Sunday, April 11th was our inaugural return to the second hour of in-person church. My blessing was to lead the priesthood meeting lesson. I chose as my topic Pres Nelson’s conference address on Faith to Move Mountains. I particularly enjoyed thinking about the metaphor of faith as a mustard seed moving mountains not referring to moving the dirt and rock of the earth, but overcoming human challenges. And our faith is probably not often a tool for other peoples’ challenges, but most often our own. Just a grain of faith is all that is needed to successfully overcome our personal problems with the Lord’s strength to carry us. That is encouraging. The Lord wants our desire, hope, belief, our will—and His power is then available to overcome all of our obstacles—at least in the Lord’s time and manner. Let God prevail!
On Monday, April 12th, Sis Hatfield and I were determined to participate in our planned morning routine which includes scripture study and exercise. We wanted to “own our morning” as we say in the mission. And the morning went well, except that we didn’t get into the shower very early, and I did not account for the fact that missionaries would be coming over early to give me birthday greetings. As I was toweling off and Sis Hatfield was still in the water when I heard the knock at the door. It was a pretty quiet knock, so I thought that maybe they would just leave the card on the door and I could retrieve it later. After several minutes, the knock repeated with greater intensity. I knew that the knockers were not thinking about going away quietly, or they would have already left. I pulled on my slacks and buttoned a shirt without tucking it in, much less with a tie, and went to the door. There stood Sis Miller and Sis Chambers, muffins in hand, singing Happy Birthday. I stood there barefoot, without nametag, and with uncombed hair. I did a great job of looking cool and collected, chatting about the wonderful looking muffins and what the day would bring, while internally feeling quite embarrassed that I did not yet look like a proper missionary. Later at the office, I turned and saw a cowboy walking in, complete with six shooter, bullet belt, hunting knife, hat, and boots. It was Jake Atwood, younger brother of Elder Atwood, recently departed from the MSLM for Mexico. I had no idea Elder Atwood had a relative in the area, so it was pretty startling. It was hard not to stare at the openly carried weapons. Sis Everton sprang to her feet, but it didn’t take long to establish that Jake was simply after a bag that his brother had left behind rather than haul to Mexico. Jake was charactistically southern polite with his frequent “yes, mam,” “no, sir.” Pres Bell came out of his office and we took pictures, then Jack headed out in his truck to southwest Missouri to punch cows and make jewelry. Pres Bell invited me to a one-on-one birthday lunch, which was a treat. It is rare for a senior missionary to get alone time with the President.
I arrived home to our apartment just in time to carry Sis Jacob’s pans of enchiladas up our stairs. She has outdone herself, offering beef, chicken, cheese, and spinach, and some tacos, just for good measure. Everyone else brought some sides, and Sis Hatfield made my favorite German chocolate cake. After soccer practice, the Bell boys, Dossan and Zander came too. We blew out the candles with a paddle twice, once for me, and once for Sis Jacob, whose birthday was last week.
On Tuesday, April 13th Sis Hatfield met the painter at the office at 7 am to make sure he had a few of our project details, a bit of an early morning ritual during the remodel. Elder Reader and Elder Petty extended my birthday by bringing in a chocolate bunt cake with strawberries. It was delicious. After lunch, Elder Nielsen and Elder Reid and I headed over to Shiloh, Illinois to start moving out of the apartment we are turning in there at the end of the month. Turning back to landlords at least two and maybe three apartments this month, I can’t afford to wait until the end of the month to make progress. This trip is not for cleaning, just getting stuff out of the way so we can clean on a later trip. Missionaries have been in this unit for almost nine years now, so it really needs to be refreshed for whoever rents here next. I told the landlord the carpet wasn’t worth their money or ours to clean. We threw away one of the twin beds, two broken down dressers, and bags full of food and publications. The housing assistants laid claim to one of the couches which they say is in better condition than theirs. In an incident that blended embarrassment and humor, Elder Nielsen got chewed out from a neighbor across the cul de sac that questioned why we would spread our garbage around the several dumpsters, insisting that we throw things away only in the dumpster in front of our apartment building. Not wanting to take too much space in a single bin, we thought that spreading the trash was a good idea. This neighbor didn’t think so. It was ironic that there was a pile of mattresses that someone had discarded but not bothered to actually put in the dumpster where the neighbor was touchy. Maybe we were getting the wrath that had been building inside of him for having to look at the pile of mattresses in front of his building for who knows how long. WE made a quick stop at the Fairview Heights apartment, also in the O’Fallon area, to get information to try to find replacements for broken refrigerator shelves. I also fixed a TP holder and challenged them to clean out a “closet of outer darkness” where the doors would not even close. Finally done with our work across the river, we went back to the office to find Sis Hatfield working on emails for incoming missionaries for this next transfer, giving them details they will need for a successful start in the field. She finally got the last button pushed at 9:30 pm, after a long day in the office.
Wednesday, April 14th seemed to revolve around paint. Our office refresh included repainting from an off-white, verging on light yellow or beige, to a light grey. The painters hired by the landlord were skilled. They masked nothing, carefully brushing around edges, and rolling wall space. It was actually kind of a throwback to the time before the invention of blue masking tape and thin plastic. I can’t remember the last time I saw a painter that didn’t tape and mask every edge with paper and plastic and then blast away with the sprayer. But as good as they were at the handwork, it was all too obvious to even the least observant that the one coat of paint they had put on did not adequately cover the old color. It showed through all over the place. When Sis Hatfield asked about it, the painters replied that they had only been hired to apply one coat. We marveled that a craftsman would leave his work in this condition without at least reporting the problem to someone. That evening, Pres and Sis Bell dropped in to see the office, and were so dismayed by the paint that they couldn’t see any of the other progress. Sis Hatfield tried to text Jim Otis, our landlord, about the paint but did not get a response. The carpet layers are scheduled to start tomorrow and this won’t go well if either we don’t get more paint or the carpet is down before we do. Sis Hatfield can hardly slept worrying about this will resolve itself. I’m a bit perplexed that folks are so focused on the admittedly inadequate, but very fixable paint, and not able to see the great progress being made otherwise.
On Thursday, April 15th we hustled into the office early to try to connect with Mr Otis about the paint situation and head off the carpet layer. Mr Otis came in late morning, answering a message Sis Hatfield left with his secretary. Fortunately, the carpet layer didn’t come early like the tradesman usually do. It didn’t take much beyond a quick look for Jim to agree that the new paint wasn’t covering the old. We talked about timing, and then he put a call into the painter to try to get someone back to the job for the second coat. Not long after he went back downstairs to his office, the carpet layer showed up, but fortunately, I had offered to sweep the floor because our cabinet makers had left a bit of a mess, to the consternation of the carpet layers. I was there at the right time to ask the carpet layer to hold on until Mr Otis could communicate the revised work schedule. The painter did not come in the afternoon as hoped, so we hope he brings an apprentice tomorrow so the schedule doesn’t slip further. During the afternoon, Sis Hatfield and I decide that the partitions we are making are too tall for the storage room, so I take advantage of the lull in the office under construction and cut some panels down. We have been on the hunt for a few filing cabinets, and Elder Jacob invites us to NextGen, the staffing business that he and Sis Jacob have built and recently sold to a nephew (thankfully, making the Jacobs available to be the perfect service missionaries we needed last year to complete our office staff). Because the nephew is in Houston, there are some cabinets that Elder Jacob is willing to donate if we will pick them up. The housing assistants and I are on the job.
Friday, April 16th was our weekly staff meeting. Pres Bell came in with tender feelings. He is trying not to be too discouraged that no matter how hard he works and urges missionaries and investigators, baptisms in the MSLM have not kept pace with our goals, prayerfully established at the first of the year. It is of course true that we do not control the agency of others, and baptism depends on decisions of people who we often have not known long, much less control. And baptisms aren’t the final measure of a missionary’s discipleship. Still, it is hard to not feel let down a bit when baptisms don’t happen as we had felt inspired to strive for. I am grateful that Pres Bell feels like the office staff has the maturity and wisdom to unburden his heart to us from time to time.
More than a year ago, when I learned that missions are required to submit histories each year, I have known that I would not like the 2020 MSLM history project because it would fall on the shoulders of an already heavily yoked mission secretary, Sis Hatfield. Some months ago, a couple of things led me believe that I might be fearing needlessly. First, Sis Atkin, one of our young service missionaries, seemed willing and able to pull the load. Second, direction from the church was that from 2020 forward, histories were to be electronic files, not massive 3-ring binders as can be found in a long line on top of shelves in the storage room. So my concerns have been muted for a while. Now, as the project dashes towards and past the submission deadline, a list of hurdles have arisen. Sis Hatfield is dealing with software files organization and incompatibility, Sis Atkin’s unfortunately scheduled time away from the office, and of course, adequacy of content, much of which she did not create. This project conclusion is right on top of the office remodel, when we are away from our regular workstations and loaded down with a hundred remodeling decisions and acquisitions, bringing in the voices, preferences, and constraints of the church facilities agent and Sis Bell. We love this work, honestly.
Saturday, April 17th began with a morning of figuring out the priorities and path forward on the 2020 mission history. We don’t have time or energy to waste. Sis Hatfield is doing a great job thinking about how to keep this moving, even if the end is not yet quite in sight. So after early morning thought on the history, we think it is time to exercise. Just as we have put on our workout clothes, Sis Hatfield gets a call from Sis Bell who is at furniture stores buying office furniture for the remodel and needing trucks to pick it up. We slap on our name tags and hats to cover our unkempt hair and head out in our pickup, and while we are driving, we call the housing assistants to leave their service activity and meet us with the trailer. We will need both trucks and trailer. The elders need to make a detour to unload the trailer which is full of furniture from the apartment in Tuscola, Illinois that they dismantled yesterday. The storage unit is going to be a “hot mess” as they say. We rendezvous and get the purchased goods just in time to send the elders off to a baptism. Then we get an internet Messenger call from the Wentzville elders telling us that both they and the Warrenton sisters are now disconnected from cell coverage. Not wanting them to be stranded for the weekend and quite possibly into Monday, Sis Hatfield grabs some SIM cards from the office, calls the AT&T representative with whom she is by now on a first name basis, and we head the 45 minutes out to the Warrenton building. After going through the standard questions on cell phone trouble shooting, we have them show us how their three current SIM cards are not registering in their four phones, regardless of the card or phone. We pull out the replacement SIM cards, and strangely, now the phones will connect to the AT&T network. How can this be? We call Grant Monson, the AT&T rep, and he confirms just how bizarre a result this is. Frankly, he hasn’t seen it. Apparently, three SIM cards have gone bad for the two companionships in the area, for no apparent reason. There is some thought that maybe one of the phones is actually shorting out the SIMs one by one as they were tried. But that doesn’t explain why the replacement SIM cards are working. The most that the experts can say is that the missionary practice of putting SIM cards in and out of phones on a regular basis (meaning, switching between companions every few days), is far beyond what the hardware and software is designed to accommodate. It is a bit like swapping out hard drives on you computer every few days. No one does that. Well, no one but missionaries. We push well outside the envelope of technical design trying to protect the missionaries from the world. Interestingly, Grant Monson mentioned in passing that he had recently moved to Provo. Talking about it further, we realize he is a resident of our home stake. I am sure we will have lots of war stories to share when we get back home and meet him in person. He must like Sis Hatfield, because he says when we get home he will put us on the AT&T BYU plan which he administers for a really good price. After a long day, following a long week, during a long month, we figure we will treat ourselves to frozen custard at Andy’s when we get home. But alas, our emergency trip to Warrenton will keep us out longer than the ice cream stand is open. We do a quick search, and find Fritz’s frozen custard in Wentzville. We dash to the old fashion walkup window 4 minutes before Fritz’s closes, and they are all sold out except for chocolate. But it is delicious, and we are satisfied with yet another frozen custard stand find in St Louis.