Piracicaba, 20 July 2016
I suppose it is time for me to break the silence, now that we've been here in Piracicaba 3 weeks. I'm sorry it has taken me this long to do any meaningful correspondence! We've been having a great time!
If I could sum up our experience thus far, I would simply say it has been completely awesome. From the moment we arrived here in Piracicaba, we have felt like the red carpet has been rolled out for us by so many people. President and Sister Canuto, our predecessors, really went all out to have things prepared for us including the missionaries, the office, and the mission home. We feel so welcome, so embraced and so comfortable that it's like we have returned to a place where we already belong.
Piracicaba is a city of about 450,000, small by some Brazilian standards but large enough to host 1 stake, which is very close to being divided, something we hope happens before we leave. If you can believe it, there are 7 other stakes in the mission as well, in cities such as Rio Claro, Hortolandia, Americana, Sumare, Sao Carlos, Pirassununga, and Sao Joao da Boa Vista. We have a great District in Botucatu as well. Clearly, the Gospel has been established in this mission, and it feels like our purpose is to enlarge the place of God’s tent, to lengthen the cords, strengthen the stakes, and help Zion put on her beautiful garments. We truly feel that Zion is here! Having observed what has happened over the past 50 years here in Brazil, it is easy to imagine a future day when each city in our mission will have 5 or 10 stakes, and several temples will grace our beautiful and green landscape.
We live in a beautiful area near center of the city, with easy access a park where Lissa can run and I walk many mornings. We feel safe here, day and night . The people are warm, friendly and outgoing in their desire to please and accommodate us.
Piracicaba is mostly laid out on a grid system (much smaller blocks than we see in Utah) and is very “walkable”. We have shopping nearby, and there are great bakeries and stores with product selections comparable to what we find in the States.
Rookie mistakes: 1) if you pull up to an intersection and all the other directions but yours have a stop light, you're probably going the wrong way on a one-way street! Only done this a few times. I can almost make it across town without GPS navigation. 2) Only left one suitcase in São Paulo. No worries, I got by on 1 suit for a week. 3) Radar speed traps everywhere. Took over a week to discover Wayz warns you about them, Google maps does not. Navigate using Wayz.
You may recall Piracicaba was open to the gospel during our time in Brazil before, The branch was small, weak, and struggling. Even so we continue to meet people connected to those early days. The other night, we went to Festa Junina (“Country Party”) at our ward and met Brother Edno Soares, whose brother Eraldo was the first person from Piracicaba to serve a mission. Edno asked if I was related to Grant Bangerter, and I replied that he was my father. He told how Dad had come to Piracicaba and interviewed his brother and sent him on his mission. Having studied Dad's mission history carefully, I was able to reply, “Yes he came on August 6th 1959, and I was in the car with him along with my mother, my brother, and my baby sister. In fact I have a photograph that was taken at noon on that very day. Here let me show it to you.” I pulled out my phone and opened a picture of the four of us standing in front of the Piracicaba River waterfalls that day. Brother Soares was so overcome with emotion, that I would have such a direct and specific tie to his family, that he began to weep. He called his wife over, and said, “Look! This brother was here before! With President Bangerter!” His mother, who initially opposed Eraldo’s membership and mission, was baptized in 1960. Edno followed in 1961. So we see the foundations having been laid so many years before are still here, and growing stronger every day.
Almost everywhere we go, some of those pioneering, old, early converts present themselves. Way up in the nether part of our mission (2 hours away - Paulo wouldn't consider that very far away, with his 12 and 15 hour drives and/or plane flights - our experience will be very different from theirs!) Sao Joao da Boa Vista, last week, we met a man who moved his family there a few months ago and was immediately called as bishop of his new ward. Although he was only born in 1962, his parents had been baptized in 1961 in Sao Vicente by Elders King and Holsinger. We got on the phone with his mother and she told us all about her baptism, how she had been interviewed by Dad, and what a blessing the gospel has been in their lives ever since. This good brother, Luciano Ferrari dos Santos, served a mission, as well as as a bishop and a member of the stake presidency and ward mission leader. So we see the roots from those early days providing nourishment up in the top of the tree. Everywhere we go, we seem to run into Cory’s missionaries from the Rio Mission of the mid 1980’s. Cory and Gayle, they love you! Today they have strong and mature Gospel families and are the lifeblood of the Church!
We have 148 missionaries, but we’re about to reduce by 7 pairs. We’ll send home 28 next week, and only get 14 in return. They are wonderful! The more we get to know them, the more we love them! Already, we had “Get To Know You” meetings where we briefly introduced ourselves and family, and tried to set a foundation upon which we can build. Those of you who know me can already guess that I introduced the “Three Types of Missionary” and explained the fundamentals of how to become the 3rd - the “Faith of Power” missionary by having the Desire and being Obedient and listening to and following the Spirit. That is the foundation. In our 3 weekly letters to the missionaries, we have tried to reinforce this concept, and further introduced how to build that power based on many of the concepts Dad taught. Last week, in our first Zone Conferences, we focused on fundamentals of Preach My Gospel (Teaching repentance and baptizing converts; receiving revelation by prayer, reading the Book of Mormon, and attending church, etc.) with a heavier emphasis on the role of the Holy Ghost in the conversion process, and the responsibility of the Missionary to be qualified to be an agent of the power of the Holy Ghost in conversion. The assistants introduced “The Strength of Peter” and we did role play based on that section of Lessons of Faith. Many are sharing in their letters this week that they have applied this training in their teaching and it is making a difference.
The mission leadership has worked hard to establish a culture of obedience in preparation for our arrival. We feel poised on the brink of greater growth and success in our mission’s work. The leadership corps is strong, obedient, and capable, and they are not afraid of change or of learning new things. They seem to drink up any new idea with enthusiasm and energy. I’m excited to collaborate with Paulo and others to get the ball (or “stone cut out of the mountain without hands”!) rolling with greater speed and effectiveness. A shout-out to President Canuto for his efforts in establishing such a great mission culture! Almost every letter from every missionary (I've read hundreds!) says in it, “How can I help you? Just call, I'll do whatever you ask!”
About 10 days ago I was invited to attend and address a “Mini MTC” sponsored by the Piracicaba Stake. Think “Camp Helaman” Brazilian style! They had rented a lovely chacara, a country setting with an assembly area, lodging, and cooking facilities and they had about 25 or 30 young man, pre-mission age, who had been there overnight. When the stake president and I arrived we found them all dressed in white shirts and ties with nametags calling them Elder. They invited me to speak first and introduce myself and our family, and then weresponded as a panel to questions from the young men about serving a mission. Besides myself, we had President Mendes, President Queiroz, (son of Walter Guedes de Queiros, one of the famous “three ministers” who were baptized in the late 1950s. It was an emotional experience for me to meet this man whose countenance exudes strength and power and reflects the image of the Savior - he is the stake YMP besides being on the High Council), and several other members of the High Council. All were returned missionaries. I focused my remarks on obedience and commandments and tried to help the young men understand that with a mission they would grow in their capacity to keep commandments and therefore receive blessings. They had prepared a number of questions in advance, similar to how I handled our discussions with Priests and Laurels in our ward conferences when I was stake president. This was an outstanding group of young men, and I tried to convey to them the blessing that it was for them to have to have the gospel in their lives, and how much the church has grown since the late 1950’s and early sixties when there were almost no native Brazilian missionaries. At the conclusion I rounded out my remarks by teaching about the three types of missionary (go figure). It was a great meeting. Reflected in the faces if these YM was the hope and potential of the future of the Church here - it was a beautiful and inspiring sight.
The other night, we were invited to attend and address a “Family Home Evening” (the only similarity to an actual FHE was that it was on a night, and in a home. . . :-). When we arrived, we found about 25 YM and YW crowded into a small 10 X 10 living room. Of the standing room only group most were members, about 10 were invited friends, non-members. They asked if we would encourage the youth to attend the Ward Conference , and each member should bring at least one non-member with them. Lissa led off, giving a excellent and fluent introduction of our family and bearing her testimony about families. I was at a loss as to what i should say. At the last second, I was able to find a copy of For the Strength of Youth, and use that as a tool in teaching about Strengthening Families (thanks to Paulo and Julie for their help with that approach). I invited them all to attend church, and we talked about how living commandments allows us to qualify for blessings, and the more commandments we get, the more blessings we get (kind of a pattern here, no?). All raised their hands when I asked them if they would go to Church this weekend. The missionaries obtained 2 solid referrals from the meeting, and we ourselves felt invigorated by strength and power of these young kids! The YW President leading this whole thing is a single RLM who served under Bruce Muir in Maceio who hasn’t lost her missionary fire in the least! We see the strength and power of these Brazilian RM’s everywhere we go.
As we reflect back on the outpouring of revelation and effort it took to get the native missionaries going, we are humbled by our close connection to those events. I think about how in June of 1978, I answered a phone call in Dad’s office in Sao Paulo; it was Bruce R. McConkie’s office wanting to speak with Dad. He was announcing to Brazil the revelation on Priesthood, wherein all worthy male members were given the privilege of holding the priesthood. I remember Dad’s response to that news was, “Oh Bruce, that’s earthshaking!” And it was. In that little living room, and in our missionary force, with the YM at the Mini MTC, at the festa junina, everywhere we go, we see faces of every color and complexion and racial background. As we look at our District Leaders, Zone Leaders, and Sister Training Leaders, we see the same. We see a powerful force at work - the power of the Gift of the Holy Ghost - The Strength of Peter, gently but powerfully transforming and sanctifying and whispering and nurturing simple, humble people, into becoming individual and collective towers of strength, with seemingly boundless energy, and power! We witness the granting of the promises made since the foundation of the world, to this people and nation, to individuals and families, and recognize the influence of the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in changing each one, of helping each to have the Image of Christ reflected in their countenance.
I was riding in the car with our two assistants yesterday (they have given me permission to share this) and I mentioned something I had been curious about since our arrival. Elder Francatto has tattoos peeking out from under his long-sleeved white shirt (he has NO short sleeved shirts), and knowing he had been a member all of his life (they are both Brazilians, and both are “lifers” in the Church, so to speak), I said, “So Elder, tell me about those tattoos!” He looked at me and smiled, and said, “You know President, even though I was born in the Church, when I was 18 I forgot who I was and began seeking my self-esteem from external sources. While I was there, I made some mistakes that are a little harder to “erase” though the Atonement, if you know what I mean. But I know that as I testify of the power of the Atonement in peoples’ lives, inside I know that I am truly a walking, talking example of that power. I’m so grateful for it!” His companion chimed in: “President, I have some of those too. My father died when I was 1, and I didn’t have have a strong male role model in my life. When I was 13, I strayed and also made some mistakes I regret. When I was a little older, I began to remember the things I had learned in Primary and School about God, the gospel and the commandments, and I knew I wanted to change. I feel so blessed that the Atonement has helped me so much, and for the privilege I have of testifying of its power to those I teach.” Yeah. that is what it is all about. Earthshaking, truly.
As we sit here in the waiting room of a hospital in Piracicaba waiting for one of our faithful sisters to have her gall stones removed, we feel so grateful and humbled to be here. We only hope we can measure up to the stature and faith of the people among whom we serve!