Tuesday, November 25, 2014

El Calafate Branch

It has been a long time since my last post.  In that one, I commented on how wonderful it was to spend almost all of our time ministering and not having to administer anything.  Well, that has all changed.  Our assignment was changed and we moved from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate.  El Calafate is a city of about 30,00 people set on the banks of Lago Argentino. It is about an hour from the Glaciers National Park and the Perito Moreno Glacier.  The summer months, October to February, are the high tourist season and many of the locals are working two jobs. I have been called as the branch president (the local lay leader of a small congregation).  We have between 35 and 60 people show up to church every Sunday.  I have responsibility for everything from the physical facilities to the welfare needs of the people.

The Argentinian economy has some interesting (as a foreigner) and difficult (as an Argentinean) quirks.  Even people with full-time jobs in reputable companies sometimes don't get paid.   It is just part of the system.  Many of these people live on the very edge of poverty.  Saving makes almost no sense because money will be worth less tomorrow than it is today.  We have seen the dramatic effects of inflation in our time here.  We knew one moderately well-to-do family in Rio Gallegos that told us that when they have extra cash they buy staples, like rice and noodles, or building supplies, like bricks and cement.  The food you can always eat and the bricks you can always sell or use to add on to your own home.  Those things retain value.  Money does not! This leads to situations where people living on the edge easily fall off.  I try to keep on top of some of the more precarious situations and make sure that people have food in the house so that children aren't going hungry.

We are also organizing activities in the branch to try to help people improve their economic situations.  One of the members is teaching an introductory computer class.  This is just a simple "how do you" class so that someone could work in a job that requires basic computer skills.  Hermana Merkley and I are teaching an English class.   El Calafate is a tourist town, being able to speak even a little bit of English is a skill that can help people improve their income.  We had one young woman who came to the class and wanted to learn some terms for cutting hair.  If she could give an English speaking tourist a decent cut, she would likely earn more money! We are also learning about teaching English as a second language.  It is fascinating to understand that some Spanish speakers can't even hear the difference between "ship" and "sheep" or "bit" or "beat."  The short "i" sound doesn't exist in Spanish and their ears are not accustomed to that sound.  It makes me wonder how badly I mangle the Spanish language.
El Chaltén juts abruptly out of the Patagonian plain.
Hermana Merkley and I had a great day when we visited El Chaltén.  The views were spectacular!

We are trying to organize youth activities.   On Saturday November 15, we took  8 youth to El Chaltén and did a hike.  Unfortunately, the weather the day we took the youth was not as nice as when Hermana Merkley and I first made the trip. (Actually, President Rogers would tell me that for a youth activity, the challenging weather was bonus, not a problem!)  El Chaltén is a small village situated at the base of Mount Fitz-Roy (also known as El Chaltén).  It is truly a breath-taking site.  Many of the youth here have never made the three hour drive, and had no idea what the tourists here are actually doing.   The youth were excited about going and that turns into excitement from the parents. My second councilor told me that this was the first youth activity in the eight years that the branch has been in existence. President Rogers told me that if we want to help the parents, do things to help the kids.

El Chaltén from Laguna Capri the day of our hike with the youth from El Calafate. I understand that this is a pretty common view for many tourists!
My primary duty here is to train someone else to be the branch president after I leave.  There are some good people who could serve, but they either lack the experience or the vision.  One of the things that has struck me serving here is that trying to change people just wears you out.  If your goal is to change someone, you will just grind yourself away.  However, if your goal is to love someone, it is not wearing.  You open yourself up for lots of pain and rejection, but the love can deal with that.  The  healing spirit of Jesus Christ is what leads to real change.  We just try to model His love for everyone and try to help them seek His love in their own lives.  I'm attempting to get a branch council, and a future branch president to understand importance of loving even those that don't seem to want to change, and leaving the changing part to the Atonement of Christ.  It is a big task, but if we can accomplish that goal, our time in El Calafate will have been very well spent.

I've been trying to come up with something to post on my LinkedIn account to show how I'm spending these 18 months.   I think our job description would be something like the following.
Position: Volunteer for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 
Duties: Feed the poor. Visit the sick. Care for widows and single mothers.  Strive to strengthen marriages and family relationships.  Listen to sorrows and grieve with those that mourn. Comfort those in need of comfort and search for those in need of help. Our motto is "Do Good!"