Sunday, Dec 6th we continued a tradition that so far as I know was started by Sis Hatfield’s mother. Sis Hatfield came to our marriage with a December Advent calendar complete with a token in each day’s pocket to pin on the colorful felt calendar’s tree. The Christmas countdown left an impression that RaDene continued with our children, using it as an opportunity to teach about the symbols of Christmas. This year Sis Hatfield found a children’s book that devotes a few pages to the different parts of the Nativity Scene. We sent copies of the book to our grandchildren in Utah and Alabama. RaDene also shipped Nativities where the parts and figurines will be opened as gifts and put in place as we go. Today we started our video calls to read the first pages of the book and examine the stable. Every few days we plan to video call together to experience another chapter of the Nativity story. There are other grandmothers that are doing their best to keep their families connected with technology during this time of social distancing, but few could possibly be more active and effective than Sis Hatfield.
Monday, Dec 7th Sis Hatfield worked with three elders who have recently received news that they are heading to their original assignments in Ghana and South Africa. In ordinary times, the primary hurdles would be tracking down passports and confirming visas. In COVID, countries are requiring special forms, pre-travel health testing, and funds for arrival testing. Sis Everton is trying to arrange for tightly scheduled COVID testing here in the mission. Elder Jacob is putting special funding on mission support cards. Sis Hatfield is helping the missionaries complete forms that are inaccessible by phone—the missionaries’ sole communication device, particularly with unknown website blocking software. Her work is almost never straightforward. She is mostly a problem solver. And so am I. today I received a three day Pay or Vacate notice from an apartment complex where we have five apartments and probably 16 missionaries. Here it is the 7th of the month and our rent check has not been received. I’ve been doing this long enough that I am not overly concerned that we will be thrown out. Most of the time the apartment managers actually have received our rent, and just haven’t posted it properly. But this time, its on us. We work on the rent on the 20th of every month to do our best to ensure that the president’s signoff, the Salt Lake check writing and mailing, and the US Postal Service delivery can occur by the 1st. But occasionally it doesn’t work right. And in COVID, it seems like the USPS is not as reliable as we have come to expect. So, I’m scrambling to confirm that this missing check was actually approved, written, and mailed, and communicating with the landlord that I am on it and will deliver funds promptly.
Somewhat more mundane, I also go with the housing assistants to deliver a dryer to the Missouri River South apartment, and check their dryer vent for clogs. This dryer has burned out twice now, and the only thing we and our repairman can figure is that it is overheating for lack of airflow. The venting looks good, so that isn’t it. We installed the dryer and crossed our fingers. Back at the office, we realized that packages from USPS, UPS, and FedEx are overrunning our mail shelves. The Christmas season gift giving is going to bury us. We reorganize our storage room to make spaces three times the regular size to try to accommodate the packages, which will temporarily intrude on the Evertons’ usual work space, taking half of the conference table in their room. We are also giving strict instructions to missionary leaders to collect and deliver mail frequently. We will try to stay ahead of this and meet parent expectations to deliver the mail, come rain, snow, sleet, or hail.
Tuesday, Dec 8th is a trip to Poplar Bluff, the southern most corner of the mission. Like most corners of the mission, there is only so much you can do to multitask way out there. If you stop too much along the way, the day gets used up before you make it to the corner. Poplar Bluff has had some significant problems, but they haven’t been emergencies, so I have put them off until now. Today, we started the patch of a large hole in the wall. None of the elders remember how it happened or who did it. I suppose it doesn’t matter much, my goal is to avoid a landlord charge and fix it myself. The glass shower door does not roll and the glass is falling out of the frame. We take the door outside to take a good look at it. With some stainless steel screws and clear silicone from the hardware store, we are able to get the glass secured. We lubricate the corroded wheels and reinstall, and it seems all is in order. One motivator for finally getting here is to deliver Elder Nelson’s bike to him so he can try to ship it home or sell it. In our mission, we mostly have cars in teaching areas, but a few unlucky ones have bikes. The policy is inconsistent about whether the mission provides the bikes or whether the missionaries provide their own. If the missionary buys one, now he is probably stuck as soon as he is transferred because he will likely not need his bike any longer. What is he to do with it? It becomes an expensive purchase with short term use. We had lunch in Poplar Bluff, and that was a bit startling. I’m not sure what the health department rules are down here, but no one, cooks, servers, nor patrons wore masks in the restaurant, which was open for guests, and so far as I could discern, had no social distancing. We the missionaries looked a bit out of place, which isn’t unusual, but I did get a little lecture as we were walking across the parking lot from an old red neck about the Pandemic being a conspiracy of some sort. Yes, Poplar Bluff is a different environment than St Louis, and as they say, the Gateway to the Ozarks.
On the long drive home Elder Jacob and I conclude that our missing rent check can’t be replaced by Salt Lake—we just can’t afford the time or another mistake. We need to figure out how to write a local mission check, or I need to cover this personally. I won’t get home in time to figure it all out and deliver today, but Elder Jacob will see what he can do back at the office in the meantime.
Wednesday, Dec 9th begins with a weekly mission video conference exercise session we fondly call workout Wednesday. Pres Bell is an athlete and a bit of a health nut (with a sweet tooth), and so he personally leads us through some high intensity interval training for about 30 minutes every Wednesday morning at 6:30 am. But what is remarkable this time, is that Sis Hatfield has mustered her courage to join us. I’ve been doing it since the beginning, but Sis Hatfield has shied away, sticking to her stationary biking and running. Seeing that many of the sisters are joining Workout Wednesday, including Sis Bell (off camera), she has decided to join in. So we are now sweating together on Wednesdays. At the office, I must start with first things first. Elder Jacob has managed to input data and get approval for a local mission rent check, and I go to the office to go through the steps to find the check stock and get it printed. Then I’m off to deliver it. Eviction averted. Actually, the manager knows me pretty well and isn’t all that upset either. We are consistent payors. But still, the managers must do their job, and getting a three day pay or vacate notice is never desirable. I’ve got to figure out what went wrong.
Today started a three day “Mission Tour” by Elder Valenzuela of the Seventy. It will actually be a series of video conferences. At Pres Bell’s urging, the missionaries have prepared well to participate in the conferences. I’m hoping the impact of the virtual meetings will still be meaningful. Elder Valenzuela is a native Mexican, and a gentle soul. He brings a great spirit to his messages and the missionaries are responding to his love. This may be the best example of the Come Follow Me principles of being taught by class members rather than a lecture from the teach that I have ever seen. I am in awe of these young missionaries’ resilience, testimony, and spirit.
Last night I got a text that the dryer in Missouri River South isn’t heating again. This time, I’m not getting it fixed, I’m taking another dryer. We happen to have a spare. Could it just be a weak dryer? We end the day with haircuts with our member stylist Laura Olson. Honestly, its more of a production than I would probably like to participate in, getting down there, waiting for RaDene’s turn, as well as my own, and getting back turns out to be a bit of an excursion. But, we have found a Japanese restaurant across the street that makes the best ramen soup ever. Sis Hatfield gets the smoked chicken, and I get the pork belly. Oh, so good. We take it home after haircuts for a small feast.
Thursday, Dec 10th started off leisurely enough, but we weren’t far into our morning routine before Sis Hatfield squealed. Last night we had completely lost track of the flights this morning to Africa of three of our elders. And we were not ready. We hadn’t checked them into their flights, purchased checked baggage allowances, or printed itineraries and boarding cards. RaDene raced to the office, unshowered, to do the work. I cleaned up and got dressed properly and raced the Assistants to the President to the airport. At this point, we were unsure if all was in order and it didn’t seem prudent to leave it to the young missionaries to be able to fill whatever gaps there might be. I had credit cards. It turned out that Sis Hatfield had gotten the checkin squared away for departure so I could chat with the ticket agent about who we were, and see the missionaries through security. Back at the office, Sis Hatfield still looked harried, so I convinced her to go home and properly get ready for the day. I would stay and answer phones and collect mail. Whew.
The mission tour continued this morning with a 1.5 hour general session. Elder and Sis Valenzuela taught the Parable of the Stick. You can’t pick up one end of the stick without picking up the other end too. They likened this to missionary finding and teaching. Finding is teaching, and teaching is finding. At least it should be. I was impressed by the simplicity and truthfulness of the message. Bold, courageous invitations without messages that prick the heart don’t work. And there is no better time to ask who else can benefit from the message then when the Spirit has been touching a soul.
Just as I thought we would go home for an on time dinner, I got a call from the elders in Edwardsville, Illinois, about 45 minutes north and east of St Louis. They had locked themselves out of their apartment. They were hesitant to ask, but were out of options, so they called me. Earlier that afternoon the elders had stepped outside to pick up some food left by members without realizing that their door handle was in the locked position, so when it closed behind them, they were stuck outside without house keys, car keys, or even a cell phone. They walked about 3.5 miles by my reckoning to a member’s home. They didn’t have any phone numbers memorized, but fortunately the member knew that the number of the elders quorum president, who knew the number of the zone leaders, who knew my number. I paused for just a minute about whether I should try the complex manager or a locksmith, but quickly concluded that those options would be expensive, and ultimately no faster than me hurrying out the door to Glen Carbon, IL where the member lived. I’m glad that the collected wisdom is for the mission office to have duplicates of missionary apartment keys.
Friday, December 11th began early. Our granddaughter Kennedy was participating in the pre-school Christmas program being performed at the beginning of the day, and it was being shared through video conference. Like good grandparents, we sat intently in front of our TV, connected to our computer, and recorded our TV screen when Kennedy spoke her line, ‘”A” is for the angel on top of the tree,’ and stole the show with her spontaneous dancing during the Jingle Bells choral number. This effort to share is another bright spot in the pandemic. A year ago, no one would have even considered broadcasting a preschool program for people at home to see. Lest we have too bright a view of the benefits of the pandemic, that afternoon we had to postpone some needed work at some sisters’ apartment because of a quarantine.
Saturday, December 12th was an opportunity for us to share with Rachel and Luke Shafer, a young couple in our Pagedale Branch. They had recently welcomed a first baby into their family. Sis Hatfield has made a beautiful baby quilt, an extraordinary gift of time and art, sewn into a practical bundle of warmth. My gift was much more modest: a loaf of homemade sour dough bread to go with a staple comfort dish in our family of chicken and broccoli over rice. On one of my runs to the office today a dining set on the curb of the road caught my eye. The taped on sign said one word, “free.” I have been short of kitchen tables and chairs for missionary apartments all summer long, and so I’m always on the lookout. I did a quick U-turn, parked, and jumped out to verify that the furniture would work. It was probably more than 30 years old, but nice maple workmanship, with very light use. I was definitely interested. I went to the door and knocked several times, but no answer. Peering in the front window, it looked dark. I wasn’t about to stand on pretense, so I strode back out to the curb to claim the prize, loading the large table and six chairs into the back of my truck, complete with extra table leaves and one of those old fashioned felt and leather table covers that we would never use. I’ve learned that it is much more satisfying and helpful to the donor if we take all that is offered and later discretely get rid of any part we can’t use. I’m sure they will be blessed for supporting the Work, without ever knowing why. After delivering the baby quilt and dinner to the Shafers, Sis Hatfield dug back into the mission newsletter, the Harvester, with me helping just a bit by editing missionary testimonies that were way over the size limit, while simultaneously catching the BYU v. Utah basketball game. It will be a late series of nights for days to come until this big, recurring project is finished.