Monday, April 16, 2012

Life in Siberia: Elder Wetzel—Trainer Extraordinaire, Part I

Siberia, December 1994.  My second full day on my mission was perhaps one of the most depressing days of my life, at least up to that time.  I struggle to think of one more mentally crushing since.  I faced two years in Siberia.  Arriving to such a place in the middle of winter, with the shortest day of the year just a week away, compounded the problem.  The sun seemed to come up around ten in the morning, and often it only made a weak attempt to push a limited amount of light through the thick layer of gray clouds.  By around four in the afternoon, the darkness began to settle back in for the long night.  Two years seemed like an eternity.

Then there was Elder Wetzel, my companion and trainer.  The expert whose job it was to teach me not only how to teach the Gospel, but how to survive in Russia.  I don’t remember if he was kind enough to spare me the news the first day, but by the second day together I was aware that he had been in country just less than three months.  My expert trainer suddenly looked to me like to be just a little less green than me.  Missionaries from the Russia Moscow Mission had opened our mission.  By the time we began to arrive, there were only a handful of experienced missionaries left from Moscow and they were dying off quickly.  The result was a group of new missionaries training newer missionaries.  I felt my enthusiasm and resolve drop even further.

For two weeks I walked around everywhere thinking about what a blessing it would be if I could slip on the ice and break my leg so I could catch a flight home to reassess my intentions.  Two years seemed impossibly long, especially with the food we were eating.  Among Elder Wetzel’s shortcomings was finding and fixing good food.  Even the first time we ate at a Russian’s home, I was so scared of the food I could hardly enjoy it, even though it was surprisingly tasty. 

Of course, I had to deal with the language as well.  It was so overwhelming that my brain would shut down early in the day, unwilling and unable to process anymore.  This left me more time for self-reflection.  Self-reflection at that time was the enemy. 

Elder Wetzel, while seemingly inexperienced as a trainer, understood the key to missionary work—work.  He knew how to work and he enjoyed working.  Each day we were up and studying at the appointed hour, we were out the door at the appointed time, and we worked all day.  Within two weeks I was beginning to develop interest in our investigators.  I was beginning to be able to pick out words and phrases as we visited with individuals and families.  As the work progressed I began to think about broken bones and roads home less often.

The Lord and my mission president blessed me with a wonderful trainer who taught me three valuable lessons—the value of hard work, that the Lord stands with his missionaries and that it’s okay to have fun as a missionary.  Elder Wetzel is one of the Lord’s lower lights that helped show me the way.

So with that I’d like to share a few stories, mainly about Elder Wetzel and my experiences with him.  Most of them will be on the funny side, but I’ll try to share a bit of the serious as well.

Love of a Dictionary
Of all the missionaries I served with during my two years, and there were thirteen of them, Elder Wetzel studied the language harder than any of them.  He carried his pocket Oxford Russian-English Dictionary everywhere with him.  As we would leave the apartment he would tuck the dictionary into his coat pocket.  When we entered someone’s apartment he would put it in his suit coat or pants pocket.  I’m not exactly sure what went on in his mind, but I’m convinced that he struggled to put every thought into Russian.  When he couldn’t find the word he needed, he would pull out his dictionary and look it up while walking without slowing down.  His dictionary was the closest thing he had to a girlfriend during those two years.  At zone conferences our mission president would have him pull it out to show other missionaries how tattered it was from extreme study.  After only three months in country and two months at the MTC, pages already were falling out.

Despite my occasional warnings regarding the danger of reading while you walk, (I spoke from experience), he continued to look up words and sentences on the move.  Eventually, as I feared, he almost lost his eye.  While looking up another word on an uneven path between apartments, he caught a solid tree branch right in the face, leaving a nice cut just to the side of his eye.  He wasn’t happy at my initial laughter, (once I saw he still had his eye), but eventually I think he saw the humor in the situation.

A few months later, after we were no longer companions, we were in a large group of missionaries traveling on the tram in Novosibirsk.  Standing right in front of him, I slipped my hand into his coat pocket and removed his dictionary, quickly hiding it in my own pocket.  I let a few of the other missionaries know of my crime.  As we stepped off of the tram, I asked out loud how to say some obscure word in Russian.  Per my expectations, he reached into his pocket for his dictionary.  Soon he was frantically checking all of his pockets and within seconds he was mumbling the word “dictionary.”  A sudden look of comprehension and terror came over his face, and then he did something I didn’t expect.  He jumped onto the tracks in front of the fully loaded tram that was just beginning to move and he held his hand up to get the driver to stop so he could somehow search the entire vehicle.  Realizing I was about to become the cause of his possible injury or death, I pulled his dictionary and began waiving it at him while shouting.  Luckily, he jumped back off the tracks in time, saving me the need to write a very embarrassing letter to the mission president.

Discussion Required
Tracting as a missionary in Russia is like opening Christmas gifts every day.  Or, you could compare to the old television game show Let’s Make a Deal.  We never knew what would be behind each door.  It was difficult to even guess who or what we might find.  Elder Wetzel was a big fan of tracting and contacting.  One day, as I was just beginning to differentiate individual words in Russian and follow along at least part of the discussion, we tracted into an interesting family.  The husband invited us in and I immediately smelled the alcohol.  In my previous life the smell of alcohol would have warned me to stay away, but the smell was so common in Russia that it barely registered.  As we entered we were introduced to the man’s wife and some other gentleman who may or may not have been part of the family.  There was also a babushka, a grandmother, with them. 

Once we were seated in the rather dark living area, the man yelled at the babushka to bring food and drink out.  As she carried first the plate of bread and then the makings for some type of tea, she kept whispering to me a word I recognized from the local buses.  At first I thought she kept asking me if I was leaving.  I was so focused on figuring out what she was saying that I ignored the conversation between Elder Wetzel and the gentleman and his friend.  The wife seemed to be asleep in a chair, occasionally glancing up with a confused look on her face. 

Finally, as I noticed that the tone of the voices was getting louder, I understood what the lady was saying, at least mostly.  She was repeating the words “Leave” and “Very Drunk”.  Quickly I turned my attention back to Elder Wetzel hoping to pass on the warning.  It was then I realized that Elder Wetzel had a Book of Mormon in his hand and he kept telling the gentlemen that he had to hear a discussion before he could have the book.  The argument quickly escalated, as the man demanded the book.  Elder Wetzel must have told him we were leaving because we headed for the door with him in the lead.  Just as we reached the door the man grabbed me by my wool scarf and begin shaking me around, demanding that we give him the Book of Mormon.  Elder Wetzel stood over my shoulder telling him that he couldn’t have it unless he heard a discussion first.  Just as I realized I was likely to get punched before we could make it out of the door, there was a blur of activity and the man’s previously near comatose wife was near the door with us. 

In a flash she grabbed her husband by the arm, spun him around and open handed slapped him as hard as she could across the face.  She looked at us and yelled, “Run!”  The babushka quickly helped open the door and we took off.  After that experience I decided if anyone ever wanted a copy of the Book of Mormon I would give it to them, discussion or not.

Part II coming soon.

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Thoughts on Civic Responsibility

Below are some words on the importance of civic responsibility from some of my favorite teachers.

Ezra Taft Benson
We must become involved in civic affairs. As citizens of this republic, we cannot do our duty and be idle spectators. It is vital that we follow this counsel from the Lord: “Honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.” (D&C 98:10.)

Note the qualities that the Lord demands in those who are to represent us. They must be good, wise, and honest. We must be concerted in our desires and efforts to see men and women represent us who possess all three of these qualities—goodness, wisdom, and honesty.

We must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, and our advice. We must be wisely informed and let others know how we feel. We must take part in local precinct meetings and select delegates who will truly represent our feelings.

Gordon B. Hinckley
The building of public sentiment begins with a few earnest voices.  I am not one to advocate shouting defiantly or shaking fists and issuing threats in the face of legislators.  But I am one who believes that we should earnestly and sincerely and positively express our convictions to those given the heavy responsibility of making and enforcing our laws…We are not likely to get that which we do not speak up for.

Let our voices be heard.  I hope they will not be shrill voices, but I hope we shall speak with such conviction that those to whom we speak shall know of the strength of our feeling and the sincerity of our effort.

How we need to kindle in the hearts of youth an old-fashioned love of country and a reverence for the land of their birth.  But we shall not do it with tawdry political maneuvering and enormous handouts for which nothing is given in return.

Love of country is born of nobler stuff—of the challenge of struggle that makes precious the prize that’s earned.

Dallin H. Oaks
The single word that best describes a fulfillment of the duties of civic virtue is patriotism. Citizens should be patriotic. My favorite prescription for patriotism is that of Adlai Stevenson:

“What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? … A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”

Charles Didier
A democracy requires men and women to be agents unto themselves to defend their freedom. When a democracy collapses, it is because the individuals and families are dropping their arms. What are the usual symptoms? First, there is a feeling of fear, then resignation, then we get used to the worst. “To get used to” is a horrible phrase, to say the least. To get used to violence, to degradation, to mediocrity, to oppression, to humiliation.

Alexis de Tocqueville
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world of commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

L. Tom Perry
I want to issue you a challenge. I want you who are the best trained, the best educated, who have been given these great advantages here in America to literally become the conscience of America and the molders of its destiny and future. With your knowledge, your training, your understanding of how God works in the hearts of his children here on earth, let us obligate ourselves to temperance, to frugality, and to industry. Let us show justice, kindness, and charity toward our fellowmen. Let us demonstrate the love and reverence we should exhibit toward our Almighty God. Let us not trifle with the things that are holy to God.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Let the Lower Lights be Burning

Another General Conference in the books.  What an amazing opportunity to hear the Lord’s counsel through his servants!  The theme of priesthood duty and rescuing hit home particularly hard for me.  One of our hymns is titled Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.  It describes the lower lights in the harbor that with the lighthouse guide sailors safely home.  The lighthouse represents our Savior.  The lower lights represent the Lord’s disciples, living their lives in such a way that helps others find their way to safety.    

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore,
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

This weekend three great men were released from the Presiding Bishopric:  Bishop David H. Burton, Richard C. Edgley, and Keith B. McMullin.  For years these three have presided over the Aaronic Priesthood and directed the temporal affairs of the Church.  There work included the management of the welfare and humanitarian efforts of the Church, providing assistance and relief to members and non-members alike around the world.   Three wonderful sisters were released from the General Relief Society Presidency: Sister Julie B. Beck, Silvia H. Allred, and Barbara Thompson.  For the past five or so years these sisters have directed the efforts to bring instruction to the largest women’s organization in the world while bringing relief and comfort to those in need.

Wonderful people like these provide strong examples of disciples serving as the lower lights.  They devote their time and talents to the Lord’s surface and welfare of His children.  They keep God’s commandments.  They work actively to keep their covenants.  They love others as they love themselves.

Many of us know such people.  Growing up I was blessed with parents, church and community leaders, and friends who were able to light the way for me.  Today I’m happy to find similar people in my sphere of friends and associates.  These people work hard each day to do the works of the Master.  As a result, they have His image “engraven upon [their] countenances.”

It’s important that we serve one another as the lower lights, that we help show one another the way.  Often the perfection of the Master can seem too distant, even unattainable.  As lower lights, while not as bright as the powerful beam emanating from the lighthouse, we can help each other make that gradual progress toward obedience and perfection.  Seeing one of our peers living as a disciple carries with it a strong motivational power, the sense that if they can do it, then perhaps we can as well.

Another of these lower lights, one I had the privilege of knowing as a young missionary in Russia, was called to serve as an Area Seventy during this past General Conference.  Yuriy Gushchin was one of the earliest members of the Church in Novosibirsk when I arrived there as a missionary in 1994.  I spent my first six months in Central Branch with him.  He and his wife were extraordinarily kind to all the missionaries and me.  Yuriy and his wife Natasha were a source of hope for the missionaries and other new members.  They worked every day to live the Gospel.  Brother Yuriy became the first Russian branch president in Novosibirsk after I had been in the branch for just four months.  The people of Russia will be blessed by his service as an Area Seventy.  He is one the Lord’s lower lights.

My mission president, Jerald Sherwood, is another lower light in the Lord's service.  He spent time as a mission president in Bilbao, Spain and then made the exciting transfer to open the Russia Novosibirsk Mission.  Not content to allow others to serve, he and his wonderful wife recently went to Kiev, Ukraine to serve in the temple, serving many of the same people he worked with as a mission president.  President Sherwood, Brother Yuriy and so many others remind me of the statement made by Joseph Smith:

“A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.”

Throughout this General Conference I heard the clarion call from the Lord’s servants to each of us to do our duty, to live up to our covenants.  Each of us can be among the lower lights showing the way.

Dark the night of sin has settled;
Loud the angry billows roar.
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

- Jarad Van Wagoner

Hymn #335, Brightly Beams our Father's Mercy, Words and Music by Philip Paul Bliss