A Week of Contrasts

 


        The biggest news for the week is the Elder Renlund of the quorum of the twelve apostles and his wife visited Mexico for ten days. They went home yesterday. They were here last week when I wrote, but I figured it wasn’t my place to announce an apostle’s itinerary. However, now that they’re gone, it’s public knowledge and I feel fine talking about it. Our department has been preparing for this visit for a couple of months, and it was exciting to have it happen. It was Elder and Sister Renlund’s first international visit since the COVID pandemic began.

              Last Sunday the Renlund’s presented a fireside for youth. Gustavo asked Ron and I to cover it. It was at a Stake Center in an area of the city we hadn’t been to before. I checked Google maps to see how far away it was and how long it should take to get there, and we left in what we thought was plenty of time to arrive there half an hour early. Unfortunately, either the address or our driver (not sure which) got a little confused. When we pulled up to the place our driver had as our destination, we looked around for a church and all we saw were houses. Ron pulled up the address, he and the driver looked at it, and we were on the right street and according to the numbers on the houses were on the right block. We were feeling a little frantic, when Ron noticed that the address number was 86 but it didn’t have a “north” or “south” with it. Up ahead of us was a large street which he thought might be the dividing line. He asked our driver to drive us across that road and check the next block. The driver was hesitant, but finally agreed. Sure enough, halfway up the next block there it was.

 

              The Stake Center, like many places here, was enclosed inside a wall. The parking lot inside the wall was packed with cars, buses, and people. We found a guy who looked like he might be official and explained who we were. He rushed us over to the door and told the man there that we were from public affairs. That man whisked us into the chapel. This was a very large Stake Center with a chapel at one end, then a large gym, then another chapel on the other end, and a stage on the side of the gym. All that area was filled with young men and women--already there, already in their seats, all the seats full. The man who took us in told the ushers there that we were from public affairs, and they rushed around, found a couple more chairs, and found a spot to put us just as Elder Renlund and the others entered. I guess you can say we made it by the skin of our teeth. So there we were, an audience of over 1200 youth and us—two old white people.

            


   An official photographer was taking photos, and they asked that everyone else not take them, so I didn’t get a photo of the Renlunds, but I did get photos of the young people around us. Ron has always been good with youth and the Mexican people are generally a friendly people, so we had a great time talking to them after the fireside.




               Tuesday evening the Renlunds gave a devotional for Young Adults. Again, Gustavo asked us to go cover it. It was at the stake center by the temple, which in the best of traffic takes 45 minutes to get to from our place. Remembering our previous experience, we left two hours before time for the meeting to start and got there in plenty of time. There was already a line of young adults going in. We went to the head of the line and told the ushers who we were and that we needed to go in. They seemed a little hesitant, but then the head of church security in Mexico walked up. He knows us from the area office, and he led us right past the ushers and into the building.

               Around 650 young adults were able to attend the fireside in person, but it was also broadcast over the internet to all of Mexico. Alfredo, who is the new person over “channels” for our department told us there were over 6000 logins for the meeting. Armando (who used to be in our department and whose place Alfredo took) is now the head of the production department, which is in charge of broadcasts. This was his first big broadcast event since he started his new position, and as far as we could tell, it went off perfectly.

               Besides these two events, we also listened online to stake conference talks Elder and Sister Renlund gave. Although they covered several topics in these events, one they stressed in all of them was the need to learn to receive personal revelation. In fact, that was the main theme of their young adult fireside. As you may know, before being called to be a general authority, Elder Renlund was a cardiologist. He told about his “beloved stethoscope,” and they took turns telling parts of a cute experience, when after his retirement, Sister Renlund decided to surprise him for his birthday by having his stethoscope framed in a shadow box. He said when he opened the present, he tried to be appreciative, but what came out of his mouth was, “What am I supposed to do with this?” They then went on to compare using a stethoscope to receiving personal revelation, listing things such as, “To use a stethoscope you have to be close to the patient, and to receive personal revelation, you have to be close to the spirit” and “A doctor has to be able to identify what he’s hearing through a stethoscope, and we have to learn to identify how the spirit speaks to us.” It was a wonderful fireside! At each of these events, as Elder Renlund bore testimony of Jesus Christ, the spirit was very strong yet gentle. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the best way I could come up with.


               Wednesday morning was the communications department’s time to plan the Renlund’s schedule. Gustavo and Michelle have been working like crazy on it, and they did a fantastic job. We held two events, a breakfast with government officials and an interreligious discussion with leaders of other faiths. The events were held back-to-back at the J W Marriott in Polanco, a very nice venue. Ron and I didn’t participate in the meetings. You know how when you go to a convention they have people sitting at a table to welcome you, well that was our job.  We welcomed people, handed them their folder, and directed them to the meeting room. Once the meeting started, we got out the gifts that were to be given out at the end of the meeting, and we got to hand those gifts to the Renlunds to present. Our last job was to stamp the parking tickets for anyone who needed theirs validated as they left. So during the actual meetings, we sat outside in the hall with the security people (two men who travelled with the Renlunds from Salt Lake, and four from the church’s security in Mexico.) The security guys all took turns going to breakfast, but we needed to be on hand in case Gustavo or Michelle needed something, so we stayed at our table. We knew we weren’t going to be in the breakfast, so we’d had a quick bite to eat before we left our house really early to be at the hotel by 7:00. However, one of the Mexican church security men noticed we didn’t leave to have breakfast and told the hotel staff to bring us food. They had plenty because a few of the invitees didn’t show up. First they brought us freshly squeezed orange juice. Then they brought us each a beautiful fruit plate. They were going to bring us the main breakfast dish, but it was just a few minutes before the breakfast meeting was supposed to end, and we didn’t want to be sitting there eating as the guests left, so we told them no thank you. As soon as that meeting ended and the guests left, the hotel staff sprang into action and within a few minutes had cleared away all the breakfast stuff out of the meeting room and had it set up for the next meeting. We greeted the second round of guests as they arrived and got out the second round of gifts when the meeting started. Then to our surprise, the hotel waiter showed up with the breakfast main dish for us, so we got to have it after all, which I’m happy about because it was delicious. Besides handing the gifts to the Renlund’s to present, we got to bump fists with them and say “hello” as they went into the meeting room, and bump fists with them and say “good-bye” as they left. I’m sure they wouldn’t know us if they passed us on the street tomorrow, but we did kind of get to meet them.
The room where the meetings took place
The table set for the breakfast meeting. We're standing behind Elder Renlund's seat.
  
The gifts for government officials
   
The first course of the breakfast
   
The main course of the breakfast, which tasted way better than it looks.

               That was the last of our involvement in the Renlund’s visit, and we thought the rest of our week would be quiet. Then Thursday evening we got a message from the Lloyds, who are the humanitarian missionaries we coordinate with. They had previously told us about a Just Serve project which was taking place on Saturday, and we said we’d like to help at it. They also told us that a woman was coming from the church’s Salt Lake news department to film it for a story she was doing for the church’s World Report which airs between sessions of conference. The message we received from the Lloyds on Thursday told us the woman wanted to come to our office the next day and meet our department. That left us scrambling because the rest of the staff usually works from home on Mondays and Fridays, so only Ron and I were going to be in the office. We sent out WhatsApp messages, and Gustavo said he’d be there. The next day when he arrived, he had his family with him. We’ve seen pictures of them, but it was such a delight to meet his wife and children in person. Their oldest child is nine and the youngest is two. It was one of their son’s birthday, and he proudly informed us, “I used to be four but now I’m five.” Their family had plans to celebrate his birthday, so Gustavo was squeezing a visit to the office into their day. I was so impressed with these children. They spoke flawless English to us, but when a church employee came out of his office and spoke Spanish to them, they switched to flawless Spanish. As an old person trying to learn Spanish, I was very impressed by that.

               The “woman from Salt Lake” turned out to be a woman reporter and a man videographer/photographer. They were very nice, and it was fun to meet them. However, it was good Gustavo came, because Ron and I couldn’t have answered all the questions they had.


               Saturday morning we took an Uber to the temple manzana and met the Lloyds. Then we walked together to the cemetery where the Just Serve project was taking place, and which was about a block from the temple. They had been a little concerned that the turnout wouldn’t be very good, but they didn’t need to worry. Over 200 people from the neighborhood showed up to clean the cemetery. Between Dia de Muertos and the holidays, there was a lot of debris in the cemetery to be cleaned up. Plus the local government provided weed whackers, rakes, and chainsaws to clean up weeds and trim trees. The government also hauled off the debris—two truck loads of it.

             We met a woman who goes to the cemetery every week to take care of the graves of her parents, her sister, and her son. We met a couple in their eighties who had come to the project (the wife in a wheelchair) with their teen-age grandchildren. We spoke with a man who was digging a grave by hand using a shovel. 

               As we worked, I told Ron I was checking out all the graves to decide which one I wanted mine like after I die.

He said, “It won’t be like any of these.”

I told him yes I wanted it like one of these, because then I’d have the most awesome grave in the cemetery in Shelley, Idaho, and everyone would come to see it on Memorial Day. I was just kidding of course, but these graves really are pretty cool. However, they are super crowded and some of the headstones indicate there are two people buried in that spot, a few even had three. The team from Salt Lake were there, and you’ll probably see some of the shots they took and hear about it if you watch the World Report in April.

The Lloyds and us

This grave was a little boy's. Ron thought about our own grandsons as he worked on it
and that made it a tender experience.

   

   

   


            

Following that project, the Lloyds told us there was another one that afternoon at a refugee center and asked if we’d like to go to that one too. We said we would, so the four of us caught an Uber to a totally different part of the city. We got there fairly early and at first weren’t sure where the center was. We asked a guy in a little store, and he pointed us to a black door in a wall across the street. To thank him, we bought snacks at his little store and ate them standing in the street. We noticed a steep long set of stairs in the block across the road, on the side where the black door was. Ron asked the store owner where those steps went to, and he said another street. That entire row of buildings was built on a steep hillside. Exactly what that meant didn’t click to me until 1:00, which was when the project was supposed to start. 

At that point a car pulled up and three people got out. They were from Caritas, the Catholic humanitarian organization which we were partnering with for this project. After we greeted each other, we walked to the door and rang a bell. We heard the door being unlocked and opened. Inside was a long, steep flight of stairs just like the ones outside, and I realized that if a building is built into a steep slope, that means there will be a lot of stairs. I counted the steps and figured we climbed up about four stories. A worker from the center met us at the top, and I thought we were done with stairs. I was wrong. The only thing I can think of to compare the inside of the center to is the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. Cement steps and metal staircases led off in various directions and there were levels after levels creating a veritable maze.


The little store where we bought snacks
    
The Lloyds on the left, the worker from the center in the front, and volunteers from Caritas on the right

   
Inside the shelter

   


   

   
The view from the top level of the center

            The worker told us the people staying in the center were refugees who had come from violent situations that would be dangerous for them to be returned to. However, they were not yet legal residents of Mexico. (Because of this, the worker asked that we not take any photos which showed the refugees faces.) The refugees had been screened before being assigned to this shelter, and it was now where they had to stay until their paperwork was approved and they could start a new life in Mexico. The center originally only took men, but so many families are now entering Mexico as refugees that the center is being expanded so it can also accommodate families. That was the project we were partnering with Caritas for.

Part of the expansion project--expanding the dining area

The current dining area

We had come planning to paint, but the center worker told us first they were going to give us a tour, then feed us, then do the project. Ron and I stayed for the tour, but then we had to go because we had other plans for the evening and we could see it was going to be an all afternoon event. We knew other volunteers would be arriving so we didn’t feel too bad about leaving.

On our way back out of the maze, we came to three young men who looked to be in their twenties. As we were going past them, Ron stopped to talk with them. He asked where they were from, and they replied, “Haiti.” They spoke a mixture of Spanish, English, and Creole and they had heavy accents, so it was a little tricky following all they said, but they noticed our name badges and asked about them. Ron told them we were from “la Iglesia de Jesucristo de Santos de los Ultimos Dios,” and one of them men exclaimed, “Mormones!” We asked how he knew about the church, and they replied they had a friend there who was a member of our church. Then they started shouting, “Valentino!” towards one of the doors which was down a level.  A man who looked a little older than these three came to the door and we went down to speak with him. It turned out he was indeed a member of the church. We didn’t get his whole story, but what we could see was the look of hopelessness in his eyes. He spoke about waiting for his papers to be approved, but added, “If that ever happens.” I can’t tell you how difficult it was to walk away from those four men. We wanted so badly to help them, but there really wasn’t anything we could do. We told Valentine we’d pray for him and his friends, that their papers would be approved, but that was all we could offer. Please, say a prayer for them too. I’m sure they can use all the prayers they can get.

This week has taken us to extremes. We've see the contrast between one of plushest hotels in Mexico City and a very humble refugee shelter. We've seen the contrast between the enthusiasm of youth and the hopelessness of refugees. Along the way we've met an apostle and his wife, generous volunteers, and ordinary people who are living quiet lives of goodness. And all along the way, our love for this city and its people has grown. 

              

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing details of your journey! You both look wonderful! Continued prayers for you and your family❤

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  2. I look forward to reading your posts every week. This one made me cry. So thankful for all that we have here in the states.

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  3. What a great opportunity you are having. So fun to read about it.

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