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.