Saturday, June 20, 2015

How Others Responded--George's Post

I.  Introduction   D.  How Others Responded

I did not find the reactions of friends to our call to Malawi—whether they be members or nonmembers—to be radically different.  Members, of course, understood better why we wanted to serve a mission, but because we were headed to Africa, everyone thought of the mission as a “humanitarian” or service mission.[1]   Going to Memphis on a mission would have been incomprehensible to non-members, but Africa made sense.  It is not hard to envision how one might help out in a poor African country.   They were certainly right about that, there being endless opportunities for service in Malawi for anyone who wishes to pursue them. 
Of course, some were surprised by our willingness to go to Malawi, a few even openly incredulous.  Several good friends shared privately that they would never do what we were doing.  As best we could tell, apart from the health fears, most thought Africa was too distant and possibly too dangerous.  Some struggled with the thought of leaving family behind for 18 months, certainly the biggest hurdle for us to overcome.  A few focused on what they saw as the self-sacrificing element of the call.  But for the most part, friends and acquaintances were more intrigued than puzzled.  Many of them could, I think, imagine themselves accepting a similar calling, though perhaps not openly seeking it.  In this sense, the Church provides a wonderful platform for senior couples to perform service, something most of us could never sort out on our own.  Through the Church, we immediately had a congregation with whom to work, a sense of purpose, an apartment, access to a vehicle, help in getting a visa, a list of the immunizations that were needed for that part of Africa.  It would be daunting to think of finding a place to serve without the help of some existing charitable or religious organization already on the ground. 
The reactions of others to our mission call to Malawi were colored in part due to the timing of call—arriving as it did in the midst of growing international concerns about the possibility of a massive world-wide outbreak of the Ebola virus.  A few thought it crazy to go to Africa, not realizing that the countries hardest hit by the virus—Sierre Leone, Liberia, and Ghana—countries in west Africa—were thousands of miles from Malawi.  No cases of the virus had been reported in Malawi or any of the other countries in southeastern Africa.[2]   When in Seattle, we were much closer to the small, though contained, batch of cases of Ebola in Texas, than we would be when in Malawi from the rash of cases of Ebola in west Africa then threatening the well-being of so many people.  Certainly some thought I was naïve, perhaps even cavalier, about the potential health risks that Carole and I would face by living in Malawi.  But that is not how I saw it.  My health and Carole’s have been remarkably good; this was our time to go; one way or another I was confident we would be fine. 
Never did I believe we were immune from getting sick or suffering an acute health episode.  Such problems can crop up, at any time, and to anybody—they are a part of this life—the legacy inherited by being human.   “And unto Adam he said, because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded the, saying.  Though shall not eat of it:  cursed is the ground for thy sake:  in sorrow shalt though eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast though taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shall thou return.”  Gen. 3:17-19.  Though we may not like it, all of us are subject to life’s challenges—the risk of getting sick being one of many—and those problems can strike any of us, from the great to the small, without notice. 
Over the years, several well-beloved passages of scriptures, lyrically phrased, have given us comfort, when we grappled with having our own children on missions far away from hearth and home, without parents there to provide support.[3]   Later those same scriptures gave us solace as it became our turn to exercise faith, leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of home and family.  “And whoso received you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face.  I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”    D&C 84:88.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?  And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.  But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”  Matt. 10:19-31.  One looks in vain in those passages for guaranties of being shielded from all ills.  But what is promised that the Lord is “mindful” of His servants—they are in the palm of His hands—all will be well with them in the end, whatever trials they may be called upon to face in the interim.  And at the end of the day, we care far more about that than we could ever possibly care about our own health.

[1] When visiting with work colleagues and non-members about going on a mission, I usually focused on the “service” or “humanitarian” aspect of the calling, knowing they would understand that, even if they otherwise could not comprehend why I would want to stop practicing law.  But how could one argue against helping the poor and needy of Africa.
 In my experience, many nonmembers find strange, even offensive, the proselyting element of Church missionary work.  They don’t want to be to proselytized and consider Mormons often “pushy,” too eager to share, encroaching upon what they consider to be private matters.  They, many of whom have little interest in organized religion, find the differences between Christian denominations bewildering, and sometimes outright silly, and consider it odd that one Christian group would find it necessary to poach, as it were, the flock of another Christian denomination.  For Mormons, this misses the mark—while they recognize all Christian groups enjoy many of the essential truths of the Christian faith, they focus on what they consider the “fulness” of the gospel. 
It is also worth noting that many of them just don’t want to be bothered when it comes to religious matters—either because they have little tolerance for religion, being thoroughly secularized, or because deep inside they are defensive, not wanting to discuss or defend the manner in which they live their own lives.  In either way, Mormonism (or for that matter, any other religion having exacting standards of moral conduct) is viewed, perhaps unconsciously, as threatening.  “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.”  John 3:19-20.  Mormonism represents a style of life at odds with the way they are living, and one they wish to continue living, creating for them either a conscious or unconscious threat.  The dissonance can be relieved by adopting an openly hostile attitude toward the “do-gooders,” seeing them as misguided, naïve, out-of-step, repressed or by ignoring or dismissing them as being total irrelevant.  What could be threatening in a life style thought of as odd, stodgy, old-fashioned, out of touch with modern concerns.
[2] But while there was no real risk of that infection, Malawi is not where you want to be hospitalized.  We suspected this before arriving, and our early experience here in Malawi has not lessened that concern.  Several months ago we drove one of the Mwale’s daughters, a Blantyre 2nd member, to the Chiradzulu District Hospital, about 20 miles southeast of Blantyre, for treatment for what was thought to be a bout of malaria.  While the hospital is located in a beautiful setting, it is not a modern facility.  The hospital does not provide food or typical nursing care; instead, the patients’ families must supply the meals, picking up food from the local market of small wood stalls, which has grown up around the hospital grounds, and must handle many of what we think of as typical nursing chores. 
As we arrived, an older man, with an injured foot, heavily wrapped, dragged himself between buildings (the hospital campus configured much like an open module California style school), leaving in his wake a bloody trail on the concrete sidewalks and halls.  Not what one wants to see in a hospital in a country where the HIV rate among adults approaches 15%. 
Even at the Blantyre Adventist Hospital in Blantyre, one of the city’s two best facilities (resembling a small but decent community hospital in the United States), the physicians largely blotched the treatment of a spider bite that one of our sister missionaries got.  Only after three visits to the hospital, spanning a long three week period, were we able to convince a surgeon to lance finally what was by then a badly swollen lower arm.  Fortunately, the news is good, the sister is now fully recovered and doing fine.
We understand the medical facilities in South Africa are first rate, comparable to or better than those in the United States, but I have no interest being stuck in a hospital thousands of miles from home, if anything serious were to happen, however irrational the sentiment maybe.  Should I need hospitalization, I would be inclined to fly back to the United States (at our own expenses), and then return to the mission field once the problem has been cleared up.  Obviously, this plan assumes the need for care is not acute, and I could tolerate the twenty plus hours in transit.  Carole, when we have spoken of the matter, is far more sensible, saying she would be fine in a South Africa hospital.
[3] Three of our children served missions:  Seth in the Swiss Geneva Mission (1991-93); Sarah in the Hong Kong Mission (1997-98); and, Joel in the San Francisco California Mission (2003-05).  One might have thought it would be easier on us as parent over time, struggling the most with the first, then finding it easier by the time the last served.  But that was not my experience.  It was just a painful having Joel go, perhaps because by then we knew two years was really a long time to be separated from a child.  Our struggles are not unique.  Indeed, each year thousands of families in the Church have to come to grips with sending off children to missions far away.  Yet we know, as they do, that rich blessings flow from faithful missionary service.   We know that first hand through the wonderful spouses of our children, whom we feel so blessed to count as family members.  Five served missions:  Ryan Owens (Leah’s husband) in the Stockholm Sweden Mission (1991-93); Tomicah Tillemann (Sarah’s husband) in the Hungary Budapest Mission (1998-2000); Billy Edwards (Abby’s husband) in the Frankfurt German Mission (1997-99); Michael Leavitt (Catherine’s husband) in the Buenos Aires North Mission (1997-99); and, Stephanie Matsumura (Joel’s wife) in the Cochabamba Bolivia Mission (1997-99).   Until assembling the data, I did not realize that four of the five served missions at roughly the same time, also overlapping with the years of Sarah’s service.  Seth and Ryan, the first two to serve, were also contemporaries.