We have recently received information that we can start having in-person missionary meetings of up to 50 people. This means we can have zone conferences, if we limit to a single zone. It may seem obvious that a zone conference is for a single zone, but since we have been here, they have generally been combined as 2 zones (to reduce travel and the number of meetings), or in the COVID Era, held by video mission-wide. The news that we can meet by zone is very welcome. The young missionaries, and frankly, the mature missionaries, hunger to see each other. Here we go.
Sister Bell shares her love in part through food. So she wants to provide a meal at zone conference. And because there are nine zones, that means nine meals. Logistically, we organized to have two zone conferences at a regional stake center each day, one running from morning until lunch, and the other beginning in the afternoon until dinner. We would do this Monday through Thursday, and on Friday have a single morning conference. On Saturday, we would have a mission-wide zoom conference for a few hours to finish things off.
If that sounds a bit ambitious, well, it was. I can hardly speak to the sacrifice that President and Sister Bell made planning themes, organizing young leaders, preparing and delivering messages, and for Sis Bell’s part, planning, buying, and baking food. The office staff would deliver training messages, and have primary responsibility for meal set up, delivery, and cleanup. The meals would be simple: grilled hamburgers, hotdogs, or chicken, together with chips, fruit, dessert bars, and water. Bless her heart, Sis Bell made the hamburger buns and her mission-famous peanut butter bars nearly every night or early morning, rather than buying them. For my part, I have somehow garnered the reputation as a grill master, and so was in charge of having the protein ready twice a day for about 40 people. We drove the mission home grill from stake center to stake center all week, along with coolers, and crates of water. We made special shopping runs in towns around the mission for propane, ice, food and other needed supplies all week long. RaDene put her many years of hosting skills to work marshalling the staff and missionaries to set up tables and deliver meals lunch-lady style, complete with masks and gloves. It was simple fare, but much appreciated by those brave young missionaries doing their very best in the COVID Era.
There were a few humorous sidelights. We loaded the mission home grill onto the back of the mission pickup truck on Sunday to be ready for an early departure Monday morning. Of course, it was raining like crazy at the appointed time to meet at the mission home to make final zone conference preparations and do the loading. There was really no alternative but to work outside in a driving rain in our white shirts and ties in the dark to load the grill, tanks, tools, coolers, and other supplies and strap them down for travel. The assistants hesitated until I led the charge, showing them that no one melts working in the dark, in the rain. Everyone was soaked and had to towel off in the laundry room when we were done. My leather shoes couldn’t be worn again for several days while they dried.
The first day of conferences were in Lake St Louis on a predictably hot and clear day following the severe storm of the night before. As we scoped out the place to serve lunch that morning, I found a shady spot for the grill under the portico. As it would happen, the first meal was a hamburger lunch, which, with all the fat and grease, was an especially smoky grill session. I’m not sure I got the smoke smell out of my hair all week. Part way through my grilling, RaDene stuck her head in the chapel where the President’s training and motivating was going on—she could hardly see from the back of the chapel to the podium because of the haze. My grilling spot turned out to be right under the fresh air intake of the HVAC system that was pumping smoke into the chapel furiously on this sweltering day. Before we figured out what the problem was, the damage was done: the smoke was in the system and would circulate most of the rest of the day. It was a miracle we didn’t see the fire department that day.
And there were a few not so humorous happenings. The scariest was on Monday, July 20th, when we got the news that there had been an accident in the Champaign Zone. Elder Scheurman had been helping with a service project that involved pulling out a tree with a cable and a come-along (hand cranked winch). Something went wrong, and the cable and hook, under tension, had recoiled and hit Elder Scheurman in the crown of his head. He was taken to the Emergency Room and that was all we knew of a while. We were all very concerned, perhaps me as much as anyone, having served closely with this fine young man. He ended up with a concussion and stiches, and slowed cognition for a time. But he is recovering. It could have so easily been a tragedy. We feel blessed that he survived with relatively minor injuries. When I actually saw him three days later, I could not help but weep with gratitude.
I’ve said little about the substance of our presentations at the zone conferences, which we repeated nine times. We carefully orchestrate topics and allocate time, but almost inevitably, we are running behind somewhere. Poor Sister Hatfield bats cleanup in the staff presentations section and must flex to what little time we have left. But I am so proud of the help that she is to these young missionaries. Honestly, modern missionary work leans very hard on technology, and in this period of transition, it isn’t working smoothly, if at all. RaDene is the lifeline for the missionaries to get some help. She is more effective as the tier one help desk of the Missionary Department, and gets down to business with the tier two managers. She has a working relationship with the MD’s software system architects. Her training is vital to keep the missionaries working. Although called as the Mission Secretary, I estimate she spends 70 percent of her time as the Mission technology specialist.
Also on Monday, while back at the office working our day jobs during the night, RaDene started seeing some messages of incoming missionaries. It was late already, so we were excited to see what was happening. Overnight, we had received notice of 32 additional missionaries coming late in August. These missionaries are a mixture of people originally assigned to the MSLM, and others originally assigned to foreign missions who have finished their MTC virtual training and need to go somewhere. That somewhere is here! We have no idea how long these missionaries will be with us—perhaps briefly, or perhaps for their entire missions. I suppose the Missionary Department doesn’t know either. It must have a lot to do with how soon foreign missions open back up to US missionaries.
The evenings this week were full of efforts to line up apartments and our first hotel for the missionaries coming next week. This is stressful. Having missionaries come with potentially no place to stay is not a successful result for a housing coordinator. And the Missionary Department’s suggestions on hotels from chains it has negotiated with hasn’t worked. One after another, they have been unable to get me rooms where I need them. Meanwhile, it is impossible to get additional apartments on short notice. Finding vacancies, sorting through acceptable properties, getting applications accepted, and more is a cumbersome, slow process in a tight housing market (which seems to be true virtually everywhere—the 2009 housing recession has had persistent, pernicious effects).
On Friday, July 24th, we finished our last in person zone conference. Good as they are, I am not interested in a Costco hotdog for a very long time. I don’t know how we had the energy, but we went to dinner that evening with the Bells, the Evertons, and the Jacobs at the Jacobs’ favorite Italian restaurant. The food was superb, but the evening was a bit of a blur.
On Saturday, July 25th, RaDene and I juggled two virtual conferences: she covered the last session of the mission-wide “zone” conferences, and I covered the JustServe area training. Ordinarily we would have excused ourselves from the latter, but we knew there would be discussion about Elder Morgan, a General Authority Seventy’s visit to the mission/coordinating council, including a JustServe project our mission would help host. After the morning’s conferences were complete, we headed into the office to do transfer planning for next week, knowing that some missionaries would be on their way to us on Monday, and I did more online apartment and hotel hunting.
Late in the afternoon, I persuaded RaDene to travel with me to O’Fallon, Illinois to perform a landlord required apartment inspection with the app the missionaries can’t have on their phones. While there, we helped them change air filters, gave them instructions on fixing their stove, and helped put in a repair order for a couple of small leaks. Mostly, Sis Hatfield bonded with the four young Elders in her charismatic way, and I left them with a prayer. On the way home, we found the Dairy Barn in a small forgotten Illinois town, where we stopped for orange twist ice cream. Believe me, we were the only couple in the parking lot with skirts and ties, or a German engineered car. I can’t eat orange and vanilla ice cream without remembering my Grandpa Reed. I have fond memories of holding his hand as a small boy walking through the BYU education building where he had an office, and stopping at the vending machine for an orange cream cycle. Afterward our treat and a trip back to St Louis, we worked in the office until 10:30 pm getting ready for next week’s transfers, which for some reason, seem tricky this time.