Friday, October 9, 2015

Points of Contact with Younger Missionaries--George's Post

A.   Points of Contact
Some may be puzzled by the seemingly tangential role played by younger missionaries in this description of our experience in Malawi—at least as it has unfolded so far.    But, upon further reflection, this should not come as much of a surprise.   As MLS missionaries, our focus is upon supporting local members in learning their duties and developing faith.   Our time is devoted to visiting members, active and less active, sharing short gospel lessons, trying to train local leaders, supporting branch and district activities.   Five months into our mission, we also picked up responsibility for reporting and accounting for the use of local mission funds.     While, on occasion, we work with younger missionaries, helping fellowship those who are older and have less in common with younger members, proselyting is incidental to our primary activities.   Moreover, what we struggle most to understand is how both members and nonmembers in Malawi approach matters of faith, how they develop character—the strength to live the commandments once they become members, and how they try to incorporate the principles of Mormonism into their lives—many of which are strange and almost unfathomable to them.   So what we think most about are the Malawians and their struggles, not about the stories, character and struggles of younger missionaries.   Yet, of course, the two stories are intertwined—as these young missionaries have certainly colored our experience and, at the same time, have had a profound impact upon the lives of our members.  
No doubt, the experience of other senior missionaries is radically different.   Many of them spend far more time interacting with younger missionaries, supporting their teaching activities and, in some cases, enjoying with them the cultural opportunities present in their mission field.  As their blogs, letters and other reports readily attest, their mission experiences are far more tied up in their dealings with young missionaries, than has been the case for us.  However, younger missionaries have certainly had a great impact upon us, as we have watched, somewhat from a distance, their faithful service, knowledge of the gospel, and spiritual maturity.     The following is a brief description of some of the ways in which we have interacted with younger missionaries.
First, young missionaries get together weekly for either a district or zone meeting (the zone meeting being once a month, the district meetings on the other weeks) and a weekly meeting to coordinate with the branch mission leader.   For the first five months of our mission we made a conscientious effort to attend all of the meetings that were attended by the younger missionaries assigned to the Zingwangwa Branch.   This allowed us to feel more a part of the local missionary effort, to get to know the branch members, and to understand better the challenges facing the missionaries and branch president.   When we assumed responsibility for the office functions in Blantyre, this meeting schedule became too heavy, so we cut back, going only to the monthly zone meeting, and occasionally to one of the branch mission correlation meetings.   This change in meeting schedule came at a price—now it is much harder to keep up on the status of branch members, and to know who might be struggling.   We have markedly less visibility into the weekly activities of the local missionaries.   
One of the unique features of these missionaries meetings, at least from our perspective, is that each meeting is under the direction of someone else—the district leader runs the district meeting, the zone leader the zone meeting, and the branch missionary leader the branch missionary correlation meeting.   Hence, participating in these meetings has resulted in our getting to know the younger missionaries and branch mission leader well.   The young missionaries are wholly responsible for these meetings—they conduct the meetings, set the agendas, and do the instruction.   Rarely do they expect or ask Carole and me to play much of a role—other than giving occasional prayers and scriptural thoughts.   They serve as the line leaders, while the senior missionaries play the role of students.   Those outside of the Church may find this peculiar—having young missionaries—with just a couple of years of Church experience—take responsibility for instructing senior missionaries, with far more experience in the Church, and likely a better understanding of Church doctrines and practices.   The pattern is, however, consistent with the way in which the mission is organized—the mission president and younger missionaries being the ones responsible for proselyting activities.   Senior missionaries operate outside of this organizational structure, so it is not so surprising that they reach instruction from younger missionaries.    Of course, by being a good example, senior missionaries can subtly mold the behavior of younger missionaries, but this does not run along lines of formal authority.   Senior missionaries have no control over younger missionaries, who report solely to the mission president.         
Second, Carole and I are, from time to time, asked by younger missionaries to join them for proselyting visits.   Most of these requests have come from sister missionaries.  Church policy prohibits, for example, sister missionaries from meeting with single men alone without the presence of third party—who performs somewhat the role of a chaperon, to eliminate the very appearance of impropriety, while at the same time protecting sister missionaries from awkward or potentially dangerous situations.   It is also somewhat surprising how often Carole and I have, by mere chance, come across younger missionaries, as we have visited the homes of active and less active members.   If we are out and about, this frequently occurs once to twice a week.    Four missionaries (two pairs) are assigned to work in the Zingwangwa Branch, and four missionaries to the Blantyre 2nd Branch—each branch covering a relatively small geographic area.   So on a routine basis there are eight other missionaries circulating in the two areas where Carole and I spend most of our time, so it is not too surprising that we bump into one another with fair frequency.
Third, one might think we would have much contact with younger missionaries at Church services.  But this occurs far less frequently than one might anticipate.   Of course, we see them at Church, with quick greetings, but usually both of us are so busy with our own assignments that the level of the contact is cursory.   Carole is consumed with helping in Primary and Relief Society, and I in Sunday School, Elders Quorum and with the Branch Presidencies.   For their part younger missionaries are, as one would hope, preoccupied with their investigators, attending the Gospel Essentials class (which Carole and I rarely attend), lining up appointments, visiting with the youth, coordinating with the Branch Presidents.  There is some overlap, but it is not extensive.
Fourth, once we assumed office role functions in mid-March 2015, we found ourselves in constant contact with the Zone Leaders in Blantyre.   At least weekly, they come by to pick up money (Malawian kwacha) to make missionary allotments, purchase fuel, cover utility costs (phone, electricity, water), and cover medical-related costs.   This past year Blantyre’s Water Board (the local water utility) has experienced one crisis after another in supplying water to local residents.   Once or twice during the week, the water supply is cut off, and water delivery may be disrupted for hours, and in some cases for even days, before it is restored.   Our residence has a 500 liter water tank, from which we can draw water, when the municipal water supply is cut off.[1]   As a consequence, the Zone Leaders have been often impressed into becoming “water barons.”   Late in the evenings, after full days of missionary work, they come by in their Isuzu truck with six to eight 5-liter plastic containers that they fill up with water from our tank for re-delivery to those missionary flats, where there is no water.   The water shortage problems were so chronic at the Pacific Palm Apartments, where the sister training missionaries resided, that we ultimately moved them out of that flat, even though it was ideally located to the sisters’ proselyting area, and was otherwise a decent flat.   It is almost unimaginable the number of hours the Zone Leaders have had to consume this year in addressing the water shortage problems faced by the Zone’s missionaries.  
This past six months the Zone has had, it seems, more than its fair share of medical/dental problems—these problems sometimes seem to come inexplicably in waves.   Oddly enough, the most recent rash of problems cropped up shortly after the Merrills left Blantyre in mid-June of 2015.   While the Merrills were serving as CES missionaries, Elder Merrill is an experienced physician and had served six prior missions as a Church medical advisor, skills invaluable to aid local missionaries in deciding how and when to seek treatments from local health providers for their medical problems.   Young missionaries have had painful teeth in need of extraction, have been crippled with panic attacks, and have been bitten by spiders; they suffered with nasty skin rashes, have had neurologically reactions to ‘anti-malaria’ pills, and have tortured by stomach/digestive ailments.  Usually, the problems, if severe, are first brought to the attention of Sister Erickson and/or Elder Birrell, who do a limited, long-distance triage to determine whether the Zone Leaders should take the affected missionary to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment.   In Malawi, everyone goes “to the hospital” (which includes visits to local clinics), when there is a medical problem.   This is the Malawian equivalent of “going to the doctor.”   Often Sister Beal and I learn about the cases only when we see a bill for a hospital consultation, treatment or medication.   This speaks to the self-reliance and independence of the Zone Leaders, who try to solve problems on their own, without turning to us.  But on occasion, if the Zone Leaders are unavailable, the problems are particularly acute, or more money is needed for the care, we are asked to come to the hospital or to pick up a suffering missionary. 
Lastly, we got to know several sister missionaries much better than others because they lived in the same apartment complex as we did.   The first five months in Malawi we stayed in Apartment No. 5, in the Pamodzi Settlement Project in Sunnyside, later moving into the One Kufa Road residence, previously located by the Reynolds.   The Church had a second apartment, Apartment No. 3, in the project, which had virtually the same floor plan, except that that apartment was located on the second floor, facing to the west.   As a consequence, Apartment No. 3 would heat up in the late afternoon, while our apartment, on the first floor and eastward facing, stayed cooler.   The first pair of sister missionaries we met were Sister Komiha from Zimbabwe and Sister Rasband from Utah.  Later the sister missionaries staying in Apartment No. 3 included Sister Dlamini from South Africa, who is still in Blantyre, though now living in Nyambadwe, serving with Sister Frimpong as one the sister training missionaries; Sister Griffus from Minneapolis; and Sister Browning from the Boise area.  Sister Griffus is now back in the United States, and Sister Browning in Zambia.   Because of the proximity, we would frequently give the sister missionaries rides to Church, help out with shopping, or pick them when coming home in the evenings, little gestures we won’t normally do for other younger missionaries.   When we moved out of Apartment No. 3, the sister missionaries took that apartment and we terminated our lease of Apartment No. 5, returning the space back to the landlord.
As a result of these points of contact, we have gotten to know a few missionaries quite well, and have had enough contact with most of those in the Zone, as they have come in and out, to develop a fair impression of their skills, commitment, and work habits.  Most younger missionaries stay in Blantyre for five to eight months before being transferred to another area in the mission or returning home.   Of course, there are outliers—the few who come and go in just a couple of months, and the handful who spend more than eight months in the same city.   Many parents of missionaries doubtlessly take comfort knowing there are one or more senior missionaries in the area, who can, if the need arises, step in to provide additional support and heft.   Had our children served as missionaries in areas where there were senior couples, Carole and I would certainly have had similar feelings.

[1] As long as the municipal water system is operative, the water will run until the tank is full and then will cut off.