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