Monday, June 29, 2009

A Letter to the President

A Letter to the President
July 2009

This is a copy of the letter that we gave to President and Sister Mickelsen Monday night. I have posted it as an open tribute to our out-going mission president and his wife who return to the US on Thursday. They have been wonderful leaders for this mission. We will miss them.

President and Sister Mickelsen July, 2009

We have been thinking of a fitting gift for you as you leave your service here in Novosibirsk and decided that you didn’t need something else to dust, so I am writing in behalf of Sister Cindy and myself to just say thank you for your service to the members in this mission, to the missionaries and senior couples, and particularly to us as your office couple. We are also giving you the root beer float straw-spoons, as something to remember us by that doesn’t need dusting. Enjoy them with your family and remember.

To say that we have enjoyed our association with you would be inadequate. First, having been in Russia three times ourselves, we deeply respect anyone who would accept a return assignment, knowing the life that you would be living for those years. It is a testament to your love of the people and your dedication to the Lord.

We so appreciated your kind concern when we first came to Novosibirsk and your continued personal attention to our needs. Although we had some idea of the conditions, nothing really prepares you for the immersion into this place. Your encouragement, love, and support were truly appreciated. It was a warmth and concern that we hope, in turn, to show to others who come to serve here.

Your leadership has been a great example to us of how one can be light and fun, but stern and serious when needed. You are what the missionaries needed to know they were loved and still feel like they must work hard to measure up to expectations. I especially enjoyed both of your Zone Conference presentations. Sister Mickelsen’s stories and teachings were masterful and the video presentations were inspirational. Your gospel messages always send me to my scriptures to learn more of that particular principle and I always feel uplifted.

Thank you beyond thanks for your service and the lives you have lived to prepare you for this great assignment. May you feel the love of God in your lives going forward and receive the blessings the Lord has for those who love Him as you do.

With great love and gratitude for a job well done.

Elder and Sister Simmons
Russia Novosibirsk Office Couple

Friday, June 26, 2009

An aside to my readers 6/26/09

An aside to my readers 6/26/09

Weather-Rain, rain, rain
Temp has bee in the mid 50's F
Wind--as usual

This blog is an aside to my readers. It is sorta like the Words of Mormon after Omni.
An aside to my readers 

Thank you for reading. I love to read the comments. Actually, I check my own blog daily in hopes that someone will leave a comment. Writing a blog is somewhat like sending a letter to "To Whom It May Concerned" with no address and hoping that someone reads it. I certainly am writing this for my own purposes, but the feedback is oxygen for the suffocating.

To those of you who are computer semi-literate and are afraid to try leaving a comment; it is very user-friendly. There are prompts to lead you through the initial process and then the next time you comment, the program will remember you. Try it.

Melinda, you said that only those who have served in Eastern Europe can really understand what we are doing every day. How right you are. We had talked to some former Russian missionaries before we came, but you just cannot really be prepared. Americans cannot understand the joy of having the electricity in your kitchen working again, having water, having hot water, and having a Preparation Day when you can clean the grime from the horizontal surfaces that you cleaned last week. We do look forward to meeting you and your husband when we return to trade war-stories and reminisce.

Diane, my sister, I'm so glad that you enjoy our adventures. Although some of them are not really too funny at the time, the level of lunacy just cannot be imagined, and that alone makes all of them funny.

My girls Shannon, Trisha, and Andrea--You are my most loyal and consistent followers. Thanks for encouraging the old boy to keep going. I love you and really love to read your comments. I am trying to reciprocate by commenting on your blogs. Let's keep each other going.

Belva, Emily, Cathy, Stephanie--I am encouraged by your comments. I haven't seen you comment for a while, but life happens doesn't it. Thanks for your support.

Marilyn-I miss you. Are you OK? I'm still getting your broadcasts and love the video clips, but I miss your pithy comments. Hope all is well.

What a nice group

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Irkutsk and Baikal 6/24/09

Irkutsk and Baikal 

Clear skies, sun, clouds, thunderstorm, bright sunset again
Wind 2-30 mph
Temp 67F

The last city we visited on our trip east was the Irkutsk region including Angarsk and Lake Baikal. My only association with Irkutsk was as a region in the game of Risk. Now I have been there and it is a lovely city.

We were hosted by President and Sister Southam, the second counselor in the mission presidency and authority for the eastern cities. As we came from the airport to their apartment, the first landmark they pointed out was a tank about a block away from their home. This particular tank was one of six that were paid by the children of Irkutsk and supplied to the Soviet army during the second world war and survived to be returned as a thank you.

I became fascinated with the old wooden houses that lined many of the streets as we went from their apartment to the downtown area. This one is typical of what we saw, log houses with bright blue frames around the windows that often were at ground (street) level. I did some research about it and discovered that these homes have no running water, some with no electricity, and many without indoor plumbing. Many are condemned as unlivable, but most have people still living in them. It appears like the buildings are sinking, but actually the surrounding ground and street have been rising over the years due to the yearly flooding of the Angara river until several dams were built over the last 50 or so years to control the river level. I just love the detail on these houses and can imagine how they must have looked when they were first built.

The city has built several log homes in the part behind the tank to show what the 17th century homes looked like when they were new. Here is one of them as it would have looked. I could be very happy in one of these.

By contrast, here is a close up sample of Soviet era construction exposed in a wall of the Southam's apartment. This is typical of the buildings here. Ours in Novo is different only in that it is concrete, but the same level of competence is evidenced in it. Southam's is a five story Khruschev era brick building where ours is a 9 story later model.

Friday after District Meeting, the Southams took us on a tour of downtown. We rode the bus to the town center, past the Renik, and near the river. We walked through the flower mart and over to some Russian Gift stores that were formerly the official Soviet era tourist stores. We looked at Baikal stones and other things and always came to the same conclusion, "what will we do with it and where will we keep it" We usually just give up and walk away.

The river front park was beautiful and could have been in any city in the world. The people were happy and content, the scenery was wonderful, and the weather just right. This is a 360 degree look at the waterfront park as we saw it.

Saturday we rented a van, marshutka from the father of a member of the branch and she went along as our interpreter. We were driven to the shore of Lake Baikal by way of a federal park where they had many of the early settlers' buildings that had been moved from other locations to this park for a concentrated look at the homes and buildings of the settlers of Siberia.

The forests are even now extremely thick and in those days more mature and even thicker. All of these old buildings are made of logs and sawed wood and have a rich look. The doorways were all about 5 feet high and made you stoop over to enter. I don't know if the people were that short or it was just convenient to deal with smaller doors, but they are consistent

I guess I'd like to wrap up our visit to Irkutsk and our over-view of eastern Siberia with a comment and a question. Every place people have come to settle has been populated by someone else before them. They may have been nomads who just wandered through the area seasonally, or clusters of people (or maybe full settlements) related by blood or loyalty, but absolutely empty land is a rarity. Even the account of Lehi intimates that they were not moving into a land that had never seen human foot. The account of Coriantumr from Ether's last pages and the discovery of the people of Zarahemla bears that out.

My comment is this: As one group settles, or migrates, in a place, others eventually come and attempt to possess it, not by law, not by agreement, not by purchase, but simply because they can. In the last analysis, none of this earth really belongs to any of us by right. It is all God's and we possess it either by greater force than those who want to take it or by agreement with, and/or by assignment from, God. If we are left alone to hold it by force, it is only a matter of time before a greater force takes it from us. This was demonstrated in the Immigrants to the U.S. and their treatment of the former residents of whatever place they claimed.

However, if we possess a place by God's grace and we pay for it with our obedience to his commandments, there is no force that can take it from us because the true owner has given it to us and He will defend His covenant people. As a people, the residents of this great land of Siberia have not yet covenanted with the true landlord for permission to possess it. When they do, it will be a choice land, a bountiful land, a land of freedom and beauty and power with enough and more for all.

My question: When?

What a country

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ulan-Ude 6/23/09

Tuesday June 23, 2009

While visiting Ulan-Ude we took a day to see the sites and our first stop was the Buddhist monastery about an hour north of the city.
Ivolginsky Dazan is the main Buddhist temple of Russia. Built in 1947, the Dazan is 30 km away from Ulan-Ude and is the main residence of Central Ecclesiastical Directorate of Russian Buddhists. While there we spoke to a lama and a 16 year old novitiate who was learning to be a lama. While we were there we saw the ritual service and mantras readings for people who "phone in" their requests for prayers, a major income source for the Temple.

This monastery was the home of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, born in 1852, he began his religious education at the age of 16 and eventually earned degrees in medicine and philosophy. In 1911, he was appointed the 12th Pandito Khambo Lama (also spelled Hambo Lama), the head of Buddhism in Russia.

As Khambo Lama, he is credited with inspiring a Buddhist revival among Buryats. He was also closely involved with Tsar Nicholas II. In 1926, Itigilov warned his students about the coming terror of the "red teaching" and advised them to flee to Tibet, but he remained in Siberia.

In 1927 he announced it was time for his passing. He asked the lamas to join him in meditation and begin funeral rites, and he died while meditating in the lotus position at the age of 75. In accordance with his will, his body was buried in a wooden box sitting upright in the lotus position. He requested that monks exhume his body after a period of some years and this was done once in 1955 and again in 1973. Both times they found the body perfectly preserved and still sitting upright.

The body was transferred to the Ivolginksy Dazan and publicly unveiled for the first time in September 2002, 75 years after his death in 1927. His body has decayed slightly since its exhumation but still remains in a state of preservation that baffles scientists and draws believers by the thousands. In November 2004, Professor Viktor Zvyagin of the Federal Center of Forensic Medicine examined Itigilov's body and concluded that the body was in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago. A big mystery.

On designated days, the faithful can come to the monastery and view, and even touch, the lama and receive restoration of health, good luck, and improved life. We missed one of those occasions by a day.

The city of Ulan-Ude first appeared in 1666 as a Cossack outpost, where Russian Cossacks moved to the east. Scientific sources indicate that from time immemorial there were migratory path of humanity. Trade with neighboring countries has brought the city fame, and trade fairs were organized here each year, which take place to this day. Originally it was called Verhneudinsk and in 1934 it was renamed Ulan-Ude, which is translated from Buryat language meaning "red river".

The main attraction sights are located along Lenina Street. The Odigitrievsky cathedral is located at the very beginning of the street. It was built in the second half of the 18th century in the name of the icon of the Mother of God Odigitriya. Now there are Holy Trinity Church, Church of the Ascension, and Verhneudinskaya chapel in the name of the prelate Innocent.

A triumphal arch was built in honor of Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, who visited the town in 1891 and it was restored in 2006. A copy of the kings' gates now adorns the streets of Lenina. It was the coat of arms of Russia and the inscription: "20-21 June 1891 - the date of arrival in Verhneudinsk Tsesarevich Nikolai Alexandrovich" is made.

The largest "Lennin Head" statue in Russia is on Soviet Square at the head of Lenina Street, It is quite imposing and makes a statement, but the only people interested are the tourists.

In the afternoon we visited some potential Humanitarian projects. One was a maternity hospital and here are the Bowdens and our two translators and government officials on the steps ready to go into our appointment.

In this hospital they say that a third of the babies born go into intensive care for a period of time. This is one of two surviving triplets that were born 2 1/2 months premature and will be in this incubator for a long time and weighs less than 3 lbs right now. Hopfully the Bowdens can get them some more monitoring units and a person to train the staff in neo-natal resussitation. There is much to be done here.

This city has a unique mix of ethnic groups that we don't see in the rest of Siberia. I really enjoyed the Temple, the city sites and the hospital visit. This has been a very interesting trip into a part of Russia not well known to westerners.

What a country

The Family Enrichment Program 6/23/09

The Family Enrichment Program 

Weather--Whatever you want. Morning was clear and bright, noon was overcast, evening was a loud thunder storm and heavy rain, night was clear skies and bright sunset.
High temp 68 F
Wind -Always

Our trips to Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, and Angarsk had many purposes. One was to train the financial clerks in the branches, second was to accompany the Bowdens on their quest for Humanitarian projects in these cities, and third was to conduct Family Enrichment Program seminars.

For those unfamiliar with our first mission, we were called to serve for two years to help develop and promote this program that was written by two wonderful ladies from Brigham Young University, Wendy Sheffield and Shirley Cox, who have become good friends during and after our service. Simply put, the program teaches families how to strengthen their relationship through a weekly family night activity where they share songs, plan activities, teach their family values, play a game, and have a treat. This has been used in the LDS Church for almost a century to bond family members together and is now available to non-LDS groups as a gift.

With the FEP manual in Russian, we are teaching members and non-members this program all over our mission. Pictured here are the two groups we met with during the week. The Ulan-Ude group was about 60 with many non-LDS friends learning how to start having "Family Night".

During the seminar, we have a group put on a demonstration Family Night to show how it is done. Here is the "demonstration family" from Ulan-Ude who is here showing the family crest they made as part of their demonstration. They were a great example.

Several non-LDS people came up to us and said how much they enjoyed the seminar and how excited they were to try the program. We sure hope that they continue with it.

In Irkutsk, we also had about 25 people who rode the bus an hour from Angarsk to join the Irkutsk people to give us over 50 people that night and had very much the same from comments and success at the meeting. Here two sisters show the crest they made at home in anticipation of the seminar.

Here two non-LDS young people at the seminar who are working on their crest with the enthusiasm of new parents. Their baby was being held by an older woman who may have been the grandmother. They loved the concept and were committed to having Family Night with their new family.

These seminars show how hungry people are for ideas and methods to strengthen their families. This is an idea whose time has come to this part of the world. People all over the world love their families and want things to be better. Just think how things will change if everyone spent one night a week together having fun and loving one another.

What a program for this country.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Melancholy Duty 6/18/09

A Melancholy Duty

Melancholy I guess is the right word. It isn't really sadness like you have at a tragedy, but it is a personal reminder of something lost; our missionaries.

Today I shredded the ATM cards for several of our missionaries who have been released and returned home to continue their lives as young people on a new mission. It is certainly our loss and someone else has gained. I had to go into the restroom to cry for a few minutes not good to see the financial secretary in tears.

We learn quickly to love these valiant young people and feel it a privilege to serve them here in the office. We don't interact with them in the same way as the other senior couples because we do not teach many discussions with them, although some have brought their investigators to our home for dinner and a lesson.

Our relationship to them is pure service. We get them into the mission field with their proper documents, their city assignments, their instructions of do's and don'ts, their ATM cards, and their cell phones. We answer their questions when they call, we comfort them when they have lost a phone, or a wallet, or their money.

We hear from them when they can't remember if they have to pay their rent, when they forgot their PIN number, when they need to renew visas, when they need to close an apartment or find a new one; we are their information booth and security blanket when all else fails. It is a unique relationship, sort of a parent without portfolio.

Shredding a set of cards is so final. It is like shutting the door on a relationship you don't want to lose. I wish them all well in the real world and hope that they will remember us fondly.

What a life.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Train to Ulan-Ude 6/15/09

A Train to Ulan-Ude 

Weather-AM sun, PM rain

After the disappointment of the night before, we
were happy to get on the train and be underway. Our car, or wagon, was the most modern I have seen with molded plastic surfaces, flat-screen TV in each compartment (3 channels in Russian) and a modern bathroom with airline-type toilet, not one that dumps onto the tracks. We enjoyed the luxury while it lasted. 
The first 8 hours of travel were in the dark, or at least I thought so because my eyes were closed. Here are some pictures of the countryside during daylight hours.

Getting on the train ready to leave at 7:38 Our "wagon's" attendants

I took many pictures from our train window as we traveled 40+ hours from Novosibirsk to Ulan-Ude in the Buriyat Republic. Rural Russia looks a lot like rural anywhere else fifty years ago. You have to wonder what these people do for income.
I was fascinated with the business of life in the villages and the people out working in their gardens looking like a picture out of a history book.

Life in these villages has not changed much over the last century. Even the flea market had an old feeling about it.
Finally we pass Lake Baikal and end up at Ulan-Ude where the real adventure begins. This is what the internet says about the region and city.
"The Buryats or Buriyads, numbering approximately 436,000, are the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia and are mainly concentrated in their homeland, the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia. They are the northernmost major Mongol group.[1]

Buryats share many customs with their Mongolian cousins, including nomadic herding and erecting yurts for shelter. Today, the majority of Buryats live in and around Ulan Ude, the capital of the republic, although many live more traditionally in the countryside. They speak in a dialect of Mongolian language called Buryat. In 1923, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed and included Baikal province (Pribaykalskaya guberniya) with Russian population. The city's current name was given in 1934 and means "red Uda" or "red gate" in Buryat reflecting the communist ideology of the Soviet Union to which it belonged."
In Ulan-Ude we will meet the senior couple Moleff, 4 elders and two sisters. We will present a FEP Seminar and financial clerk training the first night. The second day we will accompany the Bowdens on their Humanitarian events, and the third day we will head to Irkutsk along the train route we have just traveled. We are looking forward to a great event tonight and more adventures.

What a country among the Burat.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The "Almost" Trip to Ulan-Ude 6/4/09

The "Almost" Trip to Ulan-Ude 

Clear, blue skies with large fluffy clouds during the day
At 11:45 pm Temp 45 F
Tomorrow high 72F
Wind, yes 5-7 mph

We have been planning for a month to go to the eastern cities of the mission, Angarsk, Irkutsk, and Ulan-Ude. We were all packed and ready by 8:30 pm, but had to wait for an hour for the cab and the office elders to arrive at 9:30 to take us to the voxall; (train station) for our 10:27pm 40 hour train ride all the way to Ulan-Ude. We, and the Bowdens, a senior couple Humanitarian missionaries, each had a deluxe coupe; (compartment), and we were ready for that 40 hour train ride through spring-time Siberia past Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude for financial clerk training, a Family Night Seminar, and a repeat of that in Irkutsk and Angarsk later in the week, arriving home again on the 14th. We also planned to see these cities and Lake Baikal. This is what we were to look like in our compartment, a picture from another train trip.

Our first event was getting 4 senior missionaries, two office elders, and a 300 lb taxi driver into the 7 passenger van with all of our luggage, which consisted of one carry-on each, two larger suitcases full of training materials, two briefcases, a five-liter bottle of water, and two lunch baskets. The taxi driver had dropped the back seat to accommodate the luggage so we had to double-up the general seating, getting five into the three middle seats while I sat in the front left seat (this was a right steering import) holding my 35 lb briefcase.

Cindy, Sister Bowden, and the elders laughed most of the way to the voxall about one thing or another, giving the driver cause to shake his head more than once at the frivolity (Russians don't do frivolous) occasioned by the cramped quarters and the van bottoming out at every pothole, which means about every 20-30 feet. I think the driver removed the shock absorbers some time ago, intending to replace them, but never quite getting around to it.

The next event was the mile power-walk getting the six of us and our 11 pieces of baggage though the train station, down the 63 steps to the tunnel that crosses under the tracks, up the 63 stairs at the other end of the tunnel to the platform and then finding wagon (car) number 11, after one false start at the wrong end of the train, we finally arriving at the cute, but surly, attendant waiting to check us in and direct us to our cozy compartment.

Now comes the main event, the check to see if our papers "are in order"; well, they weren't. When we gave her our passports and tickets, she began to examine the first one, turn pages in the passport, examine the visa, flip through the passport page again and finally announce that our papers, "were not in order". After a few curt words to the elders we are told that our passport numbers did not match the numbers on the ticket; BIG problem. It seems that the travel agent in our office used the wrong passports to purchase our tickets and this young lady was not about to let us slide-by.

Elder Petersen adroitly sought to persuade the attendant that our passports were in order and it was just a mix-up because we had two passports and the wrong one was used for the purchase, that's all; no-big-deal. She wasn't budging. Next he called the travel agent, Pyotr, to let him argue the point. She passed the phone to her supervisor who had a 15 minute conversation with Pyotr to no avail. Finally, at 10:27 the train pulled out of the station with us standing on the platform and elder Petersen talking to Pyotr on the phone, getting new instructions as to how to get the rest of our ticket canceled and obtain a partial refund.

As the elders were trying to get us to cross the four sets of tracks over to the station, our hesitation gave the 300 lb railroad "usher" (no doubt a relative of the cab driver) a chance to say nyet, nyet to that idea and ushered us UP the 88 steps to the overpass leading to the station's main level and the Kassa (cashier) where we would obtain the refund slips. After another call to Pyotr which Elder Petersen handed to the cashier, she disappeared for about 15 minutes and finally reappeared with our partial refund slips.

The immediate need now was to find the cab that the elders had asked to wait at the other end of the station. We headed out of the entry, down the 61 steps to the lower street level, then up the incline of the access road about a quarter mile to find our waiting cab with it's sullen driver just dying to take us all home again. This precipitated another giggly ride home and found us piled up at the lower access door of our building.

As I put the magnetic button-key into the receptacle, the new domaphone that was installed today beeped promisingly, but would not open. That's right fans, we were locked out of our building because the new system was not recognizing our old electronic key. Finally a young lady approached, wanting to get into the building and she tried her key. It also did not work. Fortunately, she knew someone in one of the apartments, and, ringing that number, she was able to get them to release the door from their new domaphone and we all got in.

Finally inside our apartment with our luggage and having said goodbye to the elders, I decided this was the right occasion to drink the last bottle of root beer that was chilled in the refrigerator and celebrate our escape from this series of unfortunate events and the prospects of tomorrow's meeting with Pyotr and our new plan. We are keeping our bags packed for a quick exit.

What a country