A Missionary Christmas

This is the second consecutive Christmas we have spent while serving as missionaries in Russia.  We have tried to carry on a few simple traditions this year so that our celebration of Christmas feels a little bit like home.  Last year we arrived in Russia just over a week before Christmas so we barely knew what time it was, let alone what day it was.  In fact, we were reminiscing that last Christmas Day we were asked to fast for a member in the branch.  Seems highly unusual, to be sure, but Christmas isn't celebrated on December 25 here so it is just like any other day.  This year we are a little more seasoned and have decorated our cute two-foot Christmas tree (yolka) and have hung our stockings.  We will eat our traditional Christmas morning egg casserole for breakfast but will fore go the traditional corned-beef Christmas Eve dinner due to a lack of corned beef.  These Christmas seasons in the mission field give us the opportunity to set aside most worldly traditions and focus upon the Christ in Christmas.  

One fairly new missionary asked what Christmas is like here and was told it is like any other day.  In some respects, that can be disappointing.  In other ways, it is a blessing to continue being busy going about doing our missionary routine.  When families aren't gathering together to celebrate, it is less likely to feel like we're missing out on anything.  On Christmas evening, we will all be attending a baptism of a nine-year old girl in one of our branches.  A missionary can't have a better Christmas than that!  We also have the blessing of speaking with our family members.  Having a missionary son serving in the field ourselves, we are looking forward to our semi-annual visit with him.  It is the highlight of our Christmas Day!  Unfortunately for him, he is only talking with us and not with all of his siblings, but we have fun comparing missionary experiences and motivating each other to be the best missionaries.

Of course, we miss being with family; we miss the special Sacrament Meeting Christmas program; we miss the more evident feeling of love and cheer "on the street"...  We don't miss the shopping, the wrapping, the decorating, the hurriedness, the things that can consume our time away from things that matter most.  We are so grateful for the birth of Jesus Christ.  His exemplary life and teachings change lives.  That is the wonderful miracle that He can bring into each of our lives...love, hope, and faith.  That is our wish for all of you - love in your hearts and in your homes, hope for peace, happiness, and eternal life, and faith in Him who makes everything possible.  We know He lives!  Merry Christmas!      

December 17, 2012

We have declared Winter to officially be here! Temperatures are in the single digits and the windows on the buses are starting to freeze over. Still not any snow to speak of, and it has been good to have sunny days every day--for the hours of day we have anyway. It isn't light until between 8:30 and 9 in the morning and is dark close to 4:30 in the afternoon. The best part about no snow is being able to walk from place to place at a decent pace without worrying about face planting.

We had transfers this week. We will have a new sister and a new elder in our district. Elder Malloy, the elder who arrived here with us initially and has been serving in Toliatti for the whole time we have been here, will be staying again this cycle so we will have been able to serve with him our entire mission. He started in the New City branch then went to the Old City Branch, then Komsomolski, then New City, and now back to Komsomolski. To be sure, it is unusual for an elder to be in an area for this long, but it has given us an opportunity to really get to know him. His companion Elder Bullough will be getting on the big bird for home and will arrive on his birthday. He said his bags are packed with more things for other people than with his own personal belongings. There are two girls from our district who are staying in America and will be in Utah for Christmas so their parents sent gifts for them. The zone leaders will continue to be here which is great for us because they are awesome missionaries and they also come and give us language lessons. Elder Glavatsky is a native speaker and helps us with our pronunciation, speaking and reading. Elder Lythgoe teaches us grammar. Their efforts have not been in vain because Elder Peterson was asked just before church to give a brief talk in Sacrament meeting and did so without any help in translation. He is pretty amazing. He also said the opening prayers in both Sacrament meeting and Sunday School. We were missing the majority of our members today for some reason which was too bad because President and Sister Sartori were visiting the branch today.

Our meeting with Suzy this week went really well. We each shared one of our favorite scriptures in 3 Nephi and likened it to our own life experiences. Our goal is to motivate her to read the Book of Mormon and to be able to recognize how they can help her in her own personal life. She told us a story of having a question about something recently and opening the Liahona and finding her answer on the page she opened it to. We explained that the scriptures can work just like that too. She also told us about how when she was a little girl, she would always ask her parents about God and they would tell her to just go and play with her toys. So she has always had an interest in God and is starting to get some of her questions answered.

We had a fun evening with the branch president and his wife this week. They feel ostracized by most of the members in the branch and so we wanted to have them over for dinner and just to have some fun. They are a younger couple who have only been married just over a year. They are so much fun and do soooo much to help the missionaries and to try and strengthen the branch. It is going to take some serious change and a lot of time, but we assure them that the Lord will bless all of us in the work if we can just stay the course and do the right things. Many situations make it difficult to do sometimes, but we know that the good will eventually win out. So anyway, we ate some tasty vegetable lasagna, played games while listening to Christmas music, and just enjoyed each other's company.

This weekend we have started seeing Christmas tree lots (loosely stated) popping up around town. They are more or less places with piles of trees. We are enjoying our little artificial tree. We are going to show a couple of the talks from The First Presidency Christmas Devotional at our YSA FHE this next week. We have been reading in the New Testament about Christ's birth. We are grateful for this special time of year to more fully remember God's gift of His Son and to feel of His love for us.

We were reminded again of the sacrifices these Saints here make to live the gospel. Two sisters from one of our branches left yesterday to make the two- day train trip to attend the Kiev Temple. Each of them have younger children to care for, and I assume they have willing husbands who stayed behind to care for them. When we see such faith and great efforts to attend the temple, we feel so blessed to live where we can get to the temple in 15 minutes. For that matter, within an hour, we can be to several temples. It will be so interesting to see how the church will grow here in Russia in the next 20 years. There is so much to learn here and with each generation there will be increased faith and strength.

1 - Pet Cemetery in the Forest
2 - Happy Birthday Sister Pearce
3 - Happy Birthday Elder Bullough
4 - Elders Hangen and Brieden
5 - Our District

Decemeber 10, 2012

Somehow Satan finds little ways to get in the way when someone is trying to do something so meaningful like baptism, attending the temple, watching "The Restoration" DVD. We attended a member baptism yesterday, Saturday, of an eight-year old girl in one of our branches. The elders were telling us about going over to the church ahead of time to fill the font and how dirty and grungy it was. So they took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their suit pants, and started scrubbing. As hard as they scrubbed, it wasn't coming very clean. To make matters worse, the water wasn't draining. So they turned the hot water on as high as it would go and the knob fell off so there was water spraying everywhere and they had to fish for the knob in the gunky water. Sounds like a comedy of errors! But no one would have known anything was worse for the wear because when we all showed up everything was under control and the baptism happened without any further trouble. There was a lot of support from the branch, and this little girl felt so loved and appreciated. She lives with her grandma, mom and two sisters. Her grandma is a counselor in the district RS presidency. Her mom is a less-active member but helped plan the baptism and attended the service. There was a strong spirit there, and I know her mom felt it. One of our investigators attended also so that was good! All of the missionaries sang "I like to look for rainbows," one verse in English (at the family's request) and two in Russian. The primary children don't sing songs from the Children's Songbook so it's good to introduce some of the songs when we can.

We had some good meetings this week. We are still meeting with Suzy and encouraging her to read the Book of Mormon. She is engaged to one of the members of the branch who was baptized last year. She came to church last week for the first time. We were at the other branch, but the missionaries told us she bore her testimony in Relief Society and told about the peace she felt when she was at church and when she hears about the gospel. We also met with someone last night who is a member of the Orthodox church and knows the Bible extremely well. He enjoys talking religion but doesn't seem interested in knowing more about other religions. Standards Night was Saturday night and was quite interesting. It probably would have made a lot more sense if we understood what was being said...but they focused on the importance of modesty and how we can still be fashionable and modest at the same time. For the Strength of Youth pamphlets were distributed and a young married couple from Samara came and talked about the happiness they find from being a family in the gospel. Unfortunately, the only thing missing from the evening was youth! None of the youth ages 12-18 were there, but there were about 10 young single adults.

Today has been a delightful day as the sun has been out all day, the first time in at least two weeks. There's just something about the sun shining that puts a little bounce in your step. The lake in the forest has begun freezing again so it is cold but still no snow. At this same time last year, there was already an accumulation of a few feet of snow. We see pictures of our Utah home where there is snow and icy roads. Hmmm, maybe Russia's weather isn't so bad after all:)

December 3, 2012

We can't believe that we turned the calendar over into December, and we still don't have any snow. But who's complaining!! We had a couple of inches earlier in the week, but it warmed up, started raining, and melted all the snow. The people here can't believe how warm it is for this time of year, but not to worry; it will be cold soon enough.

Our Family Home Evening this week was at an all-time low--two members and one investigator. So we're putting on a full-court press to get our members here this week. The zone leaders and district leaders will be in Samara for training this week which means two less companionships to work with so we need to drum up some meetings, too. We had some good meetings with less-actives this week so that is good. We were also back in Prebrezjhni meeting with three families, two of which are active families, and one less-active family. We were hoping the less-active couple would have come to church today, but they didn't. It is a 40-minute drive to the branch which can be a hindrance with gas prices the way they are.

We said goodbye to Nina and Roman this week. They will be leaving on Monday to stay with their daughter who lives in Virginia for five months so by the time they come back, we will already be gone. They are the older couple who we have been meeting with. She is the District RS President, and he is a nonmember. We had such a neat experience with them last night as we had our last meeting with them. After the meeting, we left their building and we felt a sorrow for them and realized how much we were going to miss them. We have really developed a friendship with them. Their window opens on the fourth floor to the silent street. It was dimly lit and snow was lightly falling. As we bundled up to walk to our next appointment, we looked up to their apartment and Roman had opened the window and was waving goodbye to us, and we called back, "dasvidanea." He watched us until we rounded the little corner of his little street…I know; I looked back. We know that he was touched by the spirit. We pray that he will be brave enough to go to church while he's in America. We really think he is ready to receive the gospel.

Our three new slang words are "dang it," "bummer," and "weird." The Russian English teacher who came over with her daughter last Sunday to meet with us taught them to us. We'll have to throw out one or two when we're with the youth this week. We have been meeting with the ward families on our own from time to time. We do our best at understanding what they say but mostly listen or try to get across a thought or two. We are prepared with our spiritual thought so they understand the most important part we have to say anyway. We are spending FHE tonight with President Zolotov and his family. They are fixing another of their favorite dishes for dinner, and we are bringing apple crisp. President tasted it at a leadership meeting in Samara when Sister Sartori made it, and he loved it and wants to know how to make it.

We started our Teacher Development class in the other branch yesterday and had ten people come so that was good. Every organization except for Elders Quorum was represented. We'll teach the second half this Sunday. Elder Peterson is getting together a presentation on asking effective questions. President Sartori has asked him to do a one-hour training in zone conference later this month. In fact, we will travel with him to the other zone after our conference and then on to another area for the weekend, so we will be seeing more of the mission which we consider a real blessing. We will also be able to see all of the missionaries which will be so great. A few of them who served with us here in Toliatti have been in the Saratov Zone which is furthest away from us so we don't get to see them so it will be fun to run into them again.

We have seen a few hints of Christmas here. They don't celebrate Christmas so much as they celebrate New Year's, but it looks like the Christian influence is changing things a little bit here. Our little local market has a few lights hung inside and tinsel wrapped around the standing houseplants. I don't even remember seeing that last year. We saw a few trees decorated in New City when we were working there last week. The central square here in Old City had a huge tree decorated last year. Families and friends exchange gifts on December 31 and then the Orthodox Christmas is January 7. Remembering that the Soviet traditions did not include any belief in God, we don't see any nativity displays or the like. The Orthodox churches have traditional masses on New Year's Eve with lengthy sermons and choir singing. Their traditional Christmas story involves Ded Moros (Grandfather Frost--like our Santa), the Snow Princess (his granddaughter), and the forest witch. Santa and his granddaughter come to welcome Winter, but the forest witch tries to keep it from coming. In the end, Grandfather Frost always wins out and winter arrives. The best part of it all is that we get to listen to Christmas music! We loved watching the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and being reminded of the importance of both graciously giving and receiving gifts at this time of year. We are grateful for their witness of Jesus Christ and our witness to theirs, that He lives!
Some of our Prebrezjhni members:  Alexander, Vera, Galina
Nina and Roman
Celebrating Elder Hangen's birthday at District Meeting November 30, 2012
Collecting materials removed from apartments that are being remodeled.  This is done almost every day.
Utility Vehicle

November 26, 2012

Our district had a primary conference on Saturday which we attended. Every primary child, about ten of them, gave a talk and did such a good job! They don't have the opportunity to give talks, scriptures, mottos, etc. every Sunday like we're accustomed to at home so this was a good chance to prepare something and present it to their parents and leaders. They all dressed up and came on a Saturday morning, not one of them missing a soccer or basketball game, I can guarantee it, only because they are not involved in those things. They started to get a little restless heading into the second hour, but I was impressed that they were so attentive for that long. Afterwards, they had pizza and I brought chocolate chip cookies for everyone--always a big hit! We went home with a family who live out in Prebrezhjni where we have been a few times previously. They always take such good care of us. On the way to their home we stopped to buy cake, candy, and our favorite Armenian bread which they always buy an extra loaf to send home with us. It was like Thanksgiving all over again! Brother Izmalkov had ordered fresh salmon from Norway and cooked it outside on his barbecue. It was absolutely fabulous! We haven't eaten fish at all since we have been here. In fact, we are forbidden to eat it because it would make us sick. But fresh fish flown in from Norway is another story!! They even sent us home with a couple of extra pieces which we will enjoy for dinner tonight. We also tasted mushrooms they picked in the forest; they were pickled so not a favorite. We also had vegetables from their garden that they had canned and, of course, various flavors of compote. While the parents fixed dinner, we played Uno with the kids and colored pictures. I taught them how to draw turkeys from their outlined hand. It was a fun evening.

We met with Svetlana, the investigator who we have known the entire year we have been here. The elders wanted to try teaching her again, but she is still unwilling to keep any commitments. She knows the Book of Mormon is true but doesn't want to be baptized. I guess if we continue to keep in touch and be friends maybe she'll eventually change her mind, who knows. She came to District Conference last weekend, the first time to church since probably June. We had a fun meeting last night with a mom and her daughter. The mom is an English teacher, and they both speak very good English. She is a very smart person, and Elder Peterson had fun taking on the challenge of directing the conversation towards gospel principles without her really even realizing it. It's amazing how much smoother conversations go when we can speak in English! She had read the Book of Mormon in both Russian and English but says she gets a headache whenever she reads it. Interesting. She claims to be a member of the Evangelical church and enjoys discussing new ideas--especially in english:) I'm sure we'll see her again but don't know exactly where things will go from here.

In keeping with tradition, we set up the Christmas tree on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and hung the stockings. Yep, while at Metro buying our turkey, we made the mistake of stopping in the Christmas aisle and couldn't resist the two-foot Christmas tree and all the trimmings. It helps to have a little Christmas cheer in the apartment. After all, according to our son Wade, I have 458 decorations at home so I guess 3 or 4 in the mission field isn't overdoing it too much! The English teacher thought we were jumping the gun having it up so soon. If people here decorate at all, it's usually not until a couple of days before the New Year.

We finished the Teacher Development Course in one of our branches on Sunday. It really went great. Several came up afterwards and were appreciative of the course. We had nine attend the class. We begin the class next week in the Komsomolski branch. We hope to get similar results. The real success will be if the teachers put into practice anything we taught. Most of the time lessons are strictly read out of the lesson manual or Liahona with no or little discussion. We demonstrated a few methods they can try like using pictures, scriptures, object lessons, role plays for kids. The whole church protocol is so new to them, and they don't have any previous examples to learn from so it's a hard for them to know how to do things. We can see why missionaries are so important here--not only to bring people unto Christ, but also to support and strengthen the members.

1 - Nastia and Leeza Izmalkov

2 - Syeva Oshepkov
3 - Elona, Alina, Masha, Nastia, Syeva, Syosh, Oleg, Maxim, Nastia, Cveba, Leeza, Veronica, Lena
4 - Kids, Parents, Teachers, Leaders
5 - Olesya, Sister Nina



We had a great Thanksgiving week. Even though, of course, we miss being with family, it's amazing how festive and comfortable we can feel in the mission field. I am sure it is because we have our "missionary family" to be with, and we feel soooo blessed to have them! As you know, we have four companionships in our area so we have a big group when we get together. Other areas only have one or maybe two companionships which would be more of a challenge to enjoy a family-felt celebration. Our dinner was traditional and delicious! We did find a turkey at the Costco-type store here called Metro. You have to have a membership card to shop there which we were given by one of the branch members, but it was refused when they scanned it at the entrance, but we asked if we could still look around, and we found a turkey, as well as frozen cranberries. So we asked another member we were meeting with that same night if we could borrow their card and went back the next day to get our turkey. I know it sounds like a silly thing, but we honestly weren't expecting to find turkey anywhere and had heard stories from many here that in the past that has been the case. So we were really excited to think we were going to have a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Everyone contributed to the meal--mashed potatoes, stuffing, vegetables, fruit salad, rolls, apple and banana cream pies. We had a member who gave us some grape compote, which is homemade grape juice, that I saved for Thanksgiving and also was delicious. I just have to give a shout out to one of our regular readers, Sister Hangen--your son's stuffing was the highlight of the meal and the best I have ever tasted! We all overate and enjoyed every bite!!

Before we ate we watched a Thanksgiving message from Mormon Messages and then went around the circle and everyone shared what they are thankful for. Of course, your perspective on a mission is focused on eternal principles and everyone shared such heartfelt thankimonies. Elder Glavatsky, our Ukranian elder, experienced his first Thanksgiving with us and it was obvious he was very humbled to be here on his mission experiencing such great things and meeting such stalwart missionaries. We all have so much to be thankful for. Our spiritual thought we shared with the families we met with this week was a brief explanation/history of our American Thanksgiving holiday. Similar to our missionary district, we asked each family member to share what they are grateful for and had good experiences with every family. It's always a good thing to stop and realize your many blessings. One family in particular had their less-active brother and wife there, and they expressed gratitude for the gospel and an increased desire to begin coming to church again. An attitude of gratitude always invites the spirit.

Having your support and prayers on our behalf makes a difference. Thank you for your love, we love you! You are a blessing.

November 19, 2012

Last night we went to see Sister Nina, the district RS president, and her nonmember husband, Ramon. They will be leaving on December 3 to visit their daughter who lives in Virginia and will be gone for five months so we won't see them again before we leave. Sister Nina presented us with one of her homemade crocheted place mats as a gift to remember them by. That was so kind of her. She does so much for the sisters here and will be sorely missed for the next few months.

We had District Conference this weekend which meant our mission president and his wife were here, along with a visiting area authority, Elder Gushin. I thought I'd just share a couple of things they talked about that stood out to me. First, President Sartori asked us, "Where is Zion? Salt Lake City? Missouri? Russia?" Zion is in each of our hearts. In order to build "Zion," we each need to strengthen ourselves. This is so important because regardless of how many church members are in a particular location, if the members themselves do not have testimonies or are not committed to serving the Lord, Zion cannot flourish. The Russian Saints are wanting so badly to have stakes of "Zion," but they first need to strengthen their own testimonies and commitments before reaching towards other goals. This is applicable to all of us, no matter where we live.

President Sartori also pleaded for members to help in missionary work. Within our mission, only 2-3% of people who are taught from missionaries contacting them on the street are baptized. 20-30% of member referrals are baptized. Our district of three prior and now two branches, has only had one baptism in the last year. The church wants to send eight more missionaries to the mission and President is wondering what areas to place them in and keep them busy. The area presidency has not approved opening any new cities yet, so the missionaries would need to be put in existing branches that already have at least two sets of missionaries. Bottom line, they need people to teach and are working so hard to make that happen. Member support is critical to furthering the work.

Elder Gushin is from Novosibirsk. He actually knows Elder Ririe, a missionary from our ward, as well as Sister Cropper, our MTC Russian tutor. They have both served missions in Novosibirsk. He had many stories to tell about his conversion and his family's experiences. He told the story of him and his wife being stopped by sister missionaries on a bitter cold day back in 1996 (can't remember the exact year for sure). Back in that time, he said the missionaries were allowed to stay inside if the temperatures were too cold. But on this day, these sister missionaries felt like they needed to be out on the street. Elder Gushin and his wife were the only people who stopped and talked to them that day. Elder Gushin said he will be "infinitely" grateful for them and that they listened to the spirit that day.

He also explained that the apartment in which they live is the same apartment his wife grew up in and the building hasn't had any new neighbors move in or out in many years. Finally, they had some new neighbors move in and so they went to introduce themselves. Over the next few months they became friends. After some time, the neighbor mentioned to Elder Gushin that he noticed their family leaving the building every Sunday morning very clean and dressed up. He couldn't imagine where they would be going at such an early time in the morning. Surely there weren't any theater productions at that time of day! Elder Gushin explained that they were going to church. He gave his neighbor a Liahona to read, and they have had more opportunities to talk about the gospel since then. This story illustrates the power of example! I remember when Elder Peterson and I were living in Oceanside and Rachael and her family came to visit on the weekend. We all went to church on Sunday, and our neighbor who we had become acquainted with made a comment the next time we saw her that she saw all of us dressed up and going to church. It really touched her to see a family attend church together. She asked what church we went to and we were able to talk with her about it. I love the thought that such a simple thing to us is a huge example to others.

The last thought I have is what Elder Gushin said about taking offense, which is a huge problem here. He said that if someone does something to offend you, write down the offense on a piece of paper. In time the paper will fade, be torn, or even thrown away. If someone does something nice to you, write it on something sturdy that will last forever like a stone. Basically, forget about the negative and focus on the positive. Such a good lesson...

Then, finally, I loved the song we listened to on "Music and the Spoken Word" last night: "If you're worried and you can't sleep, then count your blessings instead of sheep and you'll fall asleep counting your blessings." We have so many blessings, too many to even count. We are so thankful to all of you, our family and friends, for your love and support. We're thankful for a loving God who knows, loves and blesses each one of us. We are thankful for missionaries. We are thankful for the good news of the gospel and know it is true! We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving week!

1 - Elder Malloy and Elder Gushin

2 - Elder Gushin and Brother Vagik
3 - Elder Gushin and Elder Bullough
4 - Alona, Yalena, Klimov's, Oshepkov's


November 12, 2012

It has been missionary work per normalna, pronounced NOOORMAALNA. Also need to roll the R here like in Spanish.

An up and down week. We have two wonderful investigators. One told us she only wanted to be friends and gave back BofM and other info we had shared with her over the last month. This is Marina who started coming to help us translate our spiritual thoughts into Russian and then we began talking about the church. We were so hopeful. We know that is how missionary work goes, and it has happened before with us as people exercise their agency; but this one was a bit harder. On the upside, our other investigator is doing really well. It was interesting that as we closed the lesson, I made the mistake of asking Sister Peterson to say the closing prayer and she reminded me she had said the opening prayer (senior moment for me). Our investigator was sitting next to Sister P and I looked at her and then was going to ask an Elder to pray, but I had this thought enter my mind that said, “just ask her." We haven’t really taught her how to pray. We had talked about it, but not in detail as you usually would prior to asking a person. Sooo I looked at her and said “Suzy” and before I could ask her to pray, she raised her finger and said, ”I felt you were going to ask me." She offered a most wonderful prayer!

We also had less actives come to church who we visited and, of course, that is wonderful.

FHE was really good as we had several investigators and members present. Just before FHE we had lessons going on in our kitchen and the family room at the same time. We had 5 or 6 investigators at FHE and all are wonderful young people. We also had two of our priesthood brothers who don’t normally attend come as well. Just a good meeting all the way around.

Institute gets better. We studied the lesson before we went and were able to help direct questions that prompted more discussion for the class. Our instructor is learning and doing a better job every time he teaches.

So the work goes on out here in Russia. We love our members! I referred to a previous Branch President as an example during a lesson I was teaching and asked him in Russian if he knew i loved him. He said... not exactly. I then taught him how to know that I love him. If he did key things like prepare his lesson beforehand, relate it to personal things going on in the lives of his class, greet them warmly, etc., that his class would know that he loves them. He waited after meetings for me to say that now he knows for sure that I love him.

Last Monday was some sort of holiday here so one of the branches had a Family Home Evening activity for all of the branch members. In keeping with protocol here, we start every activity with a hymn and spiritual thought. The brother in charge asked Elder Peterson to give the spiritual thought on the spot, which he did--in Russian--and did a great job. We ate snacks and played table games, Uno (a great game because you don't need to talk!), memory, ping pong. We stayed for about an hour and then went to Komsomolski for FHE with President Zolotov and his family and President and Sister Kulikov.

Our investigator Suzy is engaged to a member in the New City branch as of two Sundays ago. We are very happy for them. He and Elder Peterson have become quite good buddies. A couple of weeks ago we had them over for dinner and watched the church DVD, "Together Forever." We debated what to talk to Suzy about. Elder Peterson thought it would be a good idea to show this movie, but I was hesitant because they weren't engaged at the time, and I thought a film about eternal marriage and families was a little presumptuous. We prayed about it and felt we should show it anyway. Eric and Suzy watched it, didn't have time afterwards to talk about it, and then left. We wondered if we had really made the best choice. So this last week we got together again, along with the elders, and Suzy asked if we had another film to watch. She had enjoyed "Together Forever;" while watching it, she had a warm feeling and knew she was on the right path. She also had all of her questions answered from watching it. We felt blessed that we had followed through on the prompting to watch that movie! We talked about expectations during our second meeting and then watched "The Restoration." She had favorable comments and felt that what she had seen was true. We are meeting again this week to talk about the Plan of Salvation. She has not been to church yet so we need to commit her to do that. She comes to FHE and Institute with Eric each week though. Oh, and they treated us to pizza that second night which even closely resembled American pizza. It was good!

Eric and Suzy

We had a fabulous Culture Night this week. Our district attended a sold-out performance of Slavic dancers from Novosibirsk. Honestly, I was skeptical about how enjoyable it would be, but it was absolutely fantastic! It was a very professional production--the costumes were perfect and the dancing was terrific. I can understand now why the show was sold out. Obviously, people knew what they were coming to see! The only way I can explain some of it is to have you think of the Russian dancers in The Nutcracker Ballet who do those crazy dances where the men have their arms folded and they kick their feet out while they are in a squatting position with their knees bent. Basically, it would take incredible strength and flexibility. All of the dancing was terrific. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, picture taking was forbidden. I can't get over how affordable theater tickets are here, $5-$15.

I am planning Thanksgiving dinner for our district next Friday. It's highly unlikely that I will find a turkey. Roasted chickens will probably be the next best thing. I'll have to see what else I can come up with. Definitely no pumpkin pie, but for sure there will be coconut cream pie! I may have to get brave and try homemade rolls; it's about time I pick up that skill! Hungry missionaries make for good "guinea pigs!"

Our district

Our branch building in Old City that was closed

November 5, 2012

We visited my favorite Sister Svetlana this Sunday. Elder Peterson and the missionaries administered the Sacrament to her. She is 86 years old and has many stories to tell. One of the stories she shared tonight was about when she was a teacher. She taught children many, many years ago during the Soviet Era. The teachers were instructed to tell their pupils that there was not a God. Sister Svetlana could never say that, so instead she said nothing. Her story, like many others', testifies of the light of Christ that is in all of us and that when we hear truth, that light is lit within us and will want to burn brighter as we open our hearts and minds to the truth. She met the missionaries and was baptized just 13 years ago. Even though she is unable to come to church most of the time, her testimony remains strong. There is always a spirit of love in her home.

I celebrated an enjoyable birthday on Saturday. We went out to dinner which was very nice. I had my eye on a restaurant near our home that we pass by routinely on the bus. It looked clean, casual and usually had people inside eating. So we tried it out, and it was actually very good. We ordered things on the menu according to what words we could recognize. Elder Peterson had soup and a chicken dish. I had a salad and pasta with vegetables. It was quite tasty and affordable. The dessert was good, too. I had cheesecake and Elder Peterson had something similar to a frozen Mounds bar. He recognized the word "coconut" on the menu and figured no matter what it was, if it was coconut it would be good, and he was right! It's funny how the word traveled around the zone that "The Peterson's went out on a date tonight":) What can I say...the perks of being a senior missionary couple:) Our district leader baked me a cake and brought it to district meeting on Thursday. It was delicious! They had even decorated it with frosting flowers and wrote Happy Birthday on it. Impressive! And I was also able to enjoy some delicious pumpkin waffles for breakfast, compliments of all our kids who sent me Trader Joe's pumpkin mix in the mail.
Sister Peterson's birthday cake
Sister Peterson, Elder Long (the cake chef), Elder Hangen (the cake scribe)
The district singing Happy Birthday
Sister Peterson's birthday dinner salad
We visited a member family Wednesday night, shared our spiritual thought and played General Conference Bingo. They had fixed us dinner which was so nice of them; it was our second dinner of the day. We never plan on the members feeding us, but sometimes we are pleasantly surprised. Sister Looba knows of Elder Peterson's sweet tooth, and sent us home with handfuls of candy. He thought that was particularly awesome because he actually got candy on Halloween!

We watched the church video called, "The Mediator," for our YSA Family Home Evening this week. It is from the Book of Mormon seminary video series and is narrated by President Packer. It tells a story of a man who is unable to pay a debt, is subsequently thrown in jail, but then has a friend who pays his debt for him and he is freed. The story is a good analogy of Christ's merciful atonement. We had three key investigators come so that was good. Then our game was the brown paper bag game. You put a paper bag on the ground and have to pick it up with your teeth without using your hands and no other part of your body besides your feet can touch the ground. It was pretty crazy watching some of these limber people succeed as the paper bag was cut lower and lower to the ground. In fact, the bag ended up as a flat piece of paper on the floor, and there were two people who were still able to pick it up--one of our investigators, as well as Elder Glavatsky. It was crazy!
Family Home Evening activity - The last two "contestants" picking up the flat paper bag off the floor.  "Look, mom, no hands!"

The Komsomolski RS sisters organized an activity to teach me how to make Russian pies. I went early to learn how to make the dough from one of the sisters and then the rest of the sisters came and helped assemble the pies. Piroshkis are the smaller pies, about the size of an egg roll, and you can stuff them with anything you want. Typically, they use cabbage; or mashed potatoes with onion; or hard-boiled eggs, green onions and dill; or jam; or I brought apple bits with cinnamon and sugar. Pirogs are larger pies, and plyooshka are similar to a cinnamon roll but in the shape of a pretzel. After the pies are filled, you fry them in sunflower oil. We made enough dough for an army and everyone went home with leftovers. It was very touching to me that they would take the time to help me learn about one of their traditions.
Paulina, Rada, Tamara, Alena
Some of my Relief Society Friends
Nastia, Alena, Ludmila
Alena, Tamara, Larisa
Today was our first teacher development class. We have spent a couple of weeks prayerfully putting together two meaningful teacher classes from the entire "Teaching, No Greater Call" manual. The course is intended to be a 12-week class, but we only have two classes. Needless to say, we have tried to focus on what we see the greatest needs to be and hope they are able to take something from what we teach and incorporate it into their lessons. We had eight people attend the class so we were encouraged by that. As always, the time goes by too quickly when we have to take into account translation time.

It snowed on our way to church today. Didn't last long--just long enough to get us wet. I guess it's inevitable--snow, that is. The forest is in its ugly stage right now. The trees are bare, the leaves on the ground are brown, and the foliage is wilted. It has been interesting to notice the metamorphosis of the forest throughout the seasons. People have already started hanging the bird feeders.

We are saddened to hear about the devastating Sandy hurricane in the Eastern States. It is the headline news in Russia, too! Our hearts go out to all who have had their lives put into shambles.

Our nephew entered the MTC this week on his way to Frankfurt, Germany, and our niece is submitting her mission papers in the next couple of weeks. We are so proud of them and know they will find the same joy we have in serving the Lord. Our son had a baptism this last week and 14 investigators at church on Sunday! Way to go, Elder Brent! The church is true, and the Lord is hastening His work!

October 29, 2012

Welp, the "battle" begins...our radiator heat was turned on last week and even though we keep the temperature controls turned to off, it still warms up in our apartment. I open the windows, Elder Peterson closes the windows, I open the windows, Elder Peterson closes the windows. The temperatures aren't too cold yet, 40's and 50's, but at night it can get pretty cold with the humidity. Haven't had to pull out the heavy guns yet (hats, big coats, etc.), but I'm sure it won't be long.

We have had quite the week. All things said and done, it has been a great and memorable week. We helped our missionary-bound couple with their remaining required paperwork before they left on Saturday, and it became quite more involved than we expected. Like I said, Satan works overtime to hinder the work going forward! But we had a good learning experience and were able to overcome the challenges and see the Lord's hand in helping things to move ahead. Brother and Sister D really had their faith tested, but they are strong Saints and had a determination to follow through with their desires. An email from one of their missionary sons this week particularly inspired and encouraged them to keep the faith and stay the course. We know his email was an inspired blessing for them on a day when they needed it the most. One day when we were visiting at their home they had just returned from taking their cat to their friend who will be taking care of her while they are gone. The cool thing about it was that the caregiver is a younger, single sister in the branch who lives alone because her parents are not around, and her grandmother who she was living with died a few months ago; so she really needs someone/something to care for. Taking care of this cat is providing a service to this family but will also provide a great service to her as well. The D's had a very hard time leaving their cat and learned the following day that she wasn't eating or drinking so they are quite concerned and sad. I'm sure everything will be fine within a short time. Another day Elder Peterson mentioned to Brother D that he was going to have to shave off his mustache, something that has been with him for decades; but when we returned the next day, he had shaved it and he looked just great. President and Sister Sartori came on Friday night to set the D's apart. It was a wonderful meeting, and the spirit was very sweet. President Sartori prepares himself so well and was able to bless Elder and Sister D with exactly what they needed. Sister D made each of us a beautiful lap cloth (they use those here as napkins). I had told her not to prepare anything to eat because she feeds us every time we come, and I knew she would be busy getting ready to leave the following morning (at 3, mind you). But, of course, she had gone and bought some different peroshkis and served a snack for all of us. I added snickerdoodles and oatmeal raisin cookies to the mix. I still marvel at this family's sacrifice and commitment to serve. All four of them will be terrific missionaries and will return to be such a strength to their branch. We have been wondering how their trip went, their first Sunday in church, etc. It has been 30 years or more since either of them had been on an airplane so everything about the experience was a new adventure. It was hard to say goodbye, but it will be fun to keep in touch with them throughout the years, especially while they are on their mission.

I didn't think very far in advance but wanted to do something Halloween-ish for the missionaries' lunch at district meeting this week. Being limited in both time and resources, I managed to cut ghosts out of cheese with round olive slices for eyes, made Tang with gummy worms hanging on the cup edge (they actually lasted for just a few seconds before falling into the cup), carrot wheels with cream cheese and black olive for an eyeball, and Elder Peterson drew pumpkin faces on oranges for me. It was the thought that counted! We haven't seen any pumpkins in the stores so I guess we won't be doing any carving this year.

We had a great day today! We had two really good lessons. Our first was with our investigator who is the husband of our RS President. He had not wanted anything to do with missionaries for such a long time. I believe I told you before about how we felt impressed to go and visit him. Today was the third time to his house and we gave him a lesson on temples. When we got there his wife was not there. He invited us up and we visited and then got into the lesson. She eventually came home (she was at the dentist having teeth pulled). It was really good to be with just him for a while. He is such a good man and with the right help I think he can come into church and be happy. He has a daughter in Virginia. She is very active and they are going to go see her in a couple of months and stay for a year or so. We feel like he can make real progress here and then find his way into church in Virginia. The spirit was wonderful as we taught and answered questions. I love him…when we get home I will have to imitate his favorite word to me “normal”. He tells me all the time “normalna”, which means just that, it's normal.

Tonight we taught a young couple who Sister Peterson made dinner for and then we watched Together Forever (church video). They are dating and it is getting serious. He is 30 and so he is looking to the future. They are both very successful individuals and very smart. We had a super time and it was good being with them. We will see them again tomorrow.

We also met with the woman who has been over to our home a couple of times to help us translate a spiritual thought into Russian. We had the missionaries come over this time to warm her up to them. We watched, "The Restoration," and talked about basic beliefs. She commented that she thought the church would be good for younger people, but she is too old - maybe about 40 years old. She had some good questions though about why God allows bad things to happen to good people. We mentioned life beyond this life, and she wasn't too crazy about the idea but when we told her we had answers about that, she perked up a little. We invited her to come back and hear about The Plan of Salvation. She didn't say no; we'll call her in a couple of days and see if we can get her to agree to meet with us again. We gave her a Book of Mormon, too.

We spent Saturday back at the Zolotov's dacha. I helped cover hydrangeas for the winter, transplant plants, and went with Sister Zolotov to one of her friend's dacha to transplant some bushes into her yard. Elder Peterson helped President Zolotov with the roof on his sauna house. We barbecued pork, had a traditional salad of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers, as well as boiled potatoes, and, of course, bread. Then we went for a walk down by the Volga and saw the ending of a beautiful sunset. The sunrises the past couple of mornings have been beautiful too, what we can see of them anyway. The tall apartment buildings block out the actual sun, but the sky color is still brilliant.

We were reminded of a powerful scripture in district meeting in Helaman 10:4-5-- "Blessed art thou, Nephi (insert your own name here), for those things which thou hast done; for I have beheld how thou hast with unwearyingness declared the word, which I have given unto thee, unto this people. And thou hast not feared them, and hast not sought thine own life, but hast sought my will, and to keep my commandments.
5 And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works;..."

We know that no matter what our callings are in the church, as we serve and keep the commandments, we will be blessed forever! When we realize the power of this great promise, we can put our best foot forward each day to do the Lord's work. The church is true!

1 - Zolotov's Dacha
2 - Barbecuing at the Dacha
3 - Progress on the Sauna House
4 - Sunrise
5 - A Woman Beating her Rug - They hang their rugs on the playground equipment and beat them with fly-swatter-type instruments to clean them.  This is done year round, no matter what the temperature is.

October 22, 2012

Last week was temple week for us which was great. It was time for our every-three-month visa trip again, and this time our group went to Kiev, Ukraine. We had not been to Kiev yet and were excited to visit the temple there. Unfortunately, flight schedules and temple session schedules didn't work well together, and the group was unable to even leave the airport in Kiev. So we requested to go a day early in order to attend the temple. Our next visa trip in January is during the scheduled maintenance closure of the temple so we thought this might be our only chance to go to the temple. We flew into Kiev on Monday afternoon; the church made arrangements for a driver to pick us up from the airport and take us to our hotel which was within walking distance of the temple. Victor, the 23-year old driver, proved to be quite invaluable for us, as he agreed to spend the following day with us showing us points of interest in Kiev. He also speaks very good English so we had the best of both worlds--knowledgeable local who we could communicate with! We visited the place where Christianity was brought to Russia in the late Eighth Century, the first-built cathedral the following century, a reconstructed village of how the people would have lived hundreds of years ago, and a famous enormous metal monument called the Motherland.

Kiev is a big city that looks more European than where we are. The buildings are very large and ornate, dating back hundreds of years ago. The streets are more narrow, cars are allowed to park almost anywhere (even on the sidewalk, as long as they leave room for pedestrians), and public drinking is forbidden. Ukranian language is evidently similar to Russian, but they have some different letters and some of the letters that are the same are pronounced differently than Russian sounds. Their currency is different. Elder Peterson thinks it looks like monopoly money. The bills are different sizes and colors.
Traditionally painted eggs likely displayed in parades or just decorative purposes of today

Elder Peterson and our driver Victor at a wooden windmill in the same village
The gated entrance into the city in the Eighth Century
An old wooden church in an Eighth-Century village
Building in the central square of Kiev
A protest group in downtown Kiev
Cathedral in central square of Kiev
Offices of the Kiev President   
Kiev Cathedral
Prince Vladimer monument commemorating him bringing Christianity to Russia in 988 A.D.
 Historical park in Kiev
Motherland Monument
We loved the opportunity of attending the temple. It is out of the central district a little ways but still right off a main highway. The mission office, ward building, distribution center and guest housing are also on the property. Yes, they actually have a ward there in Kiev with close to 200 Saints who attend--what a miracle!! We know some day it will be like that in many more parts of Eastern Europe. The ward building closely resembled an "American" chapel. The missionaries who were showing us the building were excited that they would soon be getting an organ. The temple is beautiful! The mural paintings are beautiful, the chandelier in the celestial room is one of the prettiest I've seen, and the workers were so kind and helpful. We attended one of four sessions available that day, quite a difference from sessions every half hour in our temple district. Every one of the approximate 40 chairs was full. They have nine missionary couples who are assigned to the temple. One of them whom we met is from one of the branches in our mission; another has a grandson serving in our mission. We realize there are many, if not most, missionaries who are unable to attend a temple while on their missions so we feel very blessed to have been able to attend both the Frankfurt, Germany, and Kiev, Ukraine, temples. Our temple recommends needed to be renewed recently so we now have recommends in Russian; they will be a keepsake.
Kiev Ukraine Temple
Kiev Ukraine Temple night view
Victor picked us up from the temple and took us back to the airport where we met up with the rest of our visa group, including President and Sister Sartori, Elder and Sister Connell (the office couple), and four other elders. You get quite the interesting looks from people in the airport when they see such a peculiar-looking people as us all together. Our district president picked us up in Samara to bring us back home which was very nice because our flight didn't arrive until 11:30 that night. I know the church is working with government officials to hopefully eliminate the need for missionaries to leave the country so often. It really is disruptive to the missionaries, as many of them have to travel long distances just to get to the airport and then lose sleep to accommodate flight schedules, etc. Hopefully, things will change soon.

We had district meeting for the first week in three weeks due to zone training and I can't remember why else. It was good to all be together. Elder Glavatsky from Ukraine is back in our area. He served here several months ago and is a terrific missionary. Two investigators he was working with when he was here and subsequently had been difficult to meet with after he left have come out of the woodwork again simply because they love and appreciate him. There is definitely a HUGE advantage to "talking the talk and walking the walk" of the people here. Besides, Elder Glavatsky is such a genuine person; it would be difficult for anyone to not like him! We have a new sister in our area as well.

We have been helping our missionary family this week work through last-minute details and paperwork to be ready to leave for their mission on Saturday. It has been stressful for them. They have needed to get new international passports, re-ticketed airline tickets to match their new passport numbers, settle housing agreements, etc., etc., to the point where they have wondered if they should even be going. We were grateful for our past experience that we could share with them to let them know we knew exactly how they felt and that we were confident Satan was trying his hardest to keep them from going. Shortly before we were to leave on our mission, we had several problems with our rental properties, our own home had a flooding problem, Elder Peterson's shoulder surgery didn't go as planned, funds that we were depending on were not becoming available...we realized that Satan was fully employed trying to make it difficult for us to leave. I'm sure our situation, along with this family's, is not unusual. But I am also sure that as we exercise our faith and move forward, we can thwart Satan's ways and fulfill our callings as the Lord wants us to. Eventually, things get taken care of and the Lord provides a way. The branch had refreshments and nice sentiments for this couple after the block of meetings yesterday. They will truly be missed.

The big Fall Ball district activity was Saturday night. The committee worked feverishly organizing all of the details, and it really turned out great. If only the members had shown up! It is so frustrating that we can't get people to these activities to socialize and unite together. Thankfully, there were about 15 members from Samara who came down and then about 40 additional people. The theme was movie stars. They taped stars on the stairs that go up to the cultural hall, had movie posters taped up, pictures of movie stars with the faces cut out that you could take pictures in, a "stuffed" Hollywood oscar statue to pose with for pictures, bouquets of star balloons. They divided the group in tables and gave them a genre that they had to act out a scene to, such as western, comedy, melodrama, India, alien, horror, super heroes, and detective. They awarded each group with some kind of academy award. Then they had a Charlie Chaplin scene acted out by a couple of the youth, and they also danced a waltz. Then Sister Peterson taught the "Boot Scootin Boogie." We did the Macarena, some Russian dance, and then had a disco at the end. Elder Peterson was in charge of all the music except for the disco. He searched iTunes for each of the appropriate themes, as well as fanfare music, Frank Sinatra mingling music, etc. Our next big activity will be in December when the young single adults plan the Christmas party for all of the kids.

Dance Hall on Saturday night, Chapel on Sunday Morning

An Evening "With the Stars"

Nikeda and his wife Alona with Mr. Oscar

Anatoli and his wife Alena with Mr. Oscar

Sister Peterson and Sister Oshepkova

Sister Peterson and Sister Nadia