Over the past few weeks, I've been trying to think of what to write in my last email. Words cannot really describe the feeling I have felt over these past two years as a missionary in Togo and Benin. This ride has really been one of the bumpiest, jerkiest, fastest that I have ever been on in my life.
I remember when I first got my mission call, and the months that followed, so many people were so excited about my call to the Benin Cotonou Mission. The excitement probably comes from the fact that nobody actually knows much about this part of the world. Everyone seems to hear those stories from missionaries in Brazil, Western Europe, the Pacific Islands, etc... but West Africa? Some people probably didn't even know the Church was out here... I sure didn't.
Even going through the MTC, when people would ask Elder Seidl, Kunz and I where we were headed off to, nobody really knew what would be waiting for us... until we told them Benin was in West Africa. Then thoughts of poverty, hunger, heat, AIDS, and the Lion King come to mind. Still, people couldn't quite wrap their heads around what Benin Cotonou really was. To be honest, I don't think I really could either.
Before and even in the MTC, I tried my best to find out what would be waiting for me in Africa. Hearing about the world class wildlife reserves in Northern Benin, I imagined going to see a real, wild African Elephant on a p-day. Hearing about the spirituality of Africans, I imagined being able to baptize everybody in Togo and Benin into the Gospel. Hearing about the poverty, I imagined that I would be repairing houses, building wells, and other never ending service projects.
And yet, even with what everyone was telling me, I still had no idea what to expect. I couldn't wrap my imagination around the fact that I would be living in Africa for two years. Even Frere Staretta, one of my MTC instructors who served in this mission when it was still a part of the Cote d'Ivoire mission, couldn't really describe to us what we would be seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting.
And then, the airplane door opened. Once I stepped through the literal wall of hot humidity, all of my imagining and my all of my ideas about West Africa were gone; all of it being replaced by the reality of being in West Africa. Every step, every breath, and every turn of the head was new to me.
The initial excitement of being in West Africa didn't last very long. Shortly after my arrival in Togo, I soon began to realize that this place was no longer just a joke or an interesting documentary... but it was my life. The weird perfumes masking the repugnant smell of body odor, the 5 o'clock wake up calls from the next door mosque, the blistering heat of the hottest sun I had ever felt, the never ending grid of dirt roads, the honks of the passing motos... this would really be the story of my life for the next two years.
On top of all that, I was expected to be a missionary at the same time. It was expected of me to go from door-to-door and actually teach people the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, I soon began to realize that the mission was no longer just an idea I got from watching "The Other Side of Heaven" or "The Best Two Years"... but now, it was actually my life. The constant feeling that I never knew enough, the caring and worrying about strangers who I had a really hard time connecting with, the fear of talking to strangers about the Gospel of Christ, the being with a companion 24/7... again, this would really be my life for the next two years?
As if all of that wasn't enough, I soon began to realize that the French I was taught in the MTC was probably meant for France, not Togo. I tried my best to focus as best I could in order to understand what people were saying... and yet I just couldn't understand. Imagine my relief when I found out that people were actually speaking a local tribal language, and not French. But still, even when people were speaking French, it was all just too much to comprehend and to understand. I often asked myself if I would ever be able to understand these people... I also realized that whether or not I would eventually understand them, this would really be my life for the next two years.
Could I actually do all of this? Could I eventually get used to these crazy countries? Could I ever become competent enough in missionary work to actually be an effective missionary? Could I one day be able to speak French and have people understand me?
These kinds of questions always seemed to pop up. I remember one time, praying with all my heart right before going to bed and asking God all these kinds of questions. I couldn't tell if I was crying or not, as I was sweating through every pore of my body in that little 95 degree oven of a room.
But giving up wasn't an option. I knew that no matter how hard this would be, no matter how much I would suffer trying to adjust to Africa, no matter how much I would miss home. I would not, could not give up. I would not go home early. I would not give up on learning French. I would not give up on God.
And I didn't.
Nothing has been easy about these past two years. Getting used to the food, the heat, the smells, the people, and the way of life... it was probably one of the hardest thing I have ever had to do... and, miraculously enough, I have gotten used to it. Even yesterday, somebody gave us a drink called "Malta" here. It's this weird malt/barely soda drink (no alcohol, so don't worry) that I hated at the beginning of my mission. It was so gross. Yesterday, I drank it and actually enjoyed it. Buying food off the side of the street, smelling weird things, hearing motos, seeing chickens in the middle of the street, feeling sweaty all the time, being the only white person in view...hearing "yovo, yovo bonsoir" nonstop, it's all normal to me.
Even the French eventually came. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine speaking French fluently, and miraculously enough, I did come to understand French. Sure, I've got a weird African/American/French accent, but I think that perfectly reflects the kind of person I actually have become and the experiences that I actually went through. Now I can make calls and not even worry about not understanding people, I can talk to strangers and have them understand me, I can even read, and understand, an Asterix comic book!
And yet, no memories will ever last with me more than the time I actually spent doing missionary work. I don't think there is a harder job out there. Before my mission, I thought I knew a good deal about the Gospel and religion in general, but it was here on my mission that I actually understood the meaning of it all. Working with people to try and fix up their lives is amazingly difficult, but amazingly rewarding too. Sometimes I felt so inadequate as a missionary... I think I still am not a great missionary, but I cannot deny the hand of the Lord in my growth as a person and a missionary. The greatest joys that have come to me these past two years have been through seeing people be blessed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ... that same joy is even greater in the fact that I was a part of helping those blessings come.
I never did see an elephant. I never did baptize everybody I met. I never did build somebody a house or build a well. But the things I did do are too numerous to count. And the things the Lord did on my behalf are even more numerous. My gratefulness to Him is so great. I could not have made it these two years if I hadn't relied on the Lord with all my heart, might, mind, and strength.
If I could sum up everything I learned into one phrase it would be that I don't think I ever did realize how lucky I was before this mission. I am so lucky to have my family. I am so lucky to live in my country. But, most and foremost, I am so lucky to have God in my life, who has given me the experience of a lifetime. One that I probably never will be able to experience again. I know that these two years have only been to serve God, but honestly, I still feel like I owe him so much, that I didn't deserve most of this. The fact that I survived, or rather thrived, these past two years is nothing short of a miracle on His part.
Thank you to everyone who has helped me through these two years. From the emails, the letters, the postcards and packages, down to the silent prayers, your help has been crucial to my success.
Thanks to my brother and sisters, who despite my weaknesses and downfalls, have always encouraged me through their examples. Thanks to my parents who have somehow never lost faith in me or God... through their faith and their dedication to the Gospel, they helped me build a foundation on Christ which cannot fail. They have helped me go farther, work harder, and be better than I ever imagined. Through their help, accomplished things that I never dreamed nor thought possible.
You could even say, through their help, God's help, and the help of so many others...
... that I moved mountains.
See you soon,
|Looks like Africa!|
|My final food|
adventure in Africa... eating the head of the animal.
|EATING SHEEP HEAD! How exciting is that?|
|The meat was really chewy.|
|The sauce went great with the rice though.|
|Had good company and some Jus de Citron (with pressed pineapple) to go with it.|
|'Twas very good!|
One Last Note from the Fro: Yes, the tears are pretty much constantly streaming now. (Not from the sheep's head adventure!) I can't believe it. I just can't believe it's the last weekly email. I can't believe I just "chatted" with him in Africa for the last time. I've already got his flight(s) yeah, plural, cued up on my flight tracker app. To say we're excited would be an understatement. And yet, I look back at these two years, through the hardships he had to endure, and the highs and lows. The craziness that is West Africa. The breaking of my heart for a son that I could only help through encouraging words typed in an email and prayer, lots and lots of prayer. It has been an emotional roller coaster, that is for sure. But would I trade these two years for anything? Would I trade the opportunity for my boy to grow in ways we can hardly even imagine? To learn what it is like to truly lose yourself in the service of others? To strengthen his relationship with God? To find out who he truly is and can be? No. I wouldn't trade it. Not for a minute. I'm thankful to him for sharing his growth with us too. Because how can we have not grown with him? In reference to his last sentence there, well, we're a Seuss family...and in the talk I gave at his farewell I said: "Trevor, in all the times as a child I read to you “oh the places you’ll go”, never in my wildest dreams did I think you’d be setting off to Benin. Kid, you’ll move mountains."
And you did.