Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Dream, The Application and the First weeks of the Mission...

The Dream
Since before we were married, RaDene and I knew that we wanted to serve as senior missionaries.  She says that because I would not wait for her to serve a mission before we married, that she made me promise to serve five missions as seniors.  I don’t know about the number, but I am certain that I always wanted RaDene to be my mission field companion—someday.  We were determined to be a missionary family, and by the time my career with Headwaters ended with the sale of the business, RaDene was the only member of our immediate family that hadn’t yet served.  It was her turn.  And although I had considered new career paths, I could not shake the feeling that the most important thing that I could do was to learn to work with RaDene.  We had each excelled in our adult lives, but that was mostly done independent of each other.  Our highest goal was to work effectively as a couple—what better way to test and train ourselves than as missionaries.

The Application
In January 2019, with the business sold and some time being together at home, RaDene came home from the temple with two impressions.  First, that I should become a Provo temple worker, and second, that it was time for us to go on a mission.  I immediately felt a confirmation that she was right on both counts.  I was an ordinance worker from February through October 2019.  And we started looking on the Church website to learn about senior missionary opportunities.  Some international positions around the world as Area Associate Counsel seemed interesting.  But even more interesting, Brent and Jackie Cook were recruited by the Thailand Bangkok mission president, and they in turn were urging that mission president to request our call to his mission.  We were very excited at the prospect. 

We started working on our papers.  Strangely, after an exceedingly healthy adult life, I got some sort of bronchitis that winter and lost some weight.  At the doctor’s office, I couldn’t pass the hemoglobin test for my mission application.  I chalked it up to the rough winter virus, but with RaDene’s urging, I saw a urologist and an gastroenterologist.  Making a long story short, I ended up having two kidney stone removal procedures, a prostate resection, a colonoscopy, and endoscopy diagnosing a bleeding ulcer.  The recovery from all that was slow, but by June I finally had enough red blood cells built back up to pass the physical requirements for a senior mission.  Meanwhile, RaDene had already passed, so we made an appointment with our stake president.  For a couple of years, RaDene and I had said that two key factors for us feeling free to go were Mitchell and Ancsi being safe and settled.  In 2018, Mitchell had met his partner, Patric Kreelman, who we were certain was an excellent companion for Mitchell’s life path.  In May 2019 Ancsi had married Gareth, who couldn’t be more of a gentlemen, and the very afternoon before our stake president interview, we received notice that Ancsi’s immigration status was certain.  Things seemed to have fallen in place, giving us the peace of mind that the Lord was ready for our service.

Then to our dismay, the stake president called and advised that a bipolar disclosure on RaDene’s application disqualified us from serving a full time mission.  A lifetime of hopes and dreams now seemed to be lost.  But with the encouragement of family and friends, and with the assistance of our stake president and RaDene’s doctors, the Missionary Department unexpectedly changed its position and advised that we could serve state-side, if we were willing.  Although this was a big course change, we were grateful for the opportunity and so communicated with our stake president.  By August, we had received a call to the Missouri St Louis Mission to report to the MTC on 2 December 2019.  We were excited to accept.

We had worked so hard at qualifying for a mission over the preceding eight months that we had not done much else.  Between August and our report date, we rushed to see our kids and grandkids in Washington and Alabama, take a trip to Lake Powell with RaDene’s sisters, have a little time with our parents, and put our house in order.  We also squeezed in a short family history trip to the villages and cities in England where RaDene’s grandmothers and my grandfathers had been baptized.  After a fond Thanksgiving farewell, we were off.

Missionary Training Center
We spent a week at the MTC, and it was inspiring.  We slept and packed at home during late evenings, but our days were filled with orientation, classes, firesides, songs, prayers, and new friendships at the MTC.  Our young teachers were filled with the Spirit as they helped us absorb the methods of Preach My Gospel and our missionary purpose.  Perhaps most precious was our new friendship with the most unlikely of people, Samuel and Konnie Gardner from Salmon, Idaho.  We were perhaps the youngest senior couple, and they were perhaps the oldest.  At first, we thought our pairing with them would be a pleasant, but not particularly helpful experience.  The process was for them to teach and challenge us, while we taught and challenged them several times of the course of the week.  Was I ever mistaken.  Our private time with the Gardners was sacred.  They seemed to understand exactly who were where and our goal of learning to work together as a couple.  They shared their own insights gained over a lifetime of service, including multiple senior missions.  We helped them learn some basic skills on Family Tree so that their beautiful story could be preserved for their posterity.  We blessed each other deeply.

The Journey
Finally, it was time for the mission field.  Our little trailer and car were packed and after a teary goodbye breakfast with Spencer and his sweet family, we headed out on Monday, December 9.  Curtis Hill, our neighbor skilled at looking at weather maps, helped us see that although there was some change of weather over the Vail Pass in Colorado, the winds in Wyoming were even more ominous.  So, we opted for Interstate 70.  After a beautiful drive to the Colorado Rockies, we did encounter weather in the passes, and picked our way slowly through the snow and slush.  We had hoped to spend the night in Denver with my sister Lori, but with the delays through the mountains, we would arrive too late.  So we had a good talk with her instead as we made our way through and had a short stay at a east Denver hotel.  We awoke and continued on our journey through eastern Colorado and Kansas with no troubles.  Our car was caked with the ice and salt of the mountain passes which we tried to spray off at a farm town car wash with only partial success.  We made it to Independence, Missouri by the second night.  We took time the next morning to see the visitor center there and rub shoulders with some missionaries.  We were proud to be wearing our own nametags.  The highlight of our journey was listening to the biography of Russell M. Nelson.  We were inspired to know that he was the priesthood holder that had issued us our missionary call.

Loaded and Driving away

First Glimpse
We pulled into the parking lot of the Missouri St Louis Mission at about 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 11 December.  But no one was there.  We new that a General Authority mission tour was ending that day, but we understood that it would all be over by mid afternoon.  It wasn’t.  Sister Becky Erickson, the intrepid mission secretary, invited us to find our way to the church building were the meetings were winding up.  We got there in time to help clean up and make our first acquaintances with three other senior office couples.  I sensed immediately that there was something just a bit tense, but I didn’t give it too much thought.  The Ericksons guided us to our apartment home for the next 23 months and we were met by the young missionary housing assistants.  They quickly had us unloaded and we began to settle in.  That first evening after cleaning up and putting things away from General Authority mission tour, Elders Renkirt and Brown cheerfully helped us carry in our boxes from our little trailer, and set up beds, desks, and a little furniture.  We hustled off to the store to get a few basic housewares and groceries and fell into bed.  For several days, we would do a bit of shopping late at night after our mission work to try to set up our home.  It would be weeks before we had the time create a real meal plan and get sufficient groceries.

Our first real day was Thursday, December 12th.  Although we had been called as Member Leader Support missionaries in August, after dinner during the fall with the immediately past mission president Mike and Cheryl Bateman back in Provo, some phone calls with our new mission president Trevor Bell and Sister Erickson, it seemed that we were being strongly considered for reassignment.  RaDene was slotted for the new mission secretary, and I for the housing coordinator position, both being vacated when the Ericksons left in February.  President Bell confirmed that new assignments that first morning in our intake interview.  Otherwise, the interview was notable because we seemed to connect right away with President Bell.  We could tell this was going to be a long and valuable friendship from the beginning.

We jumped right into training.  David Erickson is a master office missionary.  He has tremendous computer, accounting, and file organization skills, a direct but gentle way with the young missionaries, and to my happy surprise, loves to eat and cook good food.  In the first 10 days, we have moved two sister apartments in areas of Illinois, executed and delivered several apartment leases, dealt with some quirky occupancy rules around here, and otherwise had a good deal of windshield time together getting pretty well acquainted.  Elder Erickson is a great mentor.  Although he is a good deal older than I am, his mind is sharp and his energy is high.  Most intimidating are his spreadsheet skills.  I will never match his reporting capabilities.  I will certainly be better at Excel when I get home that when I arrived.  I have already called my son Spencer for some help when I have been stuck.  I’ll need to find other ways to excel to make up for my mediocre work in Excel.  A pleasant surprise is my opportunity to associate with what are called housing assistants.  Besides the assistants to the president, he calls two young Elders to provide critical logistical support and muscle to the mission.  They drive a pickup, pull a trailer, and move mail and everything from clothes washers and beds in white shirts and ties.  They do so with a great deal of good humor.  They also actively teach and earn have earned the mission president’s trust. 

First Move
After a brief orientation for me on Friday, Saturday was a moving day, the first of many, I foresee.  Elder Erickson, the moving assistants, and I loaded up the mission truck and trailer and headed out to Belleville, Illinois, some 40 minutes or so across the Mississippi.  Elder Erickson had secured a newly renovated apartment for two sisters and it was time to get them into it.  We loaded everything out of the old apartment and reinstalled what was usable into the new one.  It took us most of the day.  I learned that a few things are key:  installing and testing smoke and CO detectors, installing washer and dryer, checking beds to be sure that mattresses are satisfactory, and putting in light stands so as to brighten study areas.  Smoke detectors are a Church requirement; access to washers and dryers, and adequate mattresses and lighting are initiatives of Elder Erickson.  He and the assistants have worked hard to make sure the missionaries have decent environments for rest and study.  I started to learn the proper instructions to give to missionaries about keeping things clean and tidy, throwing away whatever you don’t own or use, rather than putting it into the outer darkness closet from which it would never reappear, cleaning the dryer vent after each use, rather than creating dryer scarves, and always every missionary always carrying his own copy of the apartment key.  The instructions helped the missionaries, but they also help the housing coordinator avoid things like late night calls that missionaries are locked out.

First Transfers
We had hardly confirmed what our office assignments would be and where we would live (Arlington apartments, a very short drive from the mission office) when we came to learn that it was transfer time and all that entails.  While RaDene and Sister Erickson were deep into that on my first moving day, by the time we got back from Belleville, the housing coordinators were fully deputized as transfer assistants, with housing taking a back burner for several days.  It turned out to be the biggest group incoming and outgoing of the entire year.  There was a lot of meals to prepare, Elders and Sisters to put up, luggage to haul, departure packets to create, and on and on.  But for the housing coordinators, the first task was bunk beds.  Because Pres and Sister Bell have sons living in the mission home, they put Elders coming and going up in their basement.  But temporary Sister housing had been challenging.  They were either put up in local hotels or farmed out to local Sister missionary apartments.  Neither was satisfactory because of the cost, disruption, logistical confusion, and other disadvantages.  This transfer magnified the problems because such big groups of Sisters were departing and arriving.  The decision was made to fill the entire living room of the Frontenac Sisters with bunk beds to be used at transfer time.  So, one of the first decisions I helped with was the shopping and purchasing of six bunk beds.  We were able to negotiate a bit of a discount for agreeing to pick them up from the warehouse and assemble them ourselves (thanks, housing assistants!).  Besides, we needed them the very next night, a Sunday.  We worked long into the evening uncrating and assembling the bunk beds.  I earned some sore fingers for the effort because of turning undersized allen wrenches thousands of turns that day.

Sunday night we had a beautiful evening at the mission home eating and bearing testimony with the departing missionaries.  RaDene played a key role in understanding what needed to be done and helping make it happen.  I was marginally helpful, but very glad to be a minor participant and observer.  What a blessing to hear the spirit and testimony of these seasoned missionaries.  RaDene then helped prepare a continental breakfast for the morning, and after helping get the sisters to the Frontenac dormitory (playfully called “The Z” by the office missionaries, short for the Zarahemla Hotel), we arose at 5 a.m. the next morning to help transport to the airport.  We had only been in St Louis for three days and we were already feeling the pull on the heart strings as we said goodbye to some wonderful young servants of the Lord.

But we were only half through.  The new missionaries were arriving the next day and there was much to do to be ready for them.  Tuesday night was again spent at the mission home having a lovely dinner and meeting the young missionaries that had just arrived from the MTC.  Pres Bell and our mission nurse, Sister Dedra Lisonbee, interviewed each one into the late hours of the night.  As on Sunday, breakfast was taken over along with the new Sisters to The Z for their first night in the mission.  On Wednesday morning, we got our first glimpse of new missionary training, the enthusiastic pairing of new missionaries with their trainers, and yes, another meal before they were sent off to the four corners of the mission along with other transferring missionaries that had come to the church building that served as a bus station.  Finally, we were lulled into thinking we would be in a more normal routine.

We were wrong, mostly.  Well, we did get two days in the office (and the days mostly continued well into the night).  By Saturday December 21, we were back on the road again for another move.  This time we were moving some sisters who insisted that their apartment was haunted.  (I could never quite tell if they were kidding or not.)  They had gone so far as to move out into a member’s home.  Elder Erickson realized that their apartment was well away from their base of members and prime work area anyway, so he had found a new place for them and it was time to make the move.  I was starting to understand while Elder’s Quorums were trained movers.  We start our Elders young with moving responsibilities.  I also learned that Elder Erickson is fond of Taco Bell combo meal no.8.  It seems I was eating there more in that past two weeks than I had in the past two years.

And then we had the special, if exhausting experience of hosting two multizone conferences on December 23 and 24 at two different buildings so that the missionaries could be spiritually, emotionally, and physically nourished.  We fed a little less than 100 on the first day, and a little more than 100 on the second.  That took up Monday and Tuesday of the week.  But it was special as we continued to develop more relationships with more missionaries, and deepened our friendships with the other office missionaries and Pres and Sis Bell.  Mostly, RaDene and I loved serving as missionaries, often together, but not always.  We drug ourselves out of the office by 7 pm and headed out to buy some groceries for our part of the Christmas dinner we would host the next day for the office couples.  To our dismay, all the local grocery stores, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and every place else we could think of had closed for Christmas by the time we were in position to shop on Christmas Eve.  We bought a few things at Walgreens drug store, and in a final desperate search, found a Target with groceries still open.  I think it was the only store still open in St Louis.  But our Christmas dinner disaster was averted.

Christmas day itself was very different.  We had tried to get as many Christmas mail to the multi-zone conferences as possible so that the missionaries could feel the love from their families.  But try as we might, the mail and deliveries continued to come in during the conferences and we realized that there were many undelivered expressions of love sitting in the office.  RaDene was inspired to load Santa’s sleigh.  On Christmas Eve, The Erickson’s took packages west of St Louis.  On Christmas morning, RaDene and I got on the road early and drove about 350 miles to various apartments north and east of St Louis delivering letters and packages.  It was a joy to see the missionaries’ expressions of gratitude when we saw them, or leave small notes when we missed them.  (As housing coordinator, we had keys to leave mail inside!)  In one apartment no one was home, so we left packages and decided to make ourselves at home and try to talk to our family where our reception was good.  To our embarrassment, the Elders came home mid call, and we had to explain why we were still there.  We cut our call a bit short and left.  We felt better though when another Elder explained that his mother had cried the day before on hearing that her package to her son had not arrived for Christmas.  On Christmas, he was able to call her and tell her that Santa’s sleigh had made a special delivery, just for her.

Although our long trip of deliveries made our Christmas dinner later than planned, we had a delightful time.  No one wanted to leave until almost 10 pm.  By then, we were bushed.  We went to bed without even opening our few gifts under our Christmas tree comprised of left over evergreen boughs from the zone conferences and zig zag lights arranged on the wall in the shape of a tree.  RaDene is so creative. 

Third Saturday Trip
Catching our breath for a couple of days after Christmas, on the last Saturday in December, and our third in the mission, I left at 9 a.m. with the housing assistants on a trip north.  We went through the Champaign and Springfield, Illinois zones delivering bikes, mattresses, lights, smoke detectors, and of course, mail.  At each stop, we would take care of our planned task, and then do what we could to fix other obvious problems, make impromptu inspections, and encourage the missionaries.  They were often home, but if not, we used our spare keys to do our work.  The trip was several hundred miles, and with six stops, we didn’t make it home until just before 10 p.m.  Elders Renckert and Hamblin, the housing assistants, were cheerful and diligent.  We did plenty of our work in the rain that day, including a downpour in Springfield.  I treated the Elders to a quick dinner to dry out and warm up a bit.  Elder Erickson sat out this trip to stay in the office and try to catch up on the mounting financial work that needed to be done.  President Bell is working with the stake presidents to try and find a local member or two with the time, inclination, and skill to help the mission office with the work we were struggling to get to because of the unexpectedly departed office couple. 


  1. The story of your Santa’s sleigh duties made Kris smile and Dave cry. :) He said, “that’s just the kind of thing Harlan and RaDene would do.” Love you guys!