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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."

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