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!