Sunday, November 29th was somewhat startling because for the second week in a row, we did not see Annie Stewart. She was home from the hospital this week, but too ill and uncomfortable for a personal visit. We have not gone two weeks without seeing Annie since the COVID “stay at home” orders were lifted this summer.
Monday, the 30th included an afternoon of taking three broken dryers to Mike the repairman. It seems that after two weeks of not seeing Mike, the appliance demons were taking vengeance. We almost overwhelmed his little strip mall storefront shop with our deliveries. Back at the office, we pack the carts full of packages, pick up Sis Hatfield, and head out to set up for Mission Leadership Conference tomorrow, since me and the housing assistants won’t be around in the morning to help get the physical set up prepared like we usually would. On the way, we realize we are hungry, so stop for gyros at the local Mediterranean restaurant. We can’t eat in under country restrictions, and knowing this will be messy, we end up at our apartment to eat. The gyros are very tasty. And we all conclude that the French fries should be named world fries—they are so good that everyone in the world should have them. Then we finish the evening at the St Louis stake center in Chesterfield helping get ready for tomorrow’s MLC.
Tuesday, December 1st has a fairly early start. This is moving day in Rantoul, Illinois, more than a three hour drive north and east of St Louis. I’ve arranged to meet the manager to finalize the lease, and I want to get there before lunch when we might lose management’s attention for a while. I negotiate and accept a $200 charge for the drywall damage we didn’t cause, but which undoubtedly became much worse because we failed to report water leaks, probably for years, along the east wall and upstairs ceilings of the apartment. After finishing the lease signing, turning over a rent check, and getting keys, I offer to take the missionaries to lunch before we dive into the move. Breakfast was a long time ago and I will need these young elders to be energetic for the next few hours. So I follow Sis Hatfield’s counsel to feed them. Asking where to go, the Rantoul elders suggest the local taco stand, which sounds good to me. It is in a part of town that time has long passed by, and the taco shop occupies an old, retrofitted bank. The drive up teller window now is a drive up taco window. The yard sign advertises tacos for 99 cents. I was dubious when I saw the sign, but well satisfied with 4 of these tacos. A bargain in Rantoul. I helped start the move, but quickly turned the moving over to the elders and jumped into the bathroom with my gloves and Comet. Although the bathroom was in terrible shape, and a prime driver for the need to relocate, I am a little disappointed to find out that the bathroom, sans the paint and drywall issues, would have been in much more livable condition if the missionaries would just have taken some care of it. The shower rug was adhered to the linoleum floor for not having been moved or cleaned for who knows how long. The tub and shower was pink with blooming mold, and rust streaks flowed from everything iron. But with cleaning powder, ammonia, and elbow grease, it looked much better. We gave the rest of the apartment the same treatment, scrubbing the oven, fridge, baseboards, and floors. I was reminded how inexperienced these young men are when I found one elder trying to clean a fridge shelf with Shout, a laundry stain remover. I explained the difference between Shout and 409 and set him back to work. At least we would have the satisfaction that we had turned back to the management a clean unit. And hopefully, the missionaries got a better idea of what my expectations are for apartment cleanliness and maintenance. We took a trip to the Rantoul church to fill its dumpster with unneeded clutter from the old apartment and went by Walmart for some missing necessities, like a new shower rug, and we started our journey back home.
We stopped in Mattoon, IL for a hamburger at Burger King—no not that Burger King. It is a single restaurant that has been around for at least 50 years, going by Burger King name all that time. In fact, a legal dispute established that although that Burger King had registered trademark right to the Burger King moniker all over the nation, it could not, and did not have rights in Mattoon, Illinois because of the the precedent use by this old hamburger stand with recognized common law rights. And most importantly, its burgers were fantastic—fit for the name, I’d say. The missionaries were home by 10 pm. It could have been (and has been) worse.
Wednesday, December 2nd. This morning I was awakened to some hysteria. It is a regular occurrence to hear RaDene talking to Malory and Kennedy on the ride from their home in Alabama to work and day care. But today Malory’s voice is loud and high. And Sis Hatfield’s is getting louder and higher too. I finally discern that Malory thinks she is expecting a baby. This would be a super big surprise because Ben, her 2nd, is just over a year old. And I gather that Malory is concerned about the viability of the pregnancy because of family planning that has been going on. It is at once exciting and a little scary—cause for a little hysteria, I suppose.
Sis Bell and Sis Hatfield have been planning and preparing for the Sisters Conference today for weeks, and it has paid off. My role is mostly in the kitchen warming soup, cutting homemade bread, and chopping salad. But out there, the mission presidency wives, Sister Hatfield, and others are giving beautiful talks and testimonies. There are special musical numbers by some very talented young ladies. And the cultural hall is living up to its name today: it is brimming with small Christmas trees and ribbons, colorful balls, twine, and glue guns. The sisters decorated trees for their own companionships and for every other companionship in the mission—about 120 in total. Sis Bell and Sis Hatfield have shopped on line and all over town to pull materials together at the very best price possible. It has been amazingly frugal really, considering how nice the tables and decorations look. Lunch, were my efforts were focused, was almost a distraction. We could hardly pry the sisters out of conversations with each other to get in the serving line to eat. We donned gloves, masks, and aprons to reduce any germ transmission. Tables were limited to 3 companionships, and in the chapel, they sat distanced. We were under the county ceiling of attendees in this large building, but still, we fretted before, during, and after, praying that we had not created a COVID spreading event. While it will be a while before we know whether we have spread any illness, we know for certain that the sisters hearts have been fortified in a way they have missed for many, many months. Most of this day I felt quite out of place, being the sole male consistently present, but I was gratified to see the strength of the sisterhood.
Later that night, back at the office, I took on the task of helping the elders in Highland, Missouri get WIFI installed and working in their apartment. These days, connectivity is an absolute necessity to missionary work. Elder Reeder, on of our favorites, and Elder Warner, who is known as Elder Hatfield, Jr, because of our similar looks, have almost no cell coverage at their apartment, and no car to get to the church building, which is the backup plan for many missionaries so that they can use WIFI. Sis Hatfield has tried to get assistance from AT&T and mission support in Salt Lake City. They have said they can help “increase the signal strength,” or something like that, which makes no sense to me, but she has sent several requests over that last 2-3 months with no progress. Being quarantined for COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and a bit off the reservation, on Monday I called and signed the elders up for private WIFI at their apartment. For continuity’s sake, I designated three senior missionaries as authorized users. Today, the equipment arrived at their apartment, so I got on a call with the elders to walk through installation of the equipment and initialize the signal. But despite my and the elders’ best efforts, we could not make it work. Finally, I called the provider for help, which is awkward because the missionaries aren’t authorized users, and I’m not at the missionary apartment. It feels a bit like a NASA launch, with astronauts in the rocket, launch control, and mission control all trying to have a successful liftoff. We go through two levels of service technician and we are finally advised that our router must be faulty. What’s the chances of that? The technician says that the store where the router can be exchanged closes in 20 minutes, but if I or another designated user can hurry, we can make the exchange before closing. Well, that seems altogether unlikely. I’m in St Louis, not Columbia. And Elder Reeder and Elder Warner are in quarantine and can’t leave their apartment. Thinking fast, we designate the local district leader as an authorized user. He races to the store and arrives at 6:57, and gets a replacement router just as the doors are locked. He goes back to Highlands and hands off the equipment, and a few minutes later, Elder Reeder calls to say that we have liftoff. Sis Hatfield and I cheer and high five. There aren’t many hoops we won’t jump through for these young missionaries.
Later, I go pick up Elder Howard and Elder Raynor from their Pagedale apartment and go to the Garners’ apartment. On our drive back from Rantoul yesterday, Sis Sarah Garner texted me and asked if we could give her husband Colby a blessing of comfort and counsel. He is a first year law student at Washington University, and so we have bonded, having the legal profession, or the hopes for one, in common. We get zucchini bread for our efforts. It was delicious. While I’m away, Sis Hatfield has joined her cousins’ monthly zoom call. I must admit, it is entertaining to listen to them talk about family news, health, politics, and unavoidably, COVID. They have some divergent opinions, but admirably navigate each call with friendship and love.
Thursday December 3rd is another long trip, this time to the Columbia zone. I haven’t been out there for 6 or 8 weeks, and I have a pretty long list of housing needs and maintenance items to address. I haven’t seen Elder Tua’vao, a zone leader out here, for some weeks because of COVID diagnosis and quarantine. While in the area, I can’t resist tossing a pebble at his and Elder Nielsen’s second floor window. When they finally open the window, we have a warm chat. I enjoy raising spirits of the missionaries at every opportunity. We stopped at a sisters’ apartment to exchange a vacuum that wasn’t working for one of our spares. It didn’t take much inspection to see the problem. First, the dirt container was completely filled. More importantly, the beater bar was so tangled with long hair as to be immovable. I’m going to need to do some first aid on that machine even before I take it to the repair shop for expert review. Before the day is over, I have the opportunity to meet two of our brand new missionaries who arrived earlier this week in a mid-transfer arrival. Since we didn’t have regular transfer orientation with them, I personally delivered their blue books, the mission policies and procedure notebook given to all new missionaries, and their sleeping pillows, a sort of arrival gift from the mission. I couldn’t help but notice how they seemed to stand behind their trainers as if they were newborn calves unfamiliar with this stranger. It is amazing to see the missionaries grow, strengthen, and take courage with time.
Friday, December 4th. This is a bonus day, in my mind. We have one last missionary that needs to be endowed at the temple, after having come to the field without the opportunity at home. A couple of days ago, his mother unexpectedly had an emergency appendectomy, and so her plans to come to St Louis to attend the ordinance didn’t work anymore. Elder McKenna would be accompanied by his father and missionary companion, Pres and Sis Bell, the four other senior missionary office staff members, and now me. Sis Hatfield graciously held down the mission office and let me attend, she having gone to two missionary endowments this fall already. I felt torn, knowing that my blessing was borne of Sis McKenna’s illness. But I was very happy to experience the peace of the temple. And I am sure it is one of the cleanest buildings in St Louis. We were the only group in the temple, along with the officiators, a member of the temple presidency and his wife, and a very few other staff persons. Doors and curtains were removed or propped open everywhere, except on in the bathrooms, to eliminate touch points. Protocols were enforced with love, and Mr. Clean seemed to be right behind us. Outside, I heard that Brother McKenna would surprise us with something at staff meeting later that afternoon. I assumed he had a treat for us. I was right, but entirely surprised.
The day was full. We got back to the office from the temple just about in time for new missionary training. This round of training would be done over the internet with a large group, somewhere near 25 new missionaries, their companions, and mission leadership. Sis Hatfield delivered wonderful instruction for her 10 allotted minutes on technology use and safety for missionaries and their work. Sis Hatfield is so sincere and personable that the young missionaries can’t help but be attentive to her dispensation of wisdom. Almost immediately after, we started our office staff meeting. Pres Bell was scheduled to give the spiritual thought for the meeting, and had arranged for Bro MeKenna to come visit with us. He pulled a wooden box out of his backpack, which I had noticed had only been put down in his temple locker but not otherwise. He opened the handsome box and pulled out a first edition Book of Mormon. Of the 5,000 first edition printings, only 500 or so are known. Sis McKenna’s family has a very interesting story on how they obtained the book after doing a good turn for a book collector in southern California. When the non-Mormon collector asked what he could do in return, Sis McKenna’s father said, mostly in jest, I suppose, that if he ever came across a first edition Book of Mormon, that he should help them purchase it. Eventually the collector did come across one on a trip to Ohio, and remembered the request and helped the family in California secure it. At our staff meeting, Bro McKenna delivered an animated presentation on the book, entitled “One Touch.” The presentation is most often given at Especially for Youth conferences where by family wishes, the young people are permitted to have one touch of the cover of the book. Here, we passed it around the room and held it in our hands. Now that was a treat, thinking about the sacrifices of so many to bring the book to the world. We held Martin Harris’ farm in our hands, to say nothing of the sacrifice of the Smith family.
After that, the meeting went to the business of the possibility of the move of our office to another section of the building. The owner and the church are pretty much in agreement, and its up to Pres Bell and the staff to decide if we would like to move or not. The question is not easy, loaded with pros and cons each way, with a certain amount of drama and strong feelings. Then we started planning for Christmas zone conferences. We are realizing that we will need to host 250+ missionaries over three days, feeding them a Christmas worthy meal, along with the instruction and merry making. This will challenge or time, energy, budget, and health precautions, made all the more challenging by the Bell daughter’s wedding the week before.