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.