Joy in the Journey

As many of you know already, I am stationed in Colon, Panama which is known for having its problems. In fact, they finally took the sister missionaries out of here. I am in, however, a good part of Colon which is about 30 minutes out of the inner city. Those that live in the city have their own language which is not quite Spanish and it's definitely not English. It sounds like a mixture of whatever English they have heard combined with Spanish which makes up a lot of slang. Luckily, I get to hear it often enough where I’m able to understand it and it cracks me up. I absolutely love it! We, missionaries, like to call it “Wopping.” Why? Because that’s how the people greet you here. I have had experiences when I had been walking down the street and when they see that I am American, no matter where they are or what they are doing they’ll turn to us and yell, “Wa – ahping Mo,” or to translate into English, “What’s Happening Man.” Oh yes, they love whatever little English you can teach them. I can’t tell you how difficult it is sometimes not to burst out laughing. Panamanian Spanish already has a huge American influence, which makes it easier for me, but "wopping" I swear is just Google translate. I like to share some of my other favorite phrases: “Voy a parkear a su casa esta noche.” (Parkaer as in parking) “Donde esta su Oman.” (The heavy Panamanian accent for Woman) “Ya a town manana?” (Town is what they call the city) It gives me the biggest smile and I just hope that the day you will get to hear my Spanish that it will actually sound like Spanish and not "wopping".
As for my weekly update on Aldea, and the beautiful tribe of Embera-Quera. As of the recent storm, a few of their trees fell over and some others they were just chopping down. With all this extra wood, they are working on making more canoes. Apparently, it only takes about eight days with a regular old hatchet ax to carve a tree trunk into a full-sized canoe. I have been pushing them to name one after me, but with no success. Mario is firm in his decision to name the canoe, “Melvin el Barco.” I will keep trying, but he thinks it’s the funniest thing to call his canoe a cruise ship. All the local leaders of the different Embera-Quera tribes in Colon gathered together to have a meeting as of Saturday and Sunday so we were not able to talk to Juan. We asked a local family a little bit more about this tribe and they told us that they broke off from a bigger tribe a little more than 40 years ago and have been living here ever since. They honor free agency, freedom of religion, unity, and family. With the exception of their spouse, they are all family and blood relatives. It is really cool, many chose to live here due to the freedom and the family as well as their love for the peace and tranquility there. They live a simple and modest life and are very happy. Many times that we go there it is just so silent. You can hear the river running, the kids playing, and the crickets singing. They definitely are a reminder to me to look at all the blessings God has given us. There are a lot of small blessing that we don’t recognize. As Thomas S. Monson once directed us to find “Joy in our Journey.” I have found and will always be grateful for the many lessons I have learned from this simple quote.
Recently we have had many less actives coming back to church. Our ward is finally growing and it is great! Thank you, everyone, for your prayers, thank you, home teachers, for actually visiting members and thank you, Bishop Groves, for your above the bar effort!

Dust In The Wind

This week we have been trying to ask more specifically to find people in need of a blessing from God. As we were trying to strengthen our faith in the power of prayer we said a specific prayer to find a woman who was single and who had kids who was pondering about God. I feel at times it would just be easier to ask God directly for the people who are ready and who are in need of a blessing, but I have been praying to strengthen my testimony and that I can find the people I was sent here to find. After the prayer, we were walking and walking and were feeling nothing so we kept going, then all of a sudden in synchronization we both turned our head and saw the little dirt trail that ventured off behind a house. We followed the promptings of the spirit and continued on this little dirt trail that lead to a neighborhood of about 25 homes. As we followed the spirit we stopped when we felt prompted to stop. A lady opened the door just a little dazed and we explained that we are missionaries and that God sent us here to bless her and her family. She said, okay give me one minute. She ran off and so we started talking with the kids. At this point we were thinking did she go out the back door or is she actually coming back? After a little bit, she came back, with different clothes on (a lot of times Panamanians will walk out with just a towel on or something less on) and in her hands, she had a bullet. Apparently, last night there were some gunshots going off and one ricocheted and ended up in their house. All that morning she was pondering and praying about death and what was to come. She had a need for protection because she is a single mother. It is hard to describe the sweet spirit that overcame me during the lesson.  A sense of humility renewed as I realized I was only being used as an instrument in order to help others and that I would have never found her house without the guidance of the spirit. I previously had been a little stubborn to listen to the promptings in the past and the idea that the Lord knows each one of his children and their needs. Over experiences like this in the past week, my faith has grown in the power of prayer and God’s knowledge and love for his children.
This week we went to Aldea again, there are two different tribes that live over the river. One is focused on tourism and we haven’t gone there yet. We have spent a lot of time in the Embera-Quera tribe that live on the upper side of the river. We have been trying to plan activities there for all of Aldea for a little while now. This week we were planning a baptism but they sometimes get backflow tourism there. They had to make last minute preparations which meant they would be busy all day. We had to postpone the baptism until next week, but we had the chance to help out with the preparations. All the young men and boys went out that evening to cut sugar cane. They came back and started feeding them into this handmade juicer. Occasionally they would call out switch, and the boys on the sides cranking would take a break. As soon as we saw that they were rotating we hopped in and helped to get all of the sugarcane through the press. Oh, man was that a work out, but I have never tasted a better tasting natural juice, it was fresh and cold.
Also, in Aldea, the kids are fascinated by my camera. One of the best decisions I have ever made was to let them use my camera and just go around taking pictures. Of course, a lot of the pictures are not great, but some of them are priceless. I’m just going to start giving my camera to little kids wherever I go. They just take pictures of everything. Look a duck! "Click," Hey Grandma! "Click," A peach pit! "Click." I think the next time I’m there I’ll tell them to go around taking pictures of people and the houses, because I can’t just go around and take picture of everything. 
With this new year, we have a new time that we meet at church, we recently got a new bishop and will have a new prophet soon. In case you haven’t heard our prophet, Thomas S. Monson passed away this week. Just as in the primitive church, we believe in its same organization of Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, Evangelist, and so forth and since the gospel has been restored entirely, we have been blessed to have a Prophet, a divinely chosen representative who can receive revelation for the whole church and the whole world. In the following few days, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles will unite and through inspiration reorganize the Quorum and receive revelation of who is the next acting prophet. What a glorious time we live in where we have a prophet of God that walks the earth and directs the people according to the will of God. We appreciate their service and willingness to whole heartedly serve in this calling and all the service Thomas S. Monson provided. May he be at rest and reunite with his wife in heaven. Now, this last Sunday we had the highest attendance in a while. I don’t know if it was because of the new year, the setting of new goals, the new bishop, or in part the work we’ve been doing. However, and for whatever reason, the ward is slowly growing once again. The hearts of the people are becoming softened and there is a confidence of trust within the ward.

This week my companion was just a little bit distracted. As missionaries normally your mind is going a million miles per hour. You’re constantly thinking about where to go next, what our investigators need to hear, what do we need to do to bring them to Christ, how we can teach better, how can our investigators keep commitments?  He had an ex-girlfriend write him something sappy this week. It’s hard enough to worry about the people, let alone your family and friends. Trying to deal with girls or ex-girlfriends is the icing on the cake. Nobody sane eats the icing. They cut it off and just eat the cake and give the icing to a little kids. That’s what we did. I told him to tell me every girl he ever dated or had a crush on, and then I wrote them down. He was obviously a little confused, but he said okay your next. On the same note card, I went through all the names I could remember going back to middle school. It was actually kind of funny because neither he or I could remember all the names so we took turns making up new names. At the end, we rolled up the list, doused it with rubbing alcohol and set it on fire. I told him, unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all your past love life has died in a fiery furnace. They are no longer important to you and no longer exist. All they are, are dust in the wind. Your mind won’t sing the same old song and will now be at rest. Now let’s get to work!

On our P-Day we found a waterfall!

Ring in the New Year

I cannot believe how jammed packed this week was. It seems like three weeks have passed since we talked last week. On Christmas day, I got to call home and talk with my family which was great! That call seemed like it went by so fast, it felt like only ten minutes even though it was longer. Surprisingly we did get feed a Christmas Dinner. It was a traditional meal that they eat here around this time of year. Yes, we ate rice and beans, but with a side of ham, tamale and fruit cake; it was really cool. 

From Christmas until New Year’s you find a lot of people are very busy with family, preparations, or partying so we had a little bit of a different week. One of these days we had a zone conference and that meant I got to see my cousin for the second time. This conference was more spiritual and uplifting. We talked about the accomplishments of the year and the goals for the upcoming year. We talked about our own personal goals and our visions as missionaries. It was a great conference! 
Every other day this week we just kept finding people in need of service. Little things like helping someone take their beer and soda cans to the recycling deposit, helping an elderly man with his phone and how it works, moving a fridge up a notoriously tall flight of stairs and removing his old fridge back down a different flight. (I made a pack that I will never live on a hill like that one unless there is an entrance for a car), filling up a tank of gas, installing a new curtain frame and so on. I always love the service that we can provide in our neighborhood and in our communities. Many times the opportunity to serve may be an inconvenience or not sound fun, but I have found that in my life nothing makes me happier. Even when it is hard work and when at times you don't immediately see the fruit of your labors. I am always filled with a deep joy as I roll up sleeves and just dive in. I have had very stressful and frustrating days become enlightened by providing service or receiving the service from others. I promise that you can find the same joy as you look for service. 

This week we also had divisions with the zone leaders. Elder Quel and I went to their area and Elder Arriaga and Elder Kuhr stayed in Nuevo Mexico. Wow, is there a difference when you don't walk on those rolling hills and hike up those mountains of Panama to talk to your investigators. They have a very flat area and oh' man theirs is a dream. Elder Quel has great energy and works hard. I don't know if we sat down once that day. Well, okay only one time and that was for a baptismal interview. The interview was with a man who is deaf and so they had their entire conversation on a whiteboard. A lot of stick diagram pictures and the rest of the conversation was really heartfelt. 
You could see in his eyes that this was something that he deeply desired, it was a really nice opportunity and testimony builder that the Atonement of Jesus Christ is in fact for everyone. My favorite scripture about the atonement is found in Alma 7:11-13 in the Book of Mormon. It tells us that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and that we may live again in heaven. However, it goes deeper and explains how he suffered for our sins, pains, afflictions, temptations of every kind, sicknesses, infirmities, and for our transgressions. Jesus Christ died for us so that we can return to the presence of God. He died as well to give us comfort and joy. Then in our times of trouble, we can know that we are not alone. In our troubles, we will be able to receive comfort by feeling peace. Like this man we met with, we are all entitled to have the comfort that the atonement brings all of God's children.

When Elder Kuhn was in my area with Elder Arriaga, he became the third person from our group at the Missionary Training Center that has now gone and visited Aldea, and the beautiful Embera-Quera tribe. The river seems to have something against us as it has now tipped all three of us in this river. Elder Tenney was the first to have gotten completely and utterly soaked, which ruined his scriptures. On a later date, I was the second to fall in and was left with a junky agenda and hymn book. And this week, Elder Kuhn, unfortunately, fell in the river when it was about 6 to 7 feet deep and even though he is around 6'3 he was sopping wet the whole day. He lost his wallet, probably the worst of all the losses. Luckily, it was the end of the month and he did not have a lot of money left, but still a loss.

Feliz Navidad

The letter you’ve been waiting for:

Wow, a lot has happened this past month, it seems as though every Monday when I come to write to you is the only time I feel like I am not running around all day.  Most P-days we just go and go and it gets to be around three in the afternoon when we head out to write a letter and I realize that I haven’t even had breakfast or lunch. As I sit down in an unairconditioned room in a nice comfy chair, I find that I am just enjoying the change to rest my legs. I may be writing the whole hour we are there but it comes out as two small paragraphs. I am making a new goal to come in a bit more prepared.

So, what do I really eat on my mission; a question I get all the time and need to answer. It can’t all be just rice and beans. You are completely correct because we only have that six out of seven days. Luckily, in Colon, we have active members who feed us meals that equate to about a meal a day, which usually consists of rice, beans, and meat. On a good day, its fried chicken, we do get fish and a lot of time pigtail.  Pigtail tastes like you just took a bite out of a raw chicken breast. Just awful, but better if it is soaked in broth. They eat every part of what they kill and so if you give me a fish every once and a while and I'm solid. Another meal that is very traditional here is patacones and soup. Patacone’s are deep fried bananas or plantains that look like mini pancakes and taste like French Fries.  It is usually a 50/50 chance that when you walk into someone’s home you will see a big pot of soup with rice on the side.  They have yucca which looks like jicama but tastes like a potato. Others have served us pig tale, chicken feet and just the leftovers they can find.  We have a family, the Chiru family that makes the greatest food. They call me their gringo, and they cook American food or at least a variation from rice and beans.

The rice is always different, rarely just white, most of the time it is fried, sometimes with wandu and an herb.  My favorite is the coconut rice, which is a bit of heaven.  If you want to get fancy you get coconut rice with guandu. The joke here is; would you like chicken & rice or rice & chicken. Surprisingly, there is a difference. One is cut up pieces of chicken in the rice and the other is when the chicken is served on the side. The one that trumps them all, in my book, is rice with grounded shrimp. Ohhh, it is divine. It’s like eating a bowl full of little shrimp. The king of all rice that rules over them all is coconut rice with shrimp bits. If you’ve ever seen the commercial where they pose the questions, what would you do for a Klondike bar? The same question comes to mind with this dish. Well, I would hold Santa Clause hostage, marry a monkey, and get in a fistfight with big foot all before 2:00 just to get this delicacy that puts all other rice to shame. 

I have been asked how many investigators (people we teach) do we find in a week? And how many are progressing? Are any of them getting baptized? Our goal is to have a minimum of 45 people a week we can realistically teach.  When we return to them, if they have not kept our commitments then we sift through other investigators pretty quickly.  Now, of course, there are people who are not keeping their commitments. We follow the spirit with where we direct our time each day. Panama is a very religious place and you can’t walk in any direction without running into a church. There are many people who see us as missionaries and want to hear our message. We always share something with them, but they don’t always want to listen and sometimes deny their own beliefs or anything contrary to what they have been taught. We don’t drop investigators, but they do drop us. All of them seem to respect the word of God, except for a few. For many reasons, it is important to rely on the guidance of the Spirit. Many times, we have been guided to directly say what God needs them to hear in that moment. Then for us to recognize if they will progress or if we need to visit other people for a while. Right now, we currently have four families that are ready for baptism. Of course, the two major problems here in Panama is first, actually getting them to go to church, which is costly. On Sundays, there isn’t a lot of transportation and so if they don’t live within walking distance, it is very difficult. There is a family in our ward who pays $25.00 to get her family to church each week which doesn’t include the fee for the way back. If they are lucky they can carpool or take a bus. It can be a full day's pay here in Panama to attend church.  

Secondly, marriage isn’t really a big thing here and it's not truly integrated into their culture. Because we believe that intimate relationships should be kept within the bounds of a lawful marriage between a husband and wife, we are not able to baptize a couple that has not been lawfully married but is living together. There seems to have an unnormal fear of marriage here. I have met families who have 6, 7, 8 kids and have been together 30 years and still are not married. They feel like if they get married then they are committing to something very serious. If they ever did need to get a divorce it would cost too much. As well, it takes a lot of paperwork and on average three months to get a marriage license, if done correctly. It is frustrating for us and our investigators. That being said, we have three families waiting to finalize this marriage process and are on hold before they can get baptized. One couple has been working on this for the past six months. There is another family whose kids are dear to my heart, but whose parents don’t have the money to get them to church each week.  Sadly, we just lost eight people, and some don’t want to make a commitment like this right now.  Others were afraid to leave their church that they’ve been attending over five years. Not to leave out those that couldn’t commit to anything during the busy holiday season.

How do people treat you as a missionaryWell, we are in Colon, notorious for being a little rough around the edges. They won’t even send Americans in the center of town for this reason. We live outside of the city and it is tame, but compared to everywhere else it is very exciting. Something is always happening. I love it and I would be happy if I didn’t leave for a while. I have learned quite a bit here about myself.  Most people treat us like youth, maybe because a lot of kids in school have to dress up in a uniform.  Private schools are the only schools that let you wear what you want. So, it’s funny when we pass people in the night. More than once I have gotten, “Man they are going to school at this hour!” As representatives of Jesus Christ, missionaries are treated with respect like pastors from the religious people, which there are many.

My favorite moments are from people who mock us. As we were waiting at the bus stop, I’ve gotten, “Hey, if you drink a Lata, a can of beer, we will give you a ride.” I have gotten, “Hey Mon, don’t you guys ever get tired of walking.” (in English too.) We had drunks ask us to teach them at 8:45 at night in the dark; we tell them that we can return tomorrow if they would like, but their response was, “Oh, you won’t preach to me, you’re not missionaries; just Pharisees.”  It makes me laugh to see them try to discourage us. It’s just funny that they think that these small events will distract us from the work.
Recently I have been given my second nickname. In past letters, I told you of how I was named Elder Igi Sugi (which means Elder Tell Me in Kuna). My new name is now Elder Urusari because it also sounds similar to Irizarry. Urusari means, leaving throwing punches. At times I feel like we do leave throwing punches in a good way.  We have to be direct and to the point, as we teach others about Christ, our church and committing others. We are brave and bold in our teachings and I feel like I can now say that I have earned that title. I have been laughing about this; it sounds a little bit like I am Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but of course, I just am trying to keep Mr. Hyde under control. All kidding aside, we love them but do respectful challenge them.
This week we had a zone conference for Christmas, and it was such a greatly needed mental break. I can’t believe seven months have gone by so quickly since I got here. I was thrilled to get to visit with my cousin who I finally saw. I was waiting downstairs when someone mentioned that my cousin was just right upstairs. I dropped everything and ran right up. I cannot describe to you how happy I was to see her here. We are so similar it’s crazy. As a missionary, we are not allowed to greet any sisters with any more than a handshake, especially the sister missionaries. That was just weird but I am not complaining, it was just so great to see her. She is doing great, loving her mission, and loving life. We had so much fun talking that her Zone leader told us that we couldn’t talk anymore. We thought that was funny. Now we are in a head to head challenge to see who will know more Spanish by the end of our missions. We will be leaving at the same time which is cool, so this is a legitimate race. She had a few years of Spanish before she came here in November. Lately, the new Spanish I have learned is very slang and I have been warned of some hand gestures, which my companions have taught me. This does help because otherwise you can’t talk and won’t understand the people. So, it is pretty fair game as to who will win.
Now normally the conferences we attend at zone conferences are very formal, but this conference started off with a spiritual thought. We made paper snowflakes, ate tacos and had a white elephant exchange. The most fought over gift was cereal and socks. I scored a Mason Jar with a hot chocolate mix in it. Oh’ man that was a great gift that brought me back home with memories of making homemade jam. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift! Well, unless there was a gift with a golden ticket inside that would send me to San Blas. However, I am very happy! The conference ended with a bunch of people singing. The most memorable were the Men of Tocuman. I will never forget their lyrics that made me bust up laughing. The trio who sang, O’ Holy Night in a Michael Bublé style, and also the trio of three girls who sang (one girl was from Tonga and two from the US). They had learned a Tongan song for Christmas which they sang the first verse in Tongan and the second in English and the third verse they sang in Tongan, English, and Spanish. The spirit of this sweet performance filled the room and brought many to tears, well at least me. It was a wonderful conference and I hope that I remember it for years to come.

How are you holding up? I am doing well, and learning a lot about myself, about other religions, about faith, about diligence, and sacrifice. I feel like I have learned a lot of important life lessons. Yes, I am always tired but I am stretching. I’m constantly looking for the best in what I have and I do have some wicked tan lines that deserve bragging rights. 

What are your plans for Christmas? Well, I bought Cocoa Pebbles and so for breakfast, I plan on feasting like a ten-year-old. I will wash my clothes, clean the dishes, buy groceries and most importantly, Skype home. Christmas here is similar to the US with Nativity scenes, and lights on their houses. We see lights on about every 2 out of 20 houses. It is typical to have ham or chicken, mashed bananas (tastes like mashed potatoes but so much sweeter in flavor), and Arroz con wandu.  One tradition that I have heard that they have here is in the city they held a grand parade. As well, because it does not snow here they make snowmen out of white paper cups by taping them together.
On Christmas Eve we went over to Aldea and helped them make Tamales from scratch.  We used flour, water, salt and we ground them all up, and boy were my arms sore. Just cranking that grinder was sufficient enough of a workout to apparently make me feel it. I love Aldea, it was really nice to just go over and offer them helping hands. As we left, the little boat we cross on had a pig larger than me on it. I know it was for their Christmas dinner, but I don’t know how that dinky little boat stayed afloat. Let alone how they ever got it across without tipping over.
How is your companion? His name is Elder Arriaga, he is from Mexico and he actually just had his 20th birthday this month. We get along and work well together. We are not the same person with the same interest, but we have common ground and look for the best in each other. It works well because contention would just drive away the spirit. As missionaries, you need the guidance to be able to teach. I have learned so many great things from him and he is so great at dropping everything to help people in need and great at speaking his mind. I am really appreciative of what I have learned from my companions.
Santa found me in Panama!

The Spirit Of Service

Another week has flown by, and I have not been able to write a whole lot lately. I just lose all my time trying to upload pictures and organize my flash drive so I can view my pictures and listen to music.

To answer a few questions: 
My companion is from Mexico and has just completed one year of his mission. We are staying here for another transfer through Christmas and into the new year. He knows a good amount of English and when we practice Spanish that always makes the difference. 

The money that was sent was used to buy some ties, pants, and shoes. I also have been trying to eat well here and so I use a little bit more money on food. Thanks! 

I love this ward, it has about 40 active members, but quite a few less active members and at least 500 inactive. We don’t know all of them or if they have kids or what... On a good Sunday, we have about a seven percent attendance. However, the members who are active are just great. In our ward, we have been helping to put together a slideshow of all the ward family members.  This includes investigators and what seems like all of Cólon. The hard part is that we can’t seem to get the entire families together for pictures due to time. This task in near impossible as we seem to have an ancient Chinese scroll of names to go through. 
I love Christmas time, everybody is just a little bit happier. However, the only downside is they are so much busier. A lot of people are working overtime right before Christmas to afford gifts. Everybody is just a little stressed out with good intentions, their jobs, money, family, and plans for vacation. With all the running around this time of the year, it is easy to lose track of what is most important.

My leaders here keep talking about remembering to focus on the true meaning of Christmas and I have never realized how real of a problem it is. The spirit of Christmas has been lost in the self-satisfaction of buying gifts. I hope that we can remember the joy of giving and service. 

I encourage you all to feast on the spirit of giving this year. Go out and give a gift to someone in need. One of the best gifts you can give is your time. Find time to talk and serve your family, neighbors, and visit someone in need. There is always somebody that you can personally enlighten (especially needed at this time of year). You will find joy and peace during this stressful time as you uplift others. You will be doing the Lords work and He will bless you for it. 

In Mosiah 2:17 it reads, “When you are in the service of your fellow beings you are only in the service of your God.” It is my hope that you will all be filled with the spirit of service this holiday season.