Thursday, October 27, 2011

Staying Busy (#6)

Elder Johnsen: While there has been a little more of a culture shock for Sister Johnsen than for myself, overall, things are going great. We’ve settled into our apartment here, learned our way around and are having great experiences going out and finding and ‘teaching’ part member/less active members. The Hansen’s (the Senior Couple who departed in August about 2 months before we arrived) had a start on putting together a computer file with pictures of members and instructions on how to find their “home”. We found that so helpful that we’re continuing to build that file—we’re up to about 30 pages now. The people seem to love having their picture taken.

President Kesolei (the Branch President) carries a lot of priesthood responsibilities with not a lot of help, so along with being the Executive Secretary which is typical for Senior couples, he has asked me to help with the Branch membership clerk job. That job takes a lot of time and that’s what we have. We have been really blessed to discover how to get death dates and also found that we could get help with removing the names of people who have left the island. We are really thankful for these blessings.

This morning we caught the former district president home (Palau actually was it’s own district some years ago when there were 3 thriving branches on the island). Do to some offense taken they haven’t been back to church in years. As I asked him questions about his service and complemented him on his leadership I felt his enthusiasm for the gospel rekindle.

We discussed how the lease on the building on Meyuns was lost and how to keep that from happening in 11 years where the lease on the land here at the topside branch expires. I told him that Pres. Mecham (the Micronesia Guam Mission President) was going to be on the island this coming Sunday and asked him if he’d come to meet the new mission president so we could talk more about his ideas/concerns regarding the branch building lease. I’m not so naïve to believe that he will “for sure” come on Sunday but I have “hope”.

Both Sister Johnsen and I spoke in church last Sunday and we’re scheduled to sing together this coming Sunday. Monday (a local school holiday), there was a joint activity (which lasted 4 hours). We had a great time playing with the YM/YW and getting to know the adults YM/YW leaders better. I was asked to give a spiritual thought to that gathering. I also enjoy that so much. There are some super solid people here.

Last Tuesday night we went to the Kesolei’s to view “17 Miracles” a movie that we brought along from the states. We had a great experience together. (They also got to experience Johnsen’s famous popcorn too!)

Visiting the People (#5)

Sister Johnsen: While we have been visiting the people in Palau, I was thinking of a book I read called Learned Optimism. One of the principles in the book relates to our ability to keep trying. When we try something and are unable to do it, and we repeat that multiple times and are still unable to do it, we quit and usually don’t try again.

The theory is that if you put a dog in a room and let him jump over the barrier to the other side, he will continue to do that until you place a glass in the way. Then he will try to jump over but when he discovers the glass, he will stop trying. Then, you can remove the glass and the dog will not try to jump over again. This is called Learned Helplessness. There are some real obstacles here and it would not be easy to keep trying.

One of the things we have learned about Palau is that property is almost never sold. It is kept in families. People obtain leases for the land and then live on the site. However, if the lease is up and the property owner doesn’t want to renew the lease it to you, you have to move. We have several members in that position. Why would you try to improve your living situation if someone could pull it out from underneath you?

This actually happened to one of our chapels on the island and the building was torn down.

On Saturday we decided to make visits to members because we thought we would find them at home. We stopped by a man’s home and visited with him while he chewed on his betel nut. (which is a big word of wisdom no-no) He no longer attends church but has a small and quite clean dwelling. His nephew, who was in his 40’s told us all about how to make the “chew” for betel nut.

Betel nut according to the missionaries here is the 4th most addictive substance in the world. It makes your teeth black. I It is unlawful to get betel nut off someone else’s tree. Families have betel nut trees and they don’t share, they sell it. (actually it’s an Areca nut grown on a Areca palm tree which is commonly referred to as "betel nut" as it is often chewed wrapped in betel leaves).

Then we stopped to see another member who had not been attending. She has had cancer and she thinks that it has returned. She told us that her husband’s family had cheated her out of her husband’s pension because she is Filipino. She says they burned down her house and now she lives in a building which previously was her business location. She has 10 children, most of them in the US. She is trying to bottle pickled papaya to raise some money for herself. She lives on a protein drink that lasts her about 15 days of the month. We are not allowed to give members or anyone money. There is great wisdom in this because the poverty is so extreme. But while we were saying a prayer with this sister, I felt that we could at least buy a few bottles of fruit, which was $5 apiece.

When we left there I couldn’t go see anyone else. It was too discouraging. Instead of going home we went out to the boat dock in Meyuns to wait for another member who was coming home. I made a list of the things that I could do in Palau because it felt a little hopeless that day. My list includes such things as: pray for the members, speak in church, support my husband in his executive secretary /clerk job, help with the branch position, be a positive presence, study the gospel, visit less active members, feed the missionaries, support the members.
Then we sat and talked about being missionaries in Palau.

A member told me yesterday that there are 400 members on the island. About 50 of them attend church. . Then missionaries have found another 40 who say they are members but are not on the rolls. The ward list has lots of names of people who aren’t here but no one knows where they have gone so they can’t take their names off the rolls.
Last night, a sister invited me to go visiting teaching with her. She said that it was usually a long time, maybe a year, between the time that they have senior couples come. Brother and Sister Hansen left in August and we came in October.

I sent my three sons to Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines and I just didn’t get it until now. It is difficult to come to these countries and see the poverty. But these strong, valiant people in the Branches need our help so much. I have gone from wondering what we are doing here in Palau, to wondering each day how we can get it all done.

One of the things that really surprises me is the custom of taking off your shoes before entering a house. I decided last night it might be a custom that was started when the Japanese had control of the island. They have also asked us to wear Crocs. We found out why the other day. Elder Johnsen decided not to wear his Crocs and while we were in Sister Oie’s house it poured outside. My Crocs were fine, but his deck shoes were filled with water. Poor Elder Johnsen!

I try to remember what kind of things I was praying about before I came here. I now see how generous the Lord was with me, even though He could see that he had given m
e so much already.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

First Week (#4)

While mission rules allow more flexibility in the schedule for Senior couples, Sister Johnsen and I are trying to follow the same schedule as the young missionaries. We arise early, exercise and try to begin personal gospel study by 8:00 a.m. Then at 9:00 we begin our companion study.

I decided to re-read “Jesus The Christ” by James E. Talmage during my personal study. My first complete reading was 40 years ago while serving in California as a “young” Elder. Talmage begins, not with the birth of Christ, but rather describes the Saviors pre-mortal role as creator and his appointment (foreordination) to be the Savior and Redeemer of mankind.

As I thought of his antemortal Godship (a Talmage phrase) and his lofty status in heaven with God the Eternal Father; I was strongly struck by how marvelous it is that he was willing to come to earth to do for us what we could not do for ourselves to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

In the Book of Mormon Lehi is asked by God to give up his gold and precious things and depart into the wilderness to fulfill his purposes. (one of the main reasons that Laman and Lemuel murmured so much was that they had to give up so much). In a much smaller measure this mission for us is our wilderness experience—we’ve left our precious things behind, not just our swimming pool but also our precious family members to do God’s will. The scriptures are really coming alive as we liken them to ourselves.

We stopped to order a map and had to come back the next day to pick it up. We decided to try to give the woman that helped us a pass-a-long card. We talked about what we could say during companion study and Gail came up with the great question to ask her. When we got there we weren’t sure we would be able to introduce our idea. Then the women said something about recognizing Mormon missionaries. We were able to ask her what religion she was. She said she was Catholic but that she gone to a Seventh Day Adventist school and that her husband was a Protestant. Then Sister Johnsen asked her the great question, “Have you ever had a question that has never been answered” in all those religions. She said, “Yes!” (but just then all her co-workers returned to the office) We gave her a pass along card with our name and number on it and told her to call us if she ever wanted the answer to her question. We have been praying for her every single day. We’re looking forward to returning to buy a map of the big island so we can have a follow-up discussion.

We are in charge of CES as well as our official call as “Leader and Member Support”. We went to seminary last night and the entire lesson was in Palauan, because one of the 12 students can’t speak English. Sister Johnsen felt frustrated and remembered that she had put a 1 on the “interested in speaking a foreign language” box on the mission application. (1 being not at all interested and 6 being very interested.) Then when the lesson was over Sister Kelosie, who taught the lesson, and is he Branch Presidents wife, sat down and talked to Sister Johnsen about her family and her troubles and difficulties and they had a regular conversation like any two North American Relief Society sister’s would. We have an appointment to show “17 miracles” at their home this coming Monday night (a time when Sister Kelosie’s 19 year old non-member daughter will be with them)
We are hoping to visit all the members, but this is difficult because half the people on the ward list are lost—from a North American perspective everyone is lost because no one has an address but at least on ½ the names we have what village they live in. (none of the streets have names and there are no house numbers) On the “lost” members we are not even sure what Palauan state they live in! However, we are making a start.

We stopped to see Carlsa today. She has worked a teacher but is staying home to take care of her aging mother who needs care for 24/7. When I say “home” don’t picture your home. Carlsa lives in a structure that is about 4 feet off the ground. Her front door has completely fallen off the hinge because of termites. A mango tree fell on the back side of the house and it is like being outside while you are inside. They asked the owner of the property, on which the “house” sits, if they could fix it. He said yes, so the church gave them some supplies. Then he changed his mind. It seems like a little wind would blow the whole place over. The other night it rained so hard that it woke both Sister Johnsen and I up. I can hardly imagine how Carlsa felt in her “structure.” We think we will go talk to the owner of the property to see if we can help change his mind.

The people are so poor here, but not all of them have living arrangements like that. Many do though and Sister Johnsen is constantly asking herself, how can the gospel bless people who have such hard, impoverished lives? How does Carlsa continue to trust and believe in a loving and caring Heavenly Father in her dire circumstances? And yet, as we taught her and her non-member mother a brief lesson the spirit let all of us know that He does love them and He is aware of them. Maybe God’s love is more easily felt when there are no doors or windows to keep it out.

We have been asked to speak in church this Sunday, and Elder Johnsen has been asked to be the Executive Secretary/Membership Clerk/branch Presidency helper. They are a little short on helpers. Because I brought a computer file filled with talks, I am ready. But Sister Johnsen has to prepare her remarks (and no doubt it will be the best).

Sister Johnsen says she feels like she understands why the Lord is interested in family love and solidarity. If you lived to be 100 you would not be able to figure out the way relationships work around here. Carlsa’s brother, Wilhelm, lives with them. He is a member, but we couldn’t even talk to him, he was like a ghost in that shanty. He has a daughter Carney who is not a member. We wanted to meet her but she lives with her sister. “Oh, so Wilhem has two daughters?” No the other girl is a half-sister but NOT Wilhelm’s daughter. If you think that is confusing, you should see what this branch list looks like.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Big Arrival (#3)

Our flight to Guam from SLC was not direct by any means. On Tuesday, October 11, we boarded a Delta flight for LA. It turned out we were seated beside a Captain in the US army who was on his way to LA (Culver City) to be a contestant on Jeopardy. The 2 hour flight passed quickly as Elder Johnsen peppered him with questions about his military service, rank advancement, family background, Jeopardy preparation and Jeopardy strategy for determining the wager in final Jeopardy. We ended our discussion by sharing a family related pass along card. After a 5 hour layover in LA we boarded our Delta flight to Japan. During the flight we basically skipped Wednesday. Our final Delta flight to Guam from Japan took 3 hours and 18 minutes that’s the only leg of our flight which we wished was longer because we were upgraded to business class and were actually able to sleep. When we arrived in Guam it was midnight (Thursday morning) October 13th. President and sister Mecham were waiting at the gate to take us to the mission home located in Barrigada Heights.

After a hearty breakfast prepared by Sister Mecham, president Mecham shared his perspective of what our work in Palau would consist. He felt that our success would come from working with the members—with 350 members on the rolls and only 50 attending regularly, he felt certain that there was good work that could be accomplished. At 10:00 we had an appointment with Fredivic Nicerio at the Micronesia-Guam Service Center. Freddie is the Region Coordinator for Seminaries & Institutes and he briefed us on our CES role in Palau. It was especially fun for Sister Johnsen and I to visit with “Liz” Gittens who we knew from our earlier days in the Talisay Branch. Her husband Chris was the branch president when we lived Guam 11 years ago. He has just been called as the stake patriarch. After our training Freddie treated us to lunch and dropped us off at the mission office. After running a few errands we were back at the mission home for Dinner with the Mecham’s.

Friday evening, October 14, we departed Guam for our field of service in Palau. Upon arrival we were greeted by both sets of young elders that are serving here in Palau. (I took two vehicles to haul our 4 suit cases to our new apartment). The missionaries had made an attempt to clean the apartment before we arrived, the power and AC was on but, of course, there was much to be done.

On Saturday morning we awoke early 5:00 a.m. and spent 3 hours cleaning, reorganizing and stowing our gear. The elders picked us up at 8:00 to go to the grocery store—having lived on Guam for two years we were prepared for the sticker shock of Palau prices, the only product reasonably priced was rice which most locals eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At 9:00 we met members at the branch building which is less than ½ mile from our apartment, this was their general conference weekend which we watched from a DVD. I had already downloaded the text of the talks onto my iphone—it was fun following along, which also seemed to help me stay more alert.

Sunday morning we were up early again, (jet lag) Elder Johnsen took an hour walk (the jungle still is a little freaky to Sister Johnsen). While on the walk EJ met and chatted with the proprietor of a restaurant that is just around the corner from our apartment. Nick has been on Palau since 2009, we talked about his business, the theft of 5 laptops which was the basis for his original internet café business plan and the struggles of starting up a new business. EJ told him we’d come back and try his cuisine. Just down the road from Nick he ran into Dwaine, a black man from LA married to a Palauan woman. He mentioned that he knew an LDS couple who were living in a hotel (he couldn’t remember their name) and wondered if we knew them. Today we’ll ask around at church to see if anyone knows them, if so we’ll try to make contact and thru them try to visit Dwaine again, if not I’ll visit Dwaine again to get more information—it’s always good to enlist NM help in tracking down church members—either way we have a friendly opening to make another visit.

Sunday’s conference broadcast began at 9:00, at 11:00 the branch hosted a potluck with the final conferences session beginning at 12:00. It was fun getting to know the active members—we spent most of our visiting time with the Carlson family and Bro. Hubbard, a Dr. on temporary assignment at the SeaBee base. His assignment is interesting, he is a reservist who was called up to serve in Afghanistan and after his tour was over there they assigned him to a 6 month assignment in Palau. He had to leave his family and practice in South Carolina. After church the Koror Elders drove us around the islands in the state of Koror, we visited one inactive member and also went to the SeaBee base which is on the big island just past the airport and visited with Dr. Hubbard, he will be in the islands until February. Both sets of young elders joined us for Sunday dinner and then we spent 2 hours going over the branch list with Elder Barlow (who has been in Palau the longest). We have question marks beside more than ½ the names on the list.

**While we were preparing to come on our mission, we read about some of the conditions on the islands in the Micronesia Mission. Sister Johnsen was extremely concerned, and didn’t feel like there was any way that she could serve in some of those locations. I would lovingly call it Meltdown #2. She made a call to the Missionary department with questions that resulted in a call from President Rawson. Elder Johnsen ended up visiting with the Stake President on the phone and during the conversation President Rawson said that the people of Palau had probably prayed us there. This did comfort, or at least calm, Sister Johnsen down somewhat.

This first Sunday in the branch just before the General Conference DVD was started the counselor in the Branch Presidency announced the new missionaries, Elder and Sister Johnsen, and after welcoming us and saying how happy they were that we had come, he said, “We prayed that you would come!” So President Rawson was right, they did pray us here.

Monday, October 17th, was our preparation day we spent our time making arrangements to have our “home” phone installed and I also got a sim card for my iphone which Steven Rosenlund helped me jailbreak and unlock before we departed Houston. I’m happy to report it readily accepted the sim card from PNCC; we’re good to go. Staying in the Republic of Palau for more than 30 days requires that we file paperwork with the immigration office so we stopped there to do that (that takes a week) then next Monday we have to get a social security number, with that we can get a Palauan Driver’s License which is required to drive after you’ve been in the Republic for more than 30 days. We spent a goodly amount of money buying more groceries and some things for the apartment. After setting some goals and doing our weekly planning we headed up to Nick’s restaurant and had some pizza, he was happy to have our business. It is now 8:30 and we’re both so tired. The good news is that we’re able to sleep about 30 minutes longer every night at that rate it will only take until next week for us to wake up at the specified missionary day starting time of 6:30 instead of 3:30 a.m.

Friday, October 14, 2011

MTC Missionary Moments (#2)

On the theme of God’s ability to micromanage this work from the other side of the veil, we had a couple experiences in the MTC which seemed to be more than just coincidence.

As we’ve previously mentioned there were 102 senior missionaries in our MTC group. One of those couples was Elder and Sister Smith (Van & Claudia) who were headed to Missouri, St Louis mission. When we were divided into “Districts” in the MTC I was named as the “District Leader” and the Smith’s were one of the 8 couples who were in the district with us.

During our District breakout teaching sessions they were seated right next to us and we learned to our surprise that their mission president was planning to send them to Litchfield, Il, the location where I served as bishop from 1986 – 1990. We were able to chat with them about the people and the place they will be serving. It seemed like a “divine signature”.

Each District had a morning and afternoon teacher who helped train/prepare us for the various teaching experiences senior missionaries are given in the MTC. Our morning teacher was Brother Chinn. To illustrate the point that we need to get to know the investigator before we plow into the lesson he did a role play where he took the part of an investigator, David Haralson.

Those of us in the District asked him the kinds of questions that we would ask an investigator. Through his answers to our questions we learned that he was close to a member family who had children his age. He was impressed with that family, they included him as if he were part of the family at meals and family prayer and he wanted that kind of spiritual life for himself.

After that discussion ended Brother Chinn led a discussion of how we would approach teaching David, what points would we emphasize and so forth. In the MTC we are taught to teach people, not lessons. By the time Brother Chinn has finished we were all curious how the actual teaching had gone with David; was he ever baptized? That’s when Brother Chinn revealed that the David Haralson in the story was David Haralson Chinn. We were lifted spiritually by the description of his conversion, however, the story became closer to home when he happened to mention the name of the member family (Kirk) that so impressed him, that hint led me to ask if it was Jeff Kirk to which he was referring. Jeff Kirk is one of my associates at ExxonMobil who also graduated from BYU with a Masters of Accountancy degree. Yes, it was, he then told us that he subsequently married Rachel Kirk (one of Jeff’s twins) after his mission.

The afternoon teacher was Brother Pine. (He was probably 24). He liked teaching the seniors more than the young elders and sisters. We heard that the seniors were like a precooked meal and all you had to do was pop them in the microwave and warm them up, but with the younger missionaries it was like starting a meal from scratch. He helped us a lot and always sent us off to the Teaching Resource Center by saying, “Give ‘em Heaven!”

Brother Pine let us practice being missionaries by dividing us into groups. Elder Johnsen and I were investigators or inactive members and the other Elder and Sister taught us. Then we would change places and practice on them. We were told to “teach to their needs.” He said to remember “Kiss.” This usually stands for “Keep it simple, stupid.” But one of our group said Kiss should stand for “Keep it simple, seniors!”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memorable Missionary Moments in the MTC (#1)

One of the memorable missionary moments in the MTC occurred during the Tuesday night devotional. Sister and Elder Lionel L Kendrick spoke to the large gathering of missionaries that included the 102 seniors in our group plus several thousand young elders and sisters. Sister Kendrick’s advice to the missionaries gathered was to be obedient.

She told the story of a young Elder Campbell who was serving in a mission in Florida. He was a big car race fan so he and his companion purchased tickets to the Daytona 500 car race, he rationalized that he was in Florida and Daytona wasn’t that far out of his area.

However, when race day came he remembered his covenant to be obedient. When he had his final interview with the mission president he presented the unused ticket. Sister Kendrick felt that his commitment to be obedient not only was a blessing to him on his mission but also will continue to bless his post mission life.

She also told a funny story about a stake conference they once attended where a stake primary chorus was scheduled to sing, “I’m trying to be like Jesus” but the printer made a mistake on the program, it read, “I’m trying to like Jesus”. That got a big laugh from the audience.

Elder Kendrick taught that joy, peace, and contentment are the reward for hard work in the mission field. He said that the missionaries should serve the Savior and not serve time. D&C 39:7 His eyes are upon us. The question we should ask each day is how are we going to get it all done? The way you start your day is the way your day will go. Get up on time; it will make a difference on your mission and in the rest of your life. Your season of service will set a standard for all who follow.

Elder Kendrick also taught that God answers prayers, but he never uses a flood light when a flashlight will do. He answers us through thoughts and feelings (which often is still and small). He reminded us that there is no rebellion that is exempt from complete forgiveness. God is in the details of our life.

He concluded his talk but telling several stories. One was about a senior couple where they were called to serve in eastern Russia. On the flight over from Seoul South Korea he happened to sit beside the director of a medical school in the town in which they were called to serve. He happened to mention the humanitarian work that they hoped to accomplish but he said that what he really was interested in was teaching an introductory course in human anatomy; the director, impressed with the Elder said that he could make that happen.

Over the course of their mission that position put this senior elder and sister in a place where they could introduce the gospel to many young professionals, some joined the church and from that leadership nucleus strong branches and ward have grown. God has a way to micro manage things from the other side—how improbable was it that those two would be on that flight and strike up a conversation which would be such a future blessing to the growth of the church in that area.

He also told the story of a stake reorganization where after prayer he and his companion were led to call a 24 year old man as the new stake president. However, they were worried about the feelings of the man who had been serving as 1st counselor in the previous stake presidency (an older but equally qualified candidate). When they called he and his wife in to explain that this young bishop had been called instead, the first counselor of the old stake president invited his wife to relate a vision/dream she had several months before where she saw this 24 year old Bishop being sustained as the new stake president and had told her husband about it. He had laughed it off telling her that at their next stake conference there was no general authority scheduled to come, and that there was no reason why the stake leadership should be reorganized. Elder Kendrick testified that there is much activity going on from the other side of the veil to make preparations for the Lord’s work.

While missionary work is not always a bed of roses, we should be of good cheer and be a miracle maker. We should serve the Savior and not serve time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Come Join the Ranks

Gail H. Johnsen

It has been 40 years since I lugged my suitcases into the Mission Home in downtown Salt Lake City to begin my mission to northern California, so obviously some things have changed. Now to begin our service as senior missionaries, my husband and I traveled from our home in Spring, Texas, to Provo, Utah. The thing that hasn’t changed is the feeling in the MTC. It still has the most amazing spirit and energy of anyplace I’ve ever been in my life.

The senior couples and sisters entering the MTC with us are among the largest group that has come here to begin their missions. There are 102 of us, most serving as senior missionaries for the first time. Some have always planned to serve, while others are responding to President Monson’s request in the October 2010 Semiannual General Conference in which he expressed the church’s need for “many, many more senior couples.”

Not only are our locations scattered across the globe, but our assignments are as varied as those listed in the Senior Missionary Opportunity Bulletin. We will be living in locations such as Albania, Tonga, India, England, Italy, Micronesia Guam, Russia, Fiji, California and Hawaii. We will be serving in mission offices, as CES teachers and directors, as cultural specialist, in temples and providing member and leader support.

Whether I gaze at the MTC group as a whole or peer searchingly into the pure eyes of each missionary, I know that I am part of one of the most amazing and powerful groups on the face of the earth today. We are sacrificing a large portion of our both young and older lives to go anywhere the Lord sends us to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, we are paying for the privilege, and what a privilege it is to be able to qualify to be part of this amazing army of God sweeping the earth with the message of the restoration of the Lord’s church in these last days. As Neil L. Andersen promised us, “Your mission will be a sacred opportunity to bring others to Christ and help prepare for the Second Coming of the Savior.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who spoke in the October 2011 Semiannual General Conference, has renewed the call to arms saying that “we need tens of thousands of more missionaries in the months and years that lie ahead” and “we need thousands of more couples serving in the missions of the church.”

What an opportunity we have as members. The tangible feeling of the importance of the work begins the minute we enter the Missionary Training Center. With Elder Holland I reiterate, “Come join the ranks!” ("We Are All Enlisted," hymn 250)

This article has been published with Mormon Times.
Here is the article on MormonTimes

Local couple begin 18-month mission on Micronesian island


While a number of retirees while away the hours on the golf course, Gary Johnsen and his wife, Gail, residents of Northwest Houston, will embark on an 18-month mission trip to the Micronesian islands known as the Republic of Palau.
“It’s always been something I felt like I wanted to do, especially with a companion of my choice,” said Gary, who clocked in his last day of work this January.

As lifelong members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Johnsens both served on missions when they were young. They felt a personal call to serve again after listening to Thomas Monson, president of the Church, recently speak at the semiannual, worldwide General Conference, urging more senior couples to serve on missions.

“We hear this man we revere as a prophet speak, and we try to follow his leadership. Because we have other friends that didn’t feel like they wanted to go or needed to go, but we felt in our hearts that we needed to go,” Gail said. “So it’s just kind of a two-part thing: you hear and then you feel.”

When completing the application process, the couple requested they serve as part of the Micronesia Guam Mission, being familiar with the country because Gary had worked a two-year assignment in Guam during his career with Exxon Mobil. Having spoken to mission leadership, they learned they will be serving in Palau, located approximately 125 miles southwest of Guam.

“It’s mostly surrounded by jungle, but it does have air conditioning,” Gary said. “Some people get island fever. It’s kind of like cabin fever in the winter in some places in the United States; you just kind of get cooped up. I never felt that way in Guam. And Palau is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

The chain of tropical islands, where the economy is largely dependent on tourism, covers just less than 200 square miles of land in total, with an estimated population of 22,000. The Johnsens spent their last week at home in Klein packing two suitcases for a year-and-half’s worth of clothing appropriate for their new home-away-from-home.

“On Palau, the missionaries wear Crocs, so I got a few pairs of those. I think it rains a lot, so people’s shoes get ruined,” Gail said.

With 150 inches of rainfall each year and a narrow temperature range of 80 to 90 degrees, the two are opting for a lighter, cooler wardrobe. For Gary, this includes a number of short-sleeved shirts in the traditional white, collared fashion easily identifiable among Latter-Day Saints missionaries.

It’s a simpler life, and one that is marked by definite sacrifices from typical life in Houston.

“In a way, we kind of move back to when we were students at Brigham Young University,” Gary said. “Poor students.”

Such sacrifices include reverting to dial-up Internet for a pricey $200 a month, the confusion of no marked street names, postal delivery and, as per standard Church missionary rules, no swimming — in a locale known for its scenic coral reefs and ideal snorkeling conditions. The latter is particularly a challenge for Gary, who lists snorkeling as one of his favorite hobbies.

That said, he and his wife are ready to be put to work.

“We are so taught in this Church to be good people and to help others,” Gary said. “Whether those others are members of our congregation or not doesn’t matter, what really matters is trying to do good things, so we’re hoping Gail and I can find some good things that we have the opportunity to do for the people we’re serving.”

While in Palau, the Johnsens will aid in a variety of tasks, from assisting with the religious education of young Church members on the island, helping with administrative work and possibly serving in the local hospital or library. In addition, being pianists, the two hope to provide music lessons to locals.
“A lot of times, in the small branches of the Church, having people that can play piano in church is kind of a big deal, and we can train people for that,” Gary said.

The Johnsens will be serving on the island with two pairs of younger LDS missionaries. With their age and experience, the two will offer different strengths in service than those of their college-age counterparts.

“I think obviously, we have a vast amount of experience in how the Church runs. We’ve lived in a lot of different places over the years,” Gary said. “We’ve traveled kind of widely, and every place we’ve been and visited, we’ve always gone to church locally. Because we’ve lived a lot of different places, I think we’ll have some experiences that will be helpful, we hope, as we serve with the local leadership at the Church there.”

Being older and married also means that the Johnsens have a family of their own, including seven children. Fortunately, the Church allows them greater flexibility than young missionaries, who can only call home on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

The couple will be squeezing in a family wedding in Provo, Utah, before embarking on their mission trip this upcoming week. They are free to return to the States at their own expense to attend other weddings, births or deaths.
The Johnsens are just two of more than 52,000 missionaries from the Church of all ages.

“Our Church has always been a proselyting church. We take the directive from the bible in Matthew where Jesus said, ‘Go you therefore, and teach all nations,’” said Ramona Siddoway, public affairs representative for the Church in the Klein and Champions area. “So we really believe it’s a great privilege to be able to share this message with people around us.”

Missionaries serve in 350 locations in all imaginable corners of the world, including tiny islands with cultures yet untouched by too many Western luxuries.“One of the funny things that I found about Guam — and I think that it’s true throughout Micronesia — is you never ask people where they live. You always ask people where they stay,” Gary said. “Because housing is usually in pretty short supply. It’s real expensive, so a lot of times people will stay with one relative for a while and then when their welcome wears out, they will go stay with someone else.”

The Johnsens will be doing a lot more than just “staying” in Palau, although they are keeping their Houston home and will return to life as usual after the mission. In the meantime, Gary will become “Elder Johnsen” and his wife, “Sister Johnsen.” Together, they will serve as they believe they have been called to do.

“There’s a need for missionaries to serve all over the world,”Gail said. “So we just felt like that was something we could do.”

Posted: Friday, October 7, 2011 10:14 am | Updated: 10:33 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

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