Sunday, July 5, 2015

Fast Offerings

This is a bittersweet experience.  In just a few hours, we will be released from our calling as full-time missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is wonderful to see our children and be among family, but it is hard to leave other friends behind in Argentina and to leave the joy we have found serving. Before I am released from this special calling, I feel prompted to leave one last message on this blog.  It is a little different than most of the others. There are no interesting pictures, no funny stories, and it may end up being a little bit preachy.  So be warned!

In 1993, Gwen and I felt very impressed that I was supposed to leave a job that I loved in Southern California and return to BYU to work on a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering.  This was a hard decision in many ways. It did not make a lot of sense.  My employer had indicated that I was on a fast track for management, and if I was interested, they would sponsor a doctoral program at USC in another year or two and pay for everything. Instead, we packed up our four little children and moved back to Utah. I had a small stipend for my research there. I had occasional contract jobs. Gwen did child care and managed every penny that we earned so that we could survive. It was our decision to go back to school, and we felt that would manage it as best as we could.

We felt poor. And some of our neighbors recognized that we were poor.  One Christmas, a stranger came to our door and delivered a huge Christmas ham. We carefully cut the meat off the bone and froze it into small packages.  We boiled the bone and made a large pot of soup that we ate for several days. It got to the point that one evening, my six year-old son sat down at the dinner table and hungrily asked, "What's for dinner?" When the answer was, "Ham," he burst into tears crying, "Not ham again," and he refused to eat! It broke our hearts not to be able to provide our children with the things that they wanted.

However, although we felt poor, we had never seen true poverty until we served as missionaries in Argentina. We always had enough flour, oil, yeast and salt so that my wife could make bread for the family. We had a roof over our head that didn't leak. We had parts of the house that were heated so that we could have refuge from the cold Utah winters. We somehow always had enough cash to pay for gas and electricity. We have friends and acquaintances in the Patagonia who don't always have all those same blessings.

As I write this on the morning of July 5, 2015, my stomach is growling and my mouth is dry.  It is the first Sunday of the month. During the first Sunday of every month, members of the LDS Church participate in a fast for two meals, or approximately 24 hours. Those that are healthy enough abstain from food and water during that period. It is a spiritual exercise, this act of subjugating the body to the will of the spirit, but it is also physically crucial. We donate the money that we would have spent on meals during that time and use it to aid the poor. Those of us that can, donate much more than just the cost of those meals to help out those that are struggling. This money constitutes the fast-offering funds of the Church.

Prior to this missionary experience, I had never experienced the affects of real poverty. I had never really known people that did not know where their next meal would come from. Parents that practically starved themselves so that their children could eat. People for whom their most important possession was a lock and a chain so that they could secure their meager belongings, for whom the loss of a broken shovel would be a devastating blow. We saw people frequently take advantage of the poor. They would be offered an odd job at one salary and find that offer reneged for a lower amount when the job was completed. Any money was better than no money so they didn't have any recourse but to accept the payment offered. Sometimes, they were paid nothing for their efforts. Their are few that will listen to the complaints of the poor, and fewer still that will do anything about it.

Part of my missionary service in El Calafate was presiding over the small group of members there in a branch of the Church. I had fast-offering funds at my disposal to help members that were struggling with physical needs. I would sit down and council with them about their situations and try to provide a bridge out of poverty or a hand up to keep them from falling more deeply into that pit of despair. I taught people about budgeting and using the resources that they did have at their disposal. But in the end, I often took them to the store and bought food and medication. I could tell the single mother, "You have enough worries. What your children are going to eat tomorrow shouldn't be one of them!" I could buy the medication that the doctor said was required. I could help someone have heat in a house.

We live in a time where many bemoan the income inequality that exists in this world. I am grateful to belong to a worldwide organization that provides a method of getting specific help to those with specific needs: an organization that lessens the impact of this income inequality, an organization where someone can get to know the people, understand their needs, and alleviate their suffering. The money that I spent providing help to people vastly exceeded the fast offering donations of that tiny branch. People living in more wealthy situations in other parts of the world donated the funds needed to provide help that I was able to give. I am grateful for all those who fast and donate their offerings.

One final note, I have sometimes heard people complain about abstaining from water during the fast. Recent science has shown that there are health benefits from abstaining from food periodically, but why water? The next time you are fasting and your mouth is dry, think of the person who doesn't have access to clean water. Think of the person that carries water great distances up and down steep hills to get water to their house. There are so many things that we take for granted. I am grateful for a Church that helps me think about the important things in life and helps alleviate suffering where it can. I am grateful for all the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their small sacrifices to help all of God's children!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Our calling as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is specifically to find ways to support the members and leaders of the church in the local area where we are assigned.  This boils down to providing service in whatever way that we can.  Many times this has not been just service that we can provide ourselves, but finding ways to support the local members in providing service to one another and the community.

The LDS Church is known for its welfare system and its ability to take care of people.  In areas where the church is strong there are storehouses where people who are in need can go and receive food and necessary supplies.  Here in southern Argentina we don't have that luxury, but we still have families that struggle and are in need.  

One Sunday in Rio Gallegos, the branch president stood up and explained that he was calling for an Almacen del Obispo or Bishop's storehouse.  He explained that since we don't have a physical place for a storehouse, each person's home becomes the storehouse.  In addition, each individual's abilities should be available to aid those in need.  He went on to explain that we have families in our branch that are really in need.  In order to provide for these families, he asked each family to donate what they could. Tonight we, along with some other people, stopped by those families who said that they had things to donate. Others simply dropped off their donations at the church. Then the Relief Society President divided the donations between the two families, and we delivered the items.  People donated flour, sugar, lentils, rice,  pasta, milk, oil, tomato sauce, canned meat, potatoes, onions, salt, toilet paper, infant formula, paper towels, and laundry detergent. When we delivered the items, the recipients were very grateful for all the help. It was a humbling experience. But most humbling of all was the realization that two of the families who donated the most probably could afford it the least. Yet out of their want, they found an abundance and shared with those who had less.

We attended a fireside on "Autosuficiencia"or self-reliance.  The brother presenting the fireside explained that while we all know that missionary work is being accelerated, so are the welfare efforts of the Church.  He taught that part of being self-reliant is also knowing how and when to appropriately ask for help.  He also taught that receiving help requires that we demonstrate that we are willing to do our part and not just assume that it is something that we "deserve."

Here in El Calafate we have had numerous opportunities to serve people that had real need.  We have one recent convert who set up a shack on a friend's land, only to find out later that the friend had been squatting there for 15 years.  The city came with equipment to evict them and move them to land that the member had been able to start to buy.  The land is not that expensive but at about $320 USD per month for a year, it will extract a significant portion of his meager income.  The city came to evict him and the missionaries were there to help.  We had to help tear down the shack he had built, move the materials, and then rebuild it.  The materials are whatever he could scrounge up, old pallets, pieces of scrap wood, cardboard, pieces of scrap tin . . . literally whatever.  We were there until after nightfall, because we couldn't leave until he had a roof over his head.

I did feel it was important for him to have a good roof, so the branch bought 5 pieces of new corrugated tin for his roof and some new nails to hold it down.  As you look at some of the materials, think about the winds in the Patagonia (sustained winds over 60 mph with higher gusts) and below freezing temperatures in the winter.  This is a man that wants to be self-sufficient, and he is doing what he can to reach that goal.  He has changed his old habits, and he now has money to buy land and over time improve it. He now has a wood stove that he built out of an old water heater. We helped him with some of the parts for that, and the hut stays quite a bit warmer and drier than the outside air, but Hermana Merkley and I still worry about how he stays warm. We checked up on him frequently.

It was also a great missionary activity.  One of his neighbors was very curious about who all those people were that were helping him. The police and the city workers that were there to evict he and his friend knew who we were and that he had support in a difficult time. I told the missionaries that this was some of the most important work that they would do in their two years of missionary service.

This is what we started with.
The demolition process.
Loading the truck.

Cleaning up the old property.

On the move!

Somehow things don't fit back together like they did at first!  Do you think the demolition process might been part of the problem?

Aren't the holes in the walls a problem? They are for me but not so much for him!

Getting things firm and more or less square.

We were blessed with a beautiful, calm day, and a clear evening. I can't even imagine trying to do this on a normal, windy day!
We also organized activities with the youth.  In one of them, we went to a playground and adjoining plaza and started picking up trash. We finished that area and then along the pathway that people use to walk to school.  It was a cool, wet morning, but we worked until we ran out of trash bags!  We figure we easily pulled up 200 kg of trash in about an hour and a half. We had a number of people stop and ask us who we were, and why normal people, even teenagers, were out cleaning up the community. The city does a pretty good job in the tourist areas.  They don't do very much in the areas where the people actually live!
There's just a little bit of trash in this area . . .

Our cleaning crew!
We also had a number of opportunities to help people around their homes. Everyone's goal is to own a piece of ground and stop paying rent.  The official government inflation rate was over 20% for last year.  (We won't even talk about the unofficial figures!) Rent prices increase much faster than salaries, so it makes sense to own and live on your own property, even if the house is a work in progress!

We are grateful for the opportunities that we have had to serve! We are grateful for a church that teaches us that we should be self-sufficient, but at the same time acknowledges the need for help. We are also grateful for the blessings that come from serving one another. We love all those that we have had the opportunity to serve!