Sunday, January 10th. Primary this morning yielded a special gift to Nana and Papa. Sis Hatfield showed Abbi a close-up shot of her necklace. It was a Tree of Life figure. Nana showed her the tiny jewels it held, each representing a grandchild. When asked what it represented, without hesitation, Abbi said, “It is the place where people hold onto the rope to get to the fruit.” I was astonished. If she has heard the story of the Tree of Life twice in her short life, I’d be surprised. I’m so impressed how she comprehends and retains the literal and figurative meanings of complex scriptural text. But it does remind us that the things we say to her sink in, whether that is obvious at the time we say them or not.
I couldn’t help but think about the quantity of video meetings we attended today, beginning at 8 am and ending at 8 pm, spread more or less evenly throughout the day:
Zoom ward council
Zoom (and live) sacrament meeting
Zoom priesthood meeting (Relief Society meeting for Sis Hatfield)
Zoom JustServe training
Zoom worldwide fireside with Elder and Sister Gong
Monday, January 11th started off normal enough. But by midmorning, Pres Bell was asking for the address of the housing assistants. He gave me some clues that things were not right with them, and specifically with the elder that had joined the companionship at the last transfer, making it a threesome, in order that he might have a positive final six weeks of his service. Admittedly, it has been a bit awkward. I chalked it up to the elder’s inward, insular personality and to the sometimes challenging position of having meaningful physical work for four men on a given project. To try to help the situation, I’ve made it a practice to do less in the field, and frequently send out the three young missionaries by themselves. But apparently things got to a breaking point. I texted the President to say that I could take the troubled elder on a long drive to get some work done, just him and me, if that would help. After a couple of hours, and shortly after noon, the President called and asked if I would come stay with the elder for a couple of hours. I immediately made arrangements to go. I have some history with this young elder before this housing assignment stretching back a year or so. I’m happy to help him in any way I can. When I reached the apartment, I could see the distress on the elder’s face. I offered to take the elder shopping for groceries and to lunch. But my simple offer was a bit too much for the elder, who needed some time to think about shopping and getting lunch. I backed up, and we just chatted for a bit. The President was relieved to get back to a dozen other pressing problems. After the elder seemed a bit more calmed, I renewed my offer to take him shopping, and he agreed. We made our way to Walmart, and he carefully selected four items: canned tuna, eggs, corn-based cereal, and almond milk. The store rejected his missionary support fund card, presumably for insufficient funds. He got out a Walmart gift card from his wallet, his Christmas gift from family, I assume, and paid the bill. It is hard to feed yourself on a missionary allowance when you wrestle with significant food sensitivities. Back in my car, I took another step, and asked if I could take him to lunch at Chipolte. I already knew he could find something he could eat there. He agreed, and although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I ate with him. He devoured his food like a growing young man that has a hard time getting enough calories that work for him.
For the rest of the afternoon, there were a couple of projects he could help me with, so we went to the office to get some tools and then to the storage unit for supplies. We worked together to replace a broken leg on a couch and to deliver a replacement study chair to the Wentzville area in Troy, Missouri. I learned by text that the mission psychiatrist, who unbeknownst to me had seen the elder earlier that day, had prescribed some medication and that Sister Everton had the medicine back at the office. So we went there, and although the elder remarked on the drive that the medication “would be good,” when we arrived, Sis Everton was faced with a now belligerent patient. Things became a bit tense, but he was eventually able to take his first dose. Sis Everton was able to deflect his ill temper and he let me watch him swallow. It was well into the evening now, and President Bell asked the other housing assistants to stay somewhere else, and I would “go on exchanges” with the young missionary until tomorrow. We went to my apartment so I could get some things, and while I gathered them up, Sis Hatfield had a conversation that helped the young man feel less alone and misunderstood, sharing her experience and knowledge of mental illness. I said goodnight to Sis Hatfield. Back at his apartment, he was emotionally exhausted, and by 9 pm he was heading for bed. I couldn’t blame him. It had been a difficult day.
The next morning, the young elder and I got up on time and I tried to follow mission routines with him. He was a bit confused as to how to start, so I offered to share my 25 minute calisthenics circuit routine that gratefully, is an app on my phone received at the MTC. Then we ate and started personal and companionship scripture study. Before getting showered and dressed though, I had to find the cleaning supplies and clean the shower. It is a truism that there are a few things about most young elders’ apartments that don’t suit my lifestyle, and the cleanliness of the bathroom is on that list. I’ve cleaned enough missionary bathrooms by now that cleaning another one is not too off-putting. Standing naked in a grimy, moldy shower is where I draw the line. We had companion study and prayers, and headed out to the office so I could take care of some pressing office work. The young elder could hardly hold his eyes open sitting in an office chair while he waited. I attributed his sleepiness to his new medicine, but who knows for sure.
When I could put my pencil down, we planned what we could do together the rest of the day. We first went to do some shopping for the mission. As we were driving away from the store, the psychiatrist called my phone, trying to reach the elder. I spoke to both of them briefly, then pulled into a parking lot, handed my phone to the missionary, and sat on my tailgate so doctor and patient could have a private consultation. By now it was time for lunch and I figured out there was a combination of things that could work at Chic-Fil-A. As we were finishing our meal sitting in the truck, my phone rang again. It was the mission psychologist this time. I turned my phone over again and went for a walk while they had a consultation. We headed downtown to the Lindell East apartment to repair and rehang some laundry closet doors that had been broken and were precariously leaning against a wall. The elder was remarkably helpful with this task, and we left feeling pretty good about our efforts. I headed back towards the office when President Bell called, along with our infield representative and church travel. The decision was now final to send the young man home, on professional recommendations. They were discussing flights, for tomorrow morning, and quite unexpectedly, I was being asked to accompany the elder to Salt Lake City pursuant to established protocol. Of course I agreed, wanting to do whatever I could to help this young man get back to the love and care of his family, including his mom, who is a psychiatric nurse, as I learned. The question I was asked was whether I would like to stay over and possibly take the opportunity to see my grandkids for one night. I declined. It was too hard to say goodbye, and I would feel much too guilty seeing them without Nana. And so it was done. We were on a 5:45 am flight tomorrow morning, getting into SLC about 12:15 pm, where I would catch a 1:15 return flight to STL. Wow, that happened fast.
The young elder had remarked how he had enjoyed barbeque which he had had with his trainer almost two years ago now. Sis Hatfield and I took him to Sugar Fire, the local barbeque restaurant, where we watched him devour ¾ pound of smoked pork and about a pint of sauce. I was determined to not send this young man home underfed. We met Pres Bell back in the office for the final interview and to pick up release papers for the elder and his stake president. Almost unbelievably, we met another young man at the office who had attempted self harm and whose parents had driven through the night from Utah to pick up their son that very moment. Let me just say that anyone who aspires to be a mission president has no idea of the magnitude of the difficulty of the call. I then went with my charge back to the missionary apartment to start packing. It proved not to be easy for the elder and we didn’t get to companionship prayers and bed until 11 pm.
Wednesday, January 13th began with a 3:45 am wake up alarm. We needed to be out the door by 4:45 in order to be at the airport by 5 am, what I figured would be the deadline for a 5:45 flight. The young elder had difficulty waking and his thinking was not clear. He fussed with his belongings, packing and repacking a few last things. I’m afraid his new medication was making him groggy and foggy. In spite of my urgings, I could not get him out the door until 5 am, and as we pulled away, he said he forgot his medicine in the bathroom. That retrieved, I raced to the airport in what must have been record time. But at 5:15 the ticket agent refused to check us in, saying we were too late for our flight. I explained that we had to be in Salt Lake today and I asked what she could do to rebook our tickets. It took some time, but she was helpful and found an alternative flight schedule leaving St Louis at 7 am, connecting through Dallas-Ft Worth, and then on to Salt Lake, arriving about 1:30 pm. Not bad, actually, but I would not make my return flight in SLC to come home that afternoon. I woke Sis Hatfield texting her about the excitement of the morning and asked her to call church travel to see if they could rebook my return flight, which she started working on immediately. As we arrived in DFW, I saw that RaDene had a return flight for me already arranged for 6:15 pm, and she had asked Spencer if he would like to meet me at the airport and we could have lunch together. I’d get home late, but seeing Spencer live would be worth it.
In DFW, I bought us breakfast, and then we found our gate. Missionaries returning home from all over the eastern and central US began to congregate. My companion was feeling noticeably awkward, so I introduced him to a group and I went to another one so he did not need to explain my presence over and over again. When asked, I simply said I was a housing coordinator on special assignment. But I was getting mildly concerned that the elder had not been able to connect live with either his mother or his stake president, although he had left messages for both about his coming home and itinerary. I started to wonder if I would need to ask Spencer to let me use his car to drive to Juab County, where the young man was from. When we arrived in SLC, I stepped into the new airport for the first time, and was amazed at how much it felt like a modern airport, and how far we had to walk. Along the way, I asked the elder if we should stop and try to call his mom again, but he said he didn’t think so, he had messaged her that we would be there at 2:30. What? We arrived at 1:30 pm. Now I was worried this handoff would not be smooth, if it happened at all. As we looked up at the flight information board, I noticed a woman also looking up at the board with an information hostess. I didn’t pay any attention, and called for the elder to follow me. At that instant, he recognized the woman was his mother, and the mother recognized her son. I stood back and watched her give him a long, fierce hug, like only a concerned mother can give. He melted in his mother’s embrace, no doubt feeling safe and unconditionally loved. I introduced myself, snapped a picture or two, made sure they had a car, and pretty quickly excused myself, recognizing that the young man was in good hands and there was no need to emphasize his having an escort home. This young man was a warrior, wounded in the battle for men’s and women’s souls. He returned home a little early, but with full honor in the eyes of God.
I connected with Spencer, who told me that Elisabeth had loaded Abbi, Ezra, and Millie into the van and was on her way to a park in Sandy, thinking that if they met me part way, we would be able to see each other. Now that was an unexpected blessing. We met at the Café Rio in Sandy where I got the chance to get reacquainted with Abbi and Ezra, and really hold little Millie for the first time, coaxing her to look into my eyes. She leaned away from me until I took off my mask, then she warmed quickly. What a doll. After lunch, we went back to the park and we played for an hour and a half. It was an ideal setting, and the sun was bright and warm even on this January day. Elisa recommended we go for ice cream at the local parlor. I can still see Abbi holding a spoon staring nowhere in a food coma after eating her as much of her blue bubble gum ice cream as her small body would tolerate. We had sweet cream everywhere. I left a $10 tip on a $15 bill. It was so worth it. Spencer was feeling pressure from work, so Elisa agreed to take me back to the airport while Spencer went back to work. I gave him a big hug goodbye. After strapping the kids in the van, Millie and Ezra were unconscious almost immediately. Abbi pouted that she could not bring the ice cream she could not finish. It was so hard to say goodbye to my posterity again, almost like leaving the first time. Abbi and Elisa lingered at the curb, waving until I was out of sight. The stressful beginning of this day turned into such sweetness with the unexpected love of family. I hugged and kissed them recklessly without a mask. I couldn’t help myself. My only regret was that RaDene wasn’t with me.
Thursday, January 14th was back to work in the Missouri St Louis Mission. The housing assistants and I headed out for the Champaign zone. The first hour or so gave us a chance to reflect on what had happened with our departed companion and our respect and fondness for him. No doubt, his illness had put the companionship at a breaking point for a few days, but we all recognized that the larger purposes of his mission and our associations had been well served. In Effingham, Illinois we stopped to deliver mail and fix a broken light fixture. Recognizing that this was a new missionary and his trainer, I mentioned as we were leaving that I would “see” them tomorrow on the new missionary Zoom training. They looked a bit confused, so I asked if they knew about the training, and they did not. I gave them some information and they said they would put it in their schedule for tomorrow. Back in the truck, I told Sis Hatfield about the confusion. Within minutes, two separate messages came out, one from the assistants to the president notifying all trainers and new missionaries of the meeting tomorrow, and the second from President Bell, transmitting Zoom codes. Sis Hatfield cleared up any confusion with dispatch, as she so often does. Then we are off to the City of Champaign to collect two beds, clearing a bedroom of the sisters’ apartment. We are starting to trend down, albeit very slowly so far. We have about 12 less missionaries than at our peak. The bonus was we inadvertently timed our visit to coincide with a cooking baking day for the sisters. They were delicious. Then we were off to Danville, also in Illinois, but just barely. In fact, the Danville Ward boundaries continue into Indiana. Looking at the map, it looks like someone did some gerrymandering here, because the stake boundaries otherwise coincide with the Illinois-Indiana border. We fix some blinds in Danville, exchange vacuums, and congratulate the sisters on a neat and clean apartment.
Then we head the other direction, back towards St Louis. It would take 3.5 hours of driving if we didn’t have any stops, but we do. We stopped in Tuscola to take down a tri and secure a recently vacated apartment. I’ll need to make a recommendation to the President about which apartment to keep and which to let go, because Tuscola won’t support two companionships going forward. It will be difficult to know what to recommend. One apartment has a much better layout, central HVAC, and all new appliances. On the minus side of the ledger, it doesn’t have in-unit washer and dryer hookups, and it has a lingering smoke smell, notwithstanding the fresh paint and new carpet. The alternative apartment has very small rooms that hardly fit two twin beds, and a single window AC unit in the front room that hardly cools the front room adequately. As a result, the elders insist on having their beds in the front room. That makes for a very awkward, small living space. I’m still trying to weigh out the pros and cons. Meanwhile, I’ve had the chance to throw away the substantial perishables left by the vacating elders, reducing the risk of a pandemic in that apartment complex. The elders and I studied the Doctrine & Covenants section 1 on the balance of our trip home to St Louis. We marveled at structure of the section, which Joseph dictated without preparation. And had insights about the sometimes misunderstood and troubling “only true and living” passage, where true might mean aligned and moving in a correct course, rather than the opposite of false.
Friday, January 15th took me back to the airport, but this time, just for a drop off. Elder Elliott, who is headed back to Sierra Leon, Africa, after spending some COVID time with us here in the Missouri St Louis Mission. After some difficulties with foreign travel recently, Sis Hatfield has insisted that I take Elder Elliott. At least I could pay for something, if needed. But, this departure is about as smooth as an international check-in goes. The gate agent is competent, and Elder Elliott has his paperwork in order. I rush back to the office, because New Missionary Training is already in progress, and I’m hoping to make it back in time to make my presentation. When I walked in, Sis Hatfield had a chair next to her computer tablet ready for me. It was the shortest training meeting ever, at least for me, because about the time I finished, it was over. Sis Bell brought in lunch, so we were all ready for the meeting to be over. She has perfected the soft white bread recipe she has taken over from Sis Mahaffey of the mission presidency. I don’t usually care for soft white bread, but when its fresh, this is pretty much irresistible.
At the staff meeting in the afternoon, I took too much time retelling the story of the missionary I escorted home this week. Everyone is interested in the welfare of the missionaries and were grateful to hear that he is safely home. Sis Hatfield shared interesting statistics:
· The MSLM welcomed 146 missionaries from foreign assignments, with 3 more coming
· 116 of those are still with us, while 23 have finished their missions and returned home, 7 have returned to their original assignments; 7 more are working on visas
To put the number of specially received missionaries in perspective, 149 missionaries is 88 percent of our pre-COVID total complement of missionaries. Later that evening, Sis Miller and Sis Jarman came over to our apartment in answer to Sis Hatfield’s message to them. Sis Jarman had a special package from church travel. We opened it together to find the papers for her application for a visa to South Korea. We rejoiced with her. She has been here since July, having been called to Korea, but not having the opportunity to go. Maybe that with change soon. We carefully went over the instructions together, which were daunting. With Sis Miller’s help, herself a Brazil hopeful, and Sis Hatfield’s oversight, we may finally say goodbye to Sis Jarman.
Saturday, January 16th was marked by our participation in a video transmission of the baptism of Charles Beach. It was Sis Hatfield’s first witness of a baptism during our mission. I’ve seen a couple of others because of my close work with the housing elders. Bro Beach’s story is remarkable. He is an instructor at a prestigious Catholic school here in the area. He has invited missionaries to his classes for years to share information about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his students. In fact, it has been about 30 years. And along the way, Bro Beach gained a testimony himself. More missionaries and mission presidents have met with Bro Beach than any other investigator in the history of the mission, I’m sure. I cannot say whether his conversion has been rooted in his observation of the fruits of living the gospel in so many young missionaries, presidents, and ultimately, the good members of the Frontenac Ward. Certainly he has gained a knowledge of the almost irresistible truths of the Book of Mormon. And he has become a learned student of the Restoration. I do know that it has been a challenge like few people face, because he has put at risk his professional position, income, reputation, and the acceptance of his family. In fact, his baptism has been quiet, so as not to engender more wrath than necessary. On top of that, Bro Beach has become very ill. A couple of months ago, he told Pres Bell to have him baptized by proxy when he passed on. Pres Bell strongly counseled against that, and with a bit more invitation of the Spirit, Bro Beach invited Pres Bell to interview him for baptism and a today was set as the day. Apparently, Bro Beach is eating very little nourishment, as his sickness progresses. But we saw him enter the font where on Zoom, and in front of current and former missionaries, mission presidents, and ward members, Pres Bell performed that sacred ordinance where Bro Beach made the outward expression of an inner commitment to be a disciple of Christ. Many prayers of faith have been answered today.
And now, I move from the sublime to the ridiculous. At conferences of all kinds, I teach the missionaries to both have a house key on their persons whenever they leave their apartments. It has saved untold numbers of late night trips with back up housing coordinator keys to let the missionaries back in, and worse, costly fees to managers or locksmiths. Notwithstanding my preachings, I have made my share of those excursions to helped locked out missionaries. Well, today, Sis Hatfield and I went on a walk to the office where I would pick up my truck I had left there last night and drive home. She would run home, continuing her exercise. When I got back to the apartment, I was juggling an armful of stuff to take inside, did not remove my car keys from the ignition, and somehow managed to push the lock. And so I was locked out. Rather embarrassed, I called the APs for a ride back to the office to get the spare housing coordinator’s key, this time, to the housing coordinator’s apartment. And the APs were 20 minutes away, so I had to feel the shame waiting for them. Oh well, I think it will be a good object lesson for next