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

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