Saturday, July 17, 2010

Another One Bites The Dust

A guest post from Husband (Written 7/3):

In Memoriam:
The Spain-Bilbao Mission
Opened July 1, 1987; Closed June 30, 2010

I'm not sure how many of Lydia's readers belong to the LDS church, but if you do, you've either served as a missionary or know someone who has- probably lots who have. The experience is always described as an unforgettable one. Most people come back noticeably different from when they left, and in good ways. You may have noticed that they seemed more confident, more mature, maybe more serious. One thing that is common to almost everyone is the development of a deep spiritual and emotional connection with the people they worked with, and the country or area they worked in.

So it was for me. You've probably guessed that there will be a lot of God stuff in this post, so if that's not your thing, that's okay, but as with my last post, you might as well know ahead of time. I served in 7 cities in the north of Spain, and have memories of each that span the full spectrum from terrible to fantastic. I'm convinced that the coastline of the Basque Country is literally the most beautiful spot on earth. The mountains of Asturias are as majestic in their own way as the Alps. The rolling, rain-soaked hills and vineyards of Galicia seem to be a vision from another time.

Part of the reason I feel this way about those places is what is described so accurately in the Book of Mormon, which was named after a person who was named after a place that a lot of people felt that way about: "yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer..." (Mosiah 18:30) I knew the gospel before, but it had entirely new and much deeper and much more personal meaning to me by the time I came back.

As one of the sister missionaries once said, in a serious moment of one of our meetings, I sometimes wonder if the mission is maybe more for me than for anyone else. Where we were, it was an almost inescapable conclusion. Missionaries are supposed to teach, and to baptize worthy converts who have received a witness from the Holy Ghost that what they have been taught is true. But just to get someone to hint that they might be interested in hearing what we had to say- that was a big deal. Almost everyone looked at us as basically a joke, or as nice but quaint people who had little if anything of value to offer to their already complex lives.

There were many long, blue days, weeks, and sometimes months, when we wondered if we could ever find someone to teach. With very few church members and fewer referrals, we often had nothing to do but to go to the more crowded parts of town and try to talk to whoever we could get to stop. The constant walking bothered our feet and joints, which seemed to always hurt. We worked and prayed and studied so hard that we had absolute confidence that the Lord was with us- but we could get no one to listen.

Once in a while though, somebody would listen, at least at first. In rare and exceptional cases, they would open up long enough and with enough sincerity that they could receive a testimony, which would be immediately followed by a desire for baptism. There was never a greater joy than to see this happen.

In short, to quote Dickens' famous preamble: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

The bonds that the missionaries forged as we worked together are something that is truly unique, and not found in any other relationship I've ever had. We all wanted desperately to see the church grow in Spain, and to see the fulfillment of the promises that apostles had made about our adopted country, and our mission in particular, including that it would be "one of the great success stories of the church". We were also aware, painfully at times, of the odds we faced. In 2004, ours was the lowest-baptizing mission in the Europe West Area of the church, an area that is not favored with high numbers to begin with.

Once in a large meeting, our President was so seriously worried about the future of our mission, that he asked us all to kneel and pray with him. We did, and he prayed and gave voice to what we all felt. He expressed to the Lord our bewilderment, that people could be so hard-hearted as those who were assigned to our care, and who we still loved, in spite of everything. He also told the Lord, in his Argentine Spanish, of our deep frustration: "We have desired to leave these cities that we are working in, and shake off the dust of our feet as a testimony, and never return, because of the unbelief of their inhabitants." It sounds shocking, and it was, because it was true. I'll never forget when he said that.

Nor will I ever forget the news that I happened upon purely by accident earlier this year. Just a 2-line item in the LDS Church News on February 13: "Europe Area- Combine the Spain Bilbao Mission with the Spain Barcelona, Spain Madrid and Spain Malaga missions." Combine? That sounds like they're closing it. I dug around for more information on the internet, and come to find out that yes, it was really, finally happening.

All that we had tried to do, in the end, just couldn't save it. Not even the miraculous fact, which I found out the same day, that there's now a stake of Zion in the Basque Country, as of last September. I almost get the impression that they had been waiting to be able to organize one viable stake, and that as soon as they had that foothold, they could put the mission out of its misery, it having accomplished all that could reasonably be hoped for. How different things really are from what we all thought when I was there- that a stake would be the ultimate validation, an insurance against our field of labor being wiped off the map, even if it was the poorest spot in all the vineyard.

I thought of a scripture from Isaiah that I discovered over there: "Then I said, I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the Lord, and my work with my God. And now, saith the Lord that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the Lord, and my God shall be my strength."

And another, from the Doctrine and Covenants, that brought some much-needed comfort near the closing days of my time there: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings... And this I make an example unto you, for your consolation concerning all those who have been commanded to do a work and have been hindered by the hands of their enemies, and by oppression, saith the Lord your God."

And so it ends, and I admit that I have allowed myself a few moments of grief at the ending of something so great, an ending that came without fanfare, without ceremony, indeed almost without attention. But I think people need to know about this. It was the best 23 years that Spain ever had.

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