Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Touching lives; refugees, members and investigators

While we were in Portugal last week, the two wards that meet in our Church house were finishing an amazing service project for the refugees.   It was called "Welcome Bags for Refugee Children"   It started with some sisters in the German Ward that meets in our building and grew to include both wards and so many more.   They put together a huge project involving hundreds of people who collected, sorted, organized, and packed 1,061 Welcome Bags for refugee children in 6 refugee camps close by. The bags were donated by IKEA and they were filled with diapers, clothes, socks, underwear, coloring books, colored pencils, toys, toothbrush, toothpaste, blanket, and towel--by gender and age!!! 

By the time that we got home from Portugal, we were able to participate in the last hour and a little bit of the project.  Most of the work was in sorting and preparing all the materials to be put into each bag.  That evening all helped to fill each bag individually.  We were able to be part of that process.  It was totally amazing.  This story has been documented by many in a much more thorough way with so many wonderful photos.  I believe that it will appear in the Church news.  However I will share some of the photos that I took that night and our impressions as well as some of the facts that we have been able to pick up from others.

When we arrived at 7:30 pm, all of the helping hands shirts were in use.  So Sister Rueckert and I just joined in with our normal missionary attire.  We immediately were put to work walking the different bags, which were identified by gender and age, to fill them with all of the items that had been donated and sorted.  Different individuals were assigned and ready to hand the different items out and then we brought the completed bags back to those who were ready to organize and load them onto the trucks.  With many many hands helping, this process finally completed a little before 9:00 pm.  So even though we were only able to help for a little over an hour, we were immensely touched by the goodness that filled the Church.  We saw youth and adults, members, missionaries and non members all working side by side in a wonderful spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, all in the cause of helping those who needed assistance.

This is where we started picking up one of the age and gender specified bags which already had  blankets and towels.

First stop was to get tablets, colored pencils, toothbrushes and toothpaste
Sister Rueckert among those with "helping hands" shirts

The chapel area had rows for each age and gender where we could pick up the right size and type of clothing to put into the bags.

This is the "toy" room where toys were added to each bag, again age and gender specific
This man was one of several refugees that were there to help others.  They did most of the organizing of the completed bags.
Taking the completed bags to the trucks.

Loading the trucks.

Three trucks were loaded that night.  The next morning the bags were delivered to 6 refugee camps nearby.  It was reported that the refugees were on hand to receive the bags and were amazed at the generosity and what each  bag contained.  For one camp, this was the first donations that they had received.  Another camp was having a celebration when the trucks arrived and had invited some of the community dignitaries to join in as the welcome bags were delivered.

Although our part in this miracle was very minor, it is wonderful to be part of a larger community that does so much to help others.  This goodwill has in turn attracted many of other faiths who also chose to participate.  Many who donated, including large companies, felt impressed to offer donations that were not typical for them. We know where those promptings came from.

The next day was our first My Path workshop in our ward.  This was our chance to practice what we preach.  We always tell others how this should be done and we have attended many.  We have worked for weeks in preparation for this night, meeting with our bishop and our ward council and receiving their wonderful support.  We have had facilitators called in our ward and we have been able to train them.  Materials have been ordered and publicity and invitations were given to many.  In the end we waited to see what would happen in a ward that is mostly self-reliant, with the majority of our members being Church employees.

We have a specific assignment to home teach a family that came from Cape Verde and Portugal.  The mother doe snot speak English or German, only Portuguese.  That is where I come in.  We visited them in their home the Sunday before.  This is a wonderful sister who has three children, 16, 18 and 20 living with her in pretty humble circumstances.  We invited them all to participate in our My Path Workshop.  All four came and also another older daughter and a non member friend.

We were not disappointed.  Even after all the efforts of the previous days in the service project, we still had over 30 individuals show up for the workshop.  Sister Rueckert facilitated the workshop, but we had each table of individuals working independently.  What I really liked was seeing many of the members who were temporally self-reliant, in attendance helping those who had more challenges.  To me, this is what the Lord means when he says "it that it must needs be done in mine own way . . . that the poor may be exalted  in that the rich are made low" (D&C 104:15-17).

At the end of the workshop, individuals joined in 5 different self-reliance groups.  This is the beginning of their journey to self-reliance.  This week all of the groups are beginning and will continue to meet weekly for the next 12 weeks.

Sister Rueckert doing the overall facilitation.

Members working together, includes a non member and a less active member

Strong member helping a new convert

Working in groups at each table
Calculating their expenses as they review their personnel budget

Completing the worksheets

Individual help, including a new convert

Answering questions
Explanation to this wonderful sister who wants to come back to Church
Explaining the Self-Reliance Groups
Asking all to get up and move to the groups that they will join
By Sunday we were ready for the Self-Reliance Groups to begin.  We also decided to do a small group experience with our new members from Iran.  I worked hared to translate our first Foundations lesson into Farsi using Google Translate.  Unfortunately it translated by letter, not by word.  I will try again for our next session next week.  These nine new members will all be getting their work permits soon and are anxious to begin working.  Each has previous qualifications while in Iran. Their biggest challenge right now is their lack of speaking German.  We're not much help on that side.
The intent of our little meeting was mostly to bring more fellowship with these new converts and to try and teach them a little bit of self-reliance.  We made a start and will continue to try in the coming weeks.  Some great sisters from Italy and other members provided a meal for all.

This is a young man from Afghanistan who met the missionaries on the bus.  He stated in Church (his first week) that he has found his home and is planning on getting baptized.  On Friday he was not ready to join the My Path Workshop. By Sunday he has now joined our Starting and Growing My Own Business Self-Reliance Group.  

The girl in the photo is from Viet Nam.  She showed up at the Church on Thursday to help with the refugee project.  She had read about it on-line and felt impressed to help.  She spent most of the day helping and enjoyed it so much that she didn't want to leave.   She was invited to come to Church on Sunday and she came and joined us with the integration activity and dinner.  She is now meeting with the missionaries.

These experiences have gotten us more heavily involved in missionary work in our own ward.  I love working with investigators and new converts.  They are so humble and open to learn new things and do their very best.  There is much we can do to help, but we always are strengthened and benefited more than what we give.

We love being missionaries and serving in this part of the world with wonderful members, missionaries, nonmembers and new members.  Through all of this, we are overwhelmed at the goodness around us and the potential to build the Lord's Kingdom.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Coming Back Home to the Perpetual Education Fund

This has been an incredible week!  We started out last Monday, going to Lisbon, Portugal where we participated in a two day conference on the PEF Loan Program in Europe.  This included 5 of our managers who have PEF loans approved in their regions and was organized by our Operations Team who are based in Lisbon.  Our Area team and our support manager from HQ came to help this to be a meaningful experience for all.  With all of our efforts to help the Self-Reliance Initiative to get going throughout Europe, at least personally, I have not spent very much time emphasizing or supporting the PEF loan program, even though that is where I spent over l0 years of my life.  The majority of the effort of PEF loans comes under the capable direction of our Operations Manager, Miguel Adriano.  He hosted this seminar and we were happy to participate and offer all of our support.  

While I was excited to focus more attention on this important program, I was not prepared for what happened to me during these days.  It started on the first morning when our Area Self-Reliance Manager, Thomas King, set the stage by teaching doctrine.  He started his presentation by having us listen to the initial talk by President Hinckley in 2001, when the Perpetual Education Fund was revealed to the Church.  As we listened to that initial talk in it's entirety, my mind and my heart reflected on those prophetic words which I had studied and taught over and over again.  They were the basis of everything that we did during those many years.  I reflected on the precious experiences that I had while in the presence of President Hinckley during many of the meetings of the  PEF Board of Directors.  I remembered the many witnesses that I had received that President Hinckley was clearly a prophet of God and the Perpetual Education Fund was an example that he cited of a revelation that he had received.  I remembered one day when President disagreed with what we were presenting and in his comments he said "That is not the way that I saw it!".  All of these memories and emotions overcame me that morning and I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having the privilege to play a small part in this incredible revelation that has now blessed almost 80,000 individuals throughout the world.

Later on, Thomas King also shared a video clip about "Arturo", a young man who lost his leg and sight in one of his eyes to an accident.  With the help of the Perpetual Education Fund, he was able to get an education and pull his life back together.  I had the privilege of meeting Arturo during one of my visits to Lima, Peru as he was serving others in the PEF Service Center.  I was able to share my personal witness of his goodness and the blessings of the Perpetual Education Fund.  What an incredible morning!  I am thankful for having that experience which filled me with immense gratitude.

That certainly set the stage for the remaining two days as we discussed principles and practices to make sure that we help these loan recipients to become self-reliant in their lives.  We love being with our Self-Reliance Team in Europe.  They are our dearest friends and the add so much enrichment to our lives.

On Tuesday evening, we took time as a team and went to an amazing Aquarium in Lisbon, Portugal.  The photos below are some of those from that experience.  We loved it!

Our team in front of the Aquarium.

Sister Rueckert in front of her favorite sea creature, a sort of manta ray

Here the creature is in full glory

Together in front of a large school of fish
Sister Rueckert in front of one of the sharks

One of our favorites, a sea dragon!

Small eels half buried in the ground

Jelly Fish

Another view of a jelly fish

Since we arrived home on Thursday, our lives have been a whirlwind of other amazing experiences, too many to share in this particular blog.  I will post the rest of the week in our next entry.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Teachings, trainings, temple and tulips

We just finished a whirlwind week.  Starting with jam packed days in the office and finishing with three days in the Netherlands.  It is wonderful to have a Sabbath Day to worship, relax and prepare.  Two weeks each month we spend several hours meeting with other full-time missionaries by video conference.  It is uplifting to spend time to understand their challenges and to hear their successes.  Sometimes we are uplifted, other times we are overwhelmed with the challenges that they have.  That occurred this week as we met with a missionary couple in Kosovo.  We have no basis to complain about any of our challenges, they all are small in comparison with what others have to deal with. We also had the privilege to share thoughts about Self-Reliance in a lunch time presentation to employees and missionaries on Tuesday.  In between we worked with the Area Presidency with a letter and monthly report that will go to all stake and district presidents in Europe in the next week or two.

Our priority activity this week was to meet with members of the stake committees for the four Dutch speaking stakes, one in Belgium and three in the Netherlands.  On Tuesday evening we had an incredible experience with the member of the stake presidency of the Antwerp Stake, who recently received the assignment to chair the Stake Self-Reliance Committee.  When we were through with the video conference all we could say was "Wow!".  He was so inspiring and excited to take everything that we were sharing and put into practice as quickly as possible in his Stake.  Hopefully we will have other wonderful opportunities to meet with this Stake committee in person in the future.

On Thursday we took off driving to the Netherlands.  We left early enough so that we could arrive for a temple session in The Hague temple.  This was our first visit to this temple and our first visit to a temple since arriving in Europe in January.  It felt so good to be back in a temple.

After the temple session we had a quick dinner and left to participate in the Stake Self-Reliance committee meeting for the Rotterdam Stake.  This committee was chaired by the Stake President and had several specialists in attendance.  They have started moving ahead with the Self-Reliance initiative and asked us to share some of our thoughts.  It was a wonderful meeting with inspiring members of the Church who are dedicated to helping others to become self-reliant.  The photo below shows the Stake President, a SR Group facilitator and the Stake Relief Society President.  Another three members were there that were not in the photo.

We did not have any more meetings scheduled until Friday night, so we took some time on Friday to see the famous Keukonoff flower gardens.  This is the time of the year that the tulips and other flowers are in bloom.  Some of the tulips were still not in bloom and the day was rainy, but it was still a wonderful experience with beautiful flowers of all kinds.  Not only were the flowers beautiful but the overall gardens were full of fascinating trees, lakes and landscaping.  The photos below show a little of that beauty:

I always knew that Sister Rueckert had big shows to fill, but this is photographic proof.

By one o'clock we had seen enough flowers and rain.  With additional time available, we decided to visit the Windmills at Kinderdijk.  This is at one of the lowest spots in the Netherlands, six meters below sea level.  In the 1300s canals were dug to drain water from the swamp areas.  In the 1700s, windmills were built to use the power to pump the water to and from the different canals and up to the reservoir above, on the other side of the dyke.  It is the site with the largest number of the older Windmills in the Netherlands with 19 windmills.  A few of them are still in operation and is primarily a tourist site, since the water movement is now done by diesel pumping stations.  We found it quite fascinating and an important part of history for the Netherlands who were the most famous for reclaiming wetlands for agriculture.  An English saying says that "God created the world but the Dutch created Holland."

Two of the canals and the windmills that pumped the water from each.

The dyke which holds a reservoir of water on higher ground.

As part of this location, we were able to go into one of the working windmills and see the gears working from the wind blown energy.  Below is the gears at the top of the windmill.

And here is a link to a short video taken inside of the Windmill, while the "wings"  keep going by.   It was a cool experience.

Friday night, we had the chance to drive an hour and a half to the most northern stake in the Netherlands, Apledoorn.  There we met with the Chairman of the Stake Self-Reliance Committee.  We had a wonderful conversation for an hour and a half.  They had been reluctant to adopt the self-reliance initiative as has been proposed.  We were able to teach doctrine and testify as well as share experiences and answer questions.  We felt the spirit very strongly with us and the Stake President counselor responded very positively.  There is still work to do, but we felt that a very positive step was taken.  

On Saturday morning we had a meeting with the Chairman of the Stake Self-Reliance Committee of The Hague stake.  This was the most impressive of all of our experiences.  He and his stake have an incredible testimony of the initiative and are learning through a pilot Starting and Growing My Business course. It has been facilitated with English materials, since they were not available in Dutch.  The Chairman is participating in the group which is facilitated by the Stake Specialist.  As they finish (they have completed 9 weeks already), they plan on holding three classes in three different locations of the stake.  There was nothing that we could add but to offer support.  This chairman can be a major resource to the other stakes as they move forward.  In his words, he said that  he had doubts initially if it would work, but decided to have the faith to follow the process.  Now he has his own testimony!

All in all, this was a wonderful first week with the Dutch speaking stakes.   We weren't sure what to expect and we saw many different situations within these stakes.  However, we felt the hand of the Lord guiding us and we know that there are no challenges that cannot be overcome with the help of our Heavenly Father.  Priesthood leaders are inspired and our role is to guide and offer help, but they will make the difference.  We are so blessed to be able to know each of them and to be able to participate in this process.

We are feeling more comfortable driving around Europe.  This was a 4.5 hour drive from Frankfurt to  the temple at The Hague.  On the way and on the way back gave us an opportunity to listen to various sessions of the recent General Conference again.  We have now had the chance to listen to the entire General Conference twice.  We love the chance to listen to a talk and then take time to discuss it and think how we could apply it in our lives.

This type of travel also makes us very dependent on GPS, especially when we are in a country that we know little or nothing of the language.  Part of our discussions with driving were about the GPS.  With this, I will defer to Sister Rueckert's own words which are always better than mine:

"On the drive up to the Netherlands we relied on our GPS and Tom's iPhone for directions.  It came to me that these devices we use for guidance can be compared to a husband and wife's relationships in communicating, etc.  In a marriage one person is the GPS and the other is the iPhone.  Both will get to the same destination but the route is not necessarily the same.  It was our experience on this trip that both devices were needed to get to our destination  So it is with a marriage, both people have to work together to reach the ultimate destination, i.e. Eternal Life.  When we decided to rely just on the GPS we found ourselves in trouble.  More than once our GPS said "turn right now" when there wasn't a road to turn off or on to.  We would then get the iPhone out as quickly as possible to find out what we needed to do to get back on course.  Boy, doesn't that sound like situations in a marriage.  Sometimes we could trust the GPS and other times it seems to be the iPhone that was trustworthy.

There were even some stretches during the trip that both devices were in sync with each other.  These were the times when we felt at peace and had confidence that we were on the right track.  So it is in marriage.  We all have our ups and downs where one or the other is up and the other is down.  In these times we can trust the one who is up spiritually.  The best times are when both people in the marriage are in sync with God.  That is when you have peace and confidence that you are doing the right thing and traveling safely towards your destination.

One other analogy that I saw was when somehow we got off track on both devices and our "dot" was off in some field and not on any road.  That is when we felt panic.  We had neither device telling us where to go.  In those cases we had to be calm and trust that things would work themselves out.  Fortunately they did.  These times are the times of great challenges or crisis in our lives.  We need to remember not to panic and trust in the Lord that in time things will work themselves out."

Additional photos from Keukonoff:

Fields of tulips by the gardens, you can see many of the tulips are not yet in bloom

These are the "late bloomers"

One of the trees that looked like a face
Tulip fields, still beautiful without all in bloom

For the most part, these tulips were in bloom

Close-ups of some of the beautiful flowers: