Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Homecoming

The day finally arrived.  The day that we thought, two years ago, would never come.  The day that our son, Elder Alex Nicholes, arrived home safe and sound from serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Independence, Missouri mission.  As you can imagine this was a wonderful day for us and as we could have never imagined, his release as a missionary was almost as hard as the day we dropped him off at the MTC.  That statement may sound a little strange, but if you have ever sent a missionary out for two years and had the experience of welcoming your missionary home again, you know what I am talking about.  I will attempt to explain what I mean as I describe what happened in our lives over the next 36 hours or so after Alex arrived home.

This blog entry will be very different than the entries that I have previously written. Over the last two years I have been writing all about Alex from his perspective through the stories that he sent home as part of in his weekly letters.  This blog entry will be written completely from our perspective as the parents of a missionary who has returned home safely and honorably from a two year mission.  So let's get started!

Alex's flight was scheduled to arrive at the airport at 7:15 pm Friday night.  We of course, had already notified family and friends that if they would like to meet Alex at the airport, they were perfectly welcome to come and share in the excitement that we have been anticipating for the last two years.  Since we have known for several weeks what time his flight was scheduled to arrive, we made sure to give ourselves plenty of time to travel from our home to the airport.  We also wanted to give ourselves a little bit of extra time at the airport to settle in and get ready for the big moment.  Just our luck, right off the bat as we entered the freeway, we ran into the typical Friday evening rush hour traffic.  The traffic report on the radio was warning the evening drivers that this jam was serious and to be prepared to wait.  When we were planning our trip to the airport earlier in the day, a traffic jam was not what we had anticipated.  Luckily our freeway entrance was closer to the end of the jam rather than the beginning.  Some of our friends who were also planning to join us at the airport, weren't so lucky however.  Well we arrived at the airport, settled in like we planned and immediately noticed that there were several other families doing the same thing.  They were holding hand painted posters welcoming their missionary home just like we were.  In fact, there were probably a hundred people standing there at the bottom of the baggage claim escalator waiting in pure excitement. Alex wasn't the only one coming home from the Missouri mission.  There were several other Elders and one Sister missionary who were also returning as well.

As the arrival time of his flight came and went, the crowd grew larger as more and more of us were standing there holding our "Welcome Home Elder ..." signs.  We were all staring at the constant steam of people descending the escalator hoping to catch the first glimpse of anybody in a suit sporting a missionary name plaque.  To our surprise, several passengers who had been on the same flight and were already entering the baggage claim area, informed us that there was a group of missionaries standing at the top of the escalator just out of our sight.  While we were all waiting, they were talking and hugging and saying goodbye to their missionary companions whom they had served with for the last two years.  Then finally, as all of us who were standing at the bottom of the escalator, the crowd started to cheer with excitement as these fine missionaries stepped onto the escalator and started to make their way towards us.

There was Alex, standing on the escalator right in the middle of the pack.  You can probably imagine just how excited we all were to finally see our boy... Man, again after two year.  Of course I have to say that at this moment it felt like the last two years had just flown by.  Standing there in the airport watching Alex come down the escalator felt like it was just last week that we dropped him off at the MTC.  He looked great.  His patented "smile" and glow that he always carries with him was there and very familiar.  I don't have to tell you just how great of a sight that was.

At the bottom of the stairs you can just imagine who was there to greet her missionary son first.  If you guessed anybody other than his mother, in the first place you would have been wrong and the second place you would have been crazy to guess anybody else.  You have probably heard the old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words".  Well, I think the following pictures tell more about the excitement and emotion of the whole experience than I could ever write.

I don't think that I have to tell you just how exciting it was to finally see Alex again and to hug him and talk to him in person.  Especially knowing just how wonderful of a missionary he has been over the last two years and everything that he has accomplished.  Who wouldn't be proud of their son or daughter knowing that they had just spent two years of their life serving their God and as well as their fellow men.

For some reason, our family is always the last to leave any party and this airport homecoming was no different.  Alex had parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins and friends there to greet him.  We all stood there talking and hugging for so long that when we finally looked around, everybody else had already gone.  There were still a few strangers in the baggage claim area waiting for their bags, but the large crowd who had been there just minutes before, had now left.  There were so few people around that we had a hard time trying to find someone who would be willing to take one last picture of our whole welcome home party.  Luckily we were able to recruit a man who had been standing off to the side watching the whole experience.  Then after the final picture we decided that it was probably time for us to leave and head for home.

On our way home we asked Alex where he would like to go to get something to eat.  I know it had been a long day for me and I was hungry.  It had also been a long day for Alex and he was probably hungry as well.  Believe it or not, the place we chose to go after this huge event was... Crown Burger.  If you aren't from the Salt Lake area, Crown Burger is just what you would think, a fast food burger joint.  However, it isn't just any burger joint, Crown Burger was actually featured on the show Man vs. Food if you happen to be familiar with the Travel Channel.  Anyway, enough of plugging the burger joint and on to the story that happened next.  As we pulled into the parking lot, Alex still wearing his missionary suit and tags of course, spotted a woman sitting on the curb talking to a man in a wheel chair.  Alex immediately grabbed his box of church pamphlets, selected two of them and walked up to these people introducing himself as Elder Nicholes from the Church of Jesus Christ.  Alex struck up a conversation with them where he asked who they were and what they were doing.  They noticed the missionary tags and asked Alex about his mission.  It turned out that they were both members of the church and were very excited to hear that Alex had just returned home from his mission.  Alex handed them both the missionary pamphlets anyway and we all wished them a good evening.  This is where I insert an old but very fitting cliche, "you can take the missionary out of the mission, but you can't take the mission out of the missionary".

The rest of the evening went very well.  We enjoyed our meal at Crown Burger where Alex informed us that it was getting late and that he needed to be home and in bed by 10:30 pm.  We finished up dinner, said goodbye to the family and friends who were there with us and headed home.  Once we arrived at home, we unpacked the car, reintroduced Alex to his home and new room just before Alex went to bed.  If you happen to be reading this President, Yes... Alex made it home and in bed on time.  For the rest of you who may think that being in bed on time seems a little silly for a returned missionary, well at this point Alex was still a missionary.  His release from being a full-time missionary wouldn't happen until 9:00 am the next morning.  Since being in bed by 10:30 pm didn't apply to the rest of us, we all stayed up and watched the previously recorded BYU vs. TCU football game.  We won't be going into that, if you know what I mean!     

The next morning, being a Saturday as well as the day after that very emotional day we just experienced, we of course slept in a bit.  That doesn't mean to say that we didn't hear the rustling around of our missionary son who was up on time just like every other day for the past two years.  As it turned out, since his younger brother just became Alex's temporary companion for a few hours, they had both gotten up early, gone down to the track at the high school to workout and were finally back home.  When their mother finally wandered downstairs... well the following photograph tells the whole story.

If you think for a second that this picture was staged, I assure you that it wasn't.  Alex had pulled his new junior companion out of bed, spent time exercising and now they were both fully engaged in companionship study.  Alex still had about an hour left before he would be released from his service as a full-time missionary and he wasn't about to waste any of it.

Speaking of being released, remember at the beginning of this blog I told you that experiencing the release of a missionary son is almost as hard as dropping him off at the MTC.  Well, here comes the experience that took us all by surprise.  One that we will never forget and one that even though it was hard, we wouldn't trade for anything.  Not long after the picture above was taken, we all were up, dressed and out the door to go meet with the Stake President.  As it turned out, our Stake President had a conflict and wasn't actually able to be there to release Alex from his missionary service.  However, the Stake President had delegated this responsibility to his first counselor who is also a very humble and spiritual man.  As we entered the Stake President's office, we all sat down and the first counselor began to speak.  I was focused on what the first counselor was saying and listening very intently to his words.  After he had been speaking for a few minutes, I noticed that his voice began to crack.  That is when, in a tearful tone he said, "don't start this...".  What I thought he meant by saying that was that the spirit was very strong and he was starting to feel very emotional about what was happening.  Then I glanced over at Alex as tears were streaming down his face.  It wasn't the first councilor who was being overcome by this very emotional experience.  It was Alex and his emotional response to being released from his service was affecting not only the first councilor, but the rest of us as well.  I won't go into everything that was said during the meeting but I will relate one more thing that speaks to just how important being a full-time missionary really was for Alex.  Once the first councilor was finished speaking and all was said and done, we all stood up to shake the first councilor's hand and make our way out the door.  All except for Alex.  He was still sitting there in his chair not wanting to leave.  At that moment I could read Alex like a book.  He knew that once he stood up and walked out of that office, his full-time missionary service would be complete.  When he finally did stand up, he quietly unclasped his missionary tags from his suit coat and white shirt, put them into his pocket, shook the first councilor's hand and it was done.  He cried all the way out to the car and most of the way home.  This was a very significant moment for us because the day that we dropped Alex off at the MTC, we all cried in the car all the way home.  Experiencing almost the same emotions the day Alex was released as the day Alex left, was something that we never would have expected.  What a moment!

The rest of the day was wonderful for us.  We spent the whole day in the mountains which was a little different for Alex since he hasn't seen any mountains for the last two years.  We watched family videos, looked at family and mission photos and tried to catch up on as much of all that has happened over the past two year as we could.  Later that night, Alex went to visit some friends and no, this time as a released full-time missionary, he wasn't in bed by 10:30 pm.  But he wasn't too much later than that.

I have said this before on this blog and I will say it again.  To all of you who watched out for our missionary son over the past two years.  To all of you who taught him, mentored him, fed him, housed him, acted as surrogate mother, father, grandmother and grandfather.  To all of his companions, church leaders, mission leaders and presidents and to those of you whom he taught and helped to bring into the gospel of Jesus Christ.  THANK YOU!!!  You will never know how much the Missouri, Independence mission with all of the people there in, mean to us and especially to Alex.  We hope to met you someday and thank you in person as well.

Thank you again and may God bless you!

The Nicholes Family

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Here's your sign

The last couple of weeks for Alex have been unusual.  But then if you consider that there is always something new and different going everyday of your mission, maybe unusual is normal.  Alex only wrote us a quick email a couple of weeks ago due to the fact that he had a busy P-day planned.  He and several other missionaries were headed out on their P-Day to take a tour of the Community of Christ temple and the tunnels that run underneath it.  When the opportunity arose to go on a tour like this, he figured that he should jump on it because he probably wouldn't have another opportunity.  But, in his most recent letter home, he told us that the tour of the tunnels and the temple wasn't as exciting as he thought it would be.  There just wasn't much that was out of the ordinary and the fact that he only wrote a couple of sentences about the whole tour, must mean that there wasn't much to write home about either.

Speaking of temples, Alex told us that this past week he also had the opportunity to work with some of the missionaries in the northern part of Kansas City.  If you weren't aware of this already, that part of Kansas City is where the LDS church is currently in construction of the Kansas City, Mo temple.  The temple is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012 and will be a very exciting addition for the members of the church in the area.  Alex told us that the temple is one of the smaller versions but where it is positioned, just off of the freeway, it appears suddenly as a seemingly large structure when you round the corner while driving along the freeway.  The temple construction has resulted in a lot of new interest in the church from the people who live in that area.  Alex said that every where they went, people were asking about the temple and what it's purpose is.  Of course not everybody has been excited about the new LDS temple.  Alex mentioned that he met one little girl who was very disappointed to learn that the giant pretty building just off the freeway, was actually a Mormon temple.  She was really hoping that it would be a castle for a princess.  Well, if you really think about it, this little girl might actually be right and maybe someday, she will be that princess. 

Of course general conference was this last weekend and for those of you who attended the Priesthood session, you probably heard the marvelous priesthood choir.  Well, we might be a little biased here because all of the choir members were from Alex's home town.  Alex told us that they arrived a little bit late to the Stake center and the priesthood session had already started.  As a result, they missed the announcement about the choir being from Pleasant Grove.  Then later during the final musical number when the TV camera started panning around the choir members, Alex told us that all of the sudden he saw this red headed kid that looked very familiar.  After a little closer look, he thought, "hey I know that kid".  Then the camera focused in on this kid's dad and then another person that he knew.  Right then it dawned on Alex that the choir was filled with all kinds of familiar faces.  Faces of people he knows from back home.  Alex told us that it was really fun to see all of these people from home and know that they are all participating in the priesthood session of general conference.

So this has got to be one of the funniest stories that Alex has ever told us during his mission.  He told us that about a week ago, he and his companion were working with the zone leaders in Olathe, KS.  One night they decided to stop by a local BBQ place called Oklahoma Joe's, to get something to eat.  While they were there, they just happened to sit down at a table right next to two people who Alex described as a Christian and an Atheist.  How did Alex know that?  Basically by the rather loud religious discussion that they were having over dinner.  At one point during their discussion the Atheist pointed at the missionaries and said, "If there was a God and he really cared about these Mormons, he would have bought their lunch".  Right after he said that, one of the missionaries got a big grin on his face.  The Elder leaned over to Alex and said, "God did buy my lunch".  As it turned out, that previous Sunday a member of the church had walked up to the Elders between church meetings and handed them gift cards to Oklahoma Joe's restaurant.  So in reality, God did buy them lunch.  So there you have it!  To quote a famous comedian, "Here's your sign".  ;-)  Oh but wait, that wasn't the end of the story.  Alex and the other missionaries actually sat down and talked to this man for quite a while after his Christian friend had left.  This man invited Alex and the other missionaries to come and talk to his Atheist group at some future date.  Alex isn't quite sure how he feels about that, but it sounds like, at the very least, it could be a great adventure.

Just a quick side note.  We are getting down to the end of these blog entries due to the fact that Alex will complete his mission at the end of this month.  One of the many things that Alex has done over the past two years is make the most out of the time that he had while serving his mission.  He is feeling very happy to be coming home and seeing his family and friends again.  But at the same time, very sad that his service as a full-time missionary is coming to a close.  He has told us many times that he wishes his mission could last forever because he has enjoyed every minute of it.  I will try to fit in at least one more blog entry before Alex returns home.  Of course that will depend on Alex and how much time he has to write home over the next few weeks.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Twenty-one and wrestling again

As I started this blog entry, I noticed that it had been over a month since the last time I wrote about what Alex has been doing.  The blog entries aren't this far apart because we are slowing down towards the end of Alex's two years of service, it is more because Alex has been very busy and has had little time to write home.  So when we get letters from him, many times that are very short with just a quick summary of what he has been doing.  After a months time, I think we finally have enough good information to make a descent blog entry. 

Oh before I forget, today is actually Alex's 21st birthday.  Alex didn't really want us to send him anything because he would just have to pack it up in about a month when he comes home.  Hard to believe that Alex's two years is coming to a close in just over a month.  Anyway, to celebrate his 21st birthday we made him a little video filled with all kinds of very embarrassing photos.  These photo range from when he was just a little kid in elementary school to the last pictures we took of him just before he entered the MTC.  We had the office Sisters in the mission office help us out a little by surprising Alex with the video.  We told the Sisters that they had free rein to show the video to as many people as possible with the goal of making sure that Alex knows that we love him and are proud of all that he has accomplished.  Of course everybody knows that you only embarrass the one's that you love the most, right?  ;-)  So if you happen to be in the Independence, MO area and would like to see a good video of Alex, I'm sure the office Sisters wouldn't mind showing it to you. 

A couple of weeks ago Alex sent us a short letter and told us that he was coaching wrestling again.  If you remember way back almost two years ago when Alex first arrived in Independence, his first area was Wamego, KS.  While in Wamego Alex received permission from his mission president to spend some of his volunteer service time helping out at the high school as a wrestling coach.  Well it appears that Alex will finish out his mission in much the same way as he began.  No he isn't back in Wamego, but he is spending some of his service time at a local high school near Independence, helping out with the wrestling team there.  Alex told us that this is kind of a poorer area of town and because of that, some of the wrestlers haven't been able to purchase wrestling shoes.  Some of the team members show up to practice each day in just their stocking feet.  If you have ever watched a wrestling match you have probably noticed that a good grip on the mat is essential to being a good wrestler.  So trying to wrestle in socks is a very difficult thing to do which leads into a great story. 

Alex emailed us one night after getting special permission from his mission president since he was sending this email on a day other than his normal P-Day.  In his email he asked if we would be able to dig up some of his old wrestling shoes and send them out to him at the mission office.  His intent was to help out some of the wrestlers by trying to provide them with some descent wrestling shoes even though they might be a little worn.  After digging through Alex's stuff which has been put away in boxes for the last couple of years, we were finally able to find some of his old shoe.  Unfortunately, none of the shoes were in very good shape.  So we decided to get online, find a descent pair of shoe and send them out to Alex so that he could give them to one of the boys on he team.  Here is where the story gets a little more interesting.  As it turned out, we found a good pair of wrestling shoes on Amazon for not too much money.  If you know anything about purchasing from Amazon, many times they are just an online presence for a lot of other smaller stores.  We were a little surprised to find out that on Alex's next P-day after purchasing the wrestling shoes, he had already received them at the mission office.  That is when Alex told us about where those shoes really came from.  The sporting goods store that had actually sold and shipped the shoes is in Lenexa, KS.  Lenexa just happens to be one of the cities in the Independence, Mo mission, so obviously the store didn't have to ship the shoes very far.  Then Alex told us that the store is actually owned by a member of the LDS church.  Who knew that when we purchased the shoes on Amazon that they were actually coming from somewhere in Alex's mission and going to serve someone in that same mission.  The latest we have heard from Alex is that the shoes had been put to good use and the team is doing great.

Being in a mission with lots of church history sites Alex, at times, runs into people from back home.  In Alex's letter a couple of weeks ago, he told us about being at the visitor's center in Independence talking with people as they toured the center.  He started up a conversation with a couple who were there and asked them were they were from.  Their response was American Fork, Utah.  Alex told them that he was from Pleasant Grove, Utah.  If you aren't familiar with the Utah Valley area, Pleasant Grove and American Fork are two cities right next to each other.  In fact there is a fairly healthy rivalry between the two high schools in these cities.  Anyway, the couple made a comment to Alex about Pleasant Grove being good but American Fork being better.  Alex said that he had to teach this couple a little lesson about Good, Better, Best (if you don't get this joke, you better re-read Elder Holland's talk from General Conference).  The couple noticed that Alex's mission plaque said "Elder Nicholes" and they told Alex that they knew a Chris Nicholes from Pleasant Grove.  Alex responded with, "hey, that's my brother".  It turned out that this couple was the parents of one of Alex's brother's best friends from high school.  They had a good conversation right there in the visitor's center and caught up on a little news from back home.

Alex sent home a few pictures this week.  About a month or so ago, Alex told us about spending some early morning time at Adam Ondi Ahman.  He described a sunrise shooting through the clouds and how beautiful it was.  I told him to get some pictures and send them home.  Well he didn't get the picture of the sunrise but he did send some other picture from around the area.

Now here is a young man who is obviously out-standing in his fields.  OK it is an old joke, but you have to admit that it is a good one and it fits the picture.  :-)

Here is a handsome group of young missionaries.  Except that one in the back doesn't look very happy.  I think he was a little sad because he was nearing the end of his mission and was finally headed home.  Someone once told me that the day that a missionary enters the MTC, the missionary smiles and his mother cries.  The day that the missionary comes home, the mother smiles and the missionary cries.  That is the sign of a mission well served.


Apparently there is a bit of a pranking war going on between the office Elders and the Sisters.  The latest in the feud is sticky notes all over the office Elder's car.  Oh the wicked web we weave when revenge is on our minds.  Watch out Sisters!  What goes around comes around. ;-)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Beams of sunlight through the fog at Adam Ondi Ahman

As usual, "Busy" is the key word.  But despite all of that, Alex managed to email us twice over the last couple of weeks which is now unusual.  Anyway, one of the things that he told us is that his responsibilities as an assistant to the president will be changing a bit.  Over the last week or so, both Alex and his companion have felt that they needed to get out more and work with individual companionships.  During the past few months, they have been doing a lot of training session at zone conferences and working with the zone leaders, but they haven't worked much with individual companionships.  Now with his new responsibilities, they will be able to do just that.  Alex is very excited about this new opportunity.  He told us that both he and his companion will be spending a lot of nights sleeping on the floor at various missionary apartments as they travel around the mission, but that is all part of the excitement.

In his latest email, Alex told us that he and his companion had already started traveling.  He told us about traveling to Gallatin and spending the morning in scripture study while over looking the valley at Adam Ondi Ahman.  Alex told us that they got up early in the morning so that they could experience the peacefulness.  When they got there, the whole valley was covered in fog.  When the sun started to rise over the horizon, they could see beams of light shooting through the fog.  Alex said that it was one of the coolest sights he has ever seen.  I reminded Alex that this would have been a great time to have had a camera ready.  We would have really liked to have seen that sight as well.  Since he will be spending a few days there, hopefully he will take his camera with him the next time so that we can share the same visual experience with everybody.

Since Alex and his companion won't be spending as much time in their home area, now that they are traveling.  They were asked to turn some of the people that they had been teaching over to the Sister missionaries there.  Alex was a little sad about that because some of the people that they were teaching were really progressing well.  In fact before too much longer, Alex felt like some of them would be ready for baptism.  Of course no matter who is actually doing the teaching, knowing that somebody is ready for baptism is always a great feeling.  Alex is just glad to know that he was able to help out even though he couldn't be there through the whole process.

In his last email, Alex told us a cute story about wrestling.  He started out the story by telling us that he had his first official wrestling match recently on a Sunday night.  At first when you read that sentence you think to yourself, "official wrestling match", "Sunday night", "Missionaries".  Ok, something sounds a little off with this story.  But after Alex's explanation of what happened, it all seemed to come together and make sense.  As it turns out, one of the mission president's grandsons was visiting the area with his family recently.  This grandson is a little blond headed kid who reminded Alex of himself when he was little.  Apparently this boy's grandfather had told him that Elder Nicholes would be dropping by a little later and that he was a wrestler.  Upon hearing that news, this little boy immediately wanted to challenge Alex to a wrestling match.  So there you have it.  Alex's mission president had just scheduled a wrestling match between Alex and his little grandson. 

Alex and his companion arrived at the mission home and after dinner, they all went to the conference room where there would be enough space for this wrestling challenge to take place.  Ok, so this match seems a little lopsided but this is where the whole story gets really good.  Immediately on the whistle, the little boy charges for Alex's legs.  Good move, especially since that is what a good wrestler should do.  The only problem was that with Alex being more in the 172 lbs weight class and this little boy weighing in at maybe 40 lbs.,  this little brave wrestler ran into Alex and immediately bounced off to the floor.  Oh, but that didn't discourage or stop this little guy.  He jumped back up and the wrestling match went on.  After a few head shucks, granbies, arm bars and cradles, this little guy finally pinned Alex flat to the floor.  So after a state champion season a couple of years ago, Alex has just started out his first official wrestling match in two years at 0-1.  We aren't quite sure how Alex is going to recover from this loss. ;-)

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer heat and new opportunities

   It seems like these blog entries are getting fewer and farther between.  Basically they have and that is mostly due to the fact that we don't hear from Alex as much as we used to anymore.  He has been so busy over that last few months, that he rarely gets a chance to write home.  This last month has been especially busy due to the transition from one mission president to another.  The month of July is usually when a certain number of mission presidents complete their missions and turn the reins over to a new mission president.   This was the case in Alex's mission. 
   When the previous mission president returns home and a new mission president takes over, it is a unique opportunity for both the missionary and the parents.  With Alex serving as an assistant to the president, he and his companion automatically become part of the transition plan for the new mission president.  This last month Alex and his companion have been traveling the mission and conducting zone conferences with the new mission president and his family.  However, that isn't the only new opportunity that has come from the changing of the guard.  We, as the parents of a missionary, had the great opportunity to attend the Sacrament meeting in which Alex's returning mission president and his wife, spoke.  This was a great opportunity where we were finally able to meet the mission president under whom Alex has been serving for almost two years.
    It was a wonderful day and a great experience for us when we were able to attend the homecoming Sacrament meeting in which Alex's former mission president spoke.  The church building was literally pack with Ward members, friends and former missionaries.  In fact at one point during Sister Van Komen's talk, she asked all of the former missionaries in the audience to stand.  The number of people who stood up at that point had to be about half of the people in the audience.  Keep in mind that the number of people in attendance that day spilled out of the chapel and into the cultural hall.  Judging from the number of people, it looked more like a Stake conference than a normal Sacrament meeting.  There were a lot of former Sister missionaries as well has senior couples who served in the visitor centers and in other capacities.  There were also a lot of young men who served in the Independence Missouri mission as proselyting missionaries just like Alex.  There obviously wasn't a lot of time, but we had the opportunity to briefly speak with President Van Komen right before the meeting started and to hear some wonderful comments from him about Alex.  Following the meeting we also had the chance to speak with Sister Van Komen as well.  As we stepped up to greet her, I introduced myself as Alex's Dad.  That was all it took.  Sister Van Komen just started talking all about Alex and all of the wonderful things that he has done as a missionary in the Independence Missouri mission.  It was so great to hear directly from her knowing that she and her husband have been such a big part of Alex's life over the last year and a half.
    I mentioned that Alex and his companion have been traveling the mission visiting every zone with their new mission president and conducting training meetings.  At one point just a few weeks ago, Alex contacted us and wanted to know more about my mission and the people that I had taught.  He wanted to use these stories as part of the training that he was conducting during the zones conferences.  Both Alex has well as his companion have had the opportunity to get to know personally some of the people their fathers taught while serving mission many years ago.  They wanted to draw on some of those stories to help train current missionaries to love their missions and to take advantage of every opportunity.  Alex told us that the training sessions have gone really well.  On top of all of the training, Alex and his companion have also been going on splits with each of the zone leaders following the each of the zone conferences that they conduct.  This has made for some very long days full of hard work and a lot of spiritual promptings.  This kind of work has left these two young missionaries very tired but at the same time, very excited to get up the next day and do it all over again.
    In Alex's latest letter home he again told us all about how crazy life has been.  Alex told us all about some of the recent zone leader splits that he has been a part of and some of the miracles that he experienced.  I won't go into detail here but one of the stories was all about meeting someone that was just waiting for the missionaries to knock on their door.  It was one of those kinds of stories where a missionary is prompted to go somewhere or talk to someone that he normally wouldn't have.  The end result was an opportunity and an experience which neither Alex nor the zone leader that accompanied him that night, will never forget.
   One of the funnier stories this week was Alex telling us how much he likes the heat.  Summer time in the Midwest can be very hot.  Apparently they have had a few days where the temperatures have been over a hundred degrees.  For most people as well as for missionaries, this is a sign that it might be a good idea to go inside where there is some air conditioning.  For Alex, it is the opposite.  The only explanation that Alex could give us for wanting to be out in the heat is that he loves to sweat.  With all of the running and wrestling that he has done over the years, Alex is very used to sweating a lot and for whatever reason, he really enjoys it.  If you think that is a little strange, well then you probably don't know Alex very well.  Anyway, according to Alex, the hot weather also provides him with a great line for getting a conversation going.  All he needs to say is "Wow, we sure are having some beautiful weather, huh?".  After that comment, most people look at him with an "Are you nuts?" kind of look in their eye and wondering what he is talking about.  Right there the conversation starts and Alex is off and running.  Soon the conversation transitions into a gospel topic and before the person even knows it, they are hearing all about the gospel and message that the missionaries have to offer.  Who would have ever thought that talking about the weather would be a great way to start a gospel discussion. Humm??? ;-)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Messing with the greenies

This is going to sound like a broken record but every time Alex writes home, the underlying theme of the letter is telling us just how busy he is.  To give you an idea, this last week he sent a short little email explaining that as he was trying to find time to write us, he was also typing up the mailing lists, working out the transfer rosters, figuring out the bus schedules for transfers, sending out emails to all of the Stake Presidents notifying them of the missionary transfers and typing up the leadership call list for the mission president.  Apparently he and his companion had been in the mission office all day finishing up all of these last minute tasks before transfer notices go out in a day or so.  In all of that emailing and scheduling, the one thing that Alex didn't get finished was sending out his weekly family letter to us.  Well, we finally did receive his letter, but it wasn't until the next day.  He had to get permission from his mission president to write home on Tuesday rather than Monday because he had run out of time the day before.  I guess that is just how it goes.  We will have the rest of our lives to talk to him, but Alex only has a few more months as a full time missionary.  So making the most of it is obviously the top priority.

 Alex's last couple of letters, once we finally got them, were filled with some great stories.  I will try to retell some of them here and hopefully I will be able to capture the same spirit in which they were originally told to us by Alex.  One of the first stories that Alex told us really pointed out just how far he has come in the last year and a half.  One of the traditions that the mission president's wife has at each of the zone leader's conferences is to randomly pick a couple of missionaries to give a five minute talk on the spot.  This was a tradition that was started back when the mission president and his wife first entered the Independence Missouri mission almost three years ago.  The five minute talk is meant to prepare the missionaries for times when they are called on by a Bishop or Stake President to stand up in Sacrament Meeting or some other meeting and speak with no notice before hand.  The idea is to  stand up, quote a scripture, thank the Ward and bear pure testimony.  The reason why this is significant is because back when Alex was first made a zone leader almost a year ago, he used to get really nervous during each of the zone leader conferences wondering if it was going to be his turn to give a five minute talk.  Now step forward almost a year.  Alex is now an assistant to the president and as part of his responsibilities at each zone leader's conference, he is expected to lead two different training segments, conduct the meeting, prepare for and clean up after the whole thing.  After handling and completing all of those responsibilities, a five minute talk seems like a very insignificant cake walk in comparison. 

Another story that Alex related to us in one of his recent letters was really about another missionary who had struggled a bit but is now really starting to shine.  It started at a district meeting up in Platte City Missouri.  The district leader in that area was conducting a meeting and doing a very good job.  But for a missionary, something seemed out of place.  During the after meeting review that the assistants hold with each district leader individually, Alex mentioned to this Elder that his mis-matched suit and pants didn't really look appropriate for a missionary.  As it turned out, this Elder didn't really have a lot of resources when it came to outfitting himself for a mission and so he was doing the best he could.  After hearing that, Alex and his companion decided that they would pool half of their monthly allotment to try to help this Elder purchase some new clothes.  As they were preparing to pool their money, they talked to the mission president's wife and found out that the mission actually had a fund to cover just this very thing.  So the next time that this Elder and his companion were in Independence for interviews, Alex and his companion grabbed the Elder and took him down to a local discount clothing store where they proceeded to set this Elder up with three new suits and some killer ties all for under $200.  According to Alex, this has made a real difference in this missionaries attitude and life.  Sometimes just the simplest changes can make all the difference.

Alex also included a story about one of their favorite investigator families.  Unfortunately, this story goes more to show that their are ups and downs as a missionary and this story was one of the downs.  Without going into all of the details, Alex told us that they had really made a lot of good progress with this family but for some reason, the parents just couldn't quite get past a few issues that they had with the Church.  As a result, things kind of came to an end as far as teaching goes even though Alex still feels that they are some of the finest people that he has meet.  At the very least, the seed has been sown.  Maybe someday another set of missionaries will be there to help that seed grow and complete what Alex and his companion had started.

Finally, this story has to be one of the funniest stories that Alex has ever shared with us.  It is all about messing with the greenies.  One of the many highlights of being an AP is when the new missionaries arrive in the mission, every six weeks.  The APs along with the mission president have the great opportunity of meeting these new missionaries at the airport and helping them get adjusted to their new life as full time missionaries.  Well, maybe the words "helping them get adjusted" is a bit of an over statement especially when it comes to seasoned APs and new greenies.  Alex told us that he and his companion had a little bit of fun with the new missionaries as they were helping them get all of their luggage loaded into the trailer at the airport.  Here is how the story went.  Picture this, a bunch of brand spankin new missionaries have just arrived at the airport in Independence and have just meet the mission president and the APs.  They are all standing around the trailer as Alex and his companion are helping them load their luggage.  As they are loading the luggage and knowing that all of these new missionaries are still a little shell shocked, Alex and his companion start up a little bit of a gospel conversation.  Alex says to his companion,   "Hey Elder, what would your interpretation be of Lamentations chapter 4 versus Romans chapter 15?".  His companion responds, "Well I would have to refer you back to Romans chapter 3 to answer that question".  Of course this little scriptorian discussion was all totally made up, but looking around at the faces of these newest missionaries, they were thinking that maybe they missed something during their training in the MTC.  Alex said that their jaws were dropping all over the ground in awe.  Then one of the greenies pipes up and asks, "Elders, how long have you been out?".  Of course continuing in the vein of messing with the greenies, Alex responds, "Oh, about 5 months".  Oh what a story, I'm sure there will be some repenting to do Elders. :-)

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Life is busier than ever

Now that Alex is an assistant to the President, we haven't heard from him quite as much.  In fact just this week we finally got his first real letter since we talked to him on Mother's Day.  Alex told us that life as an AP is crazier than he ever imagined.  He said that when he was a zone leader he thought life was busy.  But now as an AP, he and his companion are constantly on the move.  Alex gave us a brief run down of what he and his companion have to do.  Every transfer period, which is basically six weeks, they are traveling the mission and going on splits with every one of the zone leader companionships.  They use this time to do training and to find out just how well the zone leaders and their zones are doing.  In addition to that, they are helping to conduct the zone leader conference every month and also taking care of every odd and end that the mission president needs done in between.  On Sunday evenings Alex and his companion are at the mission office making phone calls and collection the weekly numbers so that they can report them back to Salt Lake.  We know this firsthand because during our Mother's Day call last month which happened to be on a Sunday night, Alex was constantly interrupted by phone calls from zones leaders who were calling to report their weekly progress.  Then on top of all of that, they are also expected to continue their normal proselyting and teaching just like every other missionary.   

Alex told us a story that is typical Alex.  When Alex was called to be an assistant to the president, he had to leave Manhattan and report to the mission office about a week before regular transfers.  His companion in Manhattan was also preparing to finish his mission a week later.  This meant that two new missionaries would be taking over the Manhattan 2nd Ward area where Alex has been serving for the past 8 months.  When his Manhattan companion arrived at the mission office week later, just before going home, Alex was obvious there.  Apparently the mission president and his wife invite all of the departing missionaries to have dinner with them in the mission home.  Alex told us that he and his Manhattan companion skipped out of the dinner that night and went tracting instead.   Alex told us that his former companion had a really hard time leaving the mission and that Alex had a really hard time watching him go.  During that final night of tracting, Alex told us that he and his former companion found 10 potential investigators.  Alex hasn't mention what has become of any of those 10 contacts but I can just imagine that when the time comes for Alex to return home, this is probably how he will spend his last night in Independence Missouri mission as well.

Alex told us in his most recent letter that he was able to travel back to Manhattan to perform the baptism of one of the people that he and his previous companion had been teaching.  He said that the baptism went very well and that he really misses the Manhattan Ward.  He also said that since both he and his previous companion basically left Manhattan at the same time, fortunately they were replace by two very good missionaries.  Of course the work will always go on no matter what, but it is good to know that when a missionary leaves an area, that there are good missionaries who are capable of picking up where they had left off. 

Alex told us kind of a funny story about what he and several other "white" missionaries did for Memorial Day.  Apparently Alex and his companion are currently teaching several black people.  So for a Memorial Day celebration, these good people invited Alex, his companion and several other missionaries over to their house for a good southern fish fry.  Alex told us that as these gatherings go, there were quite a few people at this house, all enjoying each others company and having a good time.  So many people that when one of the missionaries was asked to say grace, the line of people all holding hands during the prayer extended through the garage and into the house.   Of course everyone there were singing and dancing and having a good time.  At one point during the celebration, Alex's companion decided to join in by "busting a little dance move" just to show what he's got.  Well, I'm not sure what kind of moves this missionary had, but it caused the whole crowd to burst out laughing.  Alex said that they all had a very good time and it was a unique experience for all of them.

In closing his letter this last week, this is what Alex told us about his last few weeks as an AP:
"I am very grateful for this opportunity that I have been given. I feel like I have grown so much in the past three weeks, its incredible. My testimony is growing by leaps and bounds, and I am loving my mission more than ever! I love serving the Lord, and seeing the miracles that happen when we work as hard as we can! The church is true!"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A quick transfer and a new set of responsibilities

As you probably all know and I would be surprised if you didn't, last Sunday was Mothers Day.  But when you have a missionary out in the field and in our case two missionaries out serving, Mothers Day is "our missionaries call home" day as well.  So obviously we got to talk to Alex on the phone this past Sunday.  He worried us just a little because when he was able to call home in the past, he usually called first thing in the morning.  This time was a little different.  We waited all day for Alex to call and by about 8:00 in the evening, we were wondering if he was going to call at all.  His older brother who is in the Rochester, New York mission had already called us earlier that day and we had a very good conversation with him.  But Alex hadn't called all day long.  Then finally at around 8:00 pm Alex called to tell us that he was someplace other than Manhattan, Kansas.  Yep you guessed it, after nine months in Manhattan, Alex finally got transferred.  But the funny thing was, this last week was not transfer week so something very interesting must have happened. 

So here is the interesting thing that happened.  Last Monday after P-Day was over, Alex and his companion traveled to Independence for their monthly zone leader conference.  Alex arrived a little early and when the mission president saw Alex at the mission office, he asked Alex to join him in his office.  Alex told us that when the mission president invited him into the office, he was a little nervous and had a hard time breathing.  After a little bit of chit-chat, the mission president finally asked Alex if he would accept a call to be the new AP.  That's right, Alex is now one of the assistants the mission president in the Independence, Missouri mission. 

When Alex called us on Mothers Day, he was calling from the mission office.  Being Sunday night, he and his new companion were in the middle of AP training.  Part of this training included contacting each of the zone leaders throughout the mission to gather the numbers for the week.  We asked Alex what else his new responsibilities would include and he told us that he was still learning all about what it means to be an assistant and what he would be doing.  Of course he and his companion will still be responsible for doing traditional missionary work which means finding new people and teaching the gospel.  But in addition to that, they will also be responsible for traveling throughout the mission and doing a lot of training themselves.  Then there is helping out with transfers, collecting and organizing mission data and who knows what else he will be asked to do.  One thing that will be very interesting however, is that Alex will most likely be in the mission office when the current mission president finishes his mission this summer and the new mission president arrives.  That whole transition will be a very interesting time in the life of an AP.

Obviously, with this news of Alex being transferred to the mission office, most of the Mothers Day phone call revolved around finding out more about this new responsibility.  But before Alex left Manhattan, which apparently, according to Alex, is now called "Manhappenin", Alex told us all about the new people that he and his companion had been teaching.  Alex mention again this week just how much he loves doing church tours and how the spirit is always so strong.  Alex talked all about how some of the people that they have been teaching have already experienced some great changes in their lives.  Alex referred to these changes as miracles.  As you can probably imagine, when a missionary watches these kinds of miracles happen quite frequently, it makes everything that is sacrificed for a mission, worth it. 

With the transfer to the mission office happening so quickly, Alex didn't get much of a chance to say goodbye to many of the people in the Manhattan 2nd Ward as well as the many other people he had come to know.  So if you are one of those people, don't worry, Alex will be back as he travels around the mission as part of is assistant duties.  Alex can't believe that he is on his last six months in the mission and has told us more than once that he doesn't want to come home.  Of course we can't believe how fast the time has gone by to this point and that the next time we talk to him, it will be face to face at the airport.  But there is still a lot of new experiences that Alex will have over the next six months and we are very excited to hear all about them. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Beyblade, not just a sport for kids

Finally, after several months of talking about a temple trip, it happened.  The Missouri, Independence mission does not have a temple within the mission boundaries so the missionaries, on special occasions, are given permission to go to the Omaha, Nebraska Winter Quarters temple.  The Winter Quarters temple is one of the smaller temples.  Alex described it as being about the size of a large house.  Alex accompanied several members of his Ward along with about 20 youth on this temple trip.  He also had the pleasure of going with a few of the people that have recently joined the church in the Manhattan area.  This was their first time attending an LDS temple. 

This temple trip was all about baptisms for the dead.  Since the Winter Quarters temple is one of the smaller ones, Alex as well as the others who traveled from Manhattan, were responsible for staffing the entire baptismal font area.  Along with the 20 or so youth that went with them, they didn't have any trouble filling the whole area.  Alex told us that when he got there, he recognized many of the temple workers from the time that he spent in the Lawrence 2nd Ward in Lawrence, Kansas last year.  He said that it was really nice to see them and know that they were all there in the temple together.  Alex spent most of the time on this temple trip as a witness during the baptisms.  However, at one point he was able to perform a confirmation along side of the baptism font for one of the recent converts that some of the sister missionaries from his mission, had brought with them.  Overall, Alex said that the temple trip was a really good experience and that he was really glad to have had the opportunity to go.

Church tours still seems to be the way to go when doing missionary work in the Missouri, Independence mission.  Almost every week Alex is telling us about the people that they have taken on a tour of the Church building itself.  Once they reach the baptismal font in the Church, the spirit is usually pretty strong and the common response from the people on the tour is that the feel a feeling that they have never felt before.  Something that just makes them want to stay in that spot and never leave.  The past few weeks have been no different.  Alex has told us about several people who have taken a tour of the Church building.  Without fail, the same spirit is there and the people respond in much the same way.  I'm not sure if Church tours are a common thing in other missions, but is sure seems to work for Alex and the other missionaries in his area.

OK, so here are a couple of stories that Alex included in his last letter that were really good blogging material.  Everybody who knows Alex, knows that he is just hungry for any kind of sport, especially if it has something to do with wrestling or running.  So while Alex and his companion were out tracting the other day, they ran across a house where the garage door was open.  When they looked in the garage, they noticed that there was a picture on the wall of the Olympic rings.  At that point Alex made the comment to his companion that maybe the person who lived their was some kind of Olympic athlete.  As it turned out, he was right.  This just happened to be the house of one of the more famous decathletes of all time.  Also living in the house were several other Olympic hopefuls who are very likely to be part of the 2012 Olympics.  On top of that, when Alex and his companion approached them and asked if they would like to hear the missionary lessons, they agreed and were taught the first lesson right there.  Of course they also left them with a few Books of Mormon and an appointment to come back and teach them more.  Alex doesn't really know where all of this will end up, but for him, it was like a dream come true.  Not only did he get to meet some Olympic athletes, he also got to teach them the gospel.  If nothing else comes of this meeting, at least while Alex is watching the Olympics next year on TV, he can say that he taught the gospel to the athletes who are on the track right then running in the Olympics. 

The second story that Alex told us was pretty funny and in the end, is just all Alex.  Alex has always really liked little kids.  In fact when in comes down to it, in many ways Alex is just a bigger little kid.  This story just shows how big of a little kid Alex really is.  Quite often when Alex and his companion go to a teaching appointment, they will take along with them, one of the members of the Ward.  After one of their teaching appointments where they were accompanied by a Ward member, they decided to drop in on the Ward members family afterwards.  As Alex walked in the house, he asked the Mom if they could drop off a bag of candy for their daughter since it was her birthday.  While they were there, they noticed that the two boys in the family were playing "beyblade".  OK, for any of you like us who don't have little kids any more, beyblade is probably not what it first sounds like.  When I first heard this, I had visions of two little kids fighting it out in their living room with some kind of Japanese swords or something.  Well, after looking up beyblade on the Internet, I found out that it is all about spinning up a couple of over-sized tops in a small arena and allowing these tops to bump each other until one of them topples over.  Well, you wouldn't really expect a twenty year old missionary to know much about a beyblade either, but when Alex found out that the boys were playing, he told them to hold on for a second while he ran back out to the car.  A few minutes later, in walks Alex with his brand new beyblade that he had just recently purchased.  Everybody thought that Alex was just joking so when they saw him come back with this toy, they all busted up laughing.  Alex didn't tell us how the actual beyblade competition went, but I'm guessing that there is a little lesson to be learned here.  If you make friends with the kids, the parents are going to love you.  That can open a lot of doors for missionary work.

Well as always, there are plenty of stories about all the people that Alex and his companion are currently teaching.  Great stories about people coming to Church for the first time.  Stories about baptismal commitments and stories about how the missionaries are helping to change people lives.  If you would like to hear more about all of the great things that are going on in the Independence Missouri mission, just ask and we will be glad to share them with you.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Missionary work is a family afair

We received word from Alex last week that transfers came and went and guess what… he is still in Manhattan. I mentioned before on this blog that Manhattan has been one of Alex’s favorite places to serve. Since he has been there for about seven months now, he was guessing that this would be the transfer when he would go. He told us that the last week leading up to transfers was kind of nerve racking. Alex told us that on the night that the assistants were supposed call, he was very nervous because he just knew that he was going to be transferred out. Then when the assistants finally did call, it was just Alex’s luck that he happened to be in the bathroom at the time. When the phone rang, Alex rushed out of the bathroom, hopefully dressed, so that he could hear what was going to happen. When Alex heard that he was going to be staying in Manhattan and not only that but he would be staying with his current companion, he was super excited. Of course as many things go on a mission, the Lord needs you where he needs you and apparently the Lord still needs Alex in Manhattan.

There is one small interesting fact about this transfer however. The fact that Alex’s companion is also staying in Manhattan makes the next transfer a little interesting. The reason why is because Alex’s companion will complete his mission at the end of this transfer and will be heading home. This might mean that Alex could be in Manhattan even longer or who knows what. Again, the Lord needs missionaries where he needs them. Of course Alex wouldn’t mind staying in Manhattan even longer, but it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.

In both of Alex’s last couple of letters, he has told us about all of the great events coming up in the next few weeks. They have been teaching some people that have really come a long way and have made a lot of changes in their life. Alex said that it has been really exciting to see all of the changes and to also have them come to the Stake center to watch general conference. After attending the general conference broadcasts, the new investigators told Alex that they really learned a lot and enjoyed the talks that were given and had set a date for baptism. In Alex’s last letter home this week, he told us all about the baptism and how it was the most exciting news of the week. Normally Alex tries to have one of the Ward members perform the baptism but this new member had specially requested that Alex perform the baptism and that his companion perform the confirmation. This was a very special experience for Alex and something that I am sure, he will never forget.

Alex actually has a temple trip coming up in the next week. He wasn’t really sure how many of the newest members of the Ward would be able to make the trip. However, this week Alex told us that several of the people who have recently joined the Church are also planning on making the trip to the Winter Quarters temple. This will be the first time that Alex has had a chance to attend the temple since he left the MTC almost 18 months ago. He is very excited for this trip and I am sure that we will hear all about it next week.

Since we are on the subject of the temple, the temple has been something very special to Alex for a long time. Alex mentioned in his most recent letter home that there was one point during general conference when President Monson was talking about baptisms for the dead and how the youth have the opportunity to go to the temple to help with this work. Alex told us that this talked reminded him of the time back in high school when he and several of his friends would get up early in the morning before school, just so they could attend the temple and perform baptisms for the dead. Those were some very special times that he has never forgotten and probably never will.

According to everything that Alex has told us, things are going really well in Manhattan as well as throughout his whole mission. Alex was able to meet up with his old Lawrence and Burlington companion during transfers a little while ago and catch up on what each of them have been doing. Alex told us that it has been amazing how fast time has gone by. It was just a year again when Alex and his former companion were being double transferred out of Lawrence to Burlington. Those were some great times with some great successes. Speaking of successes, Alex says that they have some more baptisms coming up and that they have finally been able to build up their teaching pool and are teaching some really great people as well.

I haven’t done this very often in this blog mainly because this blog is supposed to be all about what Alex is doing on his mission rather than about us or his family. But I would like to share with you an experience that is very much about a mission, missionaries, Alex and his family. I am currently writing this blog entry as I sit in the mission home in Quito, Ecuador. This is significant because I served my mission in Guayaquil, Ecuador thirty years ago. My wife and I are here because my wife’s cousin and her husband are mission presidents in the Quito, Ecuador mission. This experience being here in Ecuador, has brought back so many memories of my mission and being a missionary. In our short time here my wife and I have been able to see missionary work take place from a mission president’s perspective. One of the most significant experiences that we had in our short time here was a visit to a city on the Ecuador/Columbia boarder called Tulcan. The reason why this experience was so significant was because of what happened on Saturday night just after we arrived. This experience allowed both my wife and I to participate in missionary work in exactly the same way as both of our missionary sons, Alex and Christopher.

We traveled to Tulcan with the mission president and his family to attend a district conference in the small Tulcan branch. Saturday evening before the conference, several of the branch leaders in Tulcan including both the Priesthood as well as the Relief Society, paired up to go out and visit some of the less active members of the church to invite them back. I had the privilege of going with one of the counselors in the branch presidency as well as the district president. We traveled to a very humble home of one of the members, not too far from the small chapel in the city. There we met with a less active member of the church where I was invited to share some of my missionary experiences as well as give the prayer before we left. This was a very special experience for me for several reasons. Those reasons include being back among the people who I had served thirty years ago, using my Spanish language which I still remember and because this is exactly the same experience that both our sons Alex and Christopher share with us in their letters home each week.

My wife had a very similar experience that evening in Tulcan as well. She accompanied several of the Relief Society sisters on visits and was able to experience what missionary work is like as a full time missionary. Since she was not able to serve as a full time missionary when she was younger this has been a new and very exciting experience for her. Even though she does not speak Spanish, she was able to understand and feel the spirit that was present in each of her visits. She was even asked to give a prayer, in English, several times during the two days that we were there. For us, this whole trip to Ecuador has been all about missionary work even though we are not currently called as full time missionaries. It has been an experience that has brought us very close to our missionary sons even though we are thousands of miles apart. Our time here in Ecuador, we will never forget. Whether we will ever be back, I don’t know. But we will follow in Alex and Christopher’s footsteps and serve as full time senior missionaries one day in the future.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Big gooey donut monster

Time just keeps flying by.  It seems like I just wrote on this blog and here it is a couple of weeks later and more news from Alex.  Alex has been in Manhattan KS, for about 7 months now.  Over that time he has had a lot of great successes as well as other great experiences.  He wrote us this last week and sounded a bit nervous because transfers are coming up soon and he doesn't want to leave Manhattan.  Everywhere that Alex has served has been great but so far Manhattan has been his dream area.  There are probably a lot of reasons for that which include the members of the ward, the people that Alex has taught and baptized, being there for 7 months as well as also being the places where some of his relatives lived and grew up.  Even though transfers come up in just over a week, we probably won't hear anything for at least a couple more weeks. 

Alex told us all about another great experience that he recently had during an area conference.  Elder Kevin W. Pearson of the Seventy visited the Wichita area recently and of course all of the missionaries who are serving near there were able to attend a special missionary conference.  Alex said that about an hour before the conference actually started, he and several of the other zone leaders were able to meet with Elder Pearson for a special training meeting.  Alex described it as being a once in a lifetime experience to be taught on almost a one-on-one basis by a member of the Seventy.  He also told us that he learned a lot from that special experience as well as from the rest of the conference.  Alex said that Elder Pearson was very blunt in telling the missionaries exactly what needed to happen in their mission.  He gave the missionaries a lot of valuable information that should help them make some changes and experience even more success. 

We have only heard bits and pieces of this next story so I am going to try to fit some of the pieces together and see how it turns out.  For the last couple of months, the Young Men's presidency in the Manhattan Stake have been planning a special mini missionary activity for the young men.  This activity actually took place about two weeks ago in which many of the young men actually got to spend a couple of days with the missionaries while they went through a regular day as a full time missionary.  As it turned out, part of this activity actually carried over into the regular missionary P-day.  Because of that, the normal P-day was switched to Tuesday rather than Monday so that the young men could spend Monday working and tagging along with the missionaries.  Of course we didn't know what the plan was and were wondering all day Monday why we hadn't heard from Alex like we normally do on a P-day.  Anyway, once we finally did hear from Alex, he told us that the young man that he was suppose to pair up with, didn't show up.  But that didn't bother Alex.  He went and found another young man to pair up with and share the missionary experience.  Alex and his companion had been visiting with one of the families that they are currently teaching and talked their 15 year old son into joining them for the mini mission activity.  They found an old suit that happened to fit the young man that one of the former missionaries in the area had left behind.  Through this activity, this young man was able to meet the mission president, the Stake president, the young men's president as well as all of the other young men in the Stake.  I'm sure that after meeting all of those "presidents" and hanging out with the missionaries, he must have thought that everybody in the church is either called "Elder" or "President".  From what we heard about this activity, it all went really well and the young men in the Stake came away with a good understanding of what missionary life is like.

Alex included in pretty funny story in his last letter that he said would be even funnier when we get the pictures.  We actually did receive some pictures from Alex this last week, but apparently the picture that Alex is talking about in this story must have happened after he sent home his memory card.  Alex has always really loved little kids and we have seen videos that he has sent home where he plays games with some of the families and then rewards the winners with Klondike bars, cookies or some other type of goodies.  Alex started out this story by telling us that each week he and his companion go to one of the Ward member's homes for a weekly correlation meeting (I'm assuming that this Ward member is the Ward mission leader).  The Ward member that they meet with has some young kids so before they start their correlation meeting, Alex and his companion conduct a room inspection to make sure that the kids are obeying their parents and keeping their beds made and rooms clean.  Then if they pass the room inspection, they are rewarded with some kind of treat.  So before they arrived, Alex and his companion stopped by the store on the way to their correlation meeting to pick up the reward.  They decided that they would treat the kids to some giant donuts.  These donuts weren't just any old giant donut, they were the kind that were HUGE.  Once they got to the family's house and before they were able to conduct the room inspection, the littlest child (about 1 1/2 years old), reaches into the box of donuts and picked out the largest one of the dozen.  Alex said that this donut was so big that it was basically the size of this child's head.  One of the funniest things was that even though the donut was obviously too large for a kid this size, this little 1 1/2 year old almost ate the entire thing.  But there came a point when the donut was just too much to handle and finishing it off just wasn't going to happening.  I'm sure you can picture this whole event in your head even without the picture that Alex has promised to send.  Seeing this tiny little mouth biting into this huge donut while the rest of her face is hidden behind nothing but mounds of sticky, gooey glaze.  YUM...

So as promised, here are a few pictures that Alex recently sent home. 

Here's the whole district. 
Just looking at them you can tell that they are all out-"standing" in their field.

Watch out Elder.  Remember Eve was tempted by a serpent too.

Alex with his Aunt and Uncle during their visit to Manhattan

That's our boy!! 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The successes are great

In the last several letters that we have received from Alex, he is constantly telling us how things are really picking up for them.  Alex and his companion have been working really hard to build up their teaching pool and with the news that we got this week, they might have to work even harder at that.  The news was really good.  This past week two more people that they have been teaching for a while, were finally baptized.  Baptizing people that you are currently teaching is a good way to have to go back to rebuilding your teaching pool.  The people that Alex and his companion had been teaching weren't the only ones getting baptized that day.  In fact Alex said that there were so many people in the changing room after the baptismal service, that he had to wait out in the baptismal font for the changing room to clear out.  Here is how Alex was feeling at the time:
"It was a very neat experience to just sit there in the font by myself with all the doors closed. The spirit was really strong. It was a very good weekend for us."

Sometimes when you are in tune with the spirit, even some of the seemingly insignificant experiences can be powerful.

This seems like a never ending theme in Alex's mission.  Alex is constantly telling us stories about how someone he has met or some experience that he has had, ties him back to people or places he knows from Utah.  Well this week was no different and the experience that he recently had, following a Stake conference meeting, brought him even closer than just Utah.  Alex told us that following Stake conference a couple of weeks ago, the Stake Patriarch's wife walked up to him and asked if he was Elder Nicholes.  Of course Alex said yes.  The Patriarch's wife then proceeded to tell Alex that she had just received a call from western New York.  If you remember a couple of months ago, I wrote on this blog about how Alex's older brother had just been called and recently left to serve his mission in Rochester, New York.  As it turns out, the Patriarch and his wife have a son who lives in New York and had called to tell his parents that Alex's brother Christopher was at their house in New York eating dinner.  So here they are, hundreds of miles apart yet sharing some of the exact same missionary experiences.  How cool is that?!!

So here is an interesting story that came from Alex's Aunt and Uncle who had recently returned from Manhattan, Kansas.  I wrote about this whole experience in the last blog entry but this time we got the other side of the story directly from his Aunt and Uncle during a Sunday dinner at our house.  They told us that while they were on their way to visit some of their friends who live near Manhattan and before they had actually seen Alex, they decided to stop by the church building in Salina, Kansas.  As they pulled up to the church, they noticed that there were several cars in the parking lot which were all similar models with Kansas license plates. They pulled up the building, got out of there car and went inside the church to take a look around.  While they were walking around, they could hear some voices coming from one of the rooms in the building.  Once they finally tracked down the voiced to the Relief Society room, they cracked open the door and saw several well dressed young men in the middle of some kind of meeting.  Well of course these were the missionaries from the Salina district in the middle of their weekly district meeting.  Alex's Uncle quietly walked in the back of the room just to see if maybe Alex happened to be there.  As he looked around at the Elders, he didn't see anybody he recognized and decided to quietly step out before he caused any kind of disturbance.  Later on after his Aunt and Uncle finally met up with Alex, they told Alex the story about how they stopped at the church Salina and saw some several missionaries there conducting their weekly district meeting.  To everyone's surprise, Alex told them that as a zone leader he just happened to be visiting the Salina district that day and was at that district meeting.  Apparently Alex was sitting just out of sight on the other side of the room where his Uncle couldn't see him.   Since all of the missionaries were so focused on what was going on in the meeting, they really didn't notice the visitors that had momentarily poked their heads in to the room. 

In addition to that story, they also told us that once the members of the church in Manhattan found out about Alex's relation to their former Stake President, the members told his Aunt and Uncle all about the great job Elder Nicholes has been doing in their mission.  I can't tell you just how proud that makes us feel as Alex's parents to hear stories like that.

Well there are a lot more stories that Alex has told about some of the great people that he and his companion have been teaching.  Most of the details are a little too personal to share here but they are great experiences.  Every week Alex shares more about the teaching moments that they have had and the spirit that is present during these moments.  The response towards the gospel message that the missionaries share, has been very positive at times.  Of course there are ups and downs and not everybody is as receptive as others, but from the letters that Alex sends to us, he is having a great time and that time is rushing by too fast.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The secret is out

Well, it has been a few weeks since I have written anything on this blog.  It wasn't because I am lazy or procrastinating or anything, it is because over the last several weeks Alex has been so busy that he hasn't had much time to keep us up to date.  He has written to us every week although with the library being closed on President's day and the various snow storms that passed through the area, Alex has had to write to us on a day other than his P-day.  Because of that, he doesn't like to spent a lot of time writing because they have so much work to do.  But it is always good to hear from him no matter how brief his letters might be. 

Not many people knew this but I guess the cat is out of the bag now.  Alex has an Uncle or rather his mother has an Uncle, who used to be the Stake President in the Manhattan Stake several years ago.  They now live in Salt Lake but just recently travel back to Manhattan to attend the dedication of a new church building in the Manhattan area.  This presented a rare opportunity for Alex since he is now serving in the Manhattan area as well.  Alex hadn't told many people about his Manhattan, KS relatives mainly because the conversations would usually turn to reminiscing about old times rather than focusing on missionary work.  Not that reminiscing is a bad thing but for a missionary, focusing on your mission is the number one priority. 

So now that you have a little background, here is the funny part of the story.  A few weeks ago when Alex's Uncle and Aunt were visiting the Manhattan area for the building dedication, the local Ward members held a potluck open house for them.  A little later in the evening after Alex and his companion were finished with their teaching appointments, they dropped by the open house to say "Hi".  As Alex described the scene, there were quite a few people talking and mingling with his Uncle and Aunt.  As Alex entered the cultural hall his Aunt spotted him and immediately came over to give him a big hug.  Normally missionaries aren't allowed to hug someone of the opposite sex while they are serving as a missionary.  But in this case, since this was his Aunt and it had been almost a year and a half since they had seen each other, a big hug was the appropriate thing to do.  Of course since Alex hadn't said much about is Manhattan relatives, most of the people there had no idea why this former Stake President's wife was hugging this random missionary.  This drew a lot of funny looks and dropped jaws from the people in attendance.  So like I said, the cat is now out of the bag and now everybody knows that Alex has some roots in Manhattan, KS.  Ever since then, all kinds of Ward members have been giving Alex a hard time about not telling them about his Uncle and Aunt.  Once again, it is a very small world.  Alex didn't have a lot of time to chat that evening, but with the next day being P-Day, they were all able to meet up again and catch up on everything that has been happening at home and in the mission field. 

Another transfer day has come and gone and Alex is still in Manhattan.  He was lucky enough to be able to stay with his current companion, but he told us that almost every other companionship in their zone experienced a change.  I'm not sure what kind of challenges or opportunities this presents for Alex, being a zone leader, but from the tone of his last letter, there are new experiences to be had by everybody.  Alex has been serving in the Manhattan area for six months now and really loves it.  He and his companion have been working really hard to build up their teaching pool since many of the people that they had been teaching were actually baptized around Christmas time.  Alex told us that they are currently teaching some really great people and has shared with us many of his most recent experiences.  He also shared with us some really funny stories but they are all a little too personal to recount here.  Needless to say, Alex is very excited that he is able to spend at least one more transfer in Manhattan and wishes that he could stay forever.  Of course, forever is a long time and we would like to see him come home once his mission is done so that we can give him a big hug too, just like his Aunt did.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Missionary work can be challenging in many different ways

The weather was a factor this time in delaying Alex's weekly letter home.  When he was finally able to write home, he told us about the severe storms that they have been experiencing in Kansas.  Apparently the weather was so bad that it shut down the library for a couple of days.  Alex said that the temperatures had been around minus twenty degrees.  So due to the delay in writing home, Alex wasn't able to write a very long letter again.  He did tell us just how much he liked his new companion and how well they get along and work together.  Alex also told us that he is heading out to Wamego again for a few days to help the missionaries there build up their teaching pool a little more.  He expected to be doing a lot of tracting over the next few days in Wamego and hoping that the Lord would bless the Wamego Elders with some new people to teach. 

Tracting always sounds like a lot of hard work with not very much to show for it.  But for Alex, his opinion of tracting is completely different.  In his last letter home he talked about some of the tracting that they had done and the success that they have had just by going door-to-door meeting people.  Here is what he had to say about all of the door knocking that they did while in Wamego:
"So we have been doing a lot of tracting and street contacting lately, and we have been having some pretty good success from it. I really, really hate the missionary mentality that tracting is a waste of time. I think it can be very effective if you have good people skills and the spirit. I think that is a big problem in why missionaries never have anyone to teach. All they do is try to contact former investigators and wait for their ward to give them referrals rather than actually going out and being proactive. I just hate the stigma that is around tracting, its ridiculous!"

What Alex is saying here is very true.  Going door-to-door trying to talk people has always been one of the hardest ways to meet people and one activity that missionaries would probably like to avoid if possible.  However, talking to people is what missionaries do and if done right and with the guidance from the Lord, it can be very effective and obviously Alex's personal experience with tracting has proven just that.  Alex went on in his letter to tell us all about some of the teaching success that they had while tracting.  He told us about some really great people that they met and some of the opportunities that they have for continuing to teach these people the gospel.  During the two days that they were in Wamego, they taught nine lessons and most of those were people that they had met through tracting. 

Alex included some exciting news about a temple trip that is coming up.  One of the people that Alex taught and joined the church not long ago, will be going through the temple for the first time.  As a result, Alex gets the rare opportunity to accompany this member to the temple.  The other thing that is special about this experience is that the Independence Missouri mission does not have a temple within the mission boundaries.  The closest temple is near Omaha, Nebraska in Winter Quarters which means that Alex would actually be leaving the mission boundaries by special permission.  This will be the first time that Alex has been able to attend the temple since he left the MTC over a year ago.  I'm sure that we will hear all about this temple trip and the special experience that surrounds it.

Alex told us a funny story this week in his letter home.  Everybody in the mission knows that Alex is a bit of a heath nut.  Every opportunity he gets, he tries to exercise and keep in shape.  Also, as hard as it is sometimes on a mission, he tries to eat healthy as well.  So apparently he made a bet with one of the other Elders in the Manhattan area.  Of course a missionary betting with another missionary is probably not the most sanctioned mission activity, but in this case it was probably OK.  As it turns out, a group of missionaries decided that they wanted to visit the local Mongolian BBQ restaurant in the area.  While they were there, one of the other missionaries bet Alex that he could eat more BBQ than Alex.  Well if you know Alex, he doesn't normally back down from a good challenge so the bet was on.  Of course the more interesting part of this story is what the loser of the bet had to do.  Well, knowing that Alex is a health nut, the other Elder decided that if Alex lost, he would have to eat a roll of Oreos and a piece of cake.  That might be a consequence that Alex wouldn't want, but I think you would agree that most of us wouldn't mind losing that bet.  Of course there is always the other side of the bet as well.  If Alex won the bet, then the other Elder would have to workout with Alex for the next three days and finish every workout no matter what.  Knowing Alex and the kind of workouts that he is used to, this Elder was going to regret that he ever threw down the gauntlet on this one. 

So both Elders sat down with their very large portions of Mongonian BBQ and the contest started.  Again knowing Alex, there was no way that he was going to lose and this other Elder never knew what hit him.  As Alex explained the outcome in his letter, he really didn't have to eat that much BBQ in order to win the bet.  All he did was eat as fast as he could which really messed with the other Elder's confidence and resulted in the other Elder giving up before either one of them had really reached their limits.  What a strategy!  If you can't break them physically, messing with them mentally can be just as effective. ;-)  But the story doesn't end there.  I guess this Elder didn't quite learn his lesson the first time so he made the mistake of challenging Alex again to a water drinking contest.  This time the bet was who could slurp a cup of water through a straw the fastest.  No problem again, Alex won that one too.  Well apparently this Elder is a slow learner, but then again maybe not.  After losing both of the previous challenges, he again came back with a third one.  This time the challenge was who could make the most free throws.  Doesn't sound like a big deal until you consider that Alex is a wrestler and this other Elder played on the varsity high school basketball team.  Smart move Elder, but don't count your chickens before they hatch.  ;-)