On Sunday, June 7th we had a video fireside. I was looking forward to it, because the speakers were Gifford Nielsen and his wife Wendy. Giff was the BYU quarterback when my family moved to Provo all those years ago, and he was the first of a long line of admired football players that I cheered for. He is also a General Authority Seventy, and the President of the North America Central Area, which covers the Missouri St Louis Mission. When I first heard of the fireside, I thought it must surely be going out to a wide audience. I was surprised to tune in and find it was just our mission. That meant the audience was small enough we could see all the participants. And I was embarrassed that I wasn’t wearing a tie, much less a coat, which is standard dress in the MSLM (and maybe the NAC Area) for missionaries attending meetings. I joke with Sis Hatfield that President Bell was obviously a young missionary in England, trained to default to a suit. Maybe it has something to do with CES training too, I don’t know. But if he had been a missionary in Thailand, he would be much more comfortable in shirt sleeves. I wore a suit coat twice on my mission: on the way out, and at a wedding. That was it. We’ll see if the Church’s modified dress code ever makes it to the MSLM!
Elder Nielsen and his wife had many great messages. But perhaps the message that meant the most to me was his discussion of labels. We know each other by many labels. I’ve been a student, a skier, a BYU fan, and for a long time, a lawyer. Right now I am a missionary and a grandfather, among other things. All labels, to one degree or another, are limiting. Elder Nielsen pointed out that the only label that does not create any limitations is our first title—children of God. In fact, that label brings limitless potential. We are first and most importantly offspring of Heavenly Parents, which means we cannot be put into any box. We can do and be anything. Earth’s greatest accolades do not begin to match the simple description we came with: Child of God.
On Tuesday, June 9th, COVID became a little too personal. Elder John, a young housing assistant had not felt good for a couple of days, and on this day, his fever spiked to 103 and he had a sore throat. Our mission nurse sent him to urgent care, fearing the worst. The doctors and nurses, following protocol, actually met Elder John outside, and one after another, shook their heads grimly. From all appearances, he had it. Finally, a nurse jammed a swab up his nose (into his sinus, Elder John is sure), and sent it off for testing. We would find out in three days.
Meanwhile, the missionaries that had been with him on P-day were all instructed to self isolate. The mission nurse and her husband followed their own advice. Few had spent more time with Elder John than me the preceding few days, and as luck would have it, Sis Hatfield had shared his air for several hours in close truck cab quarters on a trip to the O’Fallon zone two days before. We had to self isolate too. On Wednesday, we were having the second day of a mission-wide video zone conference. With a few adjustments, we could participate from our apartment. We went into the office early before anyone would possibly be there and got our notes, carefully wiping surfaces as we left. Not many people went into the office that day, under the circumstances. After the video conference, we did as much work as we could on our laptops. But I finally got antsy, and frankly, a bit frustrated, because my work is pretty paper records intensive, so there is only so much I can do. So about 7 pm we walked the mile and a half to the office, feeling confident that anyone that might have been there would have left, and worked at our stations for several hours, then walked home in the dark.
By Thursday noon, we were starting to feel grumpy and a bit trapped. Even after the short couple of days we were starting to see the frustration that was building as we felt fine, but were limited in the work we could do. Sister Hatfield is the main switchboard operator for the mission, after all. How do you do that without being at the phone? The list of restraints seemed almost endless. We were skirting around the edges of our responsibilities. And it is really hard to feel motivated to get up and dressed and going when there is no where to go. I had much greater empathy for the isolated missionaries. We have been spoiled in having an office to go to pretty much throughout the COVID time. We have been socially restricted, for sure, but at least we had another venue to go to. Finally, the call came. Elder John’s test came back negative. He didn’t have COVID, and neither did we. Whew! That was an experience I don’t want to repeat. But we probably will. Health experts say that 60-70 percent of the population will need to have immunity before this slows down.
Having the all clear was all we needed to get right back to work. RaDene headed for her desk at the office and me and the housing assistants, including Elder John, who felt remarkably well by now, headed for Shilo West to prepare one of the few apartments still vacant for missionaries. It had gotten the time and attention of the missionaries that had lived there last, so I was hopeful, but alas, on inspection, sure enough, it needed some senior missionary effort. As was our pattern, I directed the housing assistants in pitching useless stuff, and donned the rubber gloves to get down to the nitty gritty. It took much longer than planned, and in the end, I had a list of things I would need to procure and bring back to make it habitable. I also tried calling the landlord to ask if there was an empty unit we could swap for and get some better floors and finishes. No luck. But they were somewhat sympathetic that the mission has been in the unit continuously for more than eight years. That long will take its toll on carpet, linoleum, paint, etc. no matter who the resident is.
Have I related the story of our recently wedge shaped trailer? A couple of weeks ago, Elder Everton, the vehicle coordinator came to me one evening and said, has anyone called you yet? As it happened, no one had called me, so I didn’t know quite what to say other than, no, I haven’t gotten any calls this evening. It was a very ambiguous question, but he said nothing more. Later that night I knew what he was asking about. The housing assistants called. Elder Scheurman had forgotten he was towing the trailer and had run into the concrete beam of a parking garage. The garage won the fight. The truck got through, but the trailer was too tall. About 3-4 feet of the top of the trailer had been mashed down. They got it unstuck, but some seams were pulled apart, which is a problem in rain-prone Midwest weather. Maybe worse from my perspective, I couldn’t stand up anymore. And I about scalped myself on the bent and twisted roof ribs. Elder Scheurman felt terrible. He wanted to know what to do. He wanted to know if he should tell President Bell. I calmed him, and we agreed that it was best for Pres Bell to hear it straight from him. And we duct taped some of the gaps, making it somewhat more protected, at least towards the back of the trailer. It’s a big deal to the missionaries because they are told that there is a one strike policy on avoidable accidents and driving privileges are revoked.
We figured out where the trailer had been purchased a few years ago and with some effort, I made an appointment to go see them to get some bids on repair or replacement. The damage was enough that the yard couldn’t do the work, but they took pictures and sent them to the factory in Arkansas for a repair bid. One thing we had learned in the process of the trailer folks looking over our trailer was that the axel hubs needed tightening. Knowing that there was a fair chance the Church vehicle department would not want to bother to fix the trailer (I had already seen how hail damage could qualify a car as a total loss), I didn’t want to run up a big bill lubing axels and tightening hubs. Still, we needed to make some long trips with the newly wedge shaped trailer setting up apartments. I didn’t really want to do that with wobbly wheels. With a few tips from the trailer store and a YouTube tutorial, Elder John, who is quite mechanically inclined, joined me in the task.
We got up early on Friday, June 12 and had a little Indy pit crew practice. I had new missionary training to be ready for, and then a staff meeting, but right afterwards we needed to hit the road for the Columbia zone, which was almost guaranteed to be a long trip. So we started the day jacking the trailer, pulling tires and wheels, tightening axel nuts, and lubing the axels and hubs. That would at least make me feel safe and more responsible about taking the trailer out all the way to Moberly, Macon, and Columbia setting up apartments. We did get a recommendation for a barbeque restaurant in Macon. It felt strange, but the housing assistants and I sat down in a local establishment and splurged a little. In places like Macon, it seems like the social distancing was never observed quite like the national authorities would have expected.
On Saturday, June 13th we were still pressed for time, knowing that missionaries were coming next week and another zone that needed a lot of housing set up. Yes, we are in the stage of bringing back missionaries to well past the number we had before COVID. I persuaded the Elders to meet me at my new favorite mattress warehouse, which really is a warehouse, meaning they have stock on hand (yay!). We bought five more beds and frames, put them in the trailer, and hoped it wouldn’t rain for a few days.
Meanwhile, RaDene and I celebrated our anniversary early. She had gotten us reserved tickets for the opening of the Missouri Botanical Gardens. It was a lovely day, sunny and warm but not steaming hot. Many of the corners of the garden were closed, and it was obvious that many beds had not been attended to. But the main path, nearly 3 miles in length, has so many glorious gardens: English woodlands, Japanese, rose, lilies, ponds, streams, and on and on. The collection of stately trees, some going back to the founding in 1859, is magnificent. Also on the property are three period houses. The benefactor Henry Shaw’s garden home, his gardener’s home, and Shaw’s city house relocated to the garden after his death. We look forward to exploring more, and sharing it with anyone who might visit!
Hungry, we tried sandwiches at the garden café, but they were lacking. We had a solution for that—ice cream. I don’t know why, but St Louis seems to have more than its share great ice cream, and there is a great shop not far from the gardens in the same historical district. Because of COVID, we ordered by phone, and waited and people watched on the sidewalk under a shade tree until our orders were cheerfully delivered to us. My “rocky road” was undoubtedly the best rocky road I have ever had. The chocolate ice cream was so rich, the nuts were mostly cashews (what a great idea!), and the marshmallows were nothing like what you buy in the bag at the grocery store. I’m salivating just thinking about it. We had to hurry home and get looking like missionaries again to join the Zoom video call to be introduced to the missionaries coming next week. They are a good looking bunch. I am impressed by these young people who have the courage and determination to accept a new assignment, somewhere different and perhaps less exotic than their original calls. It would have been so easy to have ended their missions with no questions or expectations of additional service. But here they come to strengthen us, like reinforcements to Helaman’s stripling warriors. Alma 57:6.