27 December 2012

The Best Christmas Present Ever!

Christmas Eve Day with the Monterrey Mexico West Mission:

2012 brought us the best surprise and the best present ever in all of our very, very long lives. There were about 100 missionaries lined up in the Mitras Chapel waiting for their Christmas gifts from President and Sister Swapp. As the line diminished, we were told to take our places at the end of the line. Since we had wrapped or made all of the gifts, we were content to meander along slowly while the missionaries enjoyed their exciting moment. Finally, we arrived at the big moment and received our miniature version of Spanish Preach my Gospel and a popcorn ball ... (guess where they came from!)

... and an envelope with our names on it. Assuming it was a form letter from the Mission President, we didn't even bother to open it--in fact, most of the young missionaries didn't open their letter's either.

After a few moments, President Swapp announced that it was time to leave the gifts and to quietly open the envelopes. All attention moved to the envelopes and the room became perfectly still. You can't imagine our surprise when we discovered four letters inside: one from each of our sons. It is impossible to express our joy at having personal, printed letters from our kids on Christmas Eve--the traditional night of gathering for our family. As we read them, we were filled with gratitude and deep joy for the thoughtful, loving, tender words from our children. We have read them over and over--and will continue to read them many more times throughout the year. Thank you, dear sons, for  creating something so meaningful--we feel very loved! It is a Christmas that we will never forget.

We send our gift in return--but the grandkids might have to decode it for the grown-ups:

The missionary talent show was "divertido" (fun!). There were choirs, bands, stories, piano duets, nativities, angels and even Santa showed up. There was even more food than the missionaries could eat (that could be considered a miracle).


Christmas Eve Night with the Monterrey Mexico East Mission

Christmas Eve night we were invited to President and Hermana Walker's home for Family Home Evening and dinner. President Walker's beautiful wife, Inez, has a twin sister, Beatriz, who is married to a dear friend of ours, Pablo Abrecht. Both the Walkers and the Abrechts are old friends of ours from Buenos Aires. It had been way too many years since we had seen them and it was a joyful reunion.

Inez and Alan Walker, John and Linda Hoffman
John first met the Sulei family in San Nicolas, Argentina when he was a counselor to Tony Bentley in the Buenos Aires North Mission. Lincoln and Carter were friends with Alan's brother, Hernan. Linda visit taught Alan's mother, Cristine and sister, Cynthia. The Walkers finish their mission in July and hope to go back to Mexico City where he was working before the mission.

Pablo and Beatriz Abrecht, Linda and John Hoffman
 The Abrecht's were also living in Mexico City during our mission in the Visitors' Center there, but left to study Urban Planning in London for a year. As his thesis project, he chose Oaxaca--perhaps the most ungovernable state in the world with 3,000 municipalities, hundreds of languages, and uncountable tribes who are often at war. The state receives lots of money to "help" the indigenous people, but most of it is siphoned off by disreputable contractors. In comes Pablo, to save the day. He has a plan, clear vision, patience, energy and believes he can change centuries of practice. If anyone can do it, Pablo can--and the government of Oaxaca has hired him as a consultant to do just that. His job is to get water, sewer, drainage, power, telephone, health services, etc. to the millions of people in that area.

The Abrecht's have four gorgeous children who loved the disappearing sins activity. They also liked the jump-for-a-star activity that started on the trampoline and ended with putting Luke 2 together in the right order--the adults really liked that one, too! These missionaries are going to be great parents.

Disappearing Sins Activity

Ines on left and Beatriz on right putting together Luke 2

Pablo reminded us of how he came to join the church. He was 19 years old and had finished two years of a four year degree in economics. He decided to backpack through Europe and so took a break from his studies. After he had been wandering hither and yon for three months, he decided to pop into Paris and visit an aunt that was living there. When he arrived, she said that she was leaving the next day for the Orient (she was an artist), but he was welcome to stay in her apartment while she was gone. He was there for six months. Finally he returned to Argentina and finished his degree. He said, "I had promised myself that when I finished my degree I was going to do two things: read the Bible and do my genealogy." So, when he graduated, he immediately began to look for genealogy resources. He discovered an LDS Family History Library near his home and decided to go see what he could find. He walked in the front door and found himself in a "Ward Open House," complete with the Bishop, missionaries, and the family history people. They showed him around and told him about the beginnings of the church. He thought it was pretty weird, but was intrigued. He asked the missionaries if they would come by his house and tell him more. They visited with Pablo, and as they were leaving he asked if he could get a Book of Mormon. They gave him one and he began to read. He asked the missionaries back again and asked if he could go to church. His comment was very interesting. He said that they never asked him to do anything. He was the one moving it all forward. In fact, he had to ask them if he could be baptized! It eventually all came together and the clueless missionaries did get his baptism arranged. He eventually did do his family history back to the 1400s and served a mission in Salta. We met him after his mission when he was clever enough to invite his future wife to attend institute with him. He said it was the only way to get together with her because she was working all week and in San Nicolás on the weekends. He said that thanks to those two nights a week at institute, it finally all came together.

These wonderful people and their families have blessed our lives in so many ways, and we are grateful that they continue to do so now.

23 December 2012

Making a Difference?

As we spend more time in the temple each week, I have wondered if we are doing any good. We are not out in the world “making a difference” such as distributing wheel chairs, saving babies or whole tsunami villages. Then I recall time spent in the temple this week with a young man preparing to leave on a mission, and I realize we are helping people to become better people, who, hopefully, will help others to become better. The young man was from a small town well outside of Monterrey. He had been a member of the Church his whole life, probably attending small branches with sparse leadership and little support. He had very little of the things of the world. He arrived knowing a great deal about what to expect in the temple and what was to be expected of him as a missionary. He had a light in his eyes and a countenance that spoke volumes about his character and his enthusiasm for what lay ahead. He will definitely be making a positive difference in peoples lives. Yes, he came with some 18-year-old baggage, but he also brought a special spirit to his work that will be immediately recognizable by people who might get to meet him. 

We have watched this process with young men and women closely over the years. For some reason, this young man seemed exceptional. But then, I’ve seen it so many times before. It is great to think about the impact for good these young men and women will have as they take the message of the Savior to our troubled world. We are looking forward to spending time with them tomorrow as they take a break from their work and spend time visiting with each other. 

I watched another missionary who came to the temple the other day with his mission group. He was from the Dominican Republic and has been in the mission for over a year. He ran into another missionary in the dressing room who is currently working in an area where he had worked. As the two waited for the session to begin and visited (and I eavesdropped) I listened to this missionary ask about people and families in his old area that the newer elder was now teaching. He asked about five or six different people or families with whom he had worked. He wanted to know if they’d made progress in the gospel. Had they come to Church? Were they reading? He encouraged the newer elder to continue his effort to bring those people to the gospel. These young men could have been talking about almost anything else, being young men, but they were both focused on the important work they were doing to help others be better people. It was very tender, especially given where the subdued conversation took place. 

So, I would have to say, it all helps. We are getting a better appreciation for that. 


Temple Workers Fiesta

Monday (12/17/12) all the "obreros" (workers) from the temple gathered for their annual Christmas party. It is doubtful that there has ever been been a "temple worker" party to equal this one.

Tables were set for about 90 people since spouses were invited. Each table was decorated with a beautiful "Noche Buena" plant (poinsettia) and a large traditional Mexican doll, her feet covered with candy, wrapped in cellophane. These were the raffle prizes. There were also cups of "nibbles" drowning in chili powder and bottles of soda on each table (no one drinks water here--only soda).

The dinner was unlike anything we had ever seen before: four turkeys, four giant roasted pork rumps, meat stuffing, bread stuffing, gravy, tamales, spaghetti noodles topped with a variety of sauces, frijoles charros (cowboy beans), mashed potatoes, potato salad, green salad, cheese cubes in salsa (like a very spicy soup) and sliced French bread. All of this was served by the female shift coordinators, who wore matching aprons supplied by Hermana Machucha (the temple president's wife).

Dessert was just as varied: red beet salad, cookies, jello, rice pudding, chocolate cake, buñuelos (a flat, crisp, fried pancake) topped with syrup (they must have eaten several hundred of these), and a giant birthday cake made of cupcakes as a surprise for the husband of one of the workers.

Entertainment was provided by a choir from one of the stakes that "tours." They were very good and sang Christmas songs at the short devotional before and then during dinner. The program was winding down, when suddenly another singer burst onto the stage. This guy was much flashier than the choir: He had on a tightly fitted suit, diamond watch-band, silver and diamond brooch-like thing at his neck instead of a tie, and kind of danced/slid onto the stage. The music suddenly changed to Mexican pop and the room exploded in applause. He is an impersonator of a very famous, very flashy Mexican singer, Juan Gabriel, who was hired by the above mentioned worker to celebrate her husband's birthday--with all of us! He sang for an hour and the audience went crazy. They knew every word to every song and chimed in right on cue--even the 84 year old Hermana O'Campa was lustily singing along. What a hoot! We were so sad that we didn't have the camera with us--however, we did remember the turkey, so maybe that was the key thing.

It is a church party that we will never forget. No one--absolutely no one--throws better parties than the Mexicans!

16 December 2012

This week has been Christmas for us.

Sunday we attended the Stake Christmas pageant. The young men and young women of the stake put together a performance of the Christmas story as told in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The musical performances were great and the Christmas spirit filled the building. 

Monday the Senior Missionaries met at President and Sister Swapp’s home--they let us come and help wrap 180 gifts for the young missionaries. They had stunning red poinsettias inside and out, a lovely nativity, Christmas touches everywhere, a yummy supper and carols playing. It was so much fun to be part of the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations and to be able to do it for these sweet people who will be away from their family for five Christmases. The Swapp’s were serving as Senior Missionary Coordinators in the Dominican Republic when they were called as Mission Presidents in Monterrey, Mexico. We played a fun game of concentration where we had to match up the symbols of the Christmas story with candy that “matched” the symbol. For instance, M&Ms represented Mother Mary and Three Musketeers represented the three wise men. 

Tuesday we arrived at the temple to find the gardens full of beautiful red “Noche Buenas” (poinsettias). They are native to Mexico and are used prolifically here during the holidays. There are even Noche Buenas on and around the life-size nativity scene in front of the temple. 


There is a legend here in Mexico about how the Noche Buena came to be: 

Once upon a time in Mexico, a little boy was walking to church to see the Nativity scene. He thought hard about a gift to bring the Christ child, but had no money to buy one. Jesus will understand, thought the little boy stopping to gather a few bare weedy branches lying at the side of the dusty road, because my gift will be given with love.
When the little boy reached his destination, people already in the church turned to see what gift he had brought. When they saw the bare branches, they laughed at him.
As the little boy trudged up to the altar and laid the branches by the edge of the manger, there suddenly began to bloom an abundance of bright red flowers. (http://urbanext.illinois.edu/poinsettia/facts.cfm)

Wednesday nearly 40 missionaries from the West Mission arrived by bus, taxi and foot at 7:00 a.m. for one of the temple sessions. The missionaries from this mission usually come twice a month, leaving their apartments often before 5:00 a.m. in order to arrive on time. It is my favorite session! These missionaries, both Elders and Sisters, arrive sleepy and harried, but full of love and with the joy of their service shining in their eyes. It is wonderful to see the light and happiness that they bring into the lives of people and families who embrace the gospel. 

Thursday we walked down to a nearby mall to check out the restaurants (we called it exercise!). There are about a dozen to choose from--one of which, Johnny Rocket’s, had just opened that day. Yes, we can eat the same food here that we have in Farmington, if we choose to--and we just might. 

Mexican version of "Wingers" 
Yes, the real Johnny Rockets!

Friday was the Campestre Ward Christmas party--and what a party it was! The program was put on by Young Women and children from the primary. They danced and sang and laughed, with a side-show by the “extra children” who ran races and did improv dances in between to the music of the DJ. There were appetizers to start and then the real food started coming out of the kitchen: hard-boiled quail eggs, refried pinto beans, macaroni and ham salad, tossed salad, chicken in green enchilada sauce, beef (arracheta) in beef gravy with vegetables, Mexican rice, sliced French bread and tortillas. Wow, it was yummy! We finished that off and then turned to the dessert table--and there are not words to describe the lovely things that were offered there. The whole arrangement was quite clever: the priesthood brought the beverages, the Relief Society had a dessert baking contest, and the other ward made the dinner. Our ward will return the favor for them next week. 

Saturday we were up at 4:30 a.m. in order to be at the temple by 5:30 to help get ready for the 6:00 session. When we arrived, there were already 5 large buses parked and more than a hundred people wandering around or lining up to get into the temple. When we left at 1:30, there were 17 buses parked behind the temple. Most of them had traveled all night to get there. It is so touching to see the way they serve each other, both in and out of the temple. There are youth that do baptisms for the dead and then help tend little children while the parents are in the temple. Adults take turns on sessions so that the children who will be sealed to their parents are cared for. It is about as close as we get in this day and age to seeing the Law of Consecration in action. 

Sunday John and Linda spoke in church. Linda on “Hope in Jesus Christ” and John on “Prophecies of Christ’s Birth.” There were two musical numbers that were amazing. The first was a husband and wife and two small children--maybe grandchildren. The closing hymn was sung by the primary children who all wore white shirts or blouses and had Christmasy scarves around their necks. There have never been better behaved or more beautiful children! Their singing just completely melted us. The reaction to the talks was interesting. The other missionary fellow that works with us was approached by a member and congratulated on his talk. We figure one missionary is as good as another, or, one fat, bald, gringo geezer is as good as another.

There is no snow. Some of the best carols go unsung. But Christmas has come to us, even in Monterrey. 

07 December 2012

What Do Two Old People Do When The Temple Is Closed?

(Grandkid Alert!)

Get a valid Mexican visa: The immigration office called us to say that the printer was finally working and we could pick up our visas. When we walked into the office on Tuesday (Nov. 27th), the señorita that had helped us, recognized us and waved us up to the front desk. In almost no time at all she had our visas ready and we were on out the door with a wave and a smile--so pleasant!

Get on an airplane to Tijuana: With visas in hand we found a flight out the next day to Tijuana. Quick, efficient service on Volaris Airlines put us on the other side of the continent in a mere three hours. 

Walk across the border: After landing in Tijuana, we caught a taxi to "la linea" (the line) and watched an amazing variety of people moving slowly towards the American border. 

La Linea--Crossing the border in Tijuana.

Ride the trolley to Santee, California: When we popped out on the U.S. side of the frontier, there was the trolley car waiting to take us to our children's home in Santee. A few hours later we were picked up and whisked off to meet Evia Jean, our newest grandchild who was born while we were in the Senior Mission Training Center.

San Diego Trolley

Evia Jean, six weeks
Twinkle Toes

Play with grandchildren: Evia Jean was appropriately beautiful, charming, engaging, and adorable with her tiny red toenails. Raolins was rambunctious, full of things to tell us, perfectly two and determined to be in charge. 

Eat stuff you can't get in Mexico: Phil’s BBQ (www.philsbbq.net) and P.F. Chang's were a delightful change of pace from our south-of-the-border fare. 

Play more with grandchildren: Take long walks in Mission Trails Park watching hawks, counting dogs, and hoping for another coyote siting. Blow bubbles. Play on the phone with Papa. Climb ladders at Big Rock Park. Make Christmas cookies with the two-year-old and let him eat as many as he wants while mom is studying for school. 


See Evia get a name and a blessing: Wearing her mother's baby blessing dress, Evia received a beautiful blessing from her devoted dad and her mom spoke of eternal families. What a sweet day. 

Raols, Tito, Nae, Evia, Nana, Papa
Did we mention play with grandchildren? We spoiled them rotten, hoping that they might remember something about us during the next six months and that it would be long enough between visits that the parents would forgive us.

Skype with Utah kids and kidlets: Complete chaos on both ends when the big kids and the little kids try to all talk at once--so much crazy fun! We loved every moment, especially Spencer making faces at himself in the “Skype Mirror” while everyone else laughed hysterically. 

Mr., AJ, Mita, Sir, Jules, Rita

Catch the trolley back to Tijuana: Green line, orange line, blue line. Carter said that the orange line would be "interesting." It was, but it can't compare to the blue line to Mexico--the novelties never stopped!

Fly back to Monterrey: (see "Mormon Moments" below).

Visit San Nicholas: Translated, this charming pueblo's name is Saint Nicholas. I guess you could call it our Christmas outing. There was a darling tree in the main plaza, temporary shops selling Christmas gifts, and real mole (say mo-lay) from Oaxaca. We found our favorite dollar store from Mexico City, generous people, and a place to buy dill weed. 

Shop for food: Costco has empanada dough and Walmart has Ramen--life is good!

Hike the trails of Chipinque Reserve: We drove up into the hills on the northwest side of the city into a nature preserve called Chipinque. The weather was a glorious 7 degrees, the trails wide and easy, the butterflies active and colorful, and the area pristine. There are many colorful snakes, wild animals, rare birds, and even some rather large spiders, though we have to admit that we saw nothing scarier than the yellow butterfly that hit Linda in the head. If you would like to look at the animals, bike, trails, mountains, etc. you can go to http://www.chipinque.org.mx/naturaleza 
Guilt Fritillary Butterfly

Squirrel at Feeder

View from Chipinque Park (The Sierra Madre mountain range) of La Silla mountain and La Huasteca mountains:

And a view of the two old missionaries celebrating Christmas with a Poinsettia tree:

Wash the car at Walmart: Our parking space is underneath a power line that is home to some very healthy pigeons. Washing the car is an important part of our routine :-). A complete inside/outside detail of the car costs about $8.00--the best bargain found down here yet!

Put up the Christmas tree: Some kind missionary couple from long, long ago and far, far away left us a shelf full of Christmas trimmings. The tree is truly Mexican. The directions promise: "Un Hermoso Arbol En Solo 4 Pasos" (A beautiful tree in only 4 steps)! After fighting with trees for many years, we are very grateful to have only "4 steps" whether or not it is beautiful.

The Mormon moments just kept coming during our trip. It began with the customs agent in Tijuana looking up at me, surveying my missionary tag and asking: "Where is Jesus?" He was holding my passport two feet from "freedom" and I had to figure out what to say to that question! He said that he had family members who were Mormons. He had taken them to the "church" in San Diego, which was closed and they wouldn't let them in. It turns out that they had gone to the temple on a Monday. 

We walked out the door onto the Trolley platform and within minutes a well-dressed Mexican man walked up to us and asked if we were Mormons (yes, we were a little over-dressed for a typical border crossing). We acknowledged that we were and he said that he was, too. He and his wife were from Tijuana and were going to attend the temple in San Diego. They joined us on the trolley and showed us where to change lines--they were darling. It turns out that President Machuca, the temple president in Monterrey, was his first home teaching companion. 

Heading back to Monterrey, we stopped for a pizza in the Tijuana airport. Soon there were six very, very tall young men ordering at the same place. One looked over and said, "So, is the pizza worth its $27.00 price tag?" We laughed and assured him that it was definitely worth the $5 we paid for it. John asked him if they were playing basketball and where they were headed. We discovered that they also were living in Mexico. One of them asked what we were doing, and when we told him that we were missionaries for the Mormon church, he said that he had a friend who was a member of the church. "In fact," he said, "I have been in your temple up in Newport." We had a delightful visit with them and they wanted to know what we thought Jabari Parker was going to do next year. 

At the fourth and almost final security check, the man doing the revision of the bags before check-in was talking so fast that we couldn't understand a thing he said. After asking him three times to repeat himself, he looked at our tags and said, "Oh, English--okay, we will speak English," which did actually help, but was very humbling. He said, "What do you have to do to join your church?" We responded that one needed to be a just person...and before we could say any more, he explained that the Seventh Day Adventists must give up all rights to their possessions and wealth upon joining that church, and that he was a just person but the government and others sure made it hard to do.

We picked up our bags in Monterrey and went over to the security person to prove they were ours. She looked at our tags and said, "Are you Mormons? So am I! I am from the Queretero ward here in Monterrey," and waved us through with a big smile.