Friday, April 24, 2020

5-11 April 2020 Masks for All and a Dryer for Three

On Sunday, April 5th Sister Hatfield and I needed to take more face masks to missionaries in the South St Louis Zone.  So, we decided we would attend the morning session of General Conference with them in the St Louis Hills building.  Six elders had set up a TV for watching in the young women’s room.  We took our supply of white handkerchiefs and helped the missionaries participate in the hosanna shout.  It certainly was a memorable conference both for the messages, and for the social distancing practices that made remote attendance mandatory for everyone.

While we typically have office staff meetings on Fridays, this week we held staff meeting on Monday, April 6th.  I presented President Bell with a report of our vacant apartments, now numbering about 23.  I had a tentative plan for giving notice to terminate a number of the leases.  At the end of the meeting, President Bell was not feeling particularly sure about the situation, having very little information about what expectation we should have for missionaries returning to the mission.  He decided that we should call Elder Sam Wong, First Counselor in the North America Central Area Presidency.  Elder Wong counseled that we should continue to make contingency plans and suggested that we start closing apartments judiciously.  But he acknowledged that he didn’t have any more firm information than we did about missionary returns.  I prepared notices to terminate and decided to send them out on April 7th.  On the evening of April 6th, the day before I was to send notices, I received an email from the Missionary Department.  It instructed me that we should not close apartments.  If that message had come a week, or even a day later, I would have put in motion legal notices to terminate leases that might have been impossible to reverse, and at the very least embarrassing to the Mission’s reputation.  I felt relief for the direction from the Church, just at the moment I needed it.  The process of caring for many empty apartments and getting them ready again for missionaries that will be sent to the Missouri St Louis Mission will be a big job.  I am grateful for the office staff and missionaries who share the burden with me.  In the end, I feel confident that we are being led by leaders that operate with inspiration.  The Lord’s Work with go forward even better suited for our world than before.  It is a blessing to be a part of it.

April 8th was a special day, not because the work was unusual for me, but because Sister Hatfield joined me and the housing assistants in it.  It was a long day setting up beds for new companionships in far corners of the Champaign zone, together with other chores that we could do along the way.  With a few more missionaries leaving for COVID-19 concerns the day before, some further adjustments had to be made in the mission companionship organization.  I take the responsibility of having everyone in a bed just as quickly as possible.  The task this day was to gather up furniture we already had in empty apartments and get it moved to where the missionaries needed it.  It started with a visit to the apartment left by a senior couple in the Hazelwood zone, the zone just north of St Louis.  We packed up an enormous wood table and chairs, and some desks and chairs.  I took advantage of RaDene being with us to do some planning as to how to button up this apartment and turn it back over to the landlord, a decision made and notice given some months ago.  Then we headed across the Mississippi to Illinois, and in the Shilo East area of the O’Fallon zone, picked up beds and brought in garbage cans in another empty apartment.  Then we turned north to Mattoon.  This small town is presently the teaching area of two sisters for whom we had some mail and masks.  It seems we are taking masks to everyone we see lately.  After a short visit and a prayer, we went past Champaign to the town of Mahomet, where the sister training leaders for the zone live and have a new threesome.  They had asked for a kitchen table, which they admittedly needed.  They had been making due with a folding table, and with three sisters locked into their apartment, they needed some table space to be their creative selves. 

Somehow, our timing was not right, and we got their before the sisters got back from grocery shopping.  And sadly, I had forgotten my key.  That is always a mistake.  We thought we would get a jump on things and start unloading the bed and table and chairs and lights, and so forth, while we waited for the sisters to return.  Just about the time we got the furniture all unloaded, the heavens opened, rain descended, and the wind and lightning chased us back into the truck and the entry stairwell.  Midwest storms have a power to them that we don’t often get in the Mountain West.  We looked kind of funny balancing furniture on the stairs in precarious positions.  But the sisters came and we set them up.  Except the table would not fit around the corner and in the door at the top of the stairs.  While two of us held it, one of us started unbolting legs and supports.  That landing and stairs was the wrong place to be disassembling, but we did it.

The dryer in Mahomet has been on the “fix it” list since before I came to the mission in December of last year.  Generations of sisters have complained that it did not dry.  At first I didn’t feel ownership of the problem because it didn’t start on my watch.  So, I had a local member look at it, I called the apartment maintenance staff, and I even paid an appliance technician to fix it.  No luck with any of those, except that the technician confirmed that there was nothing wrong with the dryer, it simply wasn’t getting any exhaust airflow.  So, now, I decided it was time.  Armed with the mission shop vac, we went to work to see if we could find a clog in the dryer exhaust line.  In apartments, it isn’t so easy to find the exhaust ports, especially on for the second story.  I stood on chairs in the back planters, hung over balcony rails, and got plenty of funny looks from other residents.  But we simply could not find the exhaust port.  Finally, we stood back and saw something on the roof of the apartment that looked like it could be it.  I have never seen a dryer vent to the roof, but we were out of options.  We didn’t have a ladder, much less a second story ladder, much less permission to go on the roof.  There had to be another way. 

How about an attic access?  We searched the apartment, with no luck.  But, back out on that small stair landing, there it was.  The tell-tale square frame in the sheet rocked ceiling.  I got a chair, but was still well shy of the access.  So, Elder Schumann, our wiry new housing assistant, stood on my shoulders and I boosted him through the hole.  We handed up a flash light, and he thought he saw a pipe snaking through the ceiling about where our dryer was.  He acrobatically swung through the rafters, avoiding stepping through the ceiling, and we banged and listened from above and below.  We were convinced we had found the exhaust pipe.  But how would we clear it?  I decided that was someone else’s problem.  I instructed Elder Schumann to disconnect the pipe at an elbow he had taken a picture of for me.  It was a bit tedious, but he was successful, and we left the pipe dangling from the roof top.  Sure enough, the clog was past the elbow, and the dryer exhausted very nicely.  The next day I told the story, complete with sketch, and sent it to the apartment manager.  I bet they don’t get many tenants doing HVAC work in their attic, but I was not going to leave with the dryer not working.

Well, that put us behind schedule.  Lucky for the housing assistants, RaDene insisted we get a burger at McDonalds before pressing on.  That was a good call.  The take out food options were all closing and we hadn’t eaten all day.  I haven’t had a Big Mac in years.  You know, they taste pretty good on a day like this one.  We headed away from Mahomet, which is north of Champaign, and west to Springfield to set up our last three some arrangement.  We didn’t stay long, because we still had a two and a half hour drive back to St Louis.  Again, luck for the young elders, they had Sister Hatfield along on this trip, so we had lively conversation.  We only broke curfew by an hour and a half this day—9 am to 11:30 pm.

Later that week, on April 10th we participated in the worldwide COVID fast initiated by President Nelson.  That was an amazing experience to join with people of all stripes in a common spiritual cause.  He really is the Lord’s Annointed for the world.  The next day, I had a COVID experience of a different kind.  I had to queue up at the drug store, the grocery store, and last, with RaDene and two missionaries at WalMart.  I have never stood in line in the United States like this once, much less three times.  It is strange.  We were at WalMart to by the elders a laptop that the Church had authorized for online proselyting.  These smart young missionaries are displaying their skills, talents, and obedience by continuing to press ahead with the work against all odds.  We feel like the skills we are gaining in this isolating time is teaching online skills that will be a powerful tool for the missionary work long after the social distancing is over and done.  Strangely, the virus is hastening the Work by forcing us to gain needed skills for the time we live in.  People don’t respond to knocking on their doors.  They do respond to Facebook.

April 11th started with some rolling up of the sleeves and taking of my own Housing Coordinator medicine:  we straightened and cleaned our apartment like good missionaries.  I did a little shopping and went to a former senior missionary apartment in the area and started the process of cleaning out, cleaning up, and packing.  Knowing how scarce a commodity storage is, and how distracting and burdensome extra, non-essential “stuff” is to transitory missionaries, I have gotten really good at donating and throwing away.  I also like to be the first one in so as not to scare others when the fridge or toilet have rainbow colors growing in them.  RaDene worked hard in the office all afternoon, catching up on baptism reports and many other projects that start to press as we get close to another transfer.  I use that term advisedly, because all we have done for some time is send people home, not receive.  But, we hope that will change after missionaries make their elections by April 30th to be reassigned as soon as health circumstances permit travel.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

30 Mar-4 Apr 2020 Empty Apartments and Face Masks

Sunday, March 29th was our third week without gathering for church meetings.  We miss the fellowship of the saints.  We enjoy our small sacrament service together.  We use some pita bread, and have extra large pieces in order to give us more to chew on, which is a physical way to extend our meditation.  RaDene made a great effort to put together some packages of scriptures and small gifts, beautifully wrapped, for the adults and kids in each our children’s families.  They represented each day of the last week of Christ’s life on earth.  Her creativity and enthusiasm are the ribbons that tie our family together.  We were able to conclude our day with a video conference with our adult kids.  We crave keeping up a little, with what is going on in their lives.  We have found that trying to have a video conference with grandkids--babies and pre-schoolers is fun, if in short, spontaneous bursts, but too chaotic to accomplish much more than blowing kisses. 

On Tuesday, March 31st I made a pretty epic tour around the Cape Girardeau Zone.  That is the southern leg of the mission, taking in a good deal of southern Missouri.  It was a reminder of how remote some teaching areas are, and why you just can’t often run out to some places.  You really need to bundle the reasons to go, which of course, makes them even longer adventures when you do.  I first went to the heart of the zone, the city of Cape Girardeau.  Some senior missionaries had left from there several weeks ago.  I had some young missionaries look after things while things were so crazy with the COVID-19 departures.  But it really was time to get down there and see what needed to be done to close the apartment.  Some sisters living nearby had their eyes on a few items in the apartment, and I was more than happy to let them have whatever they could use.  The mission really doesn’t have the capacity to store full apartment’s worth of furnishings, and in the current environment, the charities aren’t open to receive donations.  And anyway, beds are not acceptable anyway for sanitation concerns.  What to do with senior apartment large beds is a problem, but not one the young missionaries can solve.  They can swap out couches, broken dressers and tables, and other things that are typically nicer in the senior apartments.  And while there, I made the usual rounds of fixing lights and blinds, checking alarms, and generally addressing whatever is on the missionaries’ minds.  And I feel good about praying with them before I depart. 

The next stop was Sikeston, home of the Lambert CafĂ© and “throw’d rolls.”  It’s closed though, so no stopping for comfort food.  I took a new elder a bag that he had left at the mission office when his trainer came to pick him up the week before, helped them with some shower and linoleum repairs, and generally tried to encourage them that they were not forgotten down there.  Then I was off to Poplar Bluff, on the edge of the Ozarks.  Sikeston is pretty flat farm land.  By the time you get to Poplar Bluff, the rolling hills have become quite a bit higher, and beautifully forested.  The elders here needed desk chairs, and since they only had one broken one, I agreed.  The apartment itself was surprisingly nice, with a townhouse feel to it.  One of the elders here is famous for bringing brownies to any meeting he goes to.  I’m a fan of his.  Perhaps the prettiest drive in Missouri is through the Ozarks between Poplar Bluff, northward to Farmington.  The beautiful pine forests, rolling hills, rocky outcroppings, rivers, and lakes are postcard pretty.  And the highway was a wide, divided, four-lane road, easy to drive.  Particularly because I am sure I didn’t see more than a dozen car in two hours of driving.

In Farmington, I fixed a bathroom fan, noted a missing kitchen chair for next time, and collected keys for the Farmington North apartment that we was going to be closed.  I like the Farmington North Apartment, but it just doesn’t seem to make sense to have two sets of missionaries in such a small unit, borne out by the fact that we have had no one using it for a couple of months.  It’s a good thing I have a few weeks to get this ready to turn back in.  The sisters that lived here last have accumulated a lot of stuff to deal with.  By now its getting late, but I need to make one more stop in south St Louis, an area called Webster Grove.  Even though the apartment was recently vacated by the missionaries living there as we go through the COVID-19 downsizing, I wouldn’t have stopped but for a call Sis Hatfield got over the weekend.  One of the young sisters that had been staying there phoned RaDene somewhat sheepishly, saying that she realized on her plane flight home that she was hungry, and that she couldn’t find her sandwich.  Maybe she had left it in the apartment?  Sure enough, the apartment was in better than average shape, but on the kitchen counter was a made peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, together with open jars and bread bag.  Nothing was green, but there was plenty of fresh food in the fridge that needed to go—along with the sandwich.  So I made an emergency clean out, noting that I needed to get back here before long.  These young ladies had been stocked with food.  RaDene had worked this whole day in the office, and when I finally picked her up about 9 pm she left for the first time that day.  She has tremendous stamina and determination.

Wednesday, April 1st was almost as big an adventure as the day before.  The Housing Assistants and I piled into the truck and headed for “Mexico.”  It is fun to say that, here in Missouri.  The sisters there had been patiently waiting for the lease to begin in their new area of Bear Creek North, in Columbia, and that day had finally come.  Mexico is a smallish town north and east of Columbia.  It got its name back in 1836 or so, when the New Mexico territory, on the way to Texas, was established.  We loaded everything out of the two story plus a basement townhouse in Mexico, leaving the washer and dryer because we didn’t really have room to pack them in.  We headed the 45 minutes or so to the north east part of Columbia and got the keys to the new apartment.  It was a real change, being a new, but small one bedroom apartment.  It did have the benefit of being in a nice, stable complex.  It is too close to I-70 though, and the trucks make more noise than I would like.  It’s tolerable if the doors and windows are closed.  But the sisters seem content.

On Friday, April 3rd RaDene joined me on a tour of vacant apartments in Webster Grove North, Oakville, Fenton, and Rockwood 1st.  We’ve learned that as missionaries left, they didn’t necessarily leave things in condition ready for new missionaries to move in when they start coming back to the field.  RaDene is helping me develop a checklist of what needs to be done to be move in ready.  Sometimes, it isn’t much.  Maybe just a light cleaning, or replacement of a missing comforter.  But sometimes we have moved out dressers, beds, or other things to occupied apartments with specific needs, and sometimes the apartments are cluttered and in dire need of a deep cleaning.  Developing the schedule of how to get move in ready preparations done is challenging. 

Saturday, April 4th was the beginning of General Conference.  After the Saturday afternoon session, we loaded the car with mail and face masks to take to Cape Girardeau Zone.  We mostly just passed things to the zone leaders there, but took more mail and masks to Farmington to make our ride home a bit longer, because it would be difficult for the zone leaders to get to the Farmington and Poplar Bluff teaching areas.  Farmington and Poplar Bluff would be meeting together on Sunday to spend one session of conference together.  The Evertons and the Bells helped take masks to other zones in the mission.  Our supply of paper masks is thin, and if we don’t get a resupply, the 1 or 2 masks that we have been able to distribute won’t be any good for long.

Monday, April 6, 2020

22-29 Mar 2020 Broken Curfews

Sunday, March 22nd had a delightful beginning.  We had invited our grandchildren to join us in a video primary experience.  They were not quiet, but they were interested and attentive.  Grandma (Nanna) had arranged for Abby to say the opening prayer with her Dad’s help.  We sang songs, and had some age appropriate storytelling, which at different times included Nanna falling over on the floor to make the point.  We loved it, and I think the grandkids loved it too. 

Then we had a video temple preparation class with Sherri Cullen.  RaDene and I taught like traditional missionaries, taking turns teaching concepts, back and forth.  I think we commented to each other on reflection that it was one of the best teaching experiences together we have ever had.  We were two for two this day.  I can’t help but feel like this sort of remote experience will someday be a very common tool in the missionary toolbox, even when this “social distancing” is a memory but not a current reality.  It certainly is raising the awareness of the possibilities—and for now, the necessity—from the Missionary Department on down to missionaries in each teaching area. 

Later that day we did a few other things that were important, if not pinnacles of spirituality.  We delivered packages to our St Louis Zone missionaries in Lindell and Pagedale.  Sometimes these ad hoc deliveries are crucial.  But just as often they are opportunities to see some of these latter-day stripling warriors and deliver emotional care packages.  RaDene is particularly good at this, and had helped me develop better practices of interacting with the young missionaries when I visit their apartments from time to time.  That night, RaDene did some research to track down the actual texts of the Illinois Governor’s “stay home” order and the corresponding St Louis County order.  Importantly, RaDene identified the St Louis characterization of religious work as “necessary services,” giving us a bit more flexibility to allow missionaries use the church building WIFI, while practicing safe social distancing practices.  Unfortunately, 40 percent of our missionary force, being assigned to Illinois, did not have the benefit of this necessary services definition.  One of the very difficult consequences of this is that the cellular plan was all the Illinois missionaries had access to for teaching, district councils, interviews, and other purposes.  Which was not to say that the Missouri missionaries had adequate resources, even though they were periodically able to use church building WIFI. 

Monday, March 23rd.  This work week was easily the most stressful of our mission.  Last week began the realization of the enormity of the work to begin sending missionaries home.  This week was execution week.  Missionary Travel, who ordinarily takes care of booking airline tickets, was so overwhelmed that we were asked to arrange our own travel for missionaries.  This felt equally overwhelming to us.  There is so much that goes into sending a missionary home, and a good deal of it ordinarily happens weeks, if not months, before planned departure.  Now, we had days, at most, to communicate with parents, stake presidents, and missionaries, coordinate travel and accommodations to St Louis from the distant four corners of the mission, create release letters, certificates, and other documentation, print missionary letters, create travel packets, and so many other tasks I can’t even remember them all.  And now, we needed to book flights in a chaotic airline travel environment.  In exasperation, RaDene joked on a family thread, “would anyone like to help?”  It was not altogether a joke when she asked Kamie, her sister, if she were available to help.  Kamie, not knowing what she was getting into, said yes. 

And so began and extraordinary team effort of the mission office staff, including Kamie Hubbard.  To execute, RaDene and I were not home before 2 a.m. two nights this week, and not before midnight any night but one.  Kamie was working right along with us 24-7.  RaDene had some ingenious Google sheets going so she and Kamie could in real time identify and create flight plans.  And with airlines losing cash by the suitcase full, flights cancelled about as fast as tickets were bought.  Many, if not most flights were rebooked more than once.  Smaller regional flights became nearly impossible.  Families would need to go to drive larger airports in their states.  In one case, after rebooking time and time again, a worried mother told Sister Hatfield they were getting in their motorhome in Colorado and would be here in 17 hours.  Such were the levels of concern and uncertainty. 

On Tuesday, March 24th, I had another task to wedge in.  If it weren’t enough that we were sending home scores of missionaries this week, eight new missionaries were coming from the MTC.  The MTCs were bursting with trained missionaries that needed to get out of the MTCs and into the field.  As luck would have it, this inflow was happening on the busiest week of the year, as I saw it.  And if that weren’t interesting enough, vulnerable medical conditions would not allow use of the mission home for incoming our outgoing missionaries as is the usual practice.  On Tuesday we set up a makeshift dormitory for missionaries in a departed seniors apartment.  We crammed the king size bed in the closet, and put down twin mattresses  all over the apartment, together with pillows, covers, sheets and other bedding.

Thursday March 25th was new missionary arrival day.  They would arrive about 4 pm that afternoon.  It being the week it was, we learned while the President was traveling to the airport that the Salt Lake flight had been cancelled.  No one seemed to know where the missionaries were.  And it took a couple of hours to figure out that the airline had arranged for transfer to dinner and an airport hotel.  Perplexed, we met together as a staff and ate the lovely lasagna dinner Sister Bell had prepared for them while we developed a new plan, while laughing and scratching our heads about the craziness of it all.

On Friday, March 26th the new missionaries finally made it.  Not being able to congregate, we brought them to the mission office where the President and nurse interviewed them, using the supply room as an interview room.  The APs provided training at the large table while feeding them Subway sandwiches, the substitute for the lasagna dinner.  And then at the appointed time, trainers and others who had lost their companions this week meet in the mission office parking lot, observing social distancing but not coming in the office, staying in their cars, and parking with a spot between each car.  It was an extraordinary feat, organized largely on the fly.  It is a good thing that our mission secretary is a very organized, alert person.  Meanwhile, I was taking yet another missionary to the airport.  Strangely, this particular trip was to bid goodbye to a missionary that was at the end of his regularly scheduled mission.  A rare condition this month. 

Saturday, March 27th was new missionary orientation.  Except instead of actually meeting with the new missionaries and their trainers, we had a Zoom conference.  All the new missionaries and their trainers were at their apartments.  Again, I was very impressed with the nimble adjusting everyone did.  It went off very well.  Perhaps another lesson of how things might be done routinely in the future with technology.

That afternoon, RaDene put on her work clothes and we trekked out to Warrenton to clean an apartment to turn it over to the landlord.  I had simply run out of time to get it done, so Saturday afternoon, our P-day, was the day.  In some ways, the physical labor was a welcome relief from the high stress office work of the week.  As has become the custom, we stopped by the local dollar store, mostly to see if there was any toilet paper.  There wasn’t.  But, there was a great selection of Easter items.  RaDene had all but given up on her hopes to provide Easter Week gifts to the family.  The dollar store reinvigorated the idea.  We loaded up with cute presents, goodies, cards, and colorful wrapping.  We finally headed home, capping an absolutely remarkable week of effort to send and receive missionaries in the COVID-19 environment.