Monday, February 24, 2014

Week 30: Angels and Agnostics

I don't think I've ever had much reason to believe in angels, prior to my mission.  I mean, I believed it when other people talked about their experiences with souls on the other side, but since I've been in the field I've had occasion to speculate that much of God's work gets done here by the faithful spirits, either pre-earth or post-mortal, that aid the Holy Ghost in all his guiding and prodding and whispering.
Firstly, this last week was our first full bike week.  It's quite an adventure.  We've been chased by dogs a few times, and hollered at by some hicks in a truck - they said "Do a trick!" to my companion and she pointed to her skirt-biking self and said "This is a trick!" then when I came by they said "Hey what're ya'll sellin?" and I shouted back "Happiness!"  In other news, I don't weigh any less from it (i.e. still 10lb heavier than when I left home) but I'm fairly sure I've got way more leg muscle than I've ever had.  We biked over 15 miles last Friday and if it weren't for some sort of divine help we probably would have given up or died, considering half that ride was on a backwood highway at night where there are no sidewalks or road shoulders and the wind was freezing, but there was this great moment where we paused for breath and I looked up between the rows of thick woods and there were even more stars than usual, Orion's constellation far clearer than I've ever seen.  These lines of course came to mind... "I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed."  How great Thou art, indeed.

Sometimes I stare at these lines til they start to move
Secondly, it's been an excellent week for finding.  Sister Creager is hardcore about the 7 hours of tracting per week, so we've made knocking neighborhoods a high priority.  The new mindset is quality over quantity when it comes to investigators, and with all this finding, we've come across several potentials and can more easily pick and choose the ones with most promising first reactions.

1. The G family.  We'd made a return appointment with them, and when we showed up for it, they were all there, waiting for us, and had us sit around the table so we could tell them what makes our church different.  The dad, young guy, recently got his family back into going to church and the Restoration interested him because he saw a documentary about how books were taken out of the Bible.  His mother was even there, who was as interested in researching religions as he is.  They eagerly took a Book of Mormon to study.

2. Old Joe.  He's been to many churches, he said, and could never find one that would satisfy or answer his questions, which he takes to God often and waits as long as it takes to be answered.  He said something about our smiles, something he could see in us, and let us tell him a story about a boy in a similar situation...and with his same name.  He thanked us sincerely for staying and talking with him (usually the other way around) and expressed desire to come to our church, one he hasn't tried yet, and when we left we realized he'd been slightly intoxicated - regardless, I sensed that there were moments he could feel the Spirit getting through to him that what we shared was something valuable and I'm 90% convinced the two deceased relatives he mentioned had something to do with it.

3. Ash the agnostic.  Super sweet girl, was the trenchcoat-wearing, anime-loving, art-major type, and believes that a higher power must have preserved her in a car wreck so she could be a mother to the baby she has now.  We shared about the pre-earth life, our purpose on earth, our relationship to God, which is something she said she's wondered about.  And she loved that we didn't judge her in all her quirkiness and was excited to have us return.  Minutes after leaving her, we met another agnostic young woman who made a return appointment with us.  I feel like "agnostic" is another word for "golden investigator."  These are the first I've met since being in the South.

4. The S household.  Initially, we'd gone because the father had said we could return.  He's a Jehovah Witness, but doesn't even believe everything they believe, and our appointment with him ended up being a 2 hr lecture on the "two-sided research" he'd done on Joseph Smith and basically had a list of reasons why he couldn't be a prophet (yes, by including both understandably true and ridiculously untrue things he'd read about from questionably legitimate sources) all of which, I believe I could have easily rebutted by pointing out things he'd not thought to consider (the actual recorded testimonies of people like Martin Harris and the eight witnesses) but upon realizing that this was not my job as a missionary and representative of Jesus Christ, the Spirit stayed my tongue and I let my companion invite him to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it.  There was this moment when he was talking in impartial detail about the martyrdom of Joseph and I felt this sweet and strong spiritual confirmation in my heart that Joseph Smith truly was a prophet of God, who restored the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It was like a shield sprang up around us, and it was a strange and beautiful experience.  The crazy thing though: the guy's daughter had been sitting with us the whole time, reading a Restoration pamphlet, and when I asked her about it she said she really like the story about the boy who was lacking wisdom, cause she related to him.  She couldn't even remember the boys name, in spite of her father having slandered it for a straight hour, and the only explanation I've come up with for this is that there had been an angel standing behind her the whole time, covering her ears.  She's the reason we found this household.

We continue to meet with Jaco, and he continues to ask us really good questions.  How does Christ "set us free"?  How are we both "of God" and "with God"?  How do you use the individual spirit to connect with other people?  We do the best we can, but I think he may complicate things more than he needs.  Someday, God as his loving Heavenly Father will become real to him and everything else will click.  That's the hope.  In the meantime, we still feel like best friends, the three of us, and we love him to bits according to Sister Creager's definition: "Love - constant anxiety for the eternal welfare of another person's soul."

guests at the Baptist
Sunday evening, we did a crazy thing and followed a woman we'd tracted into who invited us to her Baptist church, for the evening worship.  The preacher was a bit loud, a bit excited, good with words, had some nice points about humility and repentance, though it at times sounded like he was advertising prayer or leading a Jesus pep rally, and when he invited us to "bow our heads" it was really hard to pray when he kept talking and telling us what to pray for.  Some of the songs were nice, and I felt the Spirit during one of the contemporary gospel hymns.  They projected the lyrics and a live band played a long, like a congregational karaoke, and it's been stuck in our heads all day today... "I'll rise up like the eeeeagle, and I will soar with You, Your Spirit leads me on, in the power of Your looooooove..."  The people there were totally nice though, and let us share their potluck following the service.  I admit: I am a fan of the Baptist potluck.

In sacrament on Sunday, the six of us missionaries sang the EFY medley, "As Sisters in Zion" and "We'll Bring the World His Truth."  The ward loved it, despite our amateur voices, because the Spirit was strong.  It got me thinking how at many points in my life, all I wanted was to be part of something great or to do something noble.  And here I am.  This is it.  We are as the army of Helaman.  We are the Lord's missionaries.  And we get this wonderful promise:

88 And whoso areceiveth you, there I will be also, for I will gobbefore your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my cSpirit shall be in your hearts, and mine dangels round about you, to bear you up. [D&C 84:88]

They're everywhere.  And you all get this same promise of companionship too.  Awesome, huh? :]

Sister Valdez

Week 29: Let Your Heart

Happy Valentines day!
I hope ya'll had a lovely and non-depressing Valentine's day.  Mine was pretty wonderful, as far as mission holidays go.  We four sisters had a sleepover and woke to find giant glitter-glued poster cards, triple chocolate cakes, and extra teaching records on our doorstep - a gift from our Byram elders.  They're sweet guys.  And don't worry, the cards covered in scripture references about love included this appreciated sentiment:  "We love you sisters!...but not in a creepy way, in a love of Christ way."  And the three of you that sent me packages, they all arrived that afternoon.  The timing was perfect and I felt very loved, thank you so much for your delicious gifts :]  A member of the ward took all six of us missionaries out to sushi Friday night and it was the best I've had since being home.  Thank goodness there are Japanese people everywhere, even random tiny towns like Florence, MS.
To complete the Valentine weekend, we had an truly sitcom-worthy case of "He loves me, he loves me not" with our investigator Jaco.  Object of his fickle affection: the baptismal date.  I'll try to sum up the drama for you, detective-log style:

Wednesday night: Lesson with Jaco.  Commits to live commandments.  Lessons are technically complete.  Confirm baptismal interview date/time.
Thursday morning: Receive text that Jaco will not make it to today's interview.  Missionaries drop everything, rush to his house in panic.  Teach lesson addressing common anti-Mormon remarks he came across.  Heavily testify of the joy of the restored gospel.  Jaco prays for an answer, agrees to be baptized.
Thursday night: Receive text that Jaco is actually still undecided.  Answer accepted.
Friday afternoon: Lesson with Jaco.  Discuss the plan of salvation and make no mention of baptism.  Jaco asks when he can have his interview.  Because he's decided to be baptized.  Missionaries freak out.
Friday night: Receive apology text.  Jaco cannot make a decision.  Missionaries want to cry.
Saturday morning: Receive text saying Jaco will be at his scheduled interview.  Missionaries are confused.
Saturday afternoon:  Jaco goes to his interview.  Fervent prayer.  Both Jaco and interviewer conclude that he needs more time.  Missionaries relieved that a decision has been made.
Sunday: Scheduled baptism does not occur.  Missionaries try not to think about it.
Current status: Cool with it.  Still teaching Jaco.  This time, from the ground up.

By the end of all this, poor bishop, who's barely been bishop for six days, was probably tired of my calls.  "Baptism Sunday!...actually, it's being postponed...no wait it's back on!...ooh just kidding it's not. Our bad."  I thought Heavenly Father was done testing me for patience, but apparently I've more to learn.  By this time next year, I will be the most patient person you ever met.  Fo realz.

I thank goodness we had something to distract us this week apart from routine work, i.e. we moved!  Sister Creager and I now have our own apartment in Florence, so we don't have to waste miles traveling to our area and can walk/bike when we don't have the car (we share with the Richland missionaries).  We're two days into bike week now and it's killin.  We're gonna get so fit.  I've been in a foursome apartment since the start of my mission, so it being just us two is quite different, but I like it.  Lots of space to stretch out and scatter possessions, and lots of quiet in which to ponder.  The mission gave us new furniture and I learned how to build a table!  Also, chairs.  But those took a few tries.  Only downers were our toilet wouldn't stop running, but Sis Creager fixed it like a boss with a rubber band and a rock, and today our power was out, so I'm praying the apartment peeps figure that out before all our perishables perish or I have to try to shower in the dark.
Workin Jackson with Sis McGrath!

Cool fact: I got to work J-town!  Tuesday was exchanges with the Sister Training Leaders and I went tracting in Jackson with Sister McGrath, and awesome bubbly sister I knew in Shreve.  It was so fun to be with her again.  She bought me a donut because she's awesome.  We found a couple of friendly, humble families in one neighborhood, both with little babies.  Cool thing about babies: they're super close to the veil and most of them recognize us missionaries as representatives of Christ, I'm 97% sure of it.  Before we left, one of the families' little ones was staring at me intently through the window and I whispered to him "I know you know who we are - tell your parents to let us come back!"

Sunday, in order to get our weekly 7 hours in, we knocked doors for three straight hours.  It was fruitful, but Saturday's tracting was probably the best.  Key: we'd set out with a vision.  "Okay, we're going to find a family today, mom is Hispanic-American, dad is white, two kids, boy and a girl, not necessarily belonging to both, and they've recently moved from up north somewhere."  Five houses in, we found them.  Except, the dad was the Hispanic one and they only moved within the state I think.  Not even kidding.  And what's more, they have a relative a few towns away who just joined the church a year ago!  A built-in fellowshipper!  Envisioning success really works, on a spiritual level because when you tell Heavenly Father what you're looking for, He can put it in your path.  He's extremely reliable, even when nothing else in the world seems like it may be, He is constant.

 52 Behold, my beloved brethren, remember the words of your God; pray unto him continually by day, and give athanks unto his holy name by night. Let your hearts brejoice. [2 Nephi 9]

I found this scripture when we were waiting for Jaco to come out of his interview.  The thought had occurred to me: Find a reason to rejoice.  Find a scripture on the commandment to be happy.  And I found this one.  If you remember the mercy and promises of God, if you remember to counsel with Him throughout the day and thank Him for the numerous things you received by His hand when it's over, then I think you'll find you have much to be happy about.  So don't keep yourself from the joy of knowing that your Eternal Father has got your back.  Don't keep your heart confined to the passing sorrows of the moment.  Let it rejoice.  You have every reason to.

Sister Valdez

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Week 28: Heaven's Eyes

Dang, Cassie's stories make mine look like board meeting minutes (more like bored meeting minutes am I right?) but as long as I'm working myself to near-death like I'm s'posed to, the rest can't be helped, right?  Just agree.

Sister Creager and I have heard many an inspiring conversion story from members who were golden and saw miracles throughout the process.  A book Sister Sellers gave me called "Finding the Elect of God" says that no matter where your area is, there are "five people ready to be baptized right now, today."  People already prepared and waiting for us.  We just have to find them.  Even after meeting our recommended tracting quota, and having found no one promising, we continued in our search yesterday singing a song from our district leader.  "Looking for the one!  Looking for the one!  Looking for the one who's looking for usss who's looking for truuuuuth!"  Helps us get our smiles back just in time for another doorslam-to-the-face.

Unrelated thought:  We listened to the Prince of Egypt soundtrack maybe 39 times this week while driving and during this time, something fascinating occurred to me:  this story really happened.  Moses was a real person.  The Red Sea actually parted at the touch of a staff and legions of believers really were delivered out of bondage and out of the hands of a terrible totalitarian economy.  Isn't that awesome!?!?!?  There's something about hearing it in music that makes it all the more incredible.  Poor Moses with his stutter who had could have been a prince except he was adopted (also he killed someone) and then has to go back to this court of haters and tell the monarch, "Um, all those people you're working to death are my family please find someone else to build your pyramids and let them go maybe?"  and then yeah.  You know the rest.  He was so noble, that Moses.  And he certainly didn't think himself so, but God saw something in him that no one else did.  So it is with us.  Heavenly Father asks us to do crazy things sometimes and were like "um wut?" and He's like "I wouldn't ask you if there wasn't a way."  And then boom - the enemy army drowns.

You know the song from that movie that goes "Look at your life through heaven's eyes" and has this line "a lake of gold in the desert sand is worth less than a cool fresh spring; and to one lost sheep, a shepherd boy is greater than the richest king."  Well something hit me this week, like "duh. Why you always so worried about stuff like anonymous internet fans and national acclaim? You're going to meet someone in this mission who's been waiting for you, who'll think you're the bees knees, who will never forget your name as long as they live because YOU helped them receive the restored gospel."  And I'm like whoa you're right.  And even if it doesn't happen on the mission, my children will hopefully be those grateful sheep that I get to mean a lot to.  My view of my personal worth, of my future was like WHOOSH changed in a minute.  I just need to not forget it now.

Florence is a great place for deep thinking.  The walks between houses, particularly in backwoods neighborhoods, are longer than I'm used to, and there's no shortage of poetic surroundings.  Crumbling wooden shacks, gravel roads, marshy woods, floral wallpaper, ancient cars with fading paint, myriads of wind chimes, and more stars than I can count on two hands when the sun goes down (and sometimes giant bear-dogs that barrel into you and chew on your arm).  But the best are the lessons we've been having nearly every evening in a little trailer with Jaco*.  They're what keep me going.  

Teaching him feels like I'm just testifying to my friend.  He's around our age, he's Mexican (I've been waiting my whole mission to teach someone Hispanic!) and when we talk, we're all on one level, like college colleagues or something.  In fact, he talks and thinks and reasons almost exactly like a friend I had in college, the conversations with whom I now realize were a prequel to these lessons with Jaco.  He's a very critical thinker, has a good understanding of both logic and faith and when the two come together in the questions he asks, it's got my mind running on full-speed in high performance mode and my spirit repeating my most frequently used six word prayer "Father help Father help Father help!" when I'm so close to being confounded.  But since being in Florence, I've been continuously surprised by how articulate my answers to obscure questions sound and I've backed myself up with way more scripture references than I realized I knew.  Pretty crazy what the Holy Ghost can do when you just do your part to study and then let him take over.

After a long discussion on what truth is and how one finds truth according to our own understanding and experiences (meaning without just repeating what the scriptures say - Jaco really pushes me to my limits sometimes) he basically asked for our testimonies: "Well what do you personally believe?"  Sister Creager and I then shared the few simple truths we hold most precious in our hearts of the personality of God, the divinity of the Savior, and the reality of the Restoration, and whoosh, there was the Spirit.  It's rough to get an intellectual to understand feelings and the way that the Spirit speaks, especially with worldly man-made philosophies in the way.  But at the end of the day, all we can do is teach, testify, and trust.

11 Therefore, the aredeemed of the Lord shall breturn, and come with csinging unto Zion; and everlasting joy and holiness shall be upon their heads; and they shall obtain gladness and joy; sorrow and dmourning shall flee away.
 12 aI am he; yea, I am he that comforteth you. Behold, who art thou, that thou shouldst be bafraid of man, who shall die, and of the son of man, who shall be made like unto cgrass?
 15 But I am the Lord thy God, whose awaves roared; the Lord of Hosts is my name.
 16 And I have aput my words in thy mouth, and have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion: Behold, thou art my bpeople. [2 Nephi 8]

No matter what happens next, (i.e. whether Jaco keeps his baptismal date or not), it's a wonderful and redeeming feeling indeed to know that heaven is using little insignificant you to do quiet and significant things.

Sister Valdez

Monday, February 10, 2014

Week 27: Viva Firenze!

Good old Dalton came to say goodbye

Farewell, my lovely roommates

On the transfer van

Saw my mom in Monroe!

There's this quote by Brigham Young in Preach My Gospel that has had occasion to pop into my head:  "If you go on a mission to preach the Gospel with lightness and frivolity in your hearts, looking for this and that, and to learn what is in the world [...] you will go and return in vain. Let your minds be centered on your missions."

Every once in awhile I'll step out of the apartment, usually when my Canon A-I film camera is in hand, and this quote will come to mind, as though the presence of the camera-in-hand has got me "looking for this and that" and I'll panic - "Oh no! Lightness and frivolity! Get thee hence!  No more touristy thoughts!  Stop looking at the trees!  I know there's a lot of them, but you're here to work!"  I mean, I'm sure it's not that bad.  But I do have to watch myself constantly, lest my fascination with the picturesque South override my focus.  The quote made me realize though, why I was not called to Italy as I had hoped.  The suppression of my natural urge to take pictures of everything in sight would have driven me bonkers.  However, a funny thing happened last week where I finally left the city I'd been calling home for half a year and was assigned to labor in the next best place to Florence, Italy..... Florence, Mississippi :]  So now I'm here in good old Firenze, as the Italianos would call it.  What's more, I'm back with two of my dearest friends!  Sister Creager, who I was with in the MTC, is my companion again, and we live with Sister Ray (one of my roommates my first transfer in Shreveport) and her comp Sister Diehl (who also came out same time as me).  At transfer point, we saw all the sisters we came out with and had an MTC reunion with much hugging and screaming.
MTC sisters, reunited
Florence is small and pretty and tame, many more woods, much more space between houses, and noticeable milder people than those I've previously encountered knocking doors on a Sunday afternoon.  In fact, yesterday was no ordinary Sunday as you sports fans would know.  As if I needed another reason to hate on football (i.e. the one religion the entirety of the South can agree on) yesterday was Super Bowl Sunday and I was scared out of my pants to attempt any form of uninvited proselyting at the risk of being raged at by large gatherings of possibly-intoxicated already-riled-up fanatics.  All during church, I tried not to think about what may or may not happen that afternoon, and focus on the fact that we had two investigators and a less active at church (I know right?! the work here is bumpin) and the lesson on Adam&Eve, the Fall, and Agency that Sister Creager and I were assigned to teach the 10 yr olds in Primary (which was bomb, just fyi).  But when we got dropped off on our corner, a street looking very much like Rameumptom Row, even bleaker because of the gray and drizzle, it all got frighteningly real.  But guess what?  God is still merciful.

We'd previously designed to tract a street called Duckworth.  Yes, Duckworth.  What's a Duckworth?  Two lesson and three Books of Mormon, that's what.  Hollaaa!  It was miraculous.  First a man let us in.  Yes, let us in.  Oh you have a spiritual message?  Ok sure, whatev.  And we shot out a Restoration lesson with my cup demonstration (basically you build Christ's church, remove the foundation which is prophets and apostles [Ephesians 2] and watch the church fall, build it up again after the story of Joseph Smith and the first vision, boom the church of Jesus Christ restored).  Another man who looked tired and jaded (a golden combination) took a Book of Mormon after we vehemently promised him it would change his life.  And then another man let us in at the end of the street, and HIS WHOLE FAMILY sat down to listen to us give the same lesson with the cups.  They committed to read the Book of Mormon, to put our promise to the test, and see if this fantastic story we tell and claim we make isn't true.  I know it is.  And I know they can know it too.  And we totally taught a family on first contact on Super Bowl Sunday while tracting.  That never happens.  But that's what you get when your companion fasts to find a family.  Great things are coming to pass in this town.

I'll give you a rundown of life lately:

I spent my first morning going down a list and making phone calls to complete strangers that may or may not want to hear about the gospel.  I had this moment of "This is so not normal.  A year ago, I wouldn't pick up the phone to call my own dentist."

An army of church-cleaners!
My first night, we visited a man who had already rejected the missionaries when they knocked on his door, but now had a requested a Book of Mormon and had his whole family there to listen to our brief spiel on it.  What caused the change of mind?  His LDS friends online had challenged him to check it out.  Members are everything.

Same day, we followed up with a woman who'd said she was interested in learning about other religions, and she'd actually read the first chapter of Nephi in the last two days!  We taught her about the Restoration and Joseph Smith, in between interruptions by her boyfriend's drunk friend on the couch beside us who probably is still not convinced that we are NOT Jehovah's Witness.

I helped teach a very recent convert about the Priesthood, at which he so humbly insisted that he wasn't worthy to bless the emblems of Christ's body.  He called the higher priesthood the "Mel-cheese-idek."  I tried so hard not to laugh until two hours later, when Sister Creager would have to endure my rolling-on-the-floor giggle fit.  "aaahah...haha...mel-cheeeese-idek.."

Six months!
I hit six months last Friday!  SIX MONTHS.  Can you believe that?  A third of my mission, done.  Since Sister Diehl and Sister Creager came out with me, we all got to celebrate together with too much fried food and a stomach full of regret.  I don't feel much different.  Just with more experience under my belt, and a firmer testimony, and what the mission president calls "spiritual grit" - the ability to bounce back after emotionally/spiritually trying days.

So I guess there has been some change.  Sister Ray says I look different from the greenie that came to live with her in Shreve last August.  Considering I don't think I've aged in four years, I'd say that's pretty significant.  You won't find any lightness or frivolity in this heart.  You also won't find nearly as much fear, either.  Still working on that balance between being cheerful and being focused, but I think I've found the solution.  Hope.

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. [Ether 12:4]

No matter where I make port in this mission, so long as my anchor, my hope, is in Christ and his promises, my resolve may be sure: nothing will sink us.  Viva Firenze!  Viva Israel!

Sister Valdez

Week 26: Goodbye, Red River

One time it snowed and the entire state freaked out.
Whoosh.  I’ll try to keep this short.  Yes, it was my last week in Shreveport.  Last week in Louisiana too, for the time being.  It was here I learned many valuable things: what shingles are; how to sleep with one arm off the bed; what it feels like to spend Christmas away from home; how to handle a rake; that Joseph Smith truly was the prophet of the Restoration; and that Thomas S Monson is God's true prophet today.  You know, the usual stuff.

As a last hurrah, my comp and I forewent driving to the church to run around the gym for our exercise hour (nevermind the fact that we didn’t actually have a car with which to do so, as it’s in the shop) and instead jogged across the street to the high school track.  I ran up the stadium steps, like I used to do every morning when I first got here, and said my farewells at the top of the bleachers, the whole cold barely-lit city laid out before me.  “Thanks for the memories, old Skreve.  I will miss you.”

I wanna adopt the Smith family k thx
Dee* still hasn't made it to church, but last week we were able to give her a church tour.  It was way more amazing than you might expect.  We as members often take for granted the special Spirit that resides inside those walls, but when you step back and experience it with people that have only ever been around rock bands, pulpit-pounders, and mass baptisms, you find that the reverence inside our simple but hallowed meetinghouses is pure and lovely and that we are so blessed to be weekly partakers of this blessing of the Restoration.  Tanner, a recently returned missionary, helped us lead the tour (since I've never done this before and would other wise would have been like "um. this is a class room. we learn stuff here.")  He helped us teach her about the necessity of priesthood authority, esp. concerning the ordinance of baptism when we showed her the font.  We gave a background of every painting in the hallway, and I told the story of the sons of Helaman.  I told her about the incredible faith they had in God because of the teachings of their mothers, and she looked at her pre-teen son and said "how bout that, huh?"  When they sat in the chapel, the stillness was such as even I have never noticeably felt, and they sat in the front pew for a moment together, the little fam of three.  She asked her son how he felt about it all.  "Do you feel God here?" she asked.  "Yes," he quietly answered.  And she agreed.  I had to bite my lip to keep from crying out in joy, lest I break the peaceful silence.  Sister Sellers played the piano then, and I sang "I Know that My Redeemer Lives."  Always end with a testimony of the Savior.  He's what makes this all possible.

Dee's son also told me that after I committed him to start praying, he'd prayed for help in school and promptly saw a boost in his grades.  I was so happy.  I have so much love for that family.  The daughter had made me a beautiful goodbye card when they found out I was leaving and I hugged and hugged her.  I hope the sister that takes my place will know what to say to help them progress even further.  All the way to the strait and narrow.

my best friend Bailee

Other cool thing of the week - after all my hugs goodbye after church (I'm going to miss my ward family so much) we sisters got to go run the LDS booth at the World Religions Fair at the community center.  A Hindu guy gave us free bananas, several teenagers doing school projects asked us questions and took Books of Mormon, and I was interviewed for TV by the news lady.  I was on KTBS 3 last Sunday.  Cool, huh?
Representin at World Religion Day

This is a seemingly insignificant story in comparison, but it was such a plain expression of mercy that I have to share.  Sister Sellers and I were on bikes last Saturday and we hopped off to approach a house.  As I pulled off my helmet, it caught on my earring and I felt it rip off.  Initiate: panic search.  Leaves covered the ground and we pulled off our tags, hoping the magnet on the back would pick it up, but fifteen minutes later it was still lost.  Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal - I don't even wear jewelry hardly - but these earrings were a gift.  Indian-made turquoise earrings from my sister in New Mexico.  Naturally, losing one was a little distressing.  We had both prayed in our hearts to find it, but as I started to say another one, a thought came to me, as though Heavenly Father was speaking back - "Who do you love more?  Me or your sister?"  I would give my right leg for my sister.  But at this moment, I realized that although God loves to give to those who ask, at this moment He was going to test my dedication to Him and His work.  With a bit of a heavy heart, I abandoned the search and got back to the work of salvation.
Sometimes weekly planning gets stressful
and half my hair ends up in braids

By the end of the day, I'd put the disappointment from my mind.  My conscience was clear - I had made a choice in full purpose of heart to show my commitment to my Heavenly Father and his work.  He could have left it at that, a great lesson learned.  But I guess He also decided to take this chance to teach me of His mercy.  As Sister Sellers and I knelt down to pray that evening, my heart stopped.  There on the carpet was the missing earring.  I don't know how He did it - because I'd felt it rip off earlier - if it had stuck to my clothes or my bike or something and just fallen off when we got in (after a full day of biking?  I'm so sure) but one way or another, God answered our prayers, this time with "Yes - because I know it will make you happy."

I am not worthy of the least of all themercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant" [Gen 32]  "But behold, I, [Sister Valdez], will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power ofdeliverance." [1 Nephi 1]

Orange Leaf - a Shreve sister tradition

...is a team effort
Toe-loss prevention...
I'll let ya know soon what Mississippi's like!

Sister Valdez

Elder Joseph. Mah brutha.
Elder Headman, my artistic friend

Monday, February 3, 2014

Week 24 & 25: The Skreets of LA

Who needs signs when you got spray paint?
Plot twist: the Zone leaders called up our apartment last week with a "Hey so we decided to switch your area boundaries - swoosh! - over here.  So now South, your area is smaller, and East, your area is impossibly large.  Also, you get some of the ghetto."  Okay, so maybe they didn't say it exactly like that, but that's what happened.  So Sister Sellers and I got to spend a couple days this week in the hood of Shreveport, Louisiana - the true skreets of LA.  It was certainly nothing like Rameumpton Row, and goes to show how much I'd be missing out on if I did stay in Shreveport my whole mission (which I initially was wishing for with all my attached heart, but realize now that since I'm approaching 6 months in my birth area, it may finally be time to move on.)
We witnessed an actual rooster crossing the road in front of us, but he unfortunately strutted away before I could ask him why he did it.  We crossed paths many times with Randy, the one legged man burning rubber in his wheelchair, who said "You ladies only come to this neighborhood when I'm here, I gotchu, no one will do nothin to ya while I'm around."  Heck yeah, anyone shady comes near us, no doubt he will run. them. over.
Someone's front yard. I have no idea why.
We tracted Babylon. No big deal.
As it occured to my companion the other day, we miss a lot when we don't trust the Spirit and listen for it - though it usually sounds like not much more than a "hey maybe you should go here, or do this."  Oh, that's the Spirit?  I thought that was just my head thinking stuff.  Yeah, genius (says to self) that's how the Spirit gets through, not over a loudspeaker in the sky or a text message from a long distance number (do you know this area code? ah yes, that's city of Heaven).
Me looking hardcore next to a bullet hole.
One day we spent a good hour with Sister S, driving all over the dickens for someone to minister to while we yet had a member with us.  We almost located a less-active, but instead met her son.  To make it worth the drive, I gave him a Book of Mormon to take with him as he enters the Air Force, and he gave me an awkward unanticipated side-hug.  (This happens sometimes, and I don't know why.)  So after a few more tries we ran out of ideas and Sister S said, "Let's go see Sister P."  So we did it.  Started out like regular small talk of trips and children, as visiting teaching goes, next thing you know we're hearing Sister P's conversion story and rocky family life and current life struggles, and - swoosh! - out come the scriptures so we can dry her tears with the words of Christ and testimonies of His Atonement.  We left that sister's house with that undeniable feeling that that was where we'd needed to be.

Once in awhile I get astounded at what my calling allows me to do.  In some cases, counsel full grown adults with years more life experience than me.  And it has nothing to do with my own knowledge of the gospel, and everything to do with my calling and the fact that while I'm assigned to this area, all those within it, member or not, are under my stewardship.  What's more, they trust ME, this little never-lived-away-from-home 22 year old girl to teach them out of the scriptures, like the true representative of Jesus Christ that I'm trying to be.  It's really significant and really makes me not want to ever go home and have to have this mantle removed.  (I also am not looking forward to having to make choices and stuff.  Righteousness is so much easier when you have sky high rules and the salvation of many others dependent on your obedience.)
I've lately noticed a constant balance between the amount of times I watch the Atonement work in someone else's life, and the times I'm using it myself just to stay afloat.  My companion has this habit of dropping a talk by a general authority on my desk, and saying "Read this.  It changed my life."  I can't imagine what her life would be like without modern day prophets.  Because she does this at least once a week.  But one of them was by Elder Holland who said "the Atonement will carry the missionaries perhaps even more importantly than it will carry the investigators."  Some days, that's absolutely the truth.  Certain neighborhoods seem to be just brimming with haters, and the most promising investigators somehow decide all at the same time they're going to drop you, and some days I just want to crawl into a hole and die (or at least pass out until the Second Coming) but when I remember that such rejection means I'm "standing with the best life this world has ever known," I find myself able to go a few more steps.  Looking back really throws it into perspective - I made conversation with the guy at Walgreens processing my film and handed him a Mormon.org card.  Who am I?!?  Who does that??  Not me six months ago, that's for sure.  When you're walking with Christ, you go places you never thought you could.  Including the mean skreets.
Our reward for getting 7 hrs of tracting: 7up
Though I suspect my time here is soon to come to a close without my having had a single opportunity to fill the font,  I have a chance to witness a most beautiful thing - a heart change.  A woman we're teaching stepped outside for a moment to smoke - "I need to calm down" - and when she stepped back into the lesson, we showed a Mormon Message "Lifting Burdens" which is entirely apostles and the prophet testifying of the Savior's Atonement.  When it was over, she said "Wow.  That really calmed me down."  Better than a cigarette ever could, that's for dang sure.  And the following lesson, we showed the Restoration dvd, after which she not only expressed how much she liked it, how she related to a young and searching Joseph, but you could see the impact it had on her from the look on her face.  The dark circles gone from her eyes, stony expression of stress and the cloud of worry, all gone and replaced by a glowing countenance of contentment and a light forming in her eyes.  Things were beginning to "settle in her heart" as she said, the Spirit was working in her, and she was changing.  I was beginning to think I'd never see it, but here it was.  And it was wonderful.  I can leave this place with peace in my heart, knowing that something was left behind, that the light of the gospel had pierced the tireless darkness of at least one soul.

Elder Rose - always good for a laugh
Transfers are next week.  And I have this strange feeling that I've done all I can do.  That Heavenly Father is more than capable of taking care of the rest.  Funny how strong a sense of trust can grow when you're forced to practice it, to place it fully on the Lord every waking moment of every single day.  As Sister Sellers observed, "Heavenly Father's got this!  When none of your plans work out, it's because He wants to somewhere else!  And you just have to ask Him and He tells you!"  True that.  "For behold, the Lord doth agrant unto ball nations, of their own nation and ctongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that hedseeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.."  [Alma 29]
Sister Valdez
Ladies and gentlemen.... the Marvelous Work ft. The Shreveport District