Sunday, January 8, 2012

Stories from My Mission: I Find People

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of being a missionary is having to track people down. It is made even harder when you don't have an address. In some places that would not be a problem, you just start asking people on the street and you can find them with in a few days, but in larger cities, this does not work.

When I moved into my fourth area of my mission in the city of Eldorado, Misiones (the same area where I got hit by a tornado) I was approached by the branch president there and given a special assignment (I should emphasize that I was given the assignment, not my companion). I had only been in the area for about a week when the branch president asked if he could talk to me in his office in the church building. I noted that he specifically asked me, and not my companion, to talk with him. The reason for this would eventually foreshadow future events.

When I got to his office and sat down he said, "Elder, you seem like someone I can ask to do something, and it will get done." He then gave me a list of six names and said, "These six people or families are on our records as being members of our branch, but most of them I do not know who they are and no one I have talked to knows who they are or where they live. The one or two that have met before I do not have address for them. For the rest I don't have any address either, nor do I know anything about them. I want you to find them." So there I had it, six names, and a city of about 55,000. No address, nothing, just the names. I told him I would do it.

As a missionary I would carry around a weekly agenda in my pocket (actually I would carry three, one for the current week and the two previous weeks, so that I would have them as reference, with names and addresses). On the back of my agenda, in a position that I reserved for important information, I wrote down the six names. I drew a box around it and got ready to look for those people. When we got back to our apartment I pulled out the list of names and looked at it. I took out the complete list of members for our branch and looked up each name on the list. Just as the branch president had said, their names were there but no addresses or any other information. We had nothing to go on.

While I was sitting at my desk (I had not told my companion about my special assignment from the branch president) I called out to my companion who was in the other room making lunch and asked, "Have you ever heard of someone named, _________?" and read off the first name on the list. I was asking him since he had been in the area for several weeks and I had just arrived that week. He said that he had never heard of that person. I proceeded to go down the list and ask him about each one. For each name he told me he had never heard of that person. I then went down the list again to make sure that none of the names rung a bell. He again told be that he had never heard of any of them. I put the agenda back in my pocket, but kept the names in mind, just in case.

A few weeks passed and I kept the names on my agenda. Every week when I got a new agenda I would transfer the names over. Occasionally when I had the opportunity I would ask some of the members, even those who were not coming to church, if they had ever heard of any of the people on the list. I didn't get any leads, until one day I got a bite. Someone remembered a name and said, "Oh, yeah. They lived over on whatever street, I think." It was a start. Slowly I began to gather information. Here a little there a little. It took me weeks, but I finally found one of the people, and then another. But for the other four I was no closer to finding them. My companion was aware that I had this list, but he never showed any interest in helping me find the people. Things finally came to a head with two dramatic experiences.

I honestly can't remember which came first, but I think they happened in the same week. The first experience happened as we were walking along and met a member of our church branch in the street with two of his boys. We stopped and spoke for a minute when the member suddenly said, "Have you ever gone to visit the [what-ever] family that lives just on the next street over?" I instantly recognized the name as one of the families on my list. As I hurriedly took out my list to verify that I had the name correct, my companion casually replied, "Oh, we used to visit them about once a week. We even had lunch with them once or twice. They don't really seem interested in coming back to church." I was just dumbfounded. I assured the member that we would keep them in mind and the conversation quickly ended.

As we walked away I paused, looked at the list and again went down the list and asked my companion, "Do you know any of these people?" He again told me that he didn't know any of them. I would later find out that he had actually met with and spoken to two other people on that list but it took him a week after that to "remember" that he knew them (including one of the people that I had already tracked down). By this point I wasn't feeling a whole lot of trust for anything my companion was telling me. About the same time that I found out that my companion had not "remembered" meeting any of these people, I had my second, and perhaps one of the most memorable experiences of my mission.

One morning I was looking at a map of the city and I felt a strong impression that we should go to a certain part of the city. There was one street in particular that I felt we should go to, and I could even pick out the two or three blocks that we should focus on. I mentioned this to my companion and his immediate reply was, "I don't think we should do that. That is the exact opposite part of the city that we need to go to." When I said that we didn't have any set appointments for that morning and we really didn't have anything planned so it would not be a problem to head in that direction, he insisted that we should go to another part of the city and try to find a particular person that we had been unsuccessfully trying to find for some time. I told him that trying to find that person would be a waste of time since they really didn't want to listen to us, and they have been putting us off for some time. But he was adamant, so I said that we could go there, but then we should return to the other side of the city (literally the exact opposite side of the city) because I had an impression that we should go there. He argued that it would be a waste of time since it would take too much time to walk to one side of the city and then walk back to the other side. He was getting upset about it, so let the matter drop for the moment.

We set out to find the person we had been teaching previously and it took some time to walk to her house. By the time we got there and clapped (remember we don't knock on doors, we stand at the gate and clap) no one responded. My companion was visibly upset about this. We had the morning completely free with nothing to do. So I just suggested that we go back to the neighborhood that I had indicated on the map before we left. My companion objected again and said it was a waste of time and was getting visibly upset with me. But I again felt that it was very important so I insisted that we go to that part of the city. My companion responded by walking in the exact opposite direction. (As a note: As missionaries we are not allowed to leave our companions alone. We have to stay together no matter what.) So I had to follow him.

He walked down to the end of the street and then just stood there. I turned left and got us walking in the general direction of where we needed to go. I began walking and my companion reluctantly began following. I didn't say anything, but every time we came to an intersection and my companion realized that we would have to turn left to get to the area I wanted to go to, he would walk straight, or turn right. We were going in a rather odd, round about way, and if I were to draw on a map the route we took it would look more like a random walk than an intended course.

Every once in a while when my companion wanted to slow down our already slow progress he would stop and clap at a random house to see if anyone was interested in "hearing our message". No one was, or no one was home of the 15 or so houses we stopped at (normally if we clapped at 15 random houses, we would be guaranteed to talk to at minimum one person and usually around four or five, so to have no one home, or willing to talk out of 15 houses was quite notable). Eventually my companion just got depressed and sullen and walked along slowly after me. All morning I had been feeling agitated and upset because I felt that we were going the wrong way. But finally when my companion gave up his resistance I started feeling better.

By the time I got to the street where I knew we should go I was feeling much better to the point of elation. The street we needed to get to was literally at the edge of the city, as in on one side there were houses and on the other there were trees and farmer's fields lying fallow and full of grass. As I stood there looking out almost triumphantly over the edge of the city, my companion grumbled at me, "Now what." It was not until that moment that I realized that I had not thought past just getting to that spot. I had spent almost the entire morning trying to get my companion to just go in that direction that I never stopped to think about what I would do when I got there.

So I stood there for a moment, and said a prayer that went something like this, "Dear Heavenly Father, you told me to come what do I do?" The distinct response was, "Go right." So without another thought I turned right. I got to the next intersection and said, now what. "Go right," again came the response. I turned right again. I detected that my companion was grinding his teeth since we were now going in the exact opposite direction from the one I had been dragging him in. I was starting to think, "Now what?" We went about half a block and again I had the impression, "Go right."

Now I need to point out that cities in Argentina are all laid out in a nice square pattern. Almost all of the streets are straight, and they all intersect at right angles (with a few very rare exceptions, which is another story). So normally if you stand at an intersection and take three rights you will end back up where you started. But for some reason there was one street that didn't connect through. It was a kind of a half block street that ended in trees, houses and footpaths. Essentially we couldn't get there unless we had started at the very edge of the city and had taken the three right turns.

My companion was still upset and grumbled again and asked what we were doing. At that moment I looked up and saw a man working on a motorcycle in front of his house. Again I received a very clear impression that simply said, "Him." I walked up to the man, who was about 50 or 60 years old, introduced myself, but I didn't say who I was other than my name. I didn't mention that I was a missionary or why I was talking to him, I just said, "Good morning, My name is Elder Tanner." I really didn't know what to say after that. So I asked him if he was fixing his motorcycle. I know absolutely nothing about motorcycles, so I really didn't have anything to say. I asked him his name and he said, "Juan...I'll go get my daughter." and walked off without another word. I thought, "That's odd. Why is he getting his daughter?"

We waited for a few seconds and from inside the house emerges a huge bear of a man that stood about a foot taller than me, had arms about the size of my chest and a look like he wanted to fold me in half. My first thought was, "That's not his daughter." My second thought was, "I am going to die." My third thought was, "I think I can outrun my companion."

I looked at him, and introduced myself. I said one or two other things that I can't remember and then he looked right at me and said, "How is President Gomez doing?" President Gomez was our current branch president. I thought, "Wait...what? This guy knows who President Gomez is?" It turns out that he was a member, and his wife was a member. This man who I thought was going to kill us, was actually the son-in-law of the man fixing his motorcycle. The man fixing the motorcycle saw us and knew that we were members of his daughter's church so when we showed up he just assumed that we were there to speak to her. He went in the house and mentioned that we were outside, so his son-in-law came out to talk to us. I was pretty excited that I had been lead across the city to the very door of someone who needed to talk to us.

I spoke with him some more and found out that he used to live in another part of the city (very far from where we were) when he and his wife got baptized. They had gone to church for a while but then life got in the way, and they decided to move to Buenos Aires. They had moved there for about a year and a half, until he couldn't find anymore work due to the economic crisis, so they decided to move back to Eldorado and move in with her parents. They had not told anyone in our branch that they had moved to Buenos Aires, and they had just moved back a week before I found them.

We spoke for a while and agreed to come back and visit them. As we were walking away I took out my agenda to note the appointment and glanced over the list of names that the branch president had given me to find. Their names were on the list. They were my fifth check mark on the list and were the last ones that I would find. That Sunday I met with President Gomez and gave him all the information. I gave him the addresses for five of the six families and had managed to do it in a little under six weeks. He was impressed. He told me that he had given me the names as a last resort and thought that I might find one or two at best. He never thought that I could get five out of the six.

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