It was a small branch baptism. But the number of vehicles in the parking lot led me to believe everyone in the branch was present.
The view from the stand was different then any I'd ever encountered. An 80-year-old man dressed in white sat quietly on the front row. The bracelet-like tattoos that encircled his wrists were a reminder of years past. Seated next to him, was another gentleman. The white of his hair matched the white he was wearing. For a moment I stared in confusion, I could not imagine how a gentleman sitting in an automated wheelchair would be able to baptize someone. However my questioning was soon interrupted by the thought that I'd seen enough missionary's ingenuity to know that it would all work out.
Lar___ had a stroke 6 1/2 years ago which left him with a very impaired memory, and unable to walk without great difficulty. Regardless of his immobility, he often offered to drive the missionaries to their appointments because in his own words "while driving them my memory returns. " As I watched I wondered if Sil____ had asked Larry to baptize him because he admired His determination to continue living well - regardless of the struggle, or was it an outward manifestation of how Silas viewed himself now - able to do all things because of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Others in the room also caught my attention. Three gentlemen to my right sat side by side. One wore a blue sweater with a medical necklace hanging down. As he told me of the struggle he's had the last six months over coming open heart surgery, I couldn't help but wonder if the necklace was a badge symbolic of the struggle he was over coming. The next gentlemen's eyes sparkled. His fixed grin revealed missing teeth. The white tennis shoes he wore were in stark contrast to the dress shoes others were wearing. He did not seem conscious of the difference. I imagined the timeless love he felt from fellow worshipers, had left him secure. The third of the trio sat with trimmed beard, glasses, and tweed suit jacket - my stereotypical professor. Their camaraderie assured me they were friends. To the naked eye, the only commonality was their difficulty hearing and their absence of a spouse. but that is the way wards are. Our love for the Savior and our fellowman bind us together.
On the stand, to my right, was a teenage girl sitting at the organ. In other congregations, she would have been busily playing while we sang. Not so here! Her sole job was to push the button that started the pre-recorded music allowing the congregation to sing with accompaniment.
There were others in attendance, like the couple who had moved from Arizona to be closer to their daughter and her children. But two in particular caught my eye. One was the ward mission leader. His pressed Gray suit seemed out of place among the slacks and Levi's worn by the other branch members. Later I would find out that he was not a native. The stake president had asked him and his family to attend the branch for a year. They drove 45 miles or so from Greenwood every time they came to church.
The last person was the Branch President. His conversation was so complementary of the missionaries. Repeatedly he asked that we would be sure to leave them in the Branch. His anxiousness left me wanting to tell him, "Don't worry they're staying", but that was President's job and he would tell him soon enough. As the Branch President stood he made a comment " Sil__, the person who baptized you also baptized me 10 years ago." Of course he had! This is the mission field! Most of the ward or branch are converts to The Church. Most of them had driven 20 to 30 minutes to come, but distance doesn't seem to matter out here. The Church is their life. The time and distance it takes is just an outward indication of their inward commitment.
As I left Poteau, my heart was warm. I had seen covenant keeping at it’s best. A man who wanted to be in Christ’s Church; a man who exercised his Priesthood regardless of his difficulties; and many others who’s daily lives were an outward indication of an inward commitment.
Early January 2nd missionaries loaded their belongings onto three moving vans and a trailer. Unusually cold temperatures caused their breath to trail behind them. It lingered as they moved. These temperatures were unusual; but this was an unusual day. Tulsa, Tulsa East, and Bartlesville Stakes would now be in the Oklahoma City Mission and the missionaries who had been serving in those areas would help open 24 new areas in the Arkansas Bentonville Mission. With the decision being made by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles early in December there was not much time to orchestrate the whole change, but it’s been my experience that when God is involved things happen. Certainly the change had too many coincidences to be anything short of a miracle.
In early December, on our way to Tulsa, we had a conference call with Elder Southward and President Mansell of the Oklahoma City Mission. It was decided that the smoothest way to transition would be for a set of each of their missionaries to come on December 28th into each of our areas. (That was their regular transfer date). Both sets of missionaries would have a few days together so that they could be introduced to the area, investigators, and members.
For us that meant we would have our normal transfer on December 14th and then just a couple of weeks later we would have another transfer. And, three weeks after that there would be another transfer for us. Change can be a little wild, but it felt right. As if to confirm our decision, as soon as we hung up from the conference call, President and I had the idea that we should see if President Mansell could meet us in Tulsa that night since we were already going to be there. He was available. So he drove to Tulsa and our daughter brought a copy of all the leases, maps, zone make ups and other bits of information. Our office crew got right to work and had it all neatly organized and on its way in a couple of hours. Turns out that this was not the last time that the office crew would drop their normal tasks and pitch in to make things happen. Other hurdles were maneuvered. Because we had 4 sisters who were going home on December 14th, four Sister Missionaries from Oklahoma City Mission came early and were companions with one of our Sisters. Then on the 28th our 4 Sisters left their area and drove to a new area in our mission. The rest followed on the 2nd. With just a week away, we still had quite a few apartments to rent. The next few days were an intense scurry of activity. Phone calls, deposits checks, turning on electricity, and more phone calls, pounded out the time. The day before the transfer, we had two miracles. Two Sister’s apartments fell through, but two bishops didn’t fall through at all! One arranged a spot for the Sisters to temporarily stay after the apartment we were planning on fell through, and the other bishop talked the landlord into taking the Sisters even though they don’t rent to corporations. His selling point. “These three members of our church rent in this same apartment complex they will have the same kind of character.” “If they are like that, we’ll make an exception.” The landlord ended up saying.
Along with the transfer of missionaries came the transfer of furniture and kitchen supplies. The other mission closed their apartments, loaded the vans and sent them to Tulsa. We picked them up and then drove them on three different loops stopping a long the way to give supplies to the new apartments. The missionaries that did this did an exceptional job! Really everything ran extremely smooth. (Lucky for us you only have to be 21 to drive a Penski truck.) It took one more day of President and I going to Springfield to take care of two trucks and bringing the extra supplies back while Elders Kea___, Whit______, and Rad_______ took care of a truck and supplies here. When I pulled in later that evening and they were freezing cold, my heart went out to young men who love the Lord and their missions enough to do whatever needed to be done. It seemed the final miracle of the day took place when President and I continued on to Fayetteville for a meeting. President had a gas card from a car that went to the top of our mission and it really belonged in a car in Fayetteville. Without realizing it until we got there, we had the card and the missionaries who drove that car were there. Little – but big in our book!
And so I again testify that God is involved in all aspects of our life. It is His work, and we are lucky to be part!