Good morning. J I’ve always loved and tried to live by this well- known quote by Sir Francis of Assissi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.” Over in Kosovo and Albania, for the past 18 months, serving as a full-time, set-apart servant of the Lord and representative of his church, every single day I was using my words, along with the words of prophets, to preach the message of the restored gospel. It was during this time that I came to truly understand the power and importance of a consistent, righteous example. Church members everywhere are carefully watched by the curious eyes of the world, but missionaries especially. As full-time missionaries, we take it upon ourselves to teach and share truths and clear up misconceptions. With such a hefty calling, it is essential to live a Christ-like life as we encourage others to do the same. Even more than simply avoiding hypocrisy, doing so really helps us to reach those in need; the often overlooked or easy-to-miss opportunities to comfort and befriend; opportunities which stand out amidst distractions as we strive to follow and serve our Savior with a dedicated mind and heart.
Generosity, Selflessness, Warmth, Hospitability and Charity are some of the Albanian characteristics that really left an impression on me. The people I served and lived among were often very poor, esp. in comparison to U.S. standards. Usually no clean running water and broken-down toilets or holes in the ground. Despite a much lower standard of living, I was always well-received in their homes and fed treats and handed bulging bags of fresh fruits from trees, given hand-woven tablecloths and knitted socks. Coming from people who often were struggling to make enough money to feed their families, not to mention paying the bus fare to come to church. There was one family in particular that I’d like to tell you a little bit about; The J family. Extremely poor in terms of material possessions, but incredible faith and they are among the happiest people I know. I was able to meet and teach them in October of last year, and the 3 that are over age 8 were baptized, and they haven’t missed a week of church, and they live out in a village that happens to be a 20-min. drive from the city where the church is. They have many health problems and every excuse to not show up, but their conversion is deep enough that they understand the importance of the sacrament and the need to partake every week. One week the 11-yo daughter, S, who has epilepsy, was sick at home with her dad taking care of her and they were absolutely out of money. The mother, E, took the 6-yo son A, and walked the long, 2-hr walk to church, along the freeway, in the pouring rain, with no umbrella. She arrived just in time for sacrament- soaking wet but with a big smile on her face. In a lot of ways, these people taught me more than I could ever teach them, through their sheer devotion and strength.
I also picked up some valuable life lessons regarding what not to do. It’s funny how much easier it is to notice flaws in others than in yourself, from the outside looking in. I noticed a lot of things in members and investigators that bothered me but after a little reflection I came to realize that these were things that I’d been guilty of myself. Anywhere from dressing immodestly to disrupting sacrament meeting by getting up multiple times, or whispering nonstop to neighbors during classes. It’s funny how once the tables are turned, the new perspective is humbling to recognize that every single one of us is doing our best every day to “endure to the end” to the best of our abilities. We never reach a point where we can remain stagnant; we must constantly be striving to improve and better ourselves, and this is made possible through the Atonement, and we’re able to apply this positive change as we repent daily and help others as they strive to do the same.
My favorite aspect of my mission was, of course, the people. Most specifically, teaching and testifying and having some powerful experiences with some incredible friends. Sharing things so close to my heart with people who were so prepared to learn and eagerly accepted truths. Sometimes I was able to see firsthand the hope and joy they found in this restored gospel, and that was always an incredible and rewarding experience. There was one girl, L, who I met the last week of my mission, whose dad is very sick with a brain tumor and understandably she is very upset and worried. We had incredible lessons with her because she just absorbed the comfort of the Plan of Salvation in the simple, eternal truth that we are all children of a loving Heavenly Father. Due to a shortage of sister missionaries in the Adriatic South mission, there are no longer sisters serving in this area, so I’ve been continuing to discuss with L and others via skype, and I’m very grateful for technology to make that possible.
But of course it wasn’t always this way. More often than not in missionary work, the tireless hours of knocking and talking and inviting and reaching out; these repeated, fervent efforts are often never appreciated or even acknowledged. I learned about this at the beginning of my mission in Kosovo, a 98% Muslim country where the name Jesus Christ is an immediate turnoff so wearing his name on a badge on your shirt, standing on the busy streets downtown, can make people dislike you very quickly. But it’s cool that in these situations it’s easier to weed out the “elect” because there’s such a stark contrast between those who attentively listen versus those who don’t give you the time of day or mock, curse at, and disrespect. I’m honestly grateful for the opposition I experienced while out street contacting because there’s something sacred about defending one’s faith; somehow the conviction in an otherwise simple testimony becomes a lot stronger in these times.
A valuable lesson that I was aware of before my mission but that I dealt with and was reminded of repeatedly throughout my time in the Adriatic South has to do with church members getting offended and lapsing into inactivity. Pride is the root of all evil, and contention among saints is big proof of that. It’s heartbreaking to see kind, faithful members become bitter and distant because of a seemingly silly, minor incident. It is so crucial to remember that: “He who is whole need not a Physician, but He who is sick” as our Savior wisely reminded. Church truly is a spiritual hospital and it is extremely important forgive and move on. Often the problem can easily be resolved within ourselves. While we cannot choose how others treat us, we do choose how we react; if we shrivel up in bitterness and self-pity, choosing to hold grudges rather than apply the Lord’s counsel and forgive all. As a missionary in a small, developing branch, I played a big role in the auxiliaries and I was a first-hand witness to the destructive pride that contaminated so many wonderful families. And I know this problem isn’t unique to Albania or Kosovo, and so I just wanted to remind you all to forgive and encourage each other as we all do our best to become more Christ-like.
Speaking of helping the branch function, each Sunday over there was definitely a different experience than we have here. We started a branch choir not only to help our members develop some musical talents and get more familiar with the hymns, but to get them used to staying for 3 hours of church rather than the 2 hours we usually had. I ran the primary over there and it was a much smaller group; we met in the kitchen and got creative with props for lessons. We worked a lot with the Young Women and got them started on Personal Progress. More often than not I was asked to give a talk or teach Relief Society on-the-spot if the teacher or speaker didn’t show up or failed to prepare something. I just want to emphasize what a blessing it is to have such a thriving, functioning ward over here. So many of our members over in Lushnje, Durres, and Prishtina, would give anything to come to a sacrament meeting where the priests, not the missionaries, bless the sacrament. Where the RS president takes charge and the women respectfully listen and participate rather than argue and gossip. Where there’s Sunday school and a youth program, with activities and inspired leaders to motivate and set righteous examples. With early-morning seminary! I know these are all major factors in one’s conversion because of my own experience. I grew up going to primary and young women’s, and I know that I can attribute a lot of my faith and early testimony and doctrinal knowledge and gospel understanding to my patient and committed leaders that taught and helped shape me throughout the years.
To all of you children out there, pay attention in primary because the scriptures you’re reciting and songs you’re singing in there are building a solid foundation for future missionary experiences, whether as a full-time servant or among high-school and college friends. I am so grateful to my leaders, and of course my parents, for teaching me right from wrong and helping me to understand and love this gospel since I was very young, who kept teaching me these truths even when I seemed uninterested or lost sight of what’s most important. I’m really grateful for seminary, and I can honestly say that lessons and experiences from those early mornings helped me out years later on my mission. Sister Dermody and Sister Moore are maybe a little surprised to hear me say this, since I used to sit in the back of their seminary classes, curling or straightening my hair while they taught. But their testimonies and spiritual strength really encouraged me.
Something that I saw in my investigators, and looking back I recognized in myself, is that people really can and do change, and this is because of the gospel. It’s not just growing up, it’s not just passing through a phase or jumping on a spiritual bandwagon, but conversion is a change of heart; a change of desires and motives and goals, and when the Lord is at the helm, guiding and directing, these goals and interests will line up with His righteousness and purity, and that is where true happiness sinks into our lives. I know that it truly is through serving others and giving of and getting over yourself, that pride is stripped away and there’s room for the Christ-like qualities of patience, humility, and charity to slip in.
Now I’d like to share a song with you which most of you are familiar with. I translated it into Albanian on my mission and I’d like to share that version with you since it has special meaning to me. I know that God is our loving Heavenly Father, and because he loves us so much he sent his only begotten son to die for us and redeem us from our sins. I know that Christ’s love is perfect and powerful, and we, as followers of Christ, are commanded to love others with that same selfless love. I saw this to be true in Albania and Kosovo, and I know that it’s equally as true here in Florida, and everywhere in this world, for that matter.
DESHMI NE SHQIP…
Ne Emer te Jezu Frishtit, AMEN <3
(she sang "Love One Another" as she played it on the piano)