Monday, April 27, 2015

Elder Oaks' Apostolic Visit

We did divisions this week with Hermanas Duncan and Safsten, except this time I stayed in our area. This was the first time I had ever worked in my area without Hermana Beecher. I was in charge. Hermana Safsten has been out here for 5 weeks. Imagine being newer than me and being put under my responsibility and care. And laugh and laugh and laugh like I did. Navigating between 15 sprawling barrios and making sure the pension didn't set on fire while we were gone was quite the task, even though I see Hermana Beecher do it every day. Watching it is one thing, doing it is quite another. The stress made me giddy. I was very excited to see Hermana Safsten and show her all I know. Hermana Safsten and I are good friends after this fun experience. I cooked her good food and told her to pretend like it was Chinese food and then it would taste okay in her mind. Hermana Safsten and I love each other after this experience. We found a lot of cool people during these divisions. I introduced her to Hugo and Mabel as well. 

So I've been thinking a lot about what Basilio said to me right after his baptism. He said "Ya soy un hijo de Dios---Now I'm a child of God". I knew so well what he meant when he said it in that moment, but later I thought "What DOES that actually mean, anyway?"
We go around all day everyday telling everyone they're sons and daughters of God. Why should that be any different for a baptized vs. unbaptized person? It's not different. We're all children of God. Basilio was already a son of God well before last Saturday. Yet I knew that what he said to me as he shook my hand was true. A few days ago I found the answer to this conundrum.
 Mosiah 5:7 says 
And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. I was led to think about what Elder Christofferson said this conference about how we need to be physically born but then spiritually reborn. 

Speaking of apostles, Elder Oaks. Elder Oaks and his wife and various other important people visited us twice. Twice. I walked out of the first one feeling so content, so inspired that I could have strolled into the valley of the shadow of death and been okay about it. And then I realized I would see him AGAIN. You could say that we were double-blessed this weekend.

On Friday he came to Resistencia, where the entire mission came together to listen to him. This was the first and proably the last time I will ever see the entire Resistencia mission at the same time. I still get very excited about Resistencia, because it is the city of my dreams. When our bus got into the city and the chapel emerged out of the trees with its formal, flat facade and round-topped windows, I almost fainted. I needed to sit down. Then I realized I was already sitting down because I was in a bus. My newness made our arrival overwhelming. Getting down off a double decker bus and entering into a sea of faces and greetings and reunions between long-lost companions. Everyone was so clean and well-dressed and pulled together for the big day. It was overwhelming, like the first day of 6th grade, or a big movie premiere. I had to stop analyzing it and let the current take me. 

The conference went beautifully. Elder Oaks and Sister Oaks are beautiful. I didn't know what I expected from them. I didn't know what I expected to hear or feel. I just went into it and was pleasantly shocked by how real Elder and Sister Oaks are. They were only married 15 years ago, as he was previously married and his wife passed away. Kristen Oaks was single before this; she was not married until she was 55. She is a convert to the church, she served a mission in Japan, and has a doctorate in education. The playful banter between these two was positively wonderful. She would run up to the microphone to add her thoughts when Elder Oaks was talking.

The other relationship we got to witness was that between Elder Oaks and the interpreter. And just watching a consecutive interpretation situation go so well. I never thought it could go so well. Now that I know it can go so well, I know that I can be an interpreter. His name is Carlos Aguero I believe. He has interpreted for Elder Oaks before. He was so cool and collected and interpreted with such precision..... But the best part was how Elder Oaks and Bro Aguero worked as a team. After a while you just started accepting them as a single two-headed animal. Elder Oaks: "I can speak a little bit of Spanish, but I can give a better talk in English." (pause for interpretation. Then, after introducing Bro Aguero...) "I trust him." (Then he turns to him.) "If I don't give a good enough talk in English, you must make it better in Spanish!"

Sister Oaks was equally amazing. She had an Elder come up to do a mock baptismal interview with her in Spanish, and she answered all the questions in full sentences in Spanish. It was mostly funny and cute, because she was reading it off a paper with much enthusiasm. But overall it was the gesture that we were left with. That she and Elder Oaks cared about us, and the culture and language here. We didn't feel separated from them or below them. The missionaries of the Posadas mission were all gathered together too, and they were watching the meeting via satellite transmission. And the Oaks' went out of their way to make them feel like they were there with them too. We could see them on a screen, all seated on benches in a chapel in Posadas, and Elder Oaks would turn and talk to the screen and ask them to participate in what we were doing.

Friday in Resistencia was very, very wonderful. We were also glad to see President and Hermana Franco, who were quite flustered and honored to have an apostle visiting their missionaries. They shared great messages with us as well, and continue being humble, loving caretakers of this mission. Hermana Beecher and I had the privilege of singing in a choir in both of the meetings! For this one in Resistencia, it was a small choir of 11 sisters and 11 elders, and an Elder with a violin. We sang "Con valor marchemos" [Onward Christian Soldiers]. A Polynesian Elder, Elder Takapu, did a solo in the first verse, and his voice was positively angelic. Hna. Beecher and I were honored to have been asked to be a part of this little choir. What were the odds?

The conference in Formosa the following Sunday was just as brilliant, and this time we got to share in the excitement of the members and all the people who have been preparing for this. A companionship from Pirané (remote part of Formosa province) came to stay with us the night before, Sisters Rodriguez and Barker. The rest of the missionaries in Pirané are Elders. These women are rough & tough pioneers. I love these 2 sisters. Coming out late at night to open the gate for them and take them in as weary travelers, we received them and all slept for a few hours until we got up at 5:30 to get to the conference on time. 

Hna. Beecher early Sunday morning waiting for bus to stake conference.

The stake choir did a splendid job. We all looked like the real deal with our little red cravat/ascot/kerchief thing going on. 

Stake Choir (Hna. Tolman not shown, Hna. Beecher 2nd in.)
Elder Oaks once again spoke to us. This time more to the Formoseñans than to us missionaries.
The fact is, dear readers, I'm out of words to describe this event. The brilliant reality of the situation was and is this: Elder Oaks was called of God. His words didn't sink into our hearts because of his wit, his humor, or his background in law. While he has all of those things, he spoke to us as an apostle.
If you find you have concerns about the organization of the LDS church, but you still find you want to be a part of it, maybe start by asking yourself a very basic question.
Do you believe you're an eternal being?
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe he's aware of you?
If you do believe he's there, and if you love him and want to know him, then ask yourself who Jesus Christ is.
And what does it mean to you that without Jesus Christ, you couldn't come to know God?
Then, and only then, start thinking about the leadership of this church. And THEN, listen to what they say.

To finish up, I will tell you some of the things Elder Oaks, one of Jesus Christ's 12 living apostles said to our stake. He said "Formosa is just as close to heaven as Salt Lake City." He went on to say that we're all God's children, so we all have a different passport, but God eventually wants the same for each one of us. He also said "God doesn't love His sons more than He loves His daughters." He said that the Lord doesn't necessarily call the best and most worthy to be leaders. He talked about asking "Why me?" when he was called, and his own family asking "Why him?". And then he said once you've been called it's your responsibility to grow into the position. He said that church membership is not an event; it is a process. It is a place where if we come with willing hearts, we will be made complete where we are incomplete.

I know that God works through us according to his wisdom, not according to our own inherently limited knowledge and perspective. When I realized and knew what this church was and is, it took my breath away. This church is not a social organization. This church is an eternal organization, and concerns itself with eternal matters. Temporal welfare matters come second to that, and are also a great part of the church. But this church exists first and foremost to help us come to know Jesus Christ, the reality of who he is and was, and ultimately to help us to know God and make peace with him and with ourselves, now and in the future.
I know these things to be true. 

Much love, Hermana Tolman

The Dynamic Duo

Hugo was a greeter at stake conference. He got up around 4 a.m. to be there on time.

Monday, April 20, 2015


The week has been normal, or in other words, quite gratifying in a lurchy, up-and-down sort of way. I do enjoy the weekly things about every week, such as the English class we teach on Fridays (when I realize with horror that conjugating verbs in my own language is about as predictable as Formosa weather in the fall), stake choir practice on Sunday nights (which will now end, as Elder Oaks comes this very weekend), and having life-realizations every 20 minutes or so. 

One thing we've been doing the past few weeks is packing the creaky little portable DVD player in our bag when we head out for the day. The mission gave us a DVD with "Gracias a que Ël Vive" on it, the new little 2-3 minute movie that came out just before Easter ("Because He Lives" in English). We've had some good times with this movie, whether seeing how it quiets a room full of noisy kids, seeing how it makes people we just met realize Mormons ARE in fact Christians, or showing it to a woman named Julia who opened her door to us late one night and the three of us ended up dumbstruck, holding hands looking at each other after the movie ended, and she just smiled and said "I would pray for you, but I can already see that God protects you, so I'll pray for the people you visit instead." One rainy morning we brought the video to Raimunda, a very old member-lady who has the Elders bring her sacrament to her house. She couldn't read the captions very well, so I sat next to her and read them out loud, and oh Mom, my eyes were as weepy as the skies.

So Basilio's baptism was a sublime experience for all involved. Everything leading up to it for the last couple of weeks was equally as amazing; by the time we sat down for the actual service we just took a deep breath and shook hands. There were a lot of handshakes this week, as always, but I will tell you about one in particular.

Elder Johnson and Basilio
After his actual baptism performed by Elder Johnson (cut back to the first Sunday after Elder Johnson got here. Basilio looked over at us, pointed at him and said "I want the tall one to baptize me."), we were singing hymns in the chapel, waiting for him to dry off and change his clothes. It was an incredible turnout--since he's been to church almost every week for the last 9 or 10 weeks, many members had already considered him a part of the ward. 

Top row L to R : Elder Johnson, us, Val, Dora, Basilio, Ward mission leader Hno Romero.
Bottom row L to R: Elder Ayala, Hno Barboza (EQ president, he presided at baptism since bishop was in Asunción at his brother's temple wedding!) Hugo, Hno Armoa

They came that night smiling and radiant, chatting with him before the baptism started, telling him their stories, since virtually everyone in the group had been baptized in the last 4 years. He took a lot of heart from hearing what they've overcome. So we were in the chapel singing, and I was sitting in the very back with Valentina and Dora (Valentina had walked a lot that day so we were trying to find ways to keep the walking to a minimum). He walked in and handed his towel to Dora, and then came up to me to give me a bag with the wet baptismal clothes we'd loaned him. I took the bag, but then he stretched out his hand. Confused, I took it, and looked up at him to see tears in his eyes. "Ya soy un hijo de Dios" he whispered, and shook my hand with such emotion, all I could do was nod at him, not able to find words to respond. I was so proud of him, but I was feeling more than just my pride. It was borrowed pride that God felt, so much of it I thought I would burst. (See Alma 26).

Later in the service, Elder Barboza looked down at Basilio from the stand and saw how stricken he looked, and just asked him to stand up and share what he was feeling. This was atypical, and even more so because Basilio used to be almost too shy to pray out loud even when he was alone. But Basilio stood up without hesitation, turned to us and said he hardly knew where to begin...Feeling like he truly had a place here and had been accepted by these people was more than he could have ever asked for.

The next day all those people and more came to his confirmation to raise their hands in the vote-of-brotherhood gesture, and my did they come. Standing outside the church in the muted morning lights seeing them pull up on motos in their 90s clothes, moms pulling up to the curb so their kids could get off, guys in jeans and ties and little girls in dresses beaming at us through their helmets. 

The Sanabria family came looking healthier and more energized than ever. We had a lovely time in the chapel, and later that afternoon when Hna Beecher and I went by, Basilio turned on this song by a Brazilian guy in the 70s and sang along to the lyrics about how the darkness has turned into light. I said Basilio's gone family-man because he has. He was the one in his family who was closed, slow to trust, and dragging his feet. Now he is quite simply a new man.

He has become a strength to Valentina and Dora, and I know how much care he is going to put into understanding the priesthood and using it to bless and serve them. All you have to do to see the change in this family is listen to how the before-lesson banter has evolved. It used to be arguing over what Basilio could have done better to help Valentina after she broke her hip, and accusing each other of being the selfish one, and letting wounds that were decades-old ache on. Now the banter is more like this: "Basilio helped me walk all morning! I'm getting better!" "Dora and I made pasafrola, want some???"

So, all is well with those three for now. In other news, after 4 days with no confirmed sightings, the sun came out on Thursday just long enough to dry our wet hanging laundry, and then went away again. The rain has continued to wash the streets. I wonder when it will realize that they are dirt roads and can't be washed.

Finally, my "list of things I learned" last week was incomplete. What a hiccup. I have talked more than once about how important it's been to take care of myself to make sure I will function. And that is true, but it's a distorted picture of what life is like for us here. There are two really important things to mission life. One is not without the other. Before we head out the door we search and learn and study. But after we head out the door, while we tend to follow our plans, we ultimately have to let all of our expectations go and simply listen and feel.

What an immense relief it was when I realized that I could teach a lesson and be charming and funny and brilliant, and even then, something that was just from me would simply dissolve, vanish, turn to dust. D&C 42:14 "And if ye receive not the spirit, ye shall not teach". There is a reason God trusts a bunch of bumbling 18 to 21 year olds to do this. It's because in their weakness they turn to Him, and that is when miracles start to happen. That is when they are healed and can invite others to start their own spiritual healing. What more can I say? Very little, as I have 5 minutes to write. I have found the source of my spiritual healing, and it is real, and I am here in the hopes that the people I meet can find their own.

I love being out here. I love you, family. I love being the American sister that can eat the most banana pancakes out of all the American sisters Hna Cruz has met on her mission.

With joy,
Hermana Allison Tolman

Monday, April 13, 2015

Happy 136th, Formosa!

It is true; on the 8th of April, Formosa celebrated that many years of being a bonafide province! Another day off school for the kids!
This week had many irregularities, for which I was grateful, as it was an exercise in flexibility.
Hermana Zaneli
Hna Beecher went to consejo [leadership council] in Resistencia to fulfill her leaderly duties, so I trio-ed up with Hermanas Cruz and Zaneli. I mentioned Hna Cruz last week, so you already know she's great stuff. Hna Zaneli is from Sao Paolo, Brazil, and she is a trilingual walking dictionary-thesaurus. Her vocabularies in Spanish and English are quite extensive, and I don't even know what she sounds like in her first language, Portuguese. We worked hard in their area and I loved doing 3 hours of studies with them, having these two brilliant resources at my disposal to answer my questions. Both of these sisters are in their last transfer and have an 18-month abundance of tricks and charla [discussion] skills that I was able to learn from.

Formosa Zone

Shortly after that we had a zone meeting after which I directly left for divisions with Hermana Duncan (she is the only brown haired american in zone photo who isn't Hna Beecher or me). I really like Hermana Duncan because she is so unassuming and humble.
Hna Duncan at the Bus Stop
She just smiles, walks out the door, and starts finding the exact people who were waiting for us that day. We went via bus to a part of their area that was too far away to get to on foot. It is a magical place called San Isidro. It feels like an hacienda mixed with a Tim Burton movie. The sky was silver and cloudy. We worked all morning there. Had lots of those surreal lessons with people we'd just met. People who had just gotten up for the day, but were not offended by being called upon. They simply asked us to come sit with them on the porch steps and tell them why we were there. 

After divisions, the week normalized in time for it to end. On Saturday we were with Guillermo and his family (remember the man I mentioned in another email who ran out from his house and asked us to come every week and teach his family?). Right as we were about to get up and leave from another great discussion with him and his kids, he asked if we know a certain Hugo Rivarola. We scoffed. We laughed. We chortled. 
"Of COURSE we know Hugo Rivarola!" 
"Well," Guillermo continued, raising an eyebrow, "Hugo Rivarola is my brother-in-law." 
Hermana Beecher almost lost it. Her crazy over-energetic side came out, the one that is usually reserved only for water polo and defending me from aggressive dogs. She jumped up, sat down, put her head in her hands, sat up again, leaned her head back, and said to the ceiling, "¡No me diga! ¡AMAMOS a la familia Rivarola! [You're kidding! We LOVE the Rivarola family!]
Guillermo sat back and smiled, seeming quite pleased with himself for having kept this from us for the whole lesson.
Turns out he was at an asado at Hugo and Mabel's house on Thursday night (he probably got there minutes after we'd left), and they somehow got talking about religion, and he talked about 2 missionary girls, and Hugo and Mabel talked about 2 missionary girls, and then Hugo brought out a photo of him at his baptism that has Hna Beecher in it, and they realized they were talking about the SAME missionary girls.
Guillermo is indeed Mabel's brother.

In other news, we finally took a photo with Mayra.
Mayra and Camila
Camilla is a year and a half old. She is one sister-mission old. Do not let her surly facial expression in this picture fool you; in real life she is the smiley-est creature I have ever met.
So, maybe I'm not seasoned enough to give mission advice the way Hna Cruz and Zaneli do. But I can share what I have found so far to be useful, and it's very general and can be related to a lot of things other than mission-ing. The fact is, mission-ing is not easy. It is hard. We do not do it because it is easy. We do it because it is hard. I'm starting to sound like JFK..."We choose to go to the moon!!"
However, despite culture clashes, miscommunication and misconceptions, somehow missionaries get up every day ready for more. How is this possible? I often wondered during my first weeks here. Well, first off, you must inevitably realize that we do it for conviction. This Gospel is too strange-sounding and inconvenient for our belief in it to depend on worldly proof. We believe in it because we recognize it. But secondly, I have learned these things:
1. Meet people at their level. You're on their turf.
2. Stay centered. a.k.a. take care of yourself so that you'll be able to depend on yourself as a missionary. Live and treasure what you teach.
3. Embrace the suck. My dad always says that. If you embrace the fact that it sucks to get up early, work, follow a schedule, keep on going through days of walking and dust and fatigue....Then you learn to love life. Yesterday after a full, tiring week of travel and work and miles of walking, Hermana Beecher and I came home from church and made beef empanadas.
Hna Beecher & beef empanadas
Hungry is the best seasoning. I do not know if those empanadas were the blandest empanadas ever made by 2 american girls in their pension, because I'm still internally freaking out about how much I enjoyed them! There were no leftovers.
4. Remain calm. On a mission your work consists of people, and you see people in all conditions and in all phases of life, and you come upon them in all convenient and inconvenient moments. You can either feel threatened by people and let them feel threatened by you, or you can breathe and decide you're glad to see them. Just because they exist. You can not live through Wednesday just to make it to Thursday. You have to mellow out and accept what's happening where you are right now.

Well, there are my over-generalized and hastily listed things I've learned...I shall continue now on my quest for finding out why missionaries get up every morning, and you, dear family and readers, shall continue on yours. Until next week, enjoy these photos I took today in Centro, including street art and a dinosaur slide.
P.S.: If you are wondering whether I wear the same skirt every day....I don't. I do not know why all photos are always taken on days I wear this skirt. Excuse me.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hear the Music

Yanina and I on Conference Sunday! (She is the RM who just got back from Querétaro, Mexico) Love her so dearly, we have become very good friends, she is an amazing spiritual woman.

Hello all, 

Whether or not you tuned in to this 185th annual Spiritual Tidal Wave, I want to mention two of the talks that were given. They are not the addresses of the estimable Elders Holland, Uchtdorf, or Eyring, though of course they were iron-strong, essential talks, and linguistic ambrosia on top of that.
No, I speak of two lesser-known Seventies who gave their addresses back-to-back on Saturday afternoon. They hit the nail precisely on the head when discussing the 2015 LDS experience. Life as a Mormon. Life today. Elders Wilford W. Anderson and Dale G. Renlund. Scrutinize those talks if you for any reason want to know something about life as a Latter-day Saint in 2015. (texts will be posted within the week).

I especially appreciated Elder Anderson's remarks because he put into words some of the experiences I've had in recent years. I give you my full disclosure: it wasn't long ago that I had long grown tired of this church. I had no patience for its human flaws. I had grown more critical than hopeful, more irritable than teachable. Those who speak over the pulpit in General Conference speak with simplicity. So if you're too high-strung when you listen, you think you know what you're hearing, but you might be missing it. For a long time I wasn't tuned into the right frequency. I couldn't receive what they were transmitting. "Era dura" [I was a hard head]; my heart was kept in a thick protective casing. If feeling the spirit is like hearing music, and living by it is like dancing to the music, I have spent a lot of my life dancing to no music. I appreciated Elder Anderson's sympathy for that predicament when he said that "dancing without music is awkward and unfulfilling." So it is.
So, hey, tune in to the right frequency! Hear the music.

On Sunday afternoon, Hair-mana Beecher and I emerged from the gringo room to spend the last session in the chapel. And my, were we glad we did! As if it wasn't enough to be with our Latino bretheren and sisters again, Sunday afternoon was when Elders Pino and Zeballos gave their addresses in Spanish. You could feel the electricity in the room when these speeches were announced. We all got goosebumps. It was a glorious, inexpressibly unmistakably happy time. I will skip the rant about the translation student on-hold in me getting to experience translated church materials on the receiving end and thinking about what is lost and gained in a translation and how cool it was to have the option of jumping around between the gringo room and the chapel. Suffice it to say, I hope one day I'll be involved in the translation or voice-over process for conferences in the future.... (p.s. If any of you speak English, listen to Elders Uchtdorf and Holland's talks in the language they were given. That kind of splendor is not to be translated.) 
The announcement that there will be a temple in Port-au-Prince sent a lightning bolt right through my heart. I gasped out loud in my seat. What joy, O World!! That with the other two temple announcements were received with hoots and cheers of excitement.

Well, this week has been as decently paced as ever. We did exchanges, so I worked for 24 hours with Hermana Cruz in her area on Tuesday-Wednesday. I learned a lot about her teaching and contacting methods (This is her last transfer, so I appreciated her wisdom on a number of matters), and also learned a great deal about her native Nicaragua. (Did you know they speak in Vos there?? They are a small isolated sector of Vos in an otherwise tú-using Central America. But they don't call the language Castellano, they call it Español. Everything I previously learned about Latin America is slowly expiring in the face of reality.)

This week was also Semana Santa [Holy Week leading up to Easter] (I hope you all had a very happy Easter, by the way). We came to know many many Argentine/Paraguayan traditions, most of them having to do with food (la chipa, la pasafrola, la sopa paraguaya---sí o sí), and had a grand time casually interviewing people about their explanations for these traditions. Everyone has their professed reason, ranging from deeply religious to culturally acquiescent. One thing was for sure: Thursday the whole world smelled like smoke and barbequeing meat, because everyone does an asado. Friday, or Viernes Santo, the whole world was still, because everyone was fasting and praying, or at the very least everyone had the courtesy to stay inside and not play loud music so that the religious folks could fast and pray. Saturday everyone had family over for more festejar-ing. 
We made a lot of cool contacts on Friday because of its quiet, reverent environment. With all of the white noise turned down (literally and metaphorically), many saw it as a less-then-coincidental sign that missionaries would clap at their gate with a message about Christ, and they let us in. 

So yes indeed, the weather has been sweetly transitioning to fall, Mayra and her father José are progressing well on their personal journeys, Valentina and Basilio are feeling quite well, thanks for asking, and the gospel is still true.

Until next week,
Love love love Hermana Tolman

A rainy Conference Saturday! In Centro nearby the stake center.

Hermanas Armoa and Rodriguez---the dream squad!

When we got back Saturday night--this is the view looking out our pension door. It was an enchanted night to glory in God's celestial creations...with the background noise of crickets and bugs and wind, and the heat and humidity of the night.

Me and Leti (the bishop's wife). She is 21. The bishop is 25. These people are YOUNG!
It's amazing how inspired they are. True humble amazing people.