It’s 5am and I’m up in the dark listening to the Myna birds begin their daily welcoming of the morning (they are joined by roosters, dogs, and some other critters whose identity I can’t quite discern). One blessing which has been completely new to my adult life is that I have been consistently sleeping very well – almost 8 hours a day. Today is an exception but still I’ve had nearly 7 hours. It’s the first time I can remember being regularly rested and feeling good as I approach a day because for years I have slept very restlessly, getting up several times in the night and logging an average of 4-5 hours sleep. Don’t know why it’s different here but it’s just been a wonderful blessing.
We’ve had a blues crisis recently where Annie broke down in tears again over the frustration and lack of fulfillment at being on this mission. Since the very beginning when we received the call, things have never seemed “right” for her. More than once she has felt she could not go on, but what do you do – quit and go home in shame? It’s been a terrible time in that regard. At home she has “her world” defined and in control. She has all her creative outlets in the home, sewing, making things for kids and grandkids and for many others in need. She can decorate and visit, bring relief and love to others, and have a calling that is defined and measureable in completing tasks and being successful. And we can clean things, vacuum them, wipe them down – and they largely stay clean (everything here is perpetually dirty with a coat of soot over everything daily from the continual fires in the cane fields, sugar plant emissions, and back yard burning that goes on regularly). But here on a mission everything in her life is upside down. We control so little, we have nothing except the basics of living, and it’s endlessly and monotonously hot and sticky and dirty – with bugs and critters everywhere. We live in a very noisy area with trucks, busses, and people passing by all the time and with endless bands of barking feral and domestic dogs – so loud you can’t do anything, let alone sleep (and you can’t close your windows because it’s too hot). But the worst is feeling that we only make a narrow contribution that is frustratingly slow and questionably long lasting.
The culture here is simply made for failure. Very few phones, so you generally can’t confirm a visit and we often go somewhere or wait for someone who never shows. Time means nothing and people are regularly late to everything if they do come at all (no clocks or watches). And travel is so frustrating, time consuming, and expensive for the Fijians almost none of whom have cars (we don’t know a single one). Annie struggles each time we do a lesson to feel adequate in her preparation and delivery – and of course, she’s always measuring herself against me. I’ve had a lifetime of teaching and study and it must be so intimidating to her, so even in this one arena of satisfaction and meaningful activity she feels less than successful. She actually does a great job and I have felt the Spirit many times as she has taught and born testimony.
In the Church, we are starting from scratch with the most frustrating set of circumstances I can imagine. We came to a “ward” (small struggling branch, really) that has had no bishop and no officers for 16 months. It has been run by a high councilor and EVERYTHING is a shamble. No records, no success, progressing inactivity (314 people on the rolls and 20-30 attending), and NO preparation for any Sunday meeting. You’d just arrive, the high councilor would walk over to someone and ask them to teach a class or give a talk and you’d have a pathetic Sunday experience. People often can’t read or understand the materials, have no background in understanding the gospel, and can’t get anywhere for training because of the time and expense involved (and who would train them anyway?). Most members have a Book of Mormon but few have read it (Fijian version is in an old language and is very difficult and the English is also difficult for them to understand), very few have even heard of the Doctrine and Covenants or Pearl of Great Price, and fewer yet have read them – perhaps none. So you have members who were baptized because they experienced a miracle or felt the Spirit testify to them but with so little to build on that they really don’t progress. Most have never heard of Home or Visiting Teaching and weekday activities to strengthen the youth are non-existent. In the villages, there is a little Christian church of some sort nearby (usually, Methodist), and it serves people well because it’s right there and people just walk a little ways to it but for us, everyone has to travel. The only affordable travel is public busses, but they don’t run on Sundays so that leaves Taxis, “transports” – which are little Toyota trucks with a cover over the back that bunches of people huddle under, or, walking 30-90 minutes. It’s common for people to do both, walk out of the village to a main road, and then catch a transport for part of the way. It is, by comparison to their meager incomes (0-$100/week), so expensive to take a taxi or transport that people must make deep sacrifices to come to Church even semi-regularly. So how do you extend callings? How do you know if someone asked will even show up – or remember?
Annie and I decided to clean up and organize the clerk’s office the other day to help our new bishopric get a good start. The bishop is a wonderful humble, hard working man but with little education of any sort. His only counselor has been a member one year but inactive for 7 months of that year. These brethren know little about any Church organization (what is Primary, YW, YM, RS, etc?), and have never seen the Church “work.” They have no leadership experience, have never seen a handbook, don’t know how to interview or extend callings, and can’t begin to grasp how many interviews they should be doing (regular youth interviews, adults in trouble, welfare, transgression, etc.). I have been meeting with them to help out and we do things like “how to plan a sacrament meeting and fill out an agenda” (doing one planning sheet took us over 20 minutes the first time). I love helping them but we are starting from absolute ground zero.
So anyway, we thought we’d help out if possible by starting with the clerk’s office, which is the only location for storage of any kind. It has a computer, which no one knows how to use, a printer that has no paper, one filing cabinet that someone forgot to order file folders and a hanger apparatus for so everything has just been thrown into the drawers, and a few shelves. We removed boxes full of old things that never got passed out, used, or have become outdated. We tried to clean the dirt, dust, and gecko poop off of the shelves and counter (people in Fiji don’t really clean up things – they live in dirt so they don’t have much of a concept of cleanliness). Fijians also own very little, so they generally have no need to learn organization and the Church shows that. File drawers had old records shoved together with tithing slips that had either never been processed or never returned to members, and stacks and stacks of things that were intended to be passed out to members but never were. Since people don’t use computers everything we know about Church record keeping is different and they have long, drawn out procedures to keep track of things – so by and large nothing is actually done. There has been immense waste of Church funds in our opinion and mismanagement of others. But who knows how to manage anything? And even if they did, when would they do it? They travel with their families into Church on Sundays and afterward can’t really stay to do much because the kids all need to get home and they can’t afford to go separately (the average Sunday experience with travel is already 5-7 hours for most with no added meetings). And most can’t afford to come back during the week. So when do you clean up, learn your duty, perform a calling, or get training??? Even if they could get to a training, who would do it – since the members we have exposure to have never seen the Church work and stake leaders have the same challenges as all the rest of the members.
Well, enough of the problems and challenges. You’d think with all these circumstances we should be happy knowing that whatever we do it will be a contribution. But we often still find ourselves in the “Laman and Lemuel” stage of spiritual immaturity and murmuring. The only thing that brings us to our senses and ameliorates the concerns is when we are with the people and reminded of how little they have and how much of everything we have (wealth, education, opportunity, etc.).
Two days ago we went to visit a less-active member who is 36 years old and has no arms (one finger grows out of his right shoulder). He was so humble, and so sweet as we invited him back to Church. He lives so far away that if he were to return to activity he’d likely have to move in with a relative somewhere nearer to town. Think of the irony of our invitation – “Oh, you can do this even though you have no arms, must depend on others for food, and to succeed you only have to pick up and move to someone else’s home!” But as we shared with him the invitation, we felt to promise him that the Lord would make it possible if he desired to return (we read 1 Nephi 3:7 and other similar promises). As we shared with him, we were pricked in our own hearts with the scripture; “physician, heal thyself.” We need to have more trust in the Lord, more faith to accept our circumstances, and less egocentric complaining about difficult things. More than others, we need to apply the great advice President Hinckley’s father gave to him in a period of missionary discouragement: “Forget yourself and go to work.” We often feel like complaining children who need to be taught a few lessons about the difficulties of life and about pulling up the boot-straps and trudging forward. In that regard, our mission has taken all of the “accomplishments” and supposed spiritual maturity we thought we had and shaken us to the core with the reality that we have much to learn. Things are more tenuous than stable, more difficult than pleasant, and our missionary success and happiness more fleeting that we could have imagined. We are prayerful that we will succeed and aware that it will only happen with the Lord’s help, but that He is unlikely to give it while we are focused on our own difficulties. We need more of the simple faith and dogged determined attitude of Nephi.