Thursday, August 8, 2013

Escape To Don Gregorio

June 24, 2013

After a long two transfers in Mordor, the heart of the capital in Santo Domingo, Elder Gatherum and I have finally escaped.  Years of missionaries trying and failing to revive the dead area couldn't save Mordor from it's inevitable closing.  Although I enjoyed my time there getting to know some really fantastic members and being with an awesome companion, there really wasn't anything left for missionaries to do there.  Our days were devoid of direction or purpose, weeks would roll on without getting any lessons or references, and there was very little hope for the ongoing investigator drought.  We worked to the end, but the area just wouldn't budge for anything and the Lord saw fit for this unbreakable stallion to be set free.  With the capital at our backs as we set out for the countryside, we could only wonder what a short hiatus might do for the area.  

I am now stationed in a small, endearing town called Don Gregorio well outside of the bustling city of Bani on the South coast of the island.  This area is one of the few areas in this mission that lies directly on the beach and is one of the more rural locations in our zone.  It is legitimately a town carved out of the jungle and houses a community of rugged yet carefree small town folk.  The atmosphere exudes the typical traits of beach town life and the strong tropical breeze combats the infamous Caribbean heat.  Our house is decent, although we only have electricity sporadically for hour long segments throughout the day and our water schedule is just as unpredictable, but the location is fantastic.  At night the wind roars through the house and shakes the plantain trees outside our windows creating an orchestration of tropical sounds that lull us to sleep.  Our mosquito nets protect us from the barrage of mosquitoes that hunt throughout the night and we wake up to zealous roosters in the fields behind our house.  You can taste the salt that hangs in the ocean air and hear the roar of the waves crashing onto the rocky shores.  Truly a paradisaical way of living.

Being such a small town, almost everyone has been contacted and taught by the missionaries more than once.  We can walk from one side of our area to the other in less than 10 to 15 minutes and contact the entire area in less than a week if we so desired.  My new companion, Elder Larsen, has seen quite some time here and is almost too familiar with the city.  He hails from Arizona and is as familiar with the Spanish language as a Texan is to his barbecue.  He served in Mordor before I did so we can relate to each other and we are both enjoying the energy and spontaneity present here in the campo. We are currently teaching a handful of strong youth investigators who we plan to baptize in these upcoming weeks, which will also be some of my last here in the DR.  

As my time as a missionary begins to fade I have the opportunity to look back and recognize what an absolutely life-changing experience this has been.  Though it was a long, difficult, and often tiresome journey, it was an adventure that I will never forget and will forever treasure in my heart.

One Does Not Just Teach In Mordor

April 1, 2013

Transfers, once again.  I could have sworn I just arrived in Los Alcarrizos and now I have to leave this area and the people I met and worked with there behind.  Time really is slippery. 

Only a week ago I finished training Elder Forsyth in Los Alcarrizos.  I have never worked harder in any area than I did there with my first child in the mission. Elder Forsyth and I had an absolute blast and found a handful of really amazing people and families to work with, not mention had a few baptisms. It was truly an unforgettable experience, but it was also laced with disappointment.  It was so disheartening to watch so many of our investigators fail to progress for worldly distractions and see our work turn to naught so quickly.  Despite our efforts we saw very little progress in our area and watched many once golden investigators fade back into the shadows.  Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to serve along Elder Forsyth and I couldn't be more proud of my mission son who is now in charge of the area.

I am now stationed in the capital.  Deep capital.  In fact, so deep into the city I live minutes from the temple, a short walk away from the main office, a couple skips away from fast food joints, and we´re practically next door neighbors with the President of the mission.  Our area is named Mirador, but we prefer to call it ¨Mordor¨, despite the negative connotations.  We live in a house tucked into the alcove of a mini-apartment complex with a handful of English speaking Dominicans as our neighbors.  We always have electricity at night (although it leaves for the majority of the day) and luckily we always have water as long as we have electricity.  

Mordor is what some missionaries would call a ¨dead¨ area.  We don't have investigators and we are wary to ever get our hopes up on ever really having any.  We spend the majority of our days contacting rich, gated houses (usually using video intercoms, which can make for some hilariously awkward moments) and we even resort to sidewalk contacting at times.  We try and visit the members and less actives when we can since references are really the only way we would ever see progress here.  It´s very strange shifting from working in such a poor, humble to area to a city of such wealth and luxury.  

My new companion is named Elder Gatherum and comes from Logan, Utah.  He currently has 14 months on the mission and only has one transfer here in Mordor, so we are both pretty new here.  The area is going to be difficult, but it will be easier to endure with a companion I get along with.  Elder Gatherum and I have been friends since before we became companions so we're going to make the most of our time together and enjoy the area despite it's notoriety.  On a side note, I will also be the district leader of an all sister district.  With how close I am to going home I see that as a blessing.  I haven't talked to girls in English since...well, a long time ago.  Let's just say I'm going to need a lot of practice. 

However, on my second day in this area we had an experience that put all of my previous conceptions about this area to the test.  We had finished contacting when we decided to rest in a park for a while.  We had been sitting for only a few minutes discussing the hopeless state of our area, when a man approached us and demanded us to take down his address and visit him.  We, of course, did as he told us.  A few days later we visited with Victor and he proceeded to explain to us that his children had become members only a year ago but that he had never been interested in the Mormon religion.  In these past few years his life has taken a turn for the worse.  He used to be an extremely wealthy business owner and even had a close friendship with the President of the Dominican Republican.  He tried to make a radical change in his business but it failed and he quickly lost all of his money.  He now lives in a very small home with hardly any money and can't find a job.  He is one of the most humbled men I met here.  We had a powerful first lesson with him in which we taught this highly intelligent man basic, primary gospel principles and this Sunday he eagerly attended church for the first time.  I have never met a man more ready for the gospel.

I have high hopes for Mordor.  If Victor is the only man who I will ever teach here than so be it.  Elder Gatherum and I are determined to make this transfer unforgettable, as it is one of my last.  The area might be dead, but I won't be.  

There's Good Worth Fighting For

February 11, 2013

My second transfer in Los Alcarrizos has come and gone.  Another 6 weeks of training Elder Forsyth and searching for new investigators.  The new year has begun rather slow, but I guess this was never meant to be quick work. 

A few months ago Elder Forsyth and I had multiple baptisms who have thankfully remained active in the church up until now.  As a missionary, the most painful experience is to watch one of your investigators, converts, and friends join the fold and then slowly slink back into the world.  We have been blessed to watch ours stay active at least for the time that we have been here.  Argentina Dia, despite her age has managed to attend church when she can and has become even stronger of a member than she was when she was baptized.  Santo is also doing well along with the two young boys we baptized who are still attending and Juan Luis is now passing the sacrament every Sunday.  

We've spent the last 6 weeks essentially looking for more people to teach.  Pretty typical missionary stuff.  References were slim (surprise) so we resorted to hard contacting.  To mix things up a bit, when we go door to door, Elder Forsyth and I introduce ourselves, introduce the church, and then we offer to do the dishes for them.  Usually all we get is a laugh, but it's enough to get us into the door.  This method has actually won us a fair amount of success.  At the end of these last six weeks and having contacted over 800 people, we are now teaching four strong families.  We have also happened upon ten less actives, including two families.  I'd say that's a good start.

Among the investigators we have recently begun teaching is a woman named Jasmine.  We contacted her one day in he street (yes, we offered to do her dishes) and the next day we visited her in the evening.  She lives directly next to a Jehova's Witness church which also means her street is relatively biased, religiously.  I was half assuming we were walking into a bible bash situation.  We sat down with her and began the lesson as the church behind us roared with church-goers belting out indiscernible worship songs accompanied to blaring instruments.  We hadn't even begun teaching when she told us she had a question for us.  She explained to us that she used to be a member of another church and that only a year ago her husband had passed away abruptly leaving her alone with two young daughters.  She was very distressed and went to her pastor for comfort concerning the afterlife.  Her pastor explained to her that she would see her husband again but that they would never be a family again.  Since then she has not attended church and has worked to care for her daughters alone.  Through the blacked-out night and over the deafening noise, she solemnly asked us if she could be with her husband again after death.  We, of course, had an answer.  2 weeks later, Jasmine is progressing well and is currently praying about the Book of Mormon.  

A little before the beginning of this transfer while searching for a  reference in a maze of huts and unmapped dirt roads, a teenage girl called my companion and I over to her.  Usually when girls call us over the gospel is the last thing they want to talk about.  This one, however, was determined to talk to us and practically chased us down to do so.  Surprisingly, she wanted us to teach her and had already been attending church, but in another ward.  Ever since that day we have been teaching her and she has progressed beyond our expectations.  She has already begun attending seminary and has made multiple friends at church, not to mention learned and applied everything we've taught her.  Alejandra will be baptized this coming Saturday.  

Los Alcarrizos has proven to be a rich area in terms of missionary work and I only hope that we will see fruits.  Missionary work is fulfilling but with so much dependence on the agency of others it can also be overwhelmingly disappointing.  I have seen so many families who were so ready for the blessings of the gospel turn their backs on our message for such petty things and deny truths that could have changed their lives for the better.  I have seen so much good here in Los Alcarrizos and I only hope that we might be able to add a little bit more.  

Gifts of All Kinds

December 31, 2012

Christmas has come and gone and the New Year is upon us.  Here in the DR they really only celebrate Christmas by eating ridiculous amounts of food and the New Year is usually welcomed in by unreasonable amounts of drinking.  Never the less, we managed to have a wonderful holiday season as missionaries and even brought some select souls to baptisms.  I think it´s now safe for me to sing ¨I'll be home for Christmas.¨

Three weeks ago I received my first child in the mission, Elder Forsyth.  He hails from Seattle, Washington and already knows a great amount of Spanish from having worked at an orphanage in Peru for 6 months.  Makes training him that much easier.  He has learned how to teach the basic lessons and is quickly transitioning to Dominican life.  The freezing cold bucket showers can be a real deal breakers sometimes.  

During my first week with Elder Forsyth, I had the privilege to head back to my last area, Cristo Rey, to participate in the baptism of Roman and Ingrid.  Elder Adams and I had worked with this family for almost 4 months and they were finally able to get married and get baptized only recently.  I watched Roman transform from simply a curious investigator to a true man of faith.  His wife, amazed from the conversion of her husband, accepted the gospel into her life as well and they made the necessary changes in their lives and family.  I was able to perform the baptism of Ingrid and it was a very powerful experience overall.  I was able to talk to Gladis, who I also taught back in Cristo Rey, and found her preparing to be married and on the path to baptism.  I think I will always have at least some portion of my heart resting back in Cristo Rey.

During my second week with my newborn child we busily prepared four investigators for baptism.  After overcoming the minor setbacks that always seem to appear when anticipating baptisms, we finally got all 4 baptized.  Two of them were young boys named Juan Luis and Miguel.  Juan Luis is 12 years old, has prominent, adorable buck teeth, and has attended church for 4 years despite his parents not being members.  Miguel is 9 years old, has strong member parents, and is probably the cutest little Dominican child I have ever met.  He is so short that when Elder Forsyth baptized him he came up flailing his tiny little legs trying to find the bottom of the font.  One of my favorite moments while teaching him happened as I reviewed the principle of repentance.  He understood the principle and I asked him if he felt that he had repented and felt ready for baptism.  He responded with a look of offense and a stern ¨no¨.  I was a little confused and his mom was little more than concerned as we questioned him, very lovingly, why he felt that way.  His response was one of humble, childlike essence: ¨Well, I haven't repented because I haven't done anything wrong.¨

Our other two baptisms included a man named Santo and a woman named Argentina Dia.  Santo is a 40 year old man who was found by earlier missionaries as they contacted and who has completely converted to the gospel.  He has overcome a fierce drug addiction and made many changes in order to finally become a member of the church.  He has come a long way and is showing no sign of slowing down.  Argentina Dia is probably the most interesting baptism I have ever had.  She was contacted by the missionaries some time ago when she began to attend church and felt the spirit very strongly.  She has slowly learned and accepted all of the doctrine that the restored church offers.  She is also 82 years old and can hardly walk.  Being so old we had some apprehensions about how we would physically baptize her, but her fierce desire to do so overpowered our fears.  We slowly got her down the stairs, into the font, and situated her to perform the ordinance with my companion standing alongside to assist in case she had trouble.  She had a short moment of shock during which she couldn't understand any of the instructions I was giving her.  She very sweetly began saying the cutest little personal prayer under her breath and then told me she was ready to ¨just get it over with already¨.  As I went to submerge her in the water, she must have forgotten the instructions I gave her and did not plug her nose.  I wasn't about to let a little water up the nose interfere with months of hard work and preparation, so I lowered her down into the water and brought her up sputtering.  She recovered quickly and exited the font cursing her knee, although very happy to finally have been baptized.  

My third week with Elder Forsyth was unfortunately the beginning of a severe investigator drought.  We baptized everyone we had and now we have to find more.  I guess that's a good problem to have.  Reference fishing and street contacting have become our best friends as the Dominican sun remains as hot as ever.  We hope to find more investigators and maybe get a nice tan out of the deal.  Merry Christmas everyone, and have a wonderful New Year.

Change and Training

December 10, 2012

It´s amazing how much can change in so little time.  Only three weeks ago I left Cristo Rey and began my new life in Los Alcarrizos.  I´ve become much more familiar with the area now and it has really begun to grow on me, no jungle pun intended.   

When I entered Los Alcarrizos, I became the step-dad (second companion) of Elder Sams who comes from Las Vegas, is a convert to the church of only 2 years, and is the only child and member of the church in his family.  His Spanish was very well developed and he was a hard worker.  During our second week together, he called our mission president dead set on returning home and leaving the church.  His parents had already made plans to fly in and he would not change his mind.  After discussing the situation with the mission President and other leaders, Elder Sams made the decision to remain in the church but terminate his mission until he felt comfortable to return.  Three days later (Sunday) his parents came to church along with the mission President to pick him up.  I translated for the parents and they left directly afterwards.  Elder Sams promised me that he would stay active in church and he left with much more confidence in his testimony of the restored gospel.

I couldn't be left alone without a companion of course, so I received a mini-missionary named Hermano Midy.  A mini-missionary is a youth member who is called to serve a mission for only a short amount of time to experience mission life and, in this case, to fill a vacancy.  Hermano Midy is from Haiti and is a convert of only 1 year.  He has served multiple mini-missions and knows Spanish, French, and Creole.  He is a hilarious little kid and has a very powerful  conversion story, involving his miraculous survival of the disastrous earthquake in Haiti.  He is shy to speak, but when he does he is powerful.  

In this last week I have had to take over the entire area with only two weeks of experience.  I suppose it´s better than being completely whited out as some missionaries must experience, but it has  nevertheless been daunting.  Our areas is massive and we walk the majority of the day to reach our appointments which are spread out from the busy main road of this city to the outskirts of this country's vast tropical plains.  We have been very blessed to receive many references from members and we are now juggling a ton of great investigators who have baptismal goals. The only problem is finding them and getting back home again without getting lost.  

Among these investigators we are teaching 4 families, all of which need to get married (a very difficult and expensive process here in the DR).  One investigator we have is amazingly strong and convinced of the truth of our message, but she is so old she can hardly get to church, let alone get baptized.  I recently received another reference for a woman whose son had been attending church.  We shared with her for a time and she was skeptical of our message, but in time she received a very sweet answer to her prayers regarding the church and wishes to be baptized with her son.  There is more than enough work to do here in Los Alcarrizos.  

Back in the concrete jungles of Cristo Rey, Elder Adams has been keeping busy with the families that we found together.  I was recently informed that Roman and his wife have made the decision to get married and will be getting baptized along with their children this coming Saturday.  We worked with this family for almost 5 months and watched as their testimonies grew throughout all of their trials.  I have received permission to return to Cristo Rey on Saturday to participate in the baptism.  

Only a short time into my experience with Hermano Midy I got a call from the mission office informing me that I would only be with my mini-missionary for one week.  That didn't make sense because the transfer still has three weeks left to go.  I was only recently told that I would spend the last 3 weeks of this transfer training a brand new elder.  Apparently an elder in the MTC right now feels comfortable enough with his Spanish to leave the MTC early and enter the field to be trained by none other than "yours truly".  From what I understand, his name is something along the lines of Elder Forscythe.  Other than that, I know absolutely nothing about him.  I will retrieve him tomorrow morning and will begin my life as a mission father.  

An unfamiliar area with a clueless companion in charge of a city full of investigators and less actives who speak a foreign language?  Mission accepted.

Transferred to Los Alcarrizos

November 26, 2012

Transferred.  18 weeks in Cristo Rey flew by and I am now stationed in Los Alcarrizos with Elder Sams from Oklahoma.  Change always hurts, but new experiences are great opportunities for growth, both personally and spiritually.

Los Alcarrizos is an area that was described to me as half-city, half-campo.  I didn't quite understand that until I got here.  We live in the city, a bustling town with a main street called the Duarte running through it.  We walk up and down this road to get around the majority of our over sized area and step down into alleys that branch off the main street where many of our investigators live.  The further in we go, the deeper we get into the jungles of the DR.  Some streets simply fade to dirt roads that turn to mud after the daily rain showers pass through, while others literally drop off into rivers or thick foliage.  One portion of our area called the Tamarindo is a maze of makeshift wooden and tin huts and which, interestingly enough, houses the majority of our progressing investigators.  In a single day we work in the up-skirts of town to the edges of the thick Caribbean jungle and I absolutely love it.  

Our house, unfortunately, is a downgrade.  Ive had to accustom myself once again to freezing cold bucket showers and inconsistent light schedules.  Its strange, but somehow I did kind of miss the hum of the electricity leaving and the sound of mosquitoes buzzing around my mosquito net.  Its disturbing and soothing all at once.  We live in a four man house including myself, Elder Sams, Elder Meek (Idaho Falls), and Elder Peralta (Puerto Plata - DR).  I will be the district leader this transfer and we have a few prospective baptisms we are looking forward to. 

Our current progressing investigators are of all varieties.  We have a baptismal goal set with an 80 year old woman who can hardly remember anything she reads nor walk to church by herself.  She progresses wonderfully, however, so we will have to give her some time and see if she can really continue to attend church consistently and understand the covenants she will be making.  I'm just afraid that she will keel over before we can even fill up the font.  We are also teaching various children who will have to really show some dedication if they want me to baptize them.  Children go inactive much too easily and I am not about to add another tally mark to the less less active count in this country.  Among other promising investigators we have the Eriberto Family who are possibly the most golden investigator family I have ever met.  Contacted a year ago by one of my good friends in the mission, they have attended church faithfully and have been taught by the missionaries as they try to get married.  We can hardly even teach them because they respond to our questions with such knowledge and detail that they hardly leave us with any material left to cover.  Their plans are to get married in this coming month so I may be a part in their baptism.  

New places, new people; I guess this is all part of the program.  Its always hard to rip yourself away from what was once your home, but with time you settle down and eventually find new people to love and new experiences to cherish.  I have a feeling that it wont be too difficult to find my home again here in Los Alcarrizos.  

Sandy and Gladis

November 5, 2012

Halfway through my third transfer in Cristo Rey with Elder Adams and we have yet to beat each other up.  15 weeks of working, sleeping, eating, teaching, contacting, and sweating in the same area with the same companion can get relatively monotonous, but luckily Cristo Rey keeps us on our toes and we have managed to retain our sanity.  Halloween isn't celebrated here so that was a bit of a disappointing holiday.  Thanksgiving should be equally uneventful. 

Hurricane Sandy blew through a little while ago and brought with it an ocean´s worth of rain and colder weather than I've felt in years.  We´re talking 60 to 70 degree temperatures here.  I know, really cold.  Our fans got a break for a few days and we couldn't dry out our clothes for that time, but other than that we weren't affected.  Many houses here are made of wood slats, cardboard, or concrete blocks so many were struggling to keep dry.  Even our thick concrete walls were becoming damp from water seeping in through unnoticeable cracks.  Sandy left it´s mark. 

Recently we have been facing very little progression among our investigators.  The Sosa Family are still strong but are having trouble making the decision to get married.  We continue to teach them and they attend church but they may have to take a few more steps of faith before they arrive at baptism.  We have also been teaching a woman named Gladis recently who has been very receptive.  As we began to teach her she appeared relatively disinterested, but one day we show up to her house and she told us that she had prayed and had received an answer that the church was true.  I thought maybe she was confused, but she used specific wording in bearing her testimony to us, mentioning the restoration, Joseph Smith, and modern day prophets.  I was in shock and I had to hold back chuckles when I look over at my companion whose mouth was hanging open.  For all of the prayer invitations we extend, not many people actually do it.  She has since attended church, read all of the pamphlets, and is currently making plans to be married.  Tight.  We have also been receiving various references from members that have major potential.  Maybe having another baptism here isn't as distant of a dream as I thought it was.