Happiness is…

March 12, 2012

This weekend Carlos Verandi got baptized!

In the photo, from left to right:
-Hermana Steward
-Carlos, who now tells us, “¡Soy un pescador de hombres ahora!” (I´m a fisher of men now!), because even before his baptism he was sharing the gospel with his friends and family and anyone who would listen
-Nildo Ledesma, who carries a machete with him wherever he drives, “just in case,” and who has been sharing the gospel with Carlos for the duration of their ten-year friendship, and who is overjoyed that Carlos finally got baptized.
-Little Anita Ledesma, who is the Argentine version of Cindy Lou Who
-Her mom Silvina Ledesma, who puts up with her husband Nildo´s insane driving and constant jokes about how he can´t wait for the Lord to “bring back the poligamia, O Señor!”
-Her son Pino
-Lucila Ledesma
-Camila Ledesma
These people are my family in Argentina!
Another sweet and funny moment this week happened with César and Natalia, who we´ve been working with for months. Natalia was baptized a year ago; César is the father of her three-year-old son, Lorenzo. He needs to get baptized and they need to get married, but they´re working through a lot of relationship problems. Anyway, at our last charla with both of them, we talked to César about the importance of the priesthood: how it was restored through the prophet Joseph Smith, how he could be baptized by that authority, and how he could receive that power to bless his own family.
But the charla wasn´t going anywhere. César kept arguing with us, complaining about the hypocrisy of the members and the insincere manner in which they bore their testimonies, etc. Our efforts to commit him to be baptized were going nowhere.
Then little Lorenzo started to cry, and Natalia stood up and went into the other room to tend to him. When she did, César whispered to us with a twinkle in his eye, “Hermanas, don´t tell Natalia, but I´m going to get baptized in a month! I need about a month to work on some bad habits of mine, but then I´ll get baptized!”
We were so tickled. I´m pretty sure he wants it to be kept secret from Natalia ten percent to give her a pleasant surprise and ninety percent just to make things difficult.

Feels like home to me

December 12, 2011

Catamarca feels like home to me. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. This week was the happiest week of my life.

The Savior walked by my side this week. I felt his love and my Heavenly Father’s love in every moment.

Catamarca is bordered by the huge Ancasti mountain range on one side, and the even more impressive Ambato range on the other. Two weeks ago we were on our way out into the foothills of the Ambato, looking for a woman we had contacted while she was waiting for a bus. We didn’t find that woman, but out among the cactus nestled in the dry hills was a small cinderblock house with a man perched on top repairing the roof. His name was Francisco. After talking with him for a few minutes, he called his wife Silvina out to meet us, and they invited us in. The house was tiny–one room that served as the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom for them and their two kids, Enrique and Maria Pia. Francisco’s arms were covered with crazy tattooes. Silvina is the most beautiful woman I’ve eve seen, with eyes that seem to be peering into your very soul. We talked like we were old friends–we all said that we felt as though we had known one another before.

Yesterday Silvina and twelve-year-old Enrique came to church for the first time. In Principios del Evangelio, we learned together about the plan of salvation and Enrique proudly answered all the teacher’s questions and participated in the discussion. Then last night we went back to their house on the hills, and invited Francisco and Silvina to get married in preparation to be baptized. They said that they would pray and ask God about it.

It was Maria Pia’s seventh birthday, so we all headed over to Silvina’s mom’s house down in the barrio Banda de Varela, Silvina saluting all of the neighbors on our way. I asked Silvina’s mom Teresa to teach me how to make her homemade tapas for empanadas (the majority of Argentines just buy their tapas from the super). She showed me how to knead and form the dough, and the little miniature beef and potato empanadas that came out were some of the best I’ve ever eaten! The house was full of tios and primos and tioabuelos coming and going. We met all of them, and they were all so kind to us.

Norma is progressing, too. She’s had a really rocky relationship with her marido for several years, so it was easy for her to make the decision that she needed to separate from him in order to be baptized. But it was one thing to make the decision, and another thing to actually carry it out. We fasted with her for her to have the strength to make him leave the house that was in her name.

On Tuesday night on our way back from our Christmas zone conference in Cordoba, I called Norma to see how she was doing. “Tengo una noticia,” she told us. “He left. He left on Sunday. I came back from work and he wasn’t there.” I couldn’t believe it–I almost squealed with delight. She wouldn’t have to go through the agony of forcing him out of the house, calling the police–he had just left! It was a miracle!

And then the last time we were at Norma’s house, her daughter Estefania shyly told us, “I’m going to try going to church with you. My mom said that I would like it–that everyone’s really friendly. And the verduleria hasn’t been doing well lately. I’m going to try what you said–closing the business on Sunday to see it prosper more during the week.” After weeks of trying, we had all but given up on the hope that Estefania would choose to come to church. But she came yesterday with Norma.

The Christmas zone conference was a delight. I had suggested to Hermana Salas that we do a Christmas talent show, so Hermana Adair and I sang our musical number and then we watched the elders sing all their goofy renditions of Christmas hymns, and we all laughed until our stomachs hurt. Then we heard a loud bellowing “HO HO HO!” and President Salas came in with a Santa costume over his mission suit, towing two Correo Argentino (Argentine postal service) bags that were almost taller than he was. They were all our Christmas packages! The conference was great–we played games, ate choripan, and enjoyed seeing the President and the Hermana. But of course the best part of it all was seeing Mom’s handwriting on my Christmas package. I cried when I read the little kids’ letters, and even more when I read hers.

Last night I was walking home and the sky was all lit up like fire. From up in the foothills it was like we were looking straight into the clouds, we were up so high. They were glowing golden-orange, as though it were the Second Coming. It was though I could really feel Heavenly Father looking down on me. I could feel his love in everything this week, and most of all I could feel his love in his sending his son for me. My Savior Jesus Christ, my best friend. My older brother who looks out for me and gets me out of every scrape I’ve ever gotten into.

He and Heavenly Father are always there for me to talk to when there’s absolutely no one else. All those sleepless nights crying myself to sleep from loneliness and fear on the mission; all those sins that have racked my soul and brought me to my knees to plead for hope and help and forgiveness; all those mean rejections on the street or at people’s doors. And all the good moments too. All the beautiful sunsets, like a present from them to let me know that I’m loved. All those times I felt the fire of the Spirit in my soul as I testified of them and their restored gospel. Every time I saw the nervous smile of one of my brothers and sisters all dressed in white as they stepped down into the waters of the baptismal font. All the Sunday mornings when someone miraculously made it to church. Every homesick ache I’ve felt in my soul as I see my baby sisters growing and changing in the photos Mom sends from home. All the nerve-wracking but exhilarating moments when I step into a new investigator’s home, heart-pounding, not knowing what I’m going to say or how they’re going to respond, but knowing that the Spirit is going to guide my words (a far greater adrenaline rush than any roller coaster I’ve ever ridden or ever mountain I’ve ever climbed!). In every moment they were there. They were there for me. Sometimes they let me struggle for a while, to help me learn to be stronger. But they were there.

I know the Savior lives. I love being one of his missionaries. For “the veil was taken from my mind, and the eyes of my understanding were opened. I saw the Lord…his eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying:

I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father.”

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Dallin’s Despedida

The most spiritual and awesome moment I have had in General Paz so far came in week 1 when the bishop of Puerreydon (the other ward we share the capilla with) called us and asked us what we were doing that night and invited us to the despedida (farewell) of his son, Angel or Dallin, who was about to leave for his mission in Buenos Aires Oeste. He told us that many of Dallin´s friends from school, members and nonmenbers alike, would be there in the capilla, and many lived in the boundaries of our area. Naturally we jumped on the opportunity–so many nonmenbers in the capilla! We were stoked.

That night we arrived at the chapel at 8:30. We were already exhausted from a long day of proselyting, but we knew that it was an opportunity that we couldn´t miss. Everyone was standing around, mingling, and I was trying to figure out which kids were the youth of Puerreydon and which ones were the nonmember friends from school (all the Gral Paz youth were there too, but I know all of them, thank goodness!). After asking around some, we realized that all of Dallin´s nonmember friends were chilling outside the church at the front gate. So we went out to find them.

When we went outside, there was a group of more than ten eighteen-year-old kids standing at the gate, talking amongst themselves. It was obvious that they were a tough group of kids, too cool to come inside the church, doing their own thing. My first reaction was to be intimidated–I´d been proselyting in the dusty street all day and didn´t have a hairdo, and I was just a nerdy sister missionary from the Estados Unidos–what was I going to say to these hardened, fashionably-dressed, porro-smoking kids?

And then in an instant I thought of the FHE with the Bogeros, how when we started the FHE you could slice the tension in the room with a knife, and how by the end everyone–kids, parents, and Rosita–were laughing and playing the Lamanite game with tape all over their faces. I thought of all the houses I had marched into and called repentance to men, women, and children–and they had listened. I thought about how Hermana Masters said, “You know what´s cool? After the mission, after surviving all these awkward situations and building all these relationships with all these difficult people and doing everything we do–we won´t ever have to be intimidated of anyone ever again in our lives.” And I thought most of all, I have a placa with Jesus Christ´s name on my chest. I don´t have to be afraid of anyone ever again.

So I squared my shoulders, stood a little taller, and marched over to the group of jovenes, and learned all their names. And introduced myself. And joked and laughed and talked with them until everyone felt at ease. And talked to them about what they liked to do, what their life plans were. And a half hour later we were all still standing there, laughing and joking. And I said, “So you guys know that Dallin is moving to Buenos Aires for two years to be a missionary, to share with people about Jesus Christ. He´ll be a missionary and wear a placa like this one. And my companion and I are doing the same thing here in the barrio that Dallin will be doing there. We share about God and Jesus Christ with the people, about how they have a plan for each one of us. Can we take down your addresses to go and visit you in your houses share more about the gospel with you?”

And they all said yes. Every single one. We got the datos of nine eighteen-year-olds interested in learning about the gospel, who already had a friend who was a member. It was a miracle. But it didn´t stop there.

At about nine o´clock we all passed inside the chapel and the service began. It was a brilliant idea of Dallin´s dad, Obispo Peralta–he had contacted all of the ward and all Dallin´s friends and all the family and invited them, but Dallin didn´t know–it was a surprise. So Dallin thought he was coming to the capilla for a final interview with Pte Chehda nada mas. So we all took our seats in the chapel, and Obispo Peralta welcomed us and then they turned off the lights and waited in perfect silence for three long minutes. Then Pte Chehda led Dallin into the chapel and I think there was a song by The Fray playing in the background (Dallin is a sick talented musician, singing and playing the guitar–music is his life and I think the song had some significance) and then they flipped on the lights and Dallin saw that everyone–everyone–was gathered there. All his friends from school, all the young men and young women he had grown up with, all the members from Barrio Puerreydon and General Paz, all his immediate and extended family, us, the elders, everyone. Oh man, I´m getting chills just writing about it because the feeling of absolute love in the room was so strong. Dallin just kept shaking his head, like he couldn´t believe it was real.

And we sang an opening hymn and had an opening prayer, and Bishop Peralta (Dallin´s dad) conducted the service and it began by his mom sharing her testimony. Then Dallin´s dad. I couldn´t help but admire them, their fortaleza, their strength–I know that this last year can´t have been easy for them. Their 17-year-old daughter Claudia, the president of all her Young Women classes, the “ejemplo de todos,” always leading out the other young women in Personal Progress and always accompanying the missionaries, had gotten pregnant and was not too far off from having her baby. And all the regular pressures of being a bishop in a struggling ward of only 50 active members–I imagine that the moment was very bittersweet for them, with all the hopes for Dallin and his future mission, and knowing that Claudia´s hopes for her mission could never be realized. But nonetheless they were there, boldly delcaring their testimonies of the gospel and sacrifice and missionary work, lifting the rest of us up with their testimonies. I honestly don´t remember what they said, but I remember that I felt the Spirit so strongly and more than anything felt the pure love of Christ. I felt and knew that I was in the right place, in that moment, where the Lord wanted me to be. I knew that he loved us all and had a plan for each of us. And I knew that missionary work was the Lord´s work and the greatest thing I could be doing with my life right now, the greatest thing that Dallin or any nineteen-to-twenty-five-year-old boy could be doing with his life.

Finally Dallin bore his testimony. He directed his remarks mostly to his friends from school, his non-member friends. He thanked them for their examples and for helping him be the person that he was, for being understanding and supportive of his living church standards. He talked about how much he would miss everyone. I looked over and saw that all of his friends were weeping with emotion (okay, we all were).

We finished the meeting by singing “Called to Serve.” All four verses (because Spanish is so much cooler than English so we get four verses of Called to Serve).

I felt so privileged to have been a part of that special moment, so blessed to have been able to feel of the Spirit and love that was present that night. After the service, everyone passed into the cultural hall for comida and a baile (dance), and everyone talked and mingled and hung out. I copied down the direction of one more joven who was a friend of Dallin´s. “Pero pasen!” he said. “Make sure you come!”

I am so grateful that Bishop Peralta thought to invite us to be a part of that evening, and to make Dallin´s despedida a missionary opportunity for his friends. I am so grateful for the Savior, and for Heavenly Father. I know that they love each one of us with an infinite love. A few special times in my life I have been able to feel a piece of that inifnite love. That night in the chapel was one of those times. That love is the reason we do missionary work. I know that this is the Lord´s work–going after the Lord´s sheep. I had to leave the ninety and nine that I loved at home to go after the lost sheep in Argentina. I am SO GRATEFUL to be a part of this work!

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.