Sunday, April 26, 2009

What we are hearing from the States 4/26/09

What we are hearing from the States

No pictures. No weather. No raw-raw. Just an observation.

The next time someone in government wants to give you something for free, grab your wallet. They have made the same promise to the guy next to you and they are planning to take his "Freebie" out of your wallet.

What a country?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Apartment Checks 4/24/09

Apartment Checks 

Temp 65F high, 43F now
Wind 12-15 mph westerly
Clear, high cumulonimbus clouds

We are supposed to do apartment checks the beginning of transfer week to be sure that the departing missionaries leave a clean, stocked apartment for the next inhabitants. It is always interesting to figure out the domaphone (doorbell and speaker system) that you use to get a resident to open the electrically locked door. In some, you just punch in the apartment number. Some you follow that with either the * or #. In some there is a button with a phone icon that you push to ring the apartment. Once you figure out the code and the resident releases the latch, you enter these building through the palatial gated (locked) entry and go up the graceful, artistically decorated stairways to the inviting doors of a missionary's apartment.

Inside you are sometimes greeted by the day's laundry, while other times it is just a line of shoes, umbrellas, book bags, or other personal gear awaiting their turn to serve. It is always heartening to find wet laundry in the entry because that means it was washed recently, not still hanging from last week. Most of these apartments are pretty stark, although tastefully decorated. Linoleum is the floor covering of choice and preferably not glued down or cut too close to the wall. A little edge of concrete showing there gives it an industrial flair. On the other hand, the sisters' apartments seem to always have that extra something that women bring to a residence. Whether it is a tent in the woods, a cave in the hill or an apartment in Novosibirsk, theirs always look more inviting and comfortable. Is it genetics? Is it something about just being female? I don't know, but you put two sisters in a cardboard box for a week and it will have curtains and carpeting.

The Zone Leaders live in a new building that contains at least one unfinished apartment (concrete walls and nothing else) so you would expect that their apartment would be the absolute best, right? On the right is their entry and living room. A little bare? Well, they have nice linoleum, but that's about all. What is installed is not finished and what was promised is not all installed. It is the second biggest apartment (after the Palace) but has the least in it. It will be interesting to see just how long it takes to get their phone installed. At District Meeting yesterday they announced that their land-line would be operational Monday; we'll see.

The sisters' kitchen comes with everything possible and in perfect condition, probably because the landlady lived there just before the sisters moved in. The elder's apartment on the other hand, is full of promises and not much else. Their kitchen is quite different and you can see. Somehow the stove either shrank or the counters have disappeared.

In either case, it is quite different, but it does have a couch. I'm not sure if it was originally placed there, or if the elders moved it to the kitchen because they spend more time there. Oh, I remember, it was because they have no chairs (only one stool) for their kitchen table so they moved the couch there for seating. Now that's a guy thing. If it works, why not!

The sisters' sleeping room is a little crowded since the landlady lived alone and left only one twin bed, but the queen size sleeper-sofa is working fine for one of them. I didn't get a picture of the Elders' sleeping room, but it is roomy, about the size of our living room, with just two beds in it. Nothing else, just two beds. It looks like a warehouse that has just had a fire sale and this was all that's left.

Refrigerators and cupboards were another item we checked. Several months ago each companionship was given money to establish a stock of food so that they would be supplied in case of lock-down or other problems getting food for a few days. A food list was given to each companionship and most did a good job getting stocked up. In our inspection we found that most of them were keeping the stock up, but holes were beginning to appear where things were eaten, but not replaced. They need to work on that replacement issue. In their defense, they have a lot to do and shopping is not high on any of the missionary's lists. It is just one of those things that needs to be done and is a bother.

The sisters' refrigerator had a covered casserole and lots of veggies to hold them for a week. Their cupboard was full of the correct stuff except for a couple of holes. The Elders were also pretty good on this, but the refrigerator looks a bit different. I don't know exactly what the difference is, but it IS different.

The bathrooms were surprisingly clean and cared for. That is usually the place males just use and shut the door, but these Elders did a creditable job keeping their bathrooms and water closets clean and smelling good.

Considering the schedule that these missionaries have to keep, it is a wonder that they have time to keep their apartments as clean as they are. I'm sure that their mothers would be surprised and pleased at how well they maintain themselves here in Siberia. We will be around again in a few weeks to check their progress on the "to do" list we left with each companionship and we hope to see some progress.
If you are the parent of any of these missionaries, you can be assured that they are staying healthy (for the most part) and living in respectable, clean apartments. There are a few anomalies, but we are pleased and proud of them overall. In that light, I must say, I'm sure for the umtiump time that we love these missionaries and forget how young they are as we listen to them teach, plan, contact, bear testimony of Jesus Christ and His restored Gospel. These are the best of the best.

Missionaries in general are top-notch young men and women, but these is Siberia are a cut above; they have to be. They don't face simple disinterest or rejection. Each approach they make to someone on the street or at a door is as likely to be met with active hostility or even aggression as a simple "No". They have to be prepared for anything and that takes missionaries with iron testimonies and wills. They are as the Lord said to Jeremiah, in chapter 1 verse 8, "Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord." and in verse 17, "Thou therefore gird up they loins, and arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee be not dismayed at their faces . . .". If you have ever wondered if the Church can survive the next generation, look to Siberia.

These are your hope, both the American and the native Russians. These are the next generation of apostles, stake presidents, and bishops. These are our future and I for one am satisfied that the Church will be in good hands.

What a future. What a country.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Comings and Goings 4/15/09

Comings and Goings 

Light rain
Wind 15=20 mph westerly

Today was the beginning of Transfers and that includes the death (going home) of six missionaries whose time of service is up. Four of them had served with us in Novosibirsk and here are some pictures to show them to you.

Elder Lunt (far left) was Cindy's first office Travel Elder and served as her trainer. He was exceptionally patient and tender with her. Elder Worthen (far right) was my second financial elder and computer tech. He is a clone of our son Brian and was very comfortable to be with. Elder West and Robertson, center, were Assistants for a time and great missionaries.

This is a melancholy time of goodbyes, lightening the suitcases to make the 50# weight limit, leaving coats and shoes to the members and other missionaries. My task is to have each missionary take every ruble off his/her debit card and give the card and money to me. The first to be destroyed when they are safely in their homes and the second to be returned to the mission cash box.

Theoretically, when one missionary leaves, another comes in. Practically, it rarely happens that way. We loose three and get four, or we lose six (like today) and we get one. Tomorrow, these six missionaries will board the plane to Moscow just before a plane comes in from Moscow carrying a single replacement missionary. In this case, she is a native Russian and the six are all Americans.
Some months ago we said goodbye to two of our favorites; Elder Jones and Elder Egan. Both were Assistants to the President and outstanding young men. Just to prove that there is life after "death", here are pictures of these two a few months later, ready for the Ball at BYU. No, they didn't go to the dance together, they each had dates; Jeramy Egan (right) with "the beautiful Katie Rose", who is running for Miss Utah, and Mike Jones (left) with her roommate. I would say that these two have been very busy since they were born again in Provo.

We know that our departing missionaries are prepared to meet life's challenges because they have met and overcome some of the most challenging situations one would ever encounter. A mission is the greatest training for life a young person could have. They learn to live on their own, deal with difficult people, handle rejection, cope with loneliness, and to use their spiritual connections with God and the Light of Christ to get answers to some of life's most challenging questions. If I had to choose between college and a mission, I would take the mission. These young people honestly return home matured and seasoned, ready for life in the real world.

Thank you Elders for your example to us, your strength and vitality, and your deep testimonies of Heavenly Father, His son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost.Thank you for taking care of us older missionaries when we needed a strong arm, a translation, or just directions. Thank you for being our bishops, our stake presidents, our 70's, our apostles. Thank you for what you are going to do with what you have learned here in Siberia.

What a training. What a country.

Getting around in Novo 4/15/09

Getting around in Novo 

Temp 35F
Wind 20-25 mph westerly
Feels like 22-25F
Light rain

First, a big thank you to you folks who leave comments. Melinda, your help on the blog was priceless. Shan & Trish, I can always depend on you for a positive comment. Much appreciated. Bob & Doretta, Belva, Marilyn, Karen, Emily, all of you, thank you all for your positive and supportive comments, I really need that feedback. If you have any suggestions generally and not about a particular posting, just email. We all, here in the mission, salute you.

Transportation in this city depends a great deal on the accumulation of various forms of such over the many years since the wheel was invented. The weather, the workmanship, the repair parts all contribute to a patchwork of fixed routes, ad lib routes, fill-ins, and freelancers. It includes trains, planes, motor buses, streetcars, electric buses, vans, taxis, bicycles, cars, a very few motorcycles, foot, and the Metro.

Between all of them, most people can get anywhere they want to go within the city without a personal car. However, the personal car is becoming the door to personal freedom for Siberians. Streets that were built for horses and carts are now crowded with the various forms of moto-vation (is that a word?) and make for some interesting people-watching.

For those driving the various form of automobile seen here; (right-hand drive, left-hand drive, earth-car, suburban, ex-military); there is an interesting law that requires the parties to a collision to keep their vehicles in place and wait for a policeman to arrive to make a report.

Whenever we are privileged to get a ride somewhere, like last Monday when we did apartment checks (inspections), we see at least one and sometimes many more groups of cars standing in the road in their post-collision positions with the drivers standing around talking, yelling, ignoring, or even punching one another, forming an interesting collage of Siberian life. When the police arrive, they take the report, and some tea money, and the drivers are free to go on their way. President Gushchin says that it can take hours for the police to arrive and the report can be influenced by certain circumstances.

Of the public transportation incarnations, the streetcar (tramvie) is the oldest still working and some of them look like originals. They both have their own roadbeds and traverse the main roads with equal alacrity. From the dents in most of them, it is clear that the automobile drivers consider themselves to have the same right of way as the pedestrians.

A little more flexible is the electric bus, free to drive around other traffic, but tethered to that wire above that powers them. One of the side benefits of these electrical forms of transportation is the artistic way that wires are strung along the streets. Here we enjoy the avantguard, the abstract, the piccassoesk (Is that a word, too?) draping of occasionally insulated copper wire above the streets. As we stand at the bus stop, we can see all of these conveyances stop for passengers who can choose to pay anywhere from 8 roubles on the electric bus or tramvie to 16 rubles for the newest motor coaches plying the streets of Novo.

At these bus stops one can purchase a stunning array of libations (adult and fizzy), munchies, books, DVD's, and even city maps. This is the equivalent of the 7-11 and mini-mart at American gas stations. They do a brisk business as testified by the variety of trash adorning the location.

Contributing to the traffic are various post-cold war trucks that provide moving services for anything from household goods to large items bought at one of the new furniture or appliance stores. We hire these from time-to-time to move mission goods and furniture to new apartments.

A supplement to the motor and electrical buses is the marshrutka, taxi-van, which is a cargo van with wooden bench seats to accommodate between 9-11 passengers. Sometimes you can see many more squeezed into one during rush hours. I have seen as many as 4 trying to sit on a portion of the front seat and people cheek-to-jowl in the back. The interesting thing here is the choice the rider can make. The buses come to a stop, unload, load, and move on to the next stop. The marshrutkas arrive at a bus stop, wait until the driver is convinced that no more riders are present (2-15+ minutes) and then speeds to the next bus stop to do the same. It is truly the tortoise and the hare.

The most modern form of transportation in Novo is the Metro. This is an underground rail system that connects the extremities of the city and takes many off the streets at peak times. We ride it to the east 3 stops to the church on Sundays and three stops to the Millers, another senior couple who live on the left (west) bank of the Ob River. It is fast, comfortable, cheap, and efficient. Going through these turnstiles are the cream of Novosibirsk. They have the fare and they ride in silent admiration of the engineering and production of such a transportation system.

One rarely talked-about form of transportation is ice skates. This is not real practical for general mobility around the city for moms with babes-in-arms or businessmen in suites, but it can serve missionaries well. The only problem is that most of the time ice skaters go around in circles instead of making real progress to somewhere. This missionary is an exception. He skated himself right into a medical clinic for a few stitches in his eyebrow after a collision with the ice in a not-to-graceful fall during a P-day adventure. Only a missionary would ask a fellow missionary to take his picture BEFORE going to the clinic for care. Elder Wilson, you are one, tough young man.

Getting around can be a challenge here in winter or summer, but getting around is accomplished for anyone with a few rubles and the will to do it.

What a country.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Fifteen Kopeeks 4/12/09

Fifteen Kopeks 

Snow fluries
Temp 33F
Wind 1-2 MPH westerly

Saturday, while doing my P-Day cleaning I took the vacuum hose off of the floor tool and began sucking up the dust bunnies along the edge of the floor where the linoleum comes about 2 inches short of the baseboard. Suddenly a coin slid from under the baseboard molding. I wiggled it loose and found a 1961 Communist era 15 kopek (kopeck) coin.

Later, on Sunday night after the YSA Fireside, I showed it to Andrey and his friend. He is about 24 years old and remembers these coins. They were used in coin-operated telephones on the streets. I remember seeing these phones when we visited Russia in 1990. We also used these coins to ride the Metro in Moscow. That seems so long ago, and yet just yesterday.

Finding this coin reminded me that most of these young people never really knew the Communist period. The lived through the transition which was chaotic I'm sure, but most see it only as history. Political life here has not changed that much. You still have to register where ever you are. You still have the same school system and the same distinction between "college" where you learn a trade and "university" where you learn a profession.

Fifteen kopeks bought something in those days, a loaf of bread, a phone call, a metro ride. Today it takes roubles and lots of them. Then, there wasn't much, but what there was everyone got some. Today if you don't have a source of income, like many pensioners, your life is day-to-day, hand to mouth, and often less than needed. This shopping area in the Metro underground corridors has lots to offer someone with roubles.

When I see the old women standing by the metro with their hand out hoping for a few roubles, I always give them something. Ten rubles to me is 30 cents, but it is half a small loaf of bread to them. It won't buy a pack of gum for me, but to them it can pay some of the electricity bill.

I cannot imagine what it is like to be a 60-70 year old widow who grew up, dated, married, had children and grew to middle age under the sparse, but provided existence under the Communist collective process and then be thrust into the chaos of the transition with its unknowns, confusions, conflicts, and finally today's reality. They must just feel bewildered and wonder where their world went.

I am told by some of the older people that it was a time of few worries as long as the fears and controls were far away from you personally. There was always bread and everyone had some. You stood in lines most of the day, but there was something at the end on that line that you might be able to use or trade with someone else. Today, there are no lines, but if you don't have money, it doesn't matter. With all the things that weren't, there was always bread. Now there is also bread, but only if your pension lasts for the whole month. For those who run out, an upturned palm at the Metro station is the only answer.

My heart goes out to these Russian senior citizens who are trying to cope with changes they probably don't fully understand. I believe there are many who simply don't leave their apartments because the world is just too bewildering. I wish there was some way that we as missionaries could serve them. Meals on wheels, phone calls from a friend, reading to them, just spending time with them. I wonder what can be done for those people who remember the value of 15 kopeks.

What a country

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Family Night Seminar 4/5/09

Family Night Seminar 

Partly cloudy
Wind 3-5 mph westerly

Many of you know that our first mission was to help develop and promote the Family Enrichment Program book and process. This is simply an adaptation of the LDS Family Home Evening that has been promoted and encouraged for 50 years in the Church and we spent 2 years helping non-LDS organizations to teach that concept to their members. We supervised the translation of the book into French, Arabic, and Kyrgyz and became aware of a Russian translation that was made, but considered too poor to be used. By the end of our mission we had assisted over 300 projects all around the world involving over 87,000 books.

Imagine our surprise when one of our CES couples showed us a FEP book in Russian. That finally resulted in our getting 6,000 books printed in Novosibirsk and introducing it as a missionary tool to our mission. Tonight was the first (for us) of what we hope will be a series of public seminars to teach LDS and non-LDS people about the power of family night and how to start and maintain it in their homes.

The first seminars were conducted by the Bowdens in Tomsk and Kemerovo, north of Novosibirsk, around the first of the year. They are Humanitarian missionaries and Elder Bowden is on fire about the FEP program and how it can help families. He held two seminars in those cities and we took his outline as the basis of what we did here tonight. We owe a lot to his energy and push to get something going in his cities.

The biggest problem with any public meeting is, "If we build it, will they come?" The Zone Leaders here, Elders Bressler and Bindrup, prepared a proposal for President Mickelsen to have the seminar and with his blessing they really caught the vision of advertising and promotion. They developed an invitation to give on the street, asked the missionaries to promote it among the members and encourage them to bring their friends, made announcements in English Club and Institute class that happens at our building (at right), and finally had announcements made in every Sacrament meeting this morning; the people responded.

As we set up for the seminar after the last block of meetings of Second Branch, we were still concerned about the attendance, but we moved ahead as if we would have the room filled. Faith precedes the miracle, right? Here Cindy gives directions to Sasha, the "papa" for our Family Night demonstration skit as Elder Bressler watches an expert at work. Sister Cindy knows how to direct. I even enlisted Elder McBride to make some balloon animals for the tables to set a fun atmosphere. (He is rarely this serious). Elder Olson, in the background here is preparing to video tape the seminar so we could evaluate and modify what we did.

By 6:00 people began to filter in and by starting time, 6:30, the room was packed. "Way to go missionaries". They did their job in filling the room and now it was our turn to do our job. We had spent the last two weeks planning the details and this last week fine tuning the program down to who would talk about what and what that what would be. If it is possible to over-plan, we were approaching that territory.

There were 75+ in attendance including people from off the street. Among them was a woman who was a psychologist who was on her way home and decided to stay around for an hour and come to see what this was about. After the seminar, she sat for half an hour with the Zone Leaders asking questions and showing enthusiasm for the program. The fellow in the white T-shirt at right center of this picture came up afterward and was genuinely excited about everything. He asked me if I was in athletics when I was younger and I said I was a swimmer and scuba diver. He got even more excited and said he was a swimmer and scuba diver too. He grabbed me in a hug and gave me a big squeeze; Strong guy. I relished his excitement.

Among the members present there were the two families that were the subject of my last posting. They sat at the front table and seemed to absorb every idea we offered. It was a joy to see the "aha" in their faces and the enthusiasm during the activity. I love to see the realization in their eyes when they really get it. That is the only real reward that teachers get.

We developed some basic concepts that we hammered all through the meeting. We even had them printed out and stuck on the walls of the stairwell and up on the whiteboard in front. They are: Families are important; Time together creates a bond (I shortened it later to "Time = a bond" and I would slap my hands together like they were glued); and strong families make a strong community which makes a strong nation. Here I am at left doing the "slap".

The family night skit was a great hit and when they did the activity of making a family shield, everyone in the room got to make a shield and when they had a treat everyone got a cookie. It kept them engaged and helped keep the momentum up. Sasha and Lena were believable parents and Anna (5), Mesha (11) and Serge (16) played their parts well. They were the hit of the evening.

Finally, Olga, our office registrar and translator for the night, had the last word and we closed. As we took down the signs and folded up the "Families are Important" banner behind us, it was a magical moment, having brought family night to so many people and touched some of them deeply with the importance of their family relationships.

Russian parents love their children as much as anyone in the world. It is just that life is hard here and it is easy to lose sight of your kids and their needs, but Family Night can bring the family together within a new bond of love and fun that may have been missing. We will follow up with another seminar on the 26th in hopes of building on the relationships we have established tonight. We hope that those who attended will bring their friends and family and we can have as many or more people. Faith precedes the miracle, right?

What a program. What a country