The Best Going-Away Present Ever

We held our last Young Single Adult Family Home Evening on Tuesday evening. We expected to have several attend since it was our last week, but we had no idea who would come exactly. Our Togliatti missionaries are the absolute BEST!!!! They really went to work calling all of the young adults we have worked with throughout the time we have been here (without our knowing). We felt so honored to greet many who we haven't seen in weeks, even months. These are investigators who we helped teach with the missionaries but for one reason or another chose to discontinue learning about the gospel. However, we had become such good friends and so it was a blessing to be able to see them again before we leave. The real miracle of the evening was that we were able to realize our goal that we made with our student council over a year ago to have 15 young single adults attend. We have had 14 come on a couple of occasions, but we had 15 this time, our last time, and we were so excited. One of our members shared a thought about gratitude and asked each person in turn to express a thought about us. It was very heartfelt, and we feel so grateful for our association with these wonderful young people!

January 21, 2013

We have been disappointed this week to learn that Suzy doesn't want to meet with us any more...for missionary lessons anyway. Her fiance told us she wants to learn more but in her own time, and she doesn't want to be told what to do. Elder Peterson had already spent a good deal of time putting together a list of the highlights we had taught, which are the key doctrines of the church, in order to encourage Eric and Suzy to discuss them together. So we were worried about when we would be able to see her one last time in order to give this material to her. We were excited to see her at Institute on Friday night, an answer to our prayer. We had the opportunity to speak just with her, expressing our desires for her to continue learning and our appreciation for letting us teach her. She was very grateful and we were able to feel like our friendship had not been adversely affected at all. Her fiance is the Institute instructor and bore such a strong testimony in his lesson. We are hoping and praying that they will continue to learn and progress together so that she will have a desire to join the church some day.

On the upside, we had a great day Saturday at the baptism of an eight-year old girl in our Komsomolski Branch. She is part of a family who we have spent considerable time with because they invite us to their home often. We had to start the meeting a little late because the first try at filling up the font was with weird-colored water so they had to let it drain out and then refill it. I can't quite figure out why it was filled so full with dirty water? The missionaries were able to use the spare time to practice a hymn for the musical number. There were many branch members who came, including a family who we haven't seen in church for several weeks, and the family was very grateful for everyone's support. Two investigators came as well; that is always a plus!

After the baptism, we went to the family's home for a traditional Russian dinner of Plov (rice and chicken dish) that they cooked in a dutch oven over a wood fire. As usual, it was very delicious. One of the missionary companionships in the branch came with us, and another family from the branch came who are close friends with the family whose daughter was baptized. In fact, they are Suzy's future in-laws. We feel very comfortable in their home and are always treated like family when we are there. Elder Peterson helped the oldest daughter with her English reading homework while the missionaries played checkers with the other two daughters and I did the dishes. We shared a spiritual thought and played Conference Bingo again, a requested favorite.

Our FHE group was on the "famine" side of attendance this week. It seems to go in patterns--many, few, etc. Unfortunately, we had an investigator who was there by himself with the missionaries before only two other young adults came. We still had fun but always like it when more people come. Just leaves plenty of room for improvement next week!

Our district had our culture night for this cycle the other night. We went to hear a men's vocal quartet from the Kazan monastery. The first half of the concert they sang traditional "Christmas" hymns and were dressed in their priestly robes. We were sufficiently bored and thought we'd leave at intermission, but our Ukrainian sister missionary talked us into staying, saying that the second half would be traditional Russian songs, not religious hymns, and so it would be much more enjoyable. Well, after intermission, the monks came out in black shirts and pants instead of their robes so that was our first clue that the mood of the program was going to be different. As they announced each song, the audience would Ooo and Ahhh, recognizing the song as one of their favorites. Russians really do appreciate their cultural music! We haven't learned to appreciate it quite as much as they do, but we definitely had a cultural experience! We even knew one of the songs! Silent Night, sung in English!

There was a marked difference in the feeling at church on Sunday, the first Sunday we have been back to that branch since our special Fast. Meetings were well attended, members participated respectfully during the lessons, and there was a good spirit there. Of course, we don't see everything that goes on behind the scenes, but all in all it is good to see improvement.

January 19, 2013:  Leeza Izmalkova

Yeltsov Family in New City

Elder Glavatsky, Suzanna, Elder Lythgoe, Veronica

January 14, 2013

We are celebrating another holiday in Russia today, actually Jan 13-14...Old New Year. Can't quite explain it because most of the Russians can't either, but it has something to do with saying goodbye to the past year and welcoming the new year. So Happy Old New Year! Christmas was last Monday, January 7, here in Russia. Families exchange gifts on December 31 for the New Year so Christmas is basically just a day off. In America where New Year's ends the holiday season, it is the beginning of the holiday season in Russia. Christmas was never celebrated here until the last twenty years approximately and, for the most part, still takes a backseat to most of the celebrations as far as we can tell. The churches have special midnight services which a lot of people attend. As for us, we chose to go to the New City Branch winter picnic. We played badminton, soccer, relay games, and roasted hot dogs for lunch. There were a ton of people in the forest since many had the day off. Lots of cross country skiers, sledding, etc. The weather was perfect, too--not too cold. It is fun being in a casual situation with the members like this because they all are good sports about running and playing, even the babushkas! Speaking of Christmas, we received all of our Christmas mail this last week. Thank you to everyone who sent such thoughtful cards and gifts! We love that we have been able to celebrate Christmas all year long but especially to have extended "traditional" Christmas greetings into January! We love you!

Our week has been filled with good visits with one of the branch presidents, our eternal investigator Svetlana, YSA's, and branch families. We had a successful family home evening with five investigators and four church members. Add eight missionaries to the mix, and we had quite the house full! We always share a spiritual thought and then play a game. One of the investigators brought Jenga and then we played "The Couch Game" which they really like. It's a good game to work in teams and get to know each other's names in a roundabout sort of way.

We went on our last visa trip on Tuesday to Lithuania. We were with President and Sister Sartori and seven other missionaries, all of whom have served with us in Toliatti, so that was a blast. It's a long day though. We were up at 3:30 in the morning to get to the airport and didn't get back home until 1 the following morning. You sure feel like a part of the jet set when you're on four different flights in one day. We fly from Samara to Moscow to Vilnius, back to Moscow then Samara. In fact, we were on the same plane with the same flight crew back and forth from Vilnius to Moscow. I'm sure they wonder what we're all doing. It cost about $1200 per missionary just for the airfare. That doesn't count the transportation costs getting the missionary from their various areas to Samara. It will be so nice when the visa restrictions can be adjusted which will eliminate a lot of this travel. Missionaries will still have to leave the country every six months to have their migration cards renewed but that will probably be accomplished by a drive to Kazakhstan. It will save the mission hundreds of thousands of dollars and exponentially more for the entire Eastern Europe Area.

We braved door-to-door contacting in our apartment building. We tied ribbons around several "Joy to the World" DVD's and took them around to our neighbors. We had our "door approach" memorized, but it was still pretty scary trying to talk people into opening their doors. Our apartments are behind two metal doors, and the person speaks to you through the metal door. Some of them have peepholes so they can see us and some will open their doors while others just say no. Surprisingly, we had several people open their doors and even had three or more invite us in. A few of them recognized us from seeing us come and go. Others were just very friendly and patiently listened to us. We had one of the elders standing behind us in the background to help us when we didn't understand what was being said. We'll follow up with those who were interested this next week.

I read the chapter in Alma about Amalikiah and Lahonti this last week, and it always reminds me of the morningside with John Bytheway that I invited myself to with my high school kids years ago. As only he can do in such an animate way to tell the story, Brother Bytheway would refer to the phrase in the verse, while banging his fist across his chest, "they were fixed in their minds with a determined resolution." (Alma 47:6) This is something we definitely need to have as missionaries...a fixed mind and determined resolution to be obedient, to work hard and to share the gospel. We see such great examples in the missionaries we serve with, in our own missionary son, in our niece and nephew, in many of your sons and daughters, and know there are thousands whom we don't see, all of whom are fixed in their minds with a determined resolution to share the good news of gospel. It's true!!!
 Sister Olga race to the finish line

Sister Peterson has skills
Plane to Vilnius
Elder Woolley
Sister Upshaw and Sister Pearce
Elder Malloy and Elder Anderson

Trying to stay warm at the winter picnic
Elder Peterson standing in between "Tanya's."  Russian legend has it that your wish will come true if made while standing in between two people with the same name.

January 7, 2013


President and Sister Bushuev

   We had the opportunity to participate in a special fast with our Komsomolski branch for the purpose of forgiving each other and being loving towards one another. The Fast and Testimony Meeting was very spiritual. Great testimonies. Afterwards we broke our fast together and shared a meal and visited. It is a great step towards a much-needed change.

    We met with a less-active member's father and had a good conversation. We have met with this member on a couple of occasions, and it came up in the course of our conversation that her father was very interested in history. Elder Peterson had been asking around to try and find someone who could talk to him about the Lenin/Bolshevik Era in Russian history and this seemed like a great resource. This Sister Olga agreed to ask her father to speak with us, and he said he would. So we went back and were able to have him answer our prepared questions. The cool thing about it was that Elder Peterson was able to skillfully navigate the conversation into a discussion about God and the prophet Joseph Smith. Olga's Dad actually asked us religion questions and for someone who is intolerant to religion, especially to Mormons, he was very cordial. We hope the Elders will be able to continue getting to know him better and make it easier for Olga to come to church. In the least, maybe he was able to see that Mormons aren't as strange as he thought they were.

    Our New Year's Eve and New Year's Day were "lock down" days. That meant missionaries were not allowed to leave their apartments in order to avoid any chance of harm or accident. So many chose to do their weekly planning that they would have otherwise done later in the week. Others chose to deep clean their apartments and requested we come and do apartment checks that week :) We invited a member family over to watch the First Presidency Christmas Devotional. This family is a mom and her daughter who would have probably otherwise spent the evening by themselves so it worked out for all of us to enjoy the evening together. They brought us a beautiful glass angel tree ornament that we will be able to remember them each year as we decorate our Christmas tree.

   We went to the New City Branch Christmas Party this weekend. They always do a great job of setting up the tables, providing food, and acting out scenarios. After dinner and the nativity reenactment, several of the members stayed after and danced and visited. There were several investigators who came with the missionaries so that was good.

   As we met together as a District Council, we determined the goal for 2013 to be "Becoming Like Christ." Each of us is encouraged to strengthen our own testimonies and to be converted to the gospel through developing Christlike qualities. In order to strengthen and uplift others, we first have to strengthen ourselves. Sacrament meeting talks, activities, home and visiting teaching, will all focus on how we can do this.

Bon Appetit at the branch Christmas Party

"Mary and Joseph"

Looba, Elena, Olga

The Wise Man and the Star
Elder Peterson at one of our bus stops

The little church across the street from our apartment

More pictures!

Legend has it that a man and his dog frequently walked through town until one day the man died.  The dog came back to the same location where his master had died every day for more than a year until he, too, died at the same location.  Today, married couples traditionally have their pictures taken at this monument site to dedicate their loyalty to one another, just as the dog pledged his loyalty to his master.
he garbage truck comes every day to collect garbage from the apartment buildings which are left in cardboard boxes, as opposed to garbage cans.
Preferred mode of travel in the winter.  If I could, I would have Elder Peterson pull me around on one!
Lucinea, Nadia
 Feed the Birds - in the courtyard outside our apartment building
Thought it looked like a good idea but was unwilling to go outside, so I chose the air conditioning unit a hand's reach outside the kitchen window.
A "Could-Have-Been-Better-Could-
Have-Been-Worse" Water Day

December 31, 2012

Wow, this has been a great week! It has been jam-packed with Christmas, zone conferences, and a brand new granddaughter! We'll start with the exciting news today and work our way backwards. Our eldest daughter Rachael, her husband Dave, and children Claire and Brevan welcomed their new little girl into their family. Weighing in at 9 lbs. 9 oz., Kennedy Joy ended the year 2012 in grand style. She was just a few days early and will have a memorable birthday being born on New Year's Eve, but I think her mom decided that was okay instead of having an over-10-pound baby! She's pretty much the cutest little baby ever. Really!! Grandpa Ken even admits she doesn't look like a typical lizard-looking newborn! As her big sister Claire says, "She is SOOOOO ADORABLE!!!"

We loved the experience of being with all of the missionaries throughout the week at two different zone conferences. Elder Peterson was asked to teach a session on asking effective questions and so after our zone conference in Samara we traveled with President and Sister Sartori for the zone conference in Saratov. As we have mentioned before, our favorite part of zone conferences are seeing the missionaries we have served with in Toliatti. The mission hired a van to bring the ten of us missionaries in Toliatti to Samara together. That is fun because we have a chance to get to know each other during the two-hour drive. We serve with such terrific missionaries! Elder Peterson spent a lot of time preparing his presentation, including a powerpoint presentation. It was good to see him be able to use his teaching talent in such an effective setting. He had taught a lesson in one of our district meetings, and the coined phrase of "high-gain questions" quickly spread throughout the mission, prompting the leadership to ask him to share with all of the missionaries. His purpose was to help the missionaries formulate questions that will more effectively move their investigators towards change and conversion. It takes a lot of practice, but many of the missionaries caught the vision and are excited to incorporate their new knowledge.

It was a particular blessing to be able to go to Saratov not only to see another part of the mission, but to also see Sister Semyonava, Elders Bishop, Owen, and Wiseman one last time before we leave the mission. We were able to help Elder Owen and Elder Langston teach a lesson to a less-active family on Saturday night. This family lived in very humble circumstances but welcomed us with open arms. We brought our "Conference Bingo" game along which is always a hit, especially with the kids. They begged us to leave some bingo papers with them so they could play on their own.

Another highlight of our Saratov trip was being with three of the other senior couples who serve in that zone. We all met together on Friday night. We put together our McDonald's order and sent Elder Peterson in to order since he's the best Russian speaker of the bunch while the rest of us waited in the van. Then we went to the Childers' apartment where Elder Reshetnikov and his wife joined us to eat and share their conversion story with us. Elder Reshetnikov is an Area Seventy, and we have had the pleasure of meeting him several times throughout the mission at trainings and conferences. We instantly took a liking to him. He is such a humble, kind man. He and his wife have been members for twenty years, one of the first families baptized in the area. Sister Reshetnikov is battling cancer with such a positive attitude. Fortunately, she felt well enough to come and talk to us and is just as charming as her husband. She presented each of us with a beautifully hand-painted Christmas ornament. She explained how the missionaries talked with them on the street and they agreed to have them come to their home for a meeting. In the meantime, Elder R. was talking with his brother about some missionaries planning to come to their home and his brother told him to not talk to them. The Reshetnikov's felt obligated to have them over since they had invited them so they thought it would be fine to have them over just once and then they wouldn't have to see them after that. So when the missionaries came to meet with them and told them they would be meeting with them five times, they were flabbergasted. But Elder R. felt something "different" when the missionaries shared their message with him and so he invited them back. Long story short, the Reshetnikov's were baptized one month later and are obviously an influential part of the church here.

We also lived the weekend routine with the mission president and his wife. They travel to different areas of the mission to visit different branches every weekend. We left Friday morning, drove 5 1/2 hours, met with members that evening, had zone conference Saturday, President does interviews until that night, returns to the hotel room around 9:30 when we ate snacks we brought along, church on Sunday, interviews after church, 5 1/2-hour drive back to Samara munching on leftover snacks, arriving in time to eat dinner about 9 o'clock again. The Sartori's are so fabulous and take such great care of this mission and the missionaries. We feel so blessed to be able to spend time with them in such a one-on-one experience. Their calling is tireless, as I'm sure all mission presidents' are. We are so grateful for all they do!

So, back to the week when it began...Christmas! We were able to talk with family at their pirate Christmas Eve party which was our Christmas morning. That was a great start to the day and ended equally as great talking to our daughter and her family in California and our missionary son in Iowa. He is doing so great! It is fun talking missionary to missionary, sharing experiences and testimonies. We told him that he has changed and his response was that we all have. We are definitely experiencing life in a different way for a short time that will have forever-lasting affects. It was also fun seeing the elders who came here to call their families. It is heartwarming to see how excited their families are and how they cheer when they are finally able to see each other on the computer screen. Families make all the difference, and their support to missionaries is so vital to everything the missionaries do. The elders were able to stay and share our Christmas breakfast with us which was nice because it felt more like a family. In between our calls, the day was a regular missionary day. Unfortunately, the baptism that had been planned fell through so we helped some of the elders with an investigator meeting instead.

We have so many things to be grateful for. We shared a Christmas letter with each other for our Christmas and, of course, an apple and orange in the toe of our stockings. It was a memorable day to be sure.
Relief Society bulletin board in Zavodskoy Branch
Roman, the chauffer
Elder and Sister Stevens
Sister Semyonava at Zone Conference in Saratov

Chapel built for Solnechney Branch

Childers, Sister Sartori, Reshetnikovs, Wings at Zone Conference in Saratov
Sisters Upshaw and Semyonava at zone conference in Saratov
Kennedy Joy Chalk

Elder Taylor at Zone conference in Samara
Elders Hill and Glavatsky at zone conference in Samara
Our Christmas Skype call with Elder Brent
Elder Peterson training at zone conference in Samara

December 24, 2012

Our Christmas Eve was spent with our favorite investigator Suzy, her fiance, and his family. We meet with them each week and teach the principles of the gospel with the help of the younger missionaries. The family is always so great to bear their testimonies of the principles we teach. We also helped the zone leaders with two of their contacts this week whom they found while knocking at apartment buildings. This is a finding technique that the mission is wanting to increase using. It can be a challenge because you have to be able to get into the building first by calling up one of the apartments and asking them to let you in. Then you knock on a big metal door to try and get the tenant to open their individual metal door in order to come and open the other metal door you're standing in front of. The reason we are wanting to concentrate on this effort is because in the winter people don't want to stop and talk to you when it's cold. Also, families are together in their apartments, and we are really hoping to find families to teach.

We also visited some of the babushkas in our branch. We brought our laptop with us to show them President Monson's Christmas Devotional message, which they loved!!! If you remember, he talked about visiting his former Primary President when she was in a convalescent home and how she miraculously recognized him. I think the babushkas really related to President Monson's love and caring for people like them. We also had them watch the Tabernacle Choir's closing hymn, "Silent Night." Our sweet Sister Svetlana babushka thanked us for bringing her the Spirit of Christmas. These sweet ladies are unable to leave their homes for the most part, do not spend time on a computer, and would not have the opportunity of seeing things like the Christmas Devotional. We were grateful to be able to share this experience with them.

One of the branches had a Relief Society meeting this week where we made candy Christmas trees. I brought candy but missed the part where you were supposed to bring the tinsel garland to wrap around it, as well as the part to bring a treat to share. That's what I get for not having everything translated I guess. But the sisters were generous in sharing with me, and we had a good time.

In our Branch Council Meeting on Sunday, Elder Peterson made a suggestion that we have a special branch fast on Fast Sunday in January. The branch struggles with members harboring hard feelings, not loving each other, not supporting branch leadership. So all of the members have been asked to fast together in order to forgive and love each other. We will break the fast together after church and have lunch. We are hopeful that we can each humble ourselves and that the Lord will bless and strengthen the branch.

We are so grateful to family and friends who have shared Christmas greetings with us! We love you all and are looking forward to a Christmas Day of speaking with our families! Merry Christmas!!

Komsomolski Relief Society Meeting
Me, Rada, Elena, Oksana, Tamara, Elena