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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/

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!