal injury rehabilitation center. She was in a rollover accident in February and in a coma for weeks. She was taught and baptized during her recovery. A beautiful young woman both physically and spiritually, her emotions are very tender. The Gospel is very new to her, and she has many questions. The sisters in the branch are very sweet with her, and I received a call this past week the President Rowndy wanting to be sure her records are transferred to the Elberton Branch. I had to refer him to the Atlanta mission since she was baptized by elders there. She'll be in our prayers and thoughts as with so many others we have encountered while on our mission.

Thirty-three missionaries are arriving in July; 33 by September; 31 and counting in October. About 30 missionaries will go home in those three transfers. Our December 2012 total count of 155 missionaries with only 14 sisters will be 223 by October (despite losing 31 missionaries in the mission boundary change). By end of year we expect our sister count to be 90+.  It's made us ponder about what needs (both now and in the future) the Lord is filling with this revitalized invitation to preach the gospel. The list of possibilities in our minds is growing:
  • Of course, increase the number of invitations to come unto Christ and prepare for His second coming
  • Prepare future generations by strengthening the future fathers and mothers of those generations
  • Bring more citizens to Christ to refocus the course of America and other nations back to traditional values so that promised-land blessings may be preserved
  • Strengthen sisters and families to enable the work of priesthood leaders and power around the world.
In the future, we'll be able to look back and see some of the answers. For now, we love these missionaries. And we testify, with no hesitation, the Lord is directing His work! What a wonderful, historic time!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Change and Testimony

Tomorrow will be July 1st, and Independence Day celebrations are scheduled on July 4.  Happy Birthday, America!  July 1st also marks the transfer of 31 of our young elders and sisters from the Georgia Atlanta North Mission to the Georgia Atlanta Mission. That transfer has kept us busy the past two weeks preparing for a farewell zone meeting, prepping database and paper files for transfer to the Atlanta Mission, and trying to spend a bit of quality time with these departing missionaries while we're able.

Last Saturday we drove to Jonesboro to take five elders to lunch. (Elders Sarniguet, Popp, Gunnerson, Beus,and Wadsworth). 

Yesterday, we drove back there again to take our boxed-up files to the Atlanta Mission Office staff.  On Thursday, a meeting was held at the Conyers Stake Center for the transferring missionaries. We even closed the mission office for the afternoon (we've never closed it before for more than an hour). The meeting included short messages from President and Sister Wolfert, testimonies from the missionaries, and a great lunch. There was a sense of reverence we've never seen at a group meeting as these marvelous young people contemplated their role, responsibilities, and opportunities in historic changes in mission work. Sister Connors felt impressed to share her testimony (along with the love all the office staff have for these young people). Some of the missionaries were anxious about the change. We reminded them that the Lord will bless them with the capacities and strength they need. The testimonies were sweet and strong, as was the spirit of love and commitment to serve where the Lord calls. The luncheon was happy and included lots of hugs and photographs with the seniors.

The Conyers Stake has been the anchor of our baptisms recently, so we will miss these missionaries, but we know they will bless their new complement of missionaries and investigators in the Atlanta Mission. The Atlanta Mission is the host mission for the new Macon mission, so the staff's tasks have included training the new office staff in Macon, letting go of two Stakes, and assuming one. We've been busy with just one stake and its missionaries leaving. We can only imagine how hard it's been for the Atlanta Mission staff. They've had to make use of young elders in the office on a regular basis. It's been a blessing for us to have enough senior power to keep our proselyting young missionaries doing that preaching work. Our housing couples, in particular, are challenged with opening seven apartments for the last new group and 14 for the upcoming July group. All in all, the increased numbers are increasing everyone's work.  Most office days now end at 7 p.m. We lost 31 missionaries in the Zone transfer and another three who had medical releases. Down goes our 200 missionary count, but it will zoom again to nearly 215 net missionaries by October. Truly we are seeing miracles.

Last Sunday night we enjoyed a world-wide broadcast for ward councils, missionaries, and members about missionary work. More changes are in the works as missionaries will soon spend part of their day/week using internet social tools to proselyte and fellowship. They will also give facility tours. We don't know all of the details yet, but hope we'll be able to learn and help implement this change before our September release date. An increased need for member assistance in missionary work was also emphasized by our leaders. We already see actions taken in the Lilburn Stake to increase member involvement. We had a baptism today for Chinesa (Sunshine) Mason. She's reactivated her less active mom. Her ultra soft, delicate voice befits her sweet spirit. Ward members gave the talks and performed the baptism. Exactly what we need! These new converts desperately need immediate ward friends and not just missionary friends who will be gone as is the nature of their call. This ward member willingness has probably already been there; it just took counsel from local and Church-wide leaders to help them step up to this critical challenge. With more involvement at the ward level and more missionaries serving in each ward and branch, amazing things are going to happen. We feel joy and humility as we find ourselves living and laboring in the fulfillment of prophetic promises about the Gospel spreading to all the world.

We've had some missionaries protected from harm in some serious car accidents the past week; others had to return home for medical care. We found ourselves back in Jonesboro again to get a damaged car out of compound for repair. On that P-day trip, we stopped by a small Confederate cemetery where we read the headstones reverently and admired the enormous magnolia tree that shaded the grounds.

Our son, David, surprised us with a text announcing a broken arm. His Facebook post of a lovely motorcycle ride with friend above our home in Bountiful was followed by our mutual gratitude that he was not hurt more seriously several minutes later. It sounds like the healing has not been fun for him, however.

Weather patterns this summer have brought rain nearly every day. Some days it's a few sprinkled raindrops; other days bring thunder, lightning, wind, and fury; all of it happening in a flash with sun re-appearing and then disappearing again. There are no extreme high temperatures yet, so life is bearable. On Friday evening, June 21, we enjoyed dinner with Elder and Sister Atkins and hiked part-way up Stone Mountain. However, our late getaway from the office and evening clouds hid most of our planned longest-day-of-the-year sunset. We gave our son, Michael, a call for his birthday from the mountain and crept down by moonlight. Ray found the footing difficult (signs of a diagnosis to follow when we returned home.) Granddaughter Faith's birthday falls on July 2. We'll see what we can do to give her a novel birthday call as well.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Lord is Hastening His Work

It's Father's Day. We're back in our apartment, resting after a long and busy week and hoping to hear soon from Mike and Wendy.  We enjoyed a nice phone visit with Dave a few hours ago. We also have a call in to Elder Tarver. His father was found dead on the couch this morning. Elder Tarver has not been close to his father, but despite his assurances to President Wolfert that he will move on without interruption because of the news, our hearts go out to him. He had to grow up so early, leaving home as a teenager. He calls us at least once a week to check on our health and well-being. We just love Elder Tarver and are happy to hear he is putting plans together to attend school in Utah and "date" a sister he met when they were both in the MTC. The Gospel can change lives and families and future generations!

We can't believe it's been a month since we made an entry. Where has the time gone?  It's been hastened as the Lord has hastened His work with the surge of missionaries that are flooding the world. We've just ended another transfer week, highlighted with the arrival of 24 missionaries that include Elder Poole returning from surgery, four short-notice Australia-visa waiters, 12 sisters and 8 elders. Our missionary count hit 200 for the first time!  It was a dry run for the 30+ who will arrive on July 23 and again on September 3.

Each group of missionaries that arrives amazes us with their resolve and competence. And somehow, all of the logistics work for the many of us teaming together to welcome them:
  • Arranging extra vans and drivers for the airport run
  • Having a stranger (a young woman chauffeur for the Walking Dead production team) with the right skills in the cell phone lot at the airport unlock one of the vans when poor Elder Tewalt closed the door unintentionally by taking off a car antenna and inserting it into the door lock; that meant we didn't have to leave new missionaries stranded at the airport waiting for transport
  • Finding a great price at a convenience Holiday Inn Express to lodge the new missionaries since we've over-run the capacity for sleeping in the Mission Home
  • Opening seven new apartments on short notice (they are hard to find and negotiate in short time periods)
  • Having wards and stakes happily help find and furnish the apartments
  • Feeling more confident that we can open and furnish fourteen new apartments for July and again in September
  • Coordinating the pickup, delivery and distribution of bicycles
  • Adding 14 new vehicles, hitches, and Tiwis to the mission fleet
  • Dealing with several "fender-bender" reports and repairs each week
  • Preparing letters and 100-page mission binders and the luncheons for the missionaries coming in and the eleven missionaries who returned home this week
  • Saying good-nights with love to our co-office couples when duties keep us in the office until summer twilight.
We see the Lord's hand in all that is happening. He is directing the efforts and the resources. Our capacities are stretched, yet it all comes together.

And, we also add "change" to the surge. On July 1st, the Macon Mission will re-open as one of the 58 new missions opening world-round. The Conyers Stake will move under the Georgia Atlanta Mission, and that mission will turn over two stakes to the Macon Mission. So we have a project with a June 30 deadline to complete and transfer database, paper records, and business requirements for the missionaries assigned to the Conyers Stake who will transfer in that change. Linda's become the project manager (recognizing more and more each day how the Lord blessed her with professional experience we need to fill in the technical gaps with our senior-only office team). We also have a luncheon to organize, a binder of memories to prepare, and other items for these 30+ transitioning missionaries that we need to squeeze into a very busy last two weeks of June. So we will have long days in the weeks ahead, but our collective energies will be motivated by love for these wonderful young missionaries who will leave our ranks a bit sooner than planned. We can feel the sense of urgency and are so grateful to be part of the team responding.

While there has been lots of joyful work, there have also been spiritual moments and fun times, too. Heather Strickland was baptized two weeks ago. Sister Connors was able to help the elders with some teaching sessions. In our first meeting with Heather, her acknowledged anxiety about life and coping was very evident. After her confirmation, she bore sure testimony of her trust in the Lord and the rightness of her decision. She does have a new sense of calm; her husband has been open to our short interactions and is letting the children attend church with her.  When investigators receive witness from the Spirit and act upon it, many tender mercies happen. The challenge now is to help them fully "convert" which is to change the lives to new patterns as they continue to grow in knowledge and faith. This is evidenced as new members no longer solely rely on "missionaries" but on their own testimony. Linda visit teaches a sister who continues to have problem after problem.  A recent widow and former foster parent, she recently fell and has not been able to work. She has only the resources to rent a "room" in a widow's home. It's not an ideal situation, but they make it work. However, the sister says she has difficulty trusting anyone except "missionaries."  Prayers are that she can feel the trust she needs to lean on ward members, too. Today we had no new converts or investigators in our Gospel Principles class. It was because of Father's Day, we suppose. Many of them come from non-supportive relationships; many work multiple jobs. However, some were at the Bishop's office door today, needing help from him.

Several investigators we've worked with were at the fireside for the departing missionaries on Wednesday. It's a sweet one-hour meeting where the departing missionaries bear a final testimony, followed by refreshments. The guest missionaries invite investigators and recent converts; other missionaries are not allowed. The room was as crowded as a Sacrament meeting. The testimonies at this week's fireside were particularly insightful, mature, and poignant.  Three of the twelve, Elder Hanny, Elder Edmunds, and Elder Chugg, have been assistants to the president and we have worked closely with them. All twelve of the departees (also including Elders Cole, Owens, Phillips, Thompson, Rogers, Clark, Ball, Spear, and Sister Waterworth) are wonderful, and we are so grateful for our association as we humbly learned from them and served with them.

Now we need to do our part to insure those they taught become fully engaged in activity. Our goal as we wind up these next few months is to spend family home evenings and other opportunities with the converts in the Lilburn Ward to bear testimony and to encourage them to take another leap of faith and fully engage themselves in activity. Today started off on a spiritual note as we enjoyed some of the best talks we've had in Sacrament meeting here. All of the speakers introduced themselves as "poor speakers", but they were living examples of how the spirit fills mouths to teach and lift. They nailed it!

We've also enjoyed a couple of fun outings in the past month. We worked in the mission office for part of Memorial Day and then all of the office couples drove to Social Circle where we enjoyed dinner at the Blue Willow Inn with Sister Iketau and Sister Markowitz. It was the first trip there for the other seniors. They, too, enjoyed the intimate, historic feel of this small town.

We drove the long way home, circling south and east to Monticello and Greensboro. We now appreciate the huge boundaries of the Monroe Ward. We added two sets of missionaries in the area over the past two transfers.

Two weeks ago we took another long drive after a Saturday of mowing lawns, grocery shopping, and cleaning to see the Etowah Indian Mounds near Cartersville in northwest Georgia. We arrived shortly before closing, but fortunately had enough time to view the displays and learn the story, then walk out and climb to the top of the highest mound (a constructed, earthen flat-topped pyramid) and view the complex defensive trenches. The area conjured images of Book of Mormon stories. Like many sites in the Mississippian plains, a sophisticated culture thrived in the Etowah Valley for centuries before discovery by the Spanish explorers like Cortez in the 1500s that eventually led to disease and decline.

As we exited the state park, we checked out a lovely golf community and then spotted large cooling towers and smoke stacks a few miles away. We drove to Stilesboro to catch a photo. We checked the spot out online when we arrived home and discovered that it is Plant Bowen, the largest coal powered power plant in North America!

Last Saturday we loaded up the mission trailer with the Atkins and delivered mattresses to five apartments in a 200-mile loop so new missionaries arriving this week would have beds. Our highlight was lunch from the Subway at the Walmart in Jasper.

Yesterday?  It cooled a bit from very hot, humid temperatures earlier in the week, so after the lawn-mowing we took our the shoes and enjoyed hand-washing the car in our bare feet. The soaking was badly needed and helped both the car and our spirits.  It's good to be young-at-heart. Minor errands and house-cleaning wrapped up our preparation day. It was a busy day that fit right in with a busy week and month. And with our release date now on the horizon, we surely need to hasten our efforts. (We can't keep up with downloading, uploading photos from the camera, so someday I'll go back and add some photos to these entries.)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Daily Footsteps of Faith

Here we are in mid-May, realizing that our 18 months is winding down.  One summer, only four months remain, and we realize how much we yet want to accomplish. Each day finds us with tired feet yet wishing we had energy to do more. The weather has dried, and we've mowed the lawn a few times. It feels good to get out and work outdoors. Temperatures, however, have been pleasant. Friday we felt the first hint of the sweltering summer days that lie ahead. We feel better acclimated, however. Today is Sunday, and we were wakened at 6 a.m. by thunder and flashing lightning. Heavy rains brought the torrents of rain sheeting across the lawns and overflowing gushes in the flood control ditch outside our bedroom window. It goes from a trickle to a 3-ft. deep and 6-ft. wide gush in about 15 minutes; then back again to a small flow quickly as the rain ends. A spring cold has hit the mission office, and we've passed the runny nose and cough around. Ray's having a hard time kicking the cough; still miserable after three weeks. We've had to slow our footsteps a bit as we try to get the bug out of our systems. However, considering all of the missionaries we interact with, it's surprising we've all stayed as healthy as we have. Last Sunday was Mother's Day. Jackie Ober invited us to brunch after Church with her mom and dad (Zaza and Don). We enjoyed wonderful calls with our family. We are so grateful for the Lord's blessings and care for them as we've been away. Of course, He is the greatest caregiver, and we trust Him in all things. As we learned on Friday of the passing of Sister Monson, we know President Monson is in His care in a most intimate and special way.

Two weeks ago we handled our largest group ever of arriving missionaries - twenty-two.  We have 50-55 more scheduled to arrive by July 23. Subtract only 28 going home by that month, the 70+ will net us nearly 50 additional missionaries! It's wonderful. These missionaries seem so willing, ready, and capable to walk in faith and knock on doors. We read and learn about the many tender mercies and miracles that are helping Church administrators deal with the missionary surge. It's likely we will lose some of our missionaries in July as they realign Georgia to re-open the Macon mission. Even with that change, our numbers will exceed our December levels. Obviously, the transport,  paperwork, orientation, departing fireside, and support efforts for the missionaries both coming and going have kept us very busy. We've picked up 25 new cars that we will transition into the fleet.

Elder Connors and I worked an extra seven hours at the office last Saturday to stay on top of the paperwork. In the evening, we traveled to the Monroe Ward to attend a Ward luau planned and executed by the Loganville, Monroe, and Social Circle missionaries. Sister Iketau (Spanish Fork) and Sister Markowitz (Hawaii) sang and danced and conducted the program that included other island members who also shared their singing and dancing talents. The entire ward family participated (a luxury of a smaller congregation). The food was great. The ward loves their black bishop, islander counselor (who also is a Church FM employee), and tons of kids (something we don't usually see in the wards in Georgia). It was a great evening that ended with a beautiful sunset ride home.

This week has been highlighted with some soccer thrills and some wonderful meetings of the Saints. Maddie and Izzie Ober play on the Parkview High School soccer team. Tuesday evening we took a few hours to watch them play in the state soccer semi-finals.  Since the playoffs began, their team has held 3 opponents to only one goal and won handily. Tuesday's game was defensively tough on both sides, ending with a 2-1 victory for Parkview. The championship game was held last night. We weren't there because we attended the Lilburn Stake Conference evening session. Good news! Parkview won the 1-1 game in penalty kicks after two overtimes. They ended up with a 20-3 season. It's been an exciting soccer year for the Obers and for Grandma and Grandpa Clark.

We did squeeze in a trip to Gainesville yesterday to take four elders to lunch and deliver a package. It was Elder Tarver's birthday, and we used the occasion as the focal point. Of course, we took the long way home through the back roads of the Georgian hills. We drove through some of the most humble areas we've seen in Georgia. Our GPS had a hard time finding our location, and we got turned around a couple of times with the winding roads. But we no longer worry about getting lost; we feel confident that we'll eventually see a name or road we recognize. Unfortunately with narrow, winding roads, traffic, and light rain, we weren't able to stop or pull over to capture many snapshots. The rural images will have to stay in memory.

Elder Stanley Ellis of the Seventy was the visiting General Authority for Stake Conference. A new stake president was chosen, President Thomas Frost. President Frost lives in the Lilburn Ward and is a wonderful example of living charity. We worked side by side with him and Sister Frost in cleaning up a tree he felled for a member. We also love and highly respect outgoing President Weiler and his sweet family. Sister Weiler helps us with some of the mission meals. She is spiritual and down to earth and full of humor. President Samuelson, one of the new counselors in the Stake presidency, is a black brother who has been president of one of the two Spanish branches in the stake. Both the Saturday evening and Sunday sessions were filled with strong spirit and inspired instruction. We accepted the assignment of driving the two 12-passenger mission vans as shuttles from the overflow parking at Parkview High School back to the Stake Center Annex for the Sunday general session. Many of the members walked the three blocks, but we helped transport dozens of faithful Lilburn Stake members. With record turnout, it was a fun service to provide; Ray driving one van, Linda the other.

Elder and Sister Ellis were in Lilburn for more than Stake Conference. We feel like friends with them since they also completed a 4-day Mission Tour this week, and we've spent time with them each day. On Tuesday they spent 3 hours in the Mission Office, visiting with each of us and interviewing the assistants and enjoying lunch with us. Then we had a Marietta/Roswell zone conference Wednesday (Linda stayed in the mission office that day), Athens/Sugar Hill on Thursday (we both attended), and Lilburn/Conyers on Friday.  Elder Ellis repeated some of his mission tour themes in the Stake Conference meetings. We will work to internalize and remember much of his counsel.  We felt the power of his allusion to the Savior in his directive to accept change and assignments as did the Savior. Raising his hand, he said, "Here I am, I'll do it!  Send me!"  In our staff meetings, Elder Ellis said that senior couples, especially, are examples of that willingness since their call does not come by assignment or priesthood responsibility. We saw work that needs to be done and stepped up. That's how our efforts should always be, and especially now as all Church members will need to step up and open their mouths to help these surging new missionaries stay busy.

Elder Ellis reminded us over and over in many ways that this is the Lord's work and that He will fill in the blanks in our work after we do our very best.  Moroni 6:4: "...relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith." At each meeting he talked about how we exercise faith and prepare, participate, and learn through the Spirit when we meet together (such as zone conference and stake conference). D&C 44:2:  "And it shall to pass, that inasmuch as they are faithful, and exercise faith in me, I will pour out my Spirit upon them in the day that they assemble themselves together."  Elder Ellis emphasized the "pour" and talked about ways in which the Spirit teaches, reveals, comforts, guides, helps us remember, warns, and purifies us.

He mentioned three rules for accomplishment:  1) If you've done it before, you can do it again.  2)  If they've done it, we (I) can do it.  3) With God, all things are possible. Thinking of goals in short terms; not ten baptisms per mission; not one per month, but one per week can help us increase the number of baptisms. But more importantly, we can better help the Lord harvest the elect. Like calls from the Lord in the past for sacrifice and action (e.g., the Mormon pioneer sojourn to the West), this surge in missionary work is a call for today, an urgent call to share the Gospel and build the Kingdom. We will discover all of the "hows" (many miracles have already occurred) as we engage and get to work.

We closed our zone conference sessions by singing Faith in Every Footstep. We've found most of our mission days require willingness, faith, and problem solving. Ray daily recommits despite frequent functional challenges with his hands and stamina. Yes, our mission has required faith, but we see it only as blessing and joy. The Lord helps and directs us each day. This week has been special as a servant of the Lord helped us better recognize the eternal principles that underlie our daily footsteps of faith. When we exercise faith, He does pour out his spirit, and we see Him make up the difference when we fall short.