Monday, September 10, 2012

Letter from September 10, 2012

Hello there!

Well, this past week has been quite a unique week in the life of a missionary, and the work has literally exhausted me every single day. I definitely didn't expect all of this when I received my call or when I was submitting my papers, but nonetheless, it has been such a learning experience which has allowed me to grow in many ways that wouldn't have been possible in other circumstances, and I am very grateful for that.

From last Monday to Saturday night, it has been work work work. Gut this house, remove this fallen tree, clear this debris made up the first couple of days, and then Friday and Saturday turned into us "tracting" in our yellow "Mormon Helping Hands" shirts and looking for people who needed help in all of the affected areas. It has been really cool to see barriers broken down as people realized that we were simply looking to help. People whose door we had knocked on months ago only to meet an abrupt rejection allowed us into their home and showed great love for the effort we were putting forth simply because we were looking to serve them. I have never felt like the work I was doing was as appreciated as I do now. It makes me wonder what I could do to help people see that our normal proselyting activities are of even greater service to them and thereby break down those barriers that unfortunately exist.

One of the great things that has come about because of our disaster relief efforts is an increased teaching pool. We have now received eight referrals to contact once they have rebuilt their homes, all from service opportunities. People naturally are curious to know what it is that motivates others to sacrifice their time to help a stranger in such a significant way, and as we have served others, that has become clear by us receiving these referrals. I am thankful to our Heavenly Father for providing us with such great opportunities to help others, and He has blessed us significantly.

We will be spending the next two days blitzing the affected areas seeking more work orders because the Church has offered a lot of member work crews from surrounding states to come and assist us this next weekend, we just need to know how much work we will have to get the right amount of crews brought in. To accomplish this, we are having our zone and the Gulfport zone come over and all 26 or so missionaries will do everything we can to get this done. What an effort. Just in the projects I've participated in thus far, we have seen over 300 man hours put into serving non-members, and that doesn't even begin to cover all of the other projects that will and have been done in Slidell alone. I can't wait to hear the final number of hours of service rendered (they are preparing a report to give to the Brethren - maybe they'll share in General Conference??).

One funny experience that we did have was while we were "tracting" in one of the hardest hit areas, Palm Lake. As we were walking, a young man approached us and inquired what we were doing. After a brief conversation, he proceeded to offer us both jobs on the spot with his demolition and renovation company. Apparently they had received contracts for over 120 homes and only had 15 employees. To give you an idea, it would take 12 hours for a crew of 6-8 people to do two homes. So we laughed and told him that we were full-time missionaries and not allowed to participate in commercial activities, and he awkwardly apologized and shuffled off. Man, maybe I should have seen how much they were paying!!! Hahaha.

So there you have it - a busy and exhausting week that will only continue. But I can testify that service is the best missionary work possible, because "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." Hearts have been softened, doors have opened that we never imagined, and lives changed as we have extended a helping hand. The beautiful thing is that it doesn't take a hurricane for this principle to become evident in each of our lives, because service opportunities are all around us, for members and non-members alike. Even with what might be considered a small act of kindness, we can brighten both our own lives and the lives of those we surround ourselves with, and opportunities to do so are everywhere we go - it is up to us to do our part and recognize them. As we do so, opportunities to bear testimony, through word or deed, will naturally come, and our own testimonies of the gospel will truly be strengthened.

 Although it is sometimes to forget, Christ's is a gospel of kindness and compassion, and it is only after we master the eternal principle of selfless service that we can progress in all aspects of the gospel. To quote President Monson, "'Love thy neighbor' is more than a divine truth. It is a pattern for perfection." He continues, "As we look heavenward, we inevitably learn of our responsibility to reach outward. To find real happiness, we must seek for it in a focus outside ourselves. No one has learned the meaning of living until he has surrendered his ego to the service of his fellow man. Service to others is akin to duty, the fulfillment of which brings true joy." May we always remember that we are all beggars (see Mosiah 4:19), and therefore it is our responsibility to assist others when God has provided us with the resources and ability to do so. As we do so, we can and will find true fulfillment in our lives.

Have a great week! I'm praying for you all!

Elder Joshua Thomas

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Letter from September 4th, 2012

Well hello there! 

What a week it has been for us here in Slidell. Hurricane Issac was an unpredictable storm, that's for sure. No one expected the damage that it caused. The odd thing is that some areas of town escaped unscathed and some were at flooding levels equivalent to Katrina. Crazy. 

I will start at the beginning of the story so you can get the whole picture - All the way to Tuesday the mission leadership told us that we were to stay put in our apartment for the duration of the storm, so we just went about helping people get ready for the storm. We were helping some members who own a jewelery store to clear out all of their goods in case of flooding when we got a cal telling us to get back to our apartment, pack up anything we cared about, and get to the bishops storehouse where we would be staying until further notice. So we did as told and made our way up to the storehouse with all of our valuables and clothing for a couple of days. Immediately we went to work inventorying all of the emergency supplies that the church had on hand with the Elders Quorum President, and boy, it sure was a ton. They have the supplies to clean houses, gut houses, cover holes in roofs, tents, cots, clothing, and emergency food. Hundreds and hundreds of each item. After that we were handed a cot and sent off to a room to sleep as the storm began to hit. 

The beautiful thing about staying at the bishop's storehouse is the fact that we had unlimited food, and let me tell you, the church's granola is amazing. :) And the applesauce. And the beef stew. And everything else. We sure do take care of people. Working with all of these supplies and seeing how the church was involved in coordinating supplies and making sure everything was taken care of has definitely helped me to gain a testimony of the welfare system of the church. Daily the representative of the church was on the phone with members of the seventy and area authorities to coordinate efforts and receive updates. Within 24 hours of the storm's departure, trucks arrived with more supplies. Holy cow. Without a doubt, it is an inspired program. 

But from where we were in the city, the storm was kinda a bummer. Nothing that I haven't experienced before. The problem was the fact that it slowed down significantly when it came over Slidell, allowing for water to accumulate and therefore cause flooding. However, I will say that I was sent outside to get something during the storm and the wind gusts did stop me dead in my tracks haha. 

Don't believe the news is one of the greatest things I learned from this experience. National outlets were exaggerating things beyond belief. They made it sound like Slidell was a battle zone that was completely under water. Only parts were. And no, the whole city was not ordered to evacuate. However, Old Towne was, which is where our apartment is. Bayou Bonfouca, which is right across the levee/railroad tracks from us, picked up so much water that it overflowed the levee and caused water to rush into our part of town. Our complex was flooded 9-12 inches, but since we are on the second floor, everything was fine with our apartment. The only we lost was all of our perishable food because the power was out. :/ It was crazy because we drove up to the beginning of Old Towne the day the storm passed and saw submerged cars and people canoeing across streets in areas that we tracted just weeks earlier. 

The big problem was that the Bayou is right next to the sewage plant, and so when that flooded, sewage was mixed in with all of the water that flooded us, leaving the area smelling suspiciously awful. And, there is a drinking water advisory, so we have to boil any water we use for drinking/cooking. How lovely. 

Our area had the section of town that was hit the worst - Palm Lake. The Bayou that overflowed runs straight into a little lake that is next to an area that is way below sea level, and when it rose, it caused 4 to 6 feet of flooding in all the homes. Driving our bikes down the street (which is a story in and of itself - the neighborhood is protected by police and the national guard. Thank heavens we are recognized as ministers) was such a heart-wrenching experience. Every single house had a massive pile of things out on the curb that were ruined beyond repair. Appliances  furniture, Sheetrock, flooring, clothing, and basically everything. An investigator there in the area tearfully told us that she lost everything again, and that she couldn't do it again after Katrina. Homes are completely gutted through there. Seeing that much devastation and suffering is something that will forever remain vivid in my memory - you can't fully understand it until you experience it yourself. 

But we have had a few opportunities to help others in their efforts to recover from the storm (we were only able to return to our apartment Saturday night). We have helped a couple of less active members gut houses and businesses effected by the storm. Everywhere we go we have offered service to others, and they appreciate the offer. It is difficult to try and return to normal missionary work when the people around you are suffering, and so we will continue to look for any way to help. FEMA has their command center set up right across the street from us, so maybe we can find people there that need some assistance. Church was an interesting experience because we only had sacrament meeting and then assessed the known needs of the ward and assembled a plan on how the members could help in the recovery efforts. It was an amazing thing to see - members stepping up and sacrificing of themselves to help others. 

I wish that I could have filmed the whole week that I just experienced, because there are so many little stories that I wish I could share. For example, the military patrolled our apartment complex with fully loaded assault rifles because of looting. Things like that can't fully be communicated through writing. Even the stories that I have shared have even greater depth. Issac has provided us with quite a few opportunities to realize how blessed we truly are to have the gospel and the church in our lives. Without it, we'd be lost and in great despair. I know without a doubt that despite the great suffering that many here in Slidell are experiencing, they can find greater hope for the future and joy in the present by turning to the Lord and inviting him more fully into their lives. The church is true and the book is blue!!

Elder Thomas