In the Michigan Lansing Mission, there were three levels, or degrees, of music; Approved, Unapproved, and Gent.
Approved Music was music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, hymns and other reverent music recorded by LDS musicians, and EFY albums from 1995 and earlier. This was music was was valiant in its testimony of the restored gospel, and kept the commandments of not being too loud or having a heavy beat. It took me a while to get introduced to the full selection of approved music as a missionary, inasmuch as Elder Staker was not a fan of many of the contemporary LDS artists that were on the approved music list. Elder Staker did, however, have a recording of an album by the BYU Choirs and Orchestra, an album called A Thanksgiving of American Folk Hymns. Included on this album was a version of the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” as arranged by Mack Wilberg. I had never heard this hymn before, since it is not in the current versions of the LDS Hymnals, and I very quickly learned to love the message and the melody of the hymn. For your listening pleasure, here is the very version he introduced me to:
(Aside that has little to do with music in the mission field): Later in life, through correspondence with Elder Staker, he introduced me to a musician who wrote an entire album of songs inspired by the great state of Michigan. The artist’s name was Sufjan Stevens. A few years later, Jessica would purchase Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album, which featured a beautiful version of none other than the song “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Here you go:
Unapproved Music was music by LDS artists included on EFY albums from 1996 and later, Greg Simpson, and any music that was loud or had a heavy repetitive beat. It was music that’s glory differed from that of Approved Music, it was music that was the honorable music of the earth, but not deemed appropriate for listening to by missionaries in the Michigan Lansing Mission. I would have to wait until after returning home from Michigan to hear these tracks. Tracks such as this one:
Gent (short for Gentile) Music was music that was not by LDS artists. It was music that’s glory differed from that of Approved and Unapproved Music, like the stars differ from the sun and the moon in glory. In fact, it was music written and performed by stars of the music industry. It was music that had its place in life before and after serving a full-time mission, but was absolutely prohibited by the rules of missionary life. It was music that was as numerous as my personal CD collection back in Utah, and way way beyond. Um, as an example, here’s something by one of my favorite bands:
Then there is the not-so-frequently-mentioned Outer Darkness Music. This is music that has no glory whatsoever. It is music written in boardrooms by record producers and then pitched to different artists who then use auto-tune to record it. It has no heart and no originality. I will not force any of this terrible product on you with an example.
Three other things I want to note about music and my mission: First, at some point, President Church began to emphasize with the missionaries the power of music as a teaching tool, and he encouraged us to utilize it in teaching. Specifically, he encouraged us to sing frequently. He said that as missionaries in the Michigan LanSING Mission, it was important for us to use the unique influence of the hymns and primary songs to invite the Spirit into homes and meetings. There were so many times that this occurred during my two years there, that it feels impossible to remember them all, but I want to mention just one experience. It happened in the Grand Rapids Airport on September 21, 2001. We went to the airport to drop off the missionaries who were on their way home, and to wait for the arrival of new missionaries on their way to Michigan from the MTC. Before the departing missionaries went through security, we decided it would be appropriate to sing a few hymns, specifically patriotic hymns. We sang one or two, and then Elder Jenks, a very charismatic and inspired missionary, invited everyone in the waiting area at the airport to join with us in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody joined in, including all of the airport employees. This was, as noted by the date, ten days after the terrorist attacks of September 11th. The Spirit was tangible.
Second, while serving in North Muskegon, we had somehow arranged to do service with a group of elderly ladies who tied quilts. Every week as we tied quilts with these ladies, we would talk with them and we discovered a number of shared common beliefs. The ladies were Seventh Day Adventists. At some point, and I really don’t remember how it all came about, they discovered that one of the other missionaries who would do service there, Elder Mahana, and I, liked to sing. We must have sung for them while quilting, because they talked with their pastor and arranged to have us come and sing as a part of their Sabbath services. These worked out for us, because they met on Saturday, so it did not interfere with our own worship services on Sunday. Elder Mahana and I decided that we wanted to sing “My Redeemer Lives,” (hymn #135), a hymn written by Gordon B. Hinckley. It gave us a lot of pleasure knowing that we were going into a Seventh Day Adventist Church and singing the words of the living prophet. We attended the service, which was well attended; it felt like a very large LDS ward, and listened to the pastor offer his sermon. When he finished, it was our turn to sing, and sing we did. When we finished the hymn, a chorus of “Amen!” echoed from the congregation. A lot of people made a point of talking to us to tell us how much they enjoyed the hymn. We were invited back two more times to sing in their meetings, and each time had a similar experience.
Lastly, during the time I served in the mission office, we held meetings called Half Mission Conferences. These meetings were similar to the once-every-six-weeks zone conferences that we held, but they had a few unique features, such as a morning session that was lighthearted and fun. As a part of the morning session, we held a mission talent show. There were some impressive talents displayed during the talent show, and one of the highlights was a companionship that had written a song about missionary life. They called the song, “Knocking Doors.” It was clever and catchy, and everybody loved it. A few weeks after the conference, President Church asked my companion and I to do him a favor. The missionaries who had written “Knocking Doors” were offered an opportunity (I think by one of their investigators) to record the song in a recording studio that was located outside of their area. President Church wanted us to attend the recording session with them. This was one of the greatest assignments of my mission, and I selfishly made the most of it. At the studio, they recorded the guitar part first, and then the vocals. While the elder was in recording the vocal part, I was in the sound booth with the engineer, and I began to sing a harmony part to the chorus of the song. The engineer heard me and did exactly what I hoped he would do, he told me to go in there and record my harmony part. The recording turned out great, and President and Sister Church made a copy of it on CD for each missionary in the mission.
There is an aspect of missionary life that, at least from my experience, is not discussed very much outside of missions themselves, but that plays a HUGE role in the life of every missionary. It is the fact that every few weeks (in the case of the Michigan Lansing Mission during my two years there, every six weeks), major changes take place within the structure of the mission. These changes are called transfers, and they are an extremely underrated subject of conversation of missionary life, in my opinion.
Consider this: On a given day, once every six weeks, every missionary companionship in the mission is instructed to be at their apartment so that they can answer a potential phone call from the mission president. If the mission president does in fact call their apartment, it means that things are going to change for the companionship. It likely means that one of the missionaries is going to leave that area and a new missionary will be replacing him or her. Those missionaries who are leaving an area are given just over a day to prepare for their departure; this preparation includes the physical preparation of packing up all of their belongings and getting ready to move everything they own to a new location, and the social preparation of informing those who they care to inform of their departure. In some cases, this is a long list of people, including members of the church, individuals who are investigating the church, and recent converts who just joined the church. It can be a profound emotional experience.
Sometimes on this day of receiving transfer calls, the mission president does not call a companionship’s apartment, and that means that nothing is changing with that companionship for the next six weeks. The missionaries are informed of this non-change through a phone call from their zone leader who has been called and informed by the assistants to the mission president of all of the changes that have occurred in the mission. This is how the information is communicated to each of the companionships in the mission. Or, at least, this is how it was done in the Michigan Lansing Mission over a decade ago. It could very well be different now, what with new forms of communicating and stuff. Transfers are probably tweeted now-a-days.
The feelings of anxiety felt by missionaries on these mornings cannot be overstated. Every single elder and sister knows that their lives could change dramatically in the next 48 hours, and they have absolutely no control over it. They trust that whatever happens is the will of the Lord, and that brings a measure of comfort, but it doesn’t eliminate the feelings of not knowing and of anticipating what might or might not happen.
I remember my first transfer day well. It was early February 2000, and Elder Staker and I sat in our apartment, reading our scriptures, writing letters, and talking with each other about transfers. Elder Staker had been transferred twice before, once from his first area of Mount Pleasant to North Muskegon, and then again from North Muskegon to the area we served in together in Lansing South. He explained to me what it felt like to leave an area, to have to leave behind the people who he had given so much of his heart and efforts to try and teach the gospel. He was the kind of person who felt things deeply, and these transitions were very difficult for him. I imagined what it would be like to leave Lansing and the people we were teaching. There was Bridgette, the young woman who we had been teaching for weeks and who was trying to quit smoking so she could be baptized. And there was Nathan, the man who was engaged to a member of the ward, and who was a quiet and sensitive man, and who deeply wanted to be a part of an eternal family. The thought of leaving was scary to me. Eventually the phone rang and my heart began to race. It was Elder Adcox, our zone leader. No changes to our companionship. Sigh of relief.
This experience would prove to be the exception and not the rule for me. Over the next twenty-two months, there were only two other transfers that nothing changed within the companionship I was serving in, and they both occurred within the first eight months of my mission. Also interesting is that it wasn’t until my fifth area that I had the experience of being the one in the companionship to stay in the area, instead of the one to leave. Up to that point, if there was a change to be made in my companionship, that change involved me packing my things and moving to a new area. Once I reached my fifth area, North Muskegon, that changed dramatically, as I saw five companions leave during my seven months serving there. I began to get very comfortable in North Muskegon; I was there so long (relatively speaking considering the brief stays I enjoyed in my other areas), that I felt as if it were home. I loved the ward and felt like I was around family. Therefore, it should not have been a surprise that after my fifth transfer (this is what the period of six weeks between transfer days is referred to, incorrectly I suppose) in North Muskegon, I was given a new assignment, to serve in Harrison.
That was easily the most difficult transfer of my mission. For the first few days in Harrison, I felt physically ill, and I could hardly get out to work very much because I was so devastated at having to leave my beloved North Muskegon. Eventually I got over the sorrow of having to leave that I was able to get to work, and I enjoyed my time in Harrison just as much as any other area.
When President Church made the transfer calls, he often used a little lighthearted humor to ease any tension that might be felt. The most memorable of these calls for me came when he called me to serve as one of his assistants. The conversation went something like this:
President Church: Elder Holdaway, how are you?
Me: Good, President, how are you? [Of course my heart is beating fast, as it always is when I'm speaking with President Church on transfer call day.]
President Church: I’m doing well, thanks. Elder, the Lord has a new assignment for you.
President Church: I’m calling you to come down here and be my assistant. You’re companion will be Elder Munoa. You two will do a lot of good together.
President Church: Do you accept this new assignment, Elder?
Me: Yes, President. Of course.
President Church: Good! Because if you didn’t, I’d have to come up there and ring your neck!
I think I expressed to him later how much his little joke helped me with the shock I felt. The assignment gave me an opportunity to learn about transfers from the other side. Elder Munoa (then Elder Eales) and I would meet with President Church in a series of meetings in which we would consider all of the missionaries in the mission, and discuss what changes to make. We met three times total, and the last time would be at the tail end of a 24 hour fast. Once we had everything arranged, we would pray and ask for confirmation that the changes we were proposing were in accordance with the will of the Lord. Those were powerfully spiritual meetings. The impression I came away with after experiencing those meetings was that each and every one of the missionaries was remembered, and no moves were ever made arbitrarily or without sincerely considering the good of the missionaries involved.
I have tried to convey this feeling on many occasions when talking with new or prospective missionaries. Transfers can be difficult, they can be exciting, they can be frustrating, and they can be bewildering and unpredictable. But they are an integral part of missionary life and missionary work.
Elder Holdaway in President Church’s office with President’s official laser pointer. During transfer meetings, we would discuss potential transfers and President Church would point at the missionary cards with the pointer and indicate where to move them.
I left the zone. I was in the zone for several weeks, months even, but then I left it, and I want to get back in it. It was fun in the zone. It was gratifying in the zone. I’m going to try to get back in the zone.
But that’s a tricky thing, you see, because the zone took me through the year 1999, and that was what I originally set out to accomplish. As time went on, though, I knew that I wanted to do more, that I wanted to go beyond 1999. I wanted to chronicle my mission, but I had not found a satisfying format in which to do this. Originally, I thought I would follow a similar format to the one that I used in writing about 1999, which was a loose kind of chronology, looking for distinctive events in time that separated one group of events from another. This was an interesting exercise for 1999, because the time breaks were ambiguous and therefore had to be created literarily. I began to write about my mission with this format in mind, but I wasn’t feeling it. The breaks in time on my mission were too easily distinguishable, what with transfers that brought new areas and new companions. I chose not to publish any of the posts that I started because they just didn’t come together the way the stories about 1999 did.
So I’m trying something a little different to write about my mission. Instead of going chronologically, I’m going thematically. Each story will cover a certain theme or idea, and I will pull experiences from different times within my mission to illustrate them. I’m feeling much better about this approach, and I hope it is as interesting as I feel it can be.
What follows in this post, then, is a list of the areas I served in as well as the missionaries I served with in those areas, so that all of the experiences I write about can be placed within their respective context (and as all missionaries know, context is REALLY important):
1. LANSING SOUTH (December 19, 1999-March 23, 2000), Elder Staker
2. JACKSON EAST (March 23, 2000-May 4, 2000), Elder Sanders, Elder Nelson
3. JACKSON NORTH (May 4, 2000-July 25, 2000), Elder Gregersen
3a. Somewhere in Kalamazoo, with Elder Strong and Elder Gibson. I was in limbo between the time I was given a new assignment and actually began serving in the assignment. This lasted for two days from July 25, 2000 to July 27, 2000.
4. GRAND HAVEN (July 27, 2000-October 16, 2000), Elder Merritt
5. NORTH MUSKEGON (October 16, 2000-May 14, 2001), Elder Henrie, Elder Ashby, Elder Peterson, Elder Olson, Elder Hatch, Elder Leavitt
6. HARRISON (May 15, 2001-August 7, 2001), Elder Andersen, Elder Boyle
7. MISSION OFFICE (August 7, 2001-October 30, 2001), Elder Munoa, Elder Eales
8. OKEMOS (October 30, 2001-December 11, 2001), Elder Fagg
That’s right, 8 areas and 16 companions (not counting the brief stint in Kalamazoo). I don’t have the data to analyze this accurately (nor do I have the patience, or even the skills, to analyze it), but I’m confident that serving in 8 different areas and with 16 companions is on the high end of the average missionary experience. Probably in the 80th percentile, at least, if not higher. I don’t know why I’m bothering to mention this, though, because it really doesn’t mean anything. Looking at a missionary’s mission as a whole presents a difficult phenomenon to assess, because each of the transfers (changes of companion and/or area) is, for the most part, a self-contained event that has little to do with what was in the past, and almost nothing to do with what is in the future.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I plan on writing about transfers in a later installment (maybe even the next one!!), so for now I’ll just show you a map of Michigan with each of the areas I served in:
Today’s my dad’s birthday. His 70th birthday. When I think about birthdays and my dad, I think about this song. For years, I had no idea this was a Beatles’ song. I just thought it was the Holdaway family birthday song that Dad would play whenever it was somebody’s birthday. He’d play it on the stereo in his studio, and he could really turn up the volume on it, and we would rock out. It just feels right to hear this song on this day.
Dad isn’t around to celebrate his 70th birthday. On Friday, May 15th, 2009, he passed away. He was 65. This is still a raw thing to process. It’s one of those things that I can’t really get used to, even though it has been over four years …
Dad’s funeral was held on Saturday, May 23rd, 2009. During the days leading up to the funeral, as a family, we discussed what the service should be like. Ultimately, we decided that each of the five kids would speak for a few minutes, and share our memories about Dad. When this course was agreed upon, I immediately began to feel concerned, because I’m not very good at conjuring up memories, and I’m especially not very good at articulating those memories. To do so, as I have discovered with the project I have been doing on this blog, I have to work very much chronologically, have a starting point and an ending point, and have a very specific purpose in mind. It’s the task of recalling random specific moments, and elaborating on those.
I’m much more inclined to think of ideas or themes that center around a subject. For example, when I think about Dad I think about sketching, about back rubs, about his singing the bass line of the hymns in Sacrament Meeting (and how I have always felt that the bass parts of the hymns belong to Dad), about the smell of rolls and reams of unused glossy paper, about the red tiles on the downstairs bathroom floor–Dad’s bathroom, about the nobs and levers on the thing in the dark room that was kind of like a copier, and about so many other things. But I didn’t feel like that was the right way to go about sharing my memories of Dad, just listing stuff.
Finally I had a burst of inspiration. I would kind of cheat, as it were, and let Dad write the memories for me. I dug around and found a number of letters he wrote to me while I was on my mission, and I quoted from those letters in my talk. The excerpts captured a number of different things about Dad, and articulated those things, in a way that I could not do myself. Following the funeral service, Mom and Dad’s bishop approached me and asked if I would make copies of my talk for each of my family members, and I agreed to. But I didn’t do it in those first few days, and I still have not done it. And I cannot find my copy; I must have put it some place so secure that it’s safe from me.
I searched through shoe boxes and files and in my suit coat pockets, and I could not find it anywhere. This troubled me for days, because I really wanted to be able to share those memories on his 70th birthday, and the weeks were slipping by too quickly. Then one evening while I was racking my brain a thought occurred to me (Jessica would call this process critical thinking, a talent I’m still very much in infantile stages developing) to see if I had saved a copy on my computer. After a few minutes of searching I found it. And so, finally, I can make good on my promise, and I can share these excerpts that are so very much Dad.
What follows is the talk in its entirety; the excerpts from his letters are italicized:
When Dad first started dialysis, I was serving my mission. I remember well the letter he sent me describing what he had to do every day to keep his kidneys clean. He compared himself to an upright tire pump with a hose coming out the side of it, and even drew a picture to help me visualize what he was talking about. I wanted to find that letter, but couldn’t. However, I did find a number of other letters he sent me while I was gone, and I want to share some of the things he wrote me with you today.
This first one comes from a letter he typed rather than wrote by hand, the only one of its kind that he sent me. Interspersed through the letter were two photos that he put in the document, one of Grandma Jessie driving a convertible he bought not long after returning from his mission, and the other one he took of me in my black hair days. He writes:
Mom is at the gym. She likes to work out on the treadmill and do weights sometimes. She showed me that she can touch her toes without bending her knees. She was surprised to discover this new trick. She says she is getting stronger. I’d better watch out.
This next one comes from a letter with a homemade letterhead, something that was very common among his letters. The letter head consisted of a photo I sent home of me standing in a green field looking upward in a setting that reminded me of the depiction of the Sacred Grove in the old First Vision church video. He photoshopped a UFO in my line of sight, explaining that he had enhanced the photo and discovered what it was I was looking at, and that it now made more sense to him. He mentioned in the letter that Mom was going to send me my favorite cookies and then included this anecdote about receiving a package from a girl back home while on his own mission:
It was May or June and our district went into Paris for an all mission conference. Someone there told me that I had a package from home. I was many miles from Paris when it arrived around Christmas. Even if it was 5 or 6 months later I was still happy to have it. … It was quite solid. I wondered what the heck it was. … When we were settled on the train I decided to open it. Sure enough, Christmas paper. Then a plastic bag with a …what?—a crusty brick? Oh I see a raisin, and what’s that? A rock-hard cherry. There are many, all embedded in a … a … fruitcake! Hard as a rock. We used it for a tire chalk when we parked our VW van on a hill. It was indestructible. Sad thing too was that it was not alone in the plastic wrapper. Out came a skinny necktie that more resembled a shoelace. Dang. I could have used that—as a necktie anyway. I think my companion did use it as a shoelace.
And this one from “Saturday June 20-something—maybe the 26th. I can’t check the date cause I’m hooked to a bag.”
Dialysis time. Every 5-7 hours, sometimes 6-10 if I forget or busy at work or in SLC… -FLASH-the phone just rang and I answered it sitting here with my drain going… Summer is oh-fish-ally here! … I guess Mom told you about the party/picnic we had last week … I sang barbershop style with the big Ogden dude, Terry Hatch, and bro. Benson. I thought Jeff was going to explode—he had to hit some really high notes and then went up from there. He must have lost 10 lbs by sweating and forcing the moisture out straining to break glass with those piercing high notes. He was about 6 octaves above the rest of us. All the neighborhood dogs high-tailed it in a hurry… Hayley’s having a birthday party today [for her fifth birthday]. Only girls she informed me. Kristin came over to borrow a table cloth this morning for the party and brought Hayley and Alyssa. Hayley told me to call her Sally. Then she heads for my markers and starts drawing whales at the bar. I’m making pancakes so I make her one that looks like Minnie Mouse. Then I put a candle in it and light it. And Hayley blows it out. When she saw it she said something I can’t repeat. She didn’t eat the mouse head.
Included in the text of this one were pictures of the Minnie Mouse Pancake complete with burning candle.
I ought to make mention of the letter he wrote me while I was in the MTC. The letterhead was of a hand holding a rubber chicken by the neck, and he said the chicken was a bird left over from Thanksgiving because it was scrawny enough or green enough to be overlooked. There was also a photo of a pumkin pie frosted with a portrait of me. He was an expert cake (and pie) decorator.
Not long into my mission, when I was experiencing some disappointment with people not keeping commitments, he wrote me this:
It’s easy to be discouraged—but remember—discouragment is only a tool of Satan—nothing more. Understanding what discouragement is really helps because in understanding you can overcome it because you see the source and know you are stronger than an evil influence.
He would have ample opportunity to live this profound principle through the last nine years of his life.
And finally, toward the end of my mission he wrote:
You’ll look back upon the days you are really living this very moment … for strength, direction and comfort … The people whose lives you’ve touched—and helped change for the better. You’ll probably do a lot more of it throughout your life. It will be before mission. During mission & after mission. Too bad the time goes so fast but it’s what you do with what time you have that’s important. But remember to get enough sleep too!
Dad’s life was one that touched many. He made the most of the time of his life, that did go by too fast. He was always willing to lift and bless those around him with his quick and unique wit and charisma. And now is his time to get enough sleep from his tired mortal tabernacle.
How grateful I am to have the restored gospel and to know that through the grace of God and His Son Jesus Christ, “that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory” (D&C 130:2).
First of all, the title I have given this could have a number of meanings in the context of a blog about life as a missionary. I don’t have any statistics about this, but I’m confident the most common connotation of the word “apocalypse” in today’s world has to do with the cataclysmic end of the world. That is the meaning the word has taken, but the origin of the word, in particular having to do with this specific definition, comes from the title of a book in the New Testament. That book? Revelation, the book that is commonly referred to when discussing prophecies of the cataclysmic end of the world (most often erroneously referred to, by the way). Where did the book of Revelation get its name? It is the English translation of the Greek title, loosely transliterated as Apocalypse. So, yeah, an apocalypse is a revelation, and in a story about missionary work, the concept of revelation might just play a crucial role.
But not necessarily in this story. No, this time the word does indeed refer to that most common usage in our contemporary world. For this is the story of the last day of the last millennium: December 31st, 1999, a day many thought might be an apocalyptic day.
But it wasn’t. Not that I was aware of, anyway. Nothing cataclysmic happened, but I do have one very vivid memory of the day.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this vivid memory of which I write has to do with lunch. Elder Staker and I traded off with our zone leader, Elder Adcox, and his companion, Elder Hartung. I was working with Elder Hartung during lunchtime, and we decided to go eat at a little diner down the street from Elder Staker’s and my apartment. The place was called The Great Lakes Diner, and it was a 50′s style place with a juke box that played a collection of oldies (but not all from the 50′s, as we shall see).
I don’t remember what I ate, what Elder Hartung and I talked about, or really anything other than one brief period of about two and a half minutes. As we sat and talked, suddenly a familiar sound entered my ears. At first I couldn’t believe it, but I focused on the sound and sure enough, it was the unmistakable rhythms, melodies, and voice of the one and only Desmond Dekker singing his song from 1968 about being a poor Israelite.
This was significant to me for a number of reasons. First of all, I had never heard Desmond Dekker’s music from any source other than my own CD player. I’d never heard any of his songs on the radio (in spite of what Rancid sings in “Roots Radicals,” though, the radio stations I grew up listening to in Utah were likely not as cool as those that Tim Armstrong grew up listening to in East Bay). I’d never heard his music on television or in a restaurant or in any other setting. For that matter, I still have not heard Desmond Dekker from any other source beside my own choosing. So this experience of hearing Israelite at The Great Lakes Diner in Lansing, Michigan stands apart in my life as being very unique.
Second, this experience was significant because I was able to hear the music of my former life while serving as a missionary. Missionaries typically have strict rules about what kinds of music are appropriate for their listening pleasure, and most of the music I favored was firmly on the list of UNAPPROVED. I had expected this, and so I did not struggle with the rule in the sense that I never sought to listen to anything other than what was allowed by the rules of the mission. However, if as a part of our daily activities, we happened to be in a place where music was playing, that was perfectly allowable. 99% of the time in situations like this I didn’t recognize the music being played, but every once in a while (in fact, so rarely I could probably count the number of times on one hand), I would hear “my” kind of music, and those were good times.
Finally, hearing this song on the last day of 1999 was, in a lot of ways, an ideal summation of the year. All of the experiences, all of the friendships, all of the music, all of the fun, all of it, was wrapped up in hearing this one song. One year earlier, when I contemplated the possibilities of what life would have in store for me that year, and wondered where I would be at the end of the year, I could not have anticipated everything that happened. At that moment, I had my answer. I knew where I was and what I was doing. I was in Lansing, Michigan, serving with the greatest training companion the world had ever known, learning new things every day, and, at that moment, listening to a song that captured EVERYTHING about that year of my life.
That night, when we went to bed, we didn’t know whether or not the world would change that night. Would the beginning of Y2K really cause major problems with everything? Would stuff explode? Would computers crash (not that we would have known if they did)? Would extra terrestrials riding unicorns invade the earth? Would the kitchen faucet turn on and off inexplicably?
Nope. No apocalypse. Well, except for the one received while sitting in The Great Lakes Diner the day before.
At last, here we were, Elder Staker and I, in our apartment (a place that I noted in my journal smelled like marijuana, an aroma familiar to me from Warped Tour and a 311 concert) on Lincoln Ave in Lansing, Michigan. It finally felt like my mission had officially begun. Elder Staker was as new to the area as I was; we replaced both missionaries who had been serving there. One of them had been having a lot of health problems, particularly with his back, and they had not been able to leave the apartment very much for the last few weeks that they had been there. Therefore, the apartment had the appearance of a place that had been constantly inhabited by two twenty-year old young men (interpret that how you will).
The area book (the records of who was being taught and all the work being done in the area) needed some help too. I think we only had two media referrals to follow up on, and one of them was at an address where no house existed anymore, and the other wasn’t a productive lead either. Our zone leader, Elder Adcox, filled us in on some important things to know about the area, but he didn’t have any specific information about any teaching that was occurring, so we were, in a lot of ways, beginning from scratch. For me, that was an exciting prospect.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing I need to do here is quote my journal, because it’s a fascinating look into my mindset during this completely unique experience I was having. This was the first time in my life that I had really been away from home for any extended period of time, and this is evidence of how I coped with that reality.
I’m sitting in a little apartment in Lansing, Michigan with my companion, Elder Staker. He is really cool, he plays bass, loves ska and well, played with The Knockouts and other bands as well [The Knockouts were a Utah ska band that played in the same battle of the bands as Rash one year; their drummer needed to borrow a snare drum and I happily let him use mine].
Today I had the opportunity of doing some door knocking and then later I taught the sixth new member discussion with an Elder Adcox and a member to a guy named Mark. He was really cool, I liked him a lot. I need to remember to pray for his grandpa who is going to be having double by-pass surgery tomorrow.
Elder Adcox was a drummer in a punk band in Arizona called Flouride, they opened for Rancid. I think that’s pretty cool.
I’m confident that I instigated all of the conversations that led to finding out that my companion and my zone leader were both into similar music as myself. I remember this being a boon to me. I felt like I was around kindred spirits. I hadn’t yet come to the understanding that similarities outside of the mission field meant next to nothing compared to the brotherhood that could be developed while having a common goal of preaching the gospel. That understanding came, little by little, throughout the next two years.
Those first few days in the field were filled with a lot. In fact, a lot of memories that my brain had spread out over the three months that Elder Staker and I served together in Lansing South, actually occurred between that first day and Christmas Day, just eight days later. This included the first time we taught a first discussion, and here’s how that happened.
Since the two media referrals that we followed up on didn’t amount to much, we decided to try the oldest missionary finding technique in the book, going door to door asking to talk with people about the gospel. On our apartment wall was a large street map of our area, and so we knelt and prayed to ask for guidance as to what street we should begin our search for someone to teach. We felt impressed to begin in a neighborhood that included Reo Ave, a little street a wound its way through a poor area of town. We met a number of people, some kinder to us than others, and among these was a woman named Ginger. Ginger had three small children. She and her husband worked long hours to try to support their family. She was very kind to us, and even felt to warn us against a part of town she felt would be dangerous for us to work in. “Stay away from Baker Street,” she cautioned. We didn’t teach her any discussions, but we did make plans to get her kids some Christmas presents and to return to try and teach the family.
That evening as we prayed about where to knock doors the next day, Elder Staker felt very strongly about a street a little north east of where we lived. Baker Street. We had a good laugh about that, and I was a little worried since Ginger had seemed so earnest in her warning against going there, but we decided that was where the Spirit was directing us, so that’s where we went, and it led to this journal entry:
December 21, 1999
Elder Holdaway’s first First Discussion. Wow! Oh wow! What can I say? It was the coolest, most awesome possible experience of my life. Well, actually, it could’ve been, because it was real! We were door knocking on Baker St. We came to a house, and the lady opened the door and we started talking to her and she let us in out of the cold. Elder Staker and I introduced ourselves, she said her name was Julie. Elder Staker asked if she’d like to hear the message that we had about Christ and she said, “Sure.” I don’t know if I’ve ever been more subtly taken back as when she said yes. I don’t think I knew quite what to do, so I sat down… The television was on and we neglected to ask her to turn it off, but it was okay, because the Spirit manifest itself anyway. Amongst The Price is Right, two little kids, and a dog that loved to jump on people, we taught her the First Discussion… When I got to the part about Joseph Smith the confusion, and then at last the First Vision, she looked shocked, but she was so intent. Elder Staker asked her how she felt when I told the story about the First Vision and she said she felt different. [He] asked how or what was different about the feeling and she said, “I felt warm inside.” I could’ve jumped up and shouted praises to the Lord right then… She felt so happy about the Holy Ghost and about the companionship of it and Moroni’s promise. She was awesome.
After we left Julie’s, we continued our knocking of doors on Baker Street, and we had the chance to share some things with a few other people. There is too much to share here, but suffice it to say, Baker Street proved to be a place of open hearts that day. We didn’t get to teach any of the people we contacted that day much more than what we initially shared with them, but the experience was a critical one for me as a new missionary. I had the chance to really share this message that I wanted to shout from the roof tops with people who had not heard it.
We did more than just knock doors those first few days, we met ward members, including the Gleason family, a sweet lady named Sister Flannery (I’ll have a lot to say about her in a later story), and Jon and Jackie Coronado. Our first Saturday there, we were asked to help a family in the ward move, and as we were walking into the house a man came out and said, “Which one of you is from Provo?” I answered that I was, and he grabbed my hand and said, “Jon Coronado, nice to meet you. You know my wife’s family, the Marvells.”
I couldn’t believe it. Yes! I knew that family. Jed Marvell was one of my best friends growing up, and when his mom found out I had received my call to Lansing, she told me to watch for her daughter and son-in-law. I kind of set that information aside in my brain, thinking the chances of actually serving in their area to be slim. But here I was. Brother Coronado was one of the greatest members I served around on my mission. He worked with us a lot, and was able to say things to me like, “Hey Elder Holdaway, I talked to your dad today. He’s really proud of what you’re doing.”
Brother Coronado also played an important role in giving me an identity I would use years into the future. One day we came home and listened to our answering machine to hear Brother Coronado’s voice greet us, “Elders Stake-in-Shake and Holdinator! It’s Jon Coronado…” I loved that nickname, enough that I use it as my online name for nearly everything that I do on these interwebs.
It was also a lot of fun getting to know the other missionaries in our district, Elder Garrison and Elder Webster. Both football players, Elder Webster a lineman (and built like it too), and were in the habit of drinking protein drinks, eating tuna straight out of the can (sometimes with a little bar-beque sauce for flavor), and lifting a lot of weights. Elder Garrison was in the last few weeks of his mission, having recently served as a zone leader. I really enjoyed working with them, and especially going to dinner appointments with them. It was amazing to feel this sense of brotherhood with people who I had just met a few days before.
Elder Staker, Elder Holdaway, Elder Webster, and Elder Garrison
The other distinct memory I have of those first few days is a combination of every evening intermingled into a single image. It was the time of Winter Solstice, and the days were short in Michingan, even shorter than they are in Utah in the middle of the winter. The sun would set around 4:00, and darkness would cover the city early. By the time it was 8:00 or 9:00 it felt as if everything shut down, especially in the residential neighborhoods we would walk through. Hardly any cars drove by, and we were typically the only people out on the streets. The snow would fall in huge, quiet flakes to the ground and we would walk and talk about the gospel and so many other things. It often brought the tunes of Christmas Carols to my mind, you know, the kind of carols you find in a hymn book, the ones about the birth of Jesus Christ. It was magnificently beautiful and a memory that I cherish.
(These stories are taking a brief break and will resume in about two weeks.)
One of the things that I was most eager to learn in the MTC was a date. Not a date in church history or anything like that, but a date just a few weeks in the future, the date that I would be leaving for Michigan. This was a critical date for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that when I leaned what it was I could then inform my family and friends of the date. This was a pre-9/11 world, and in this world things were very different at the airport on the mornings that missionaries left for the mission field. Family and friends were welcome to come to the airport, go through security, and spend a final few minutes at the gate with their missionaries. It was something missionaries and family looked forward to. Another chance to say goodbye, because saying goodbye at the MTC wasn’t enough. This made sense and was a huge part of the ritual of departing missionaries.
The date I would be departing was Wednesday, December 15th. Early that morning I boarded a bus with a large group of missionaries from the MTC, and we drove to the Salt Lake City Airport. When I eventually made my way to the departure gate, I found my mom and dad, my sister Kristin and her daughter, Hayley, my younger brother, Mark, and a group of friends: Aaron, Spencer, Mikey (the three I had just hung out with two nights before at the MTC), Brad and his mom, Beth, Becca, Yvonne, Jessica Bentley, Weed, Matt, and JB. We talked and laughed, took pictures, laughed some more, and then said goodbye. I walked through the gate psyched out for the coming experience of flying to Michigan, meeting my mission president, and beginning the two year experience of a lifetime. I found my seat on the plane, noted that the seats were listed on the overhead compartments as “CBA,” and smiled at this, sat down and waited. Twenty minutes passed and nothing happened, when the captain came over the intercom informing us that there was a problem with the plane which they were trying to fix. Ten minutes later another announcement, this time informing us that the problem could not be fixed and we would not be leaving on this particular plane, but we would be sent to our destinations via another plane.
Everybody got up, gathered together their carry on luggage, and made their way off the plane. There was a part of me that hoped that some of my family and friends had stuck around to watch the plane take off, and when it didn’t, would still be there when I walked off. To my great delight, almost everybody had stayed, and many of my friends had quickly made “Welcome Home” signs that they were holding up for me when I walked off the plane. “Welcome home Elder Holdaway!” they shouted as I came back through the gate, smiling and waving, and waiting to use a brilliant line that I had come up with a few minutes before. “That was the shortest two years of my l-uuuiiife!” The last word came out like an extended grunt because as I said it I was being lifted up off the ground by someone from behind. My friend, Jake, who had not been to see me board the first plane, had arrived later and was hiding behind the gate doors to give me this surprise.
Family and friends stayed for another hour or two and then, sort of unceremoniously, after more goodbyes, left to go back to their lives. I still had a seven hour wait at the airport while they re-routed the flight. I studied my scriptures a little, wrote in my journal a little, but mostly sat and watched people come and go from Salt Lake City, Utah, a place I was very familiar with, but would be leaving so soon to an unfamiliar place. We finally boarded a late afternoon flight that went directly to Detroit, and arrived in Michigan in the late evening, close to 10:00.
We were greeted with friendly hugs from our mission president, President Church, a hearty handshake from Sister Church, and hugs from the assistants to the president. We gathered together our luggage and made our way to a large white Ford passenger van. As we left the airport, nine new missionaries total, we listened eagerly as the veteran assistants told us whatever pieces of information they felt were important for us to know. They talked and laughed and drove, until they saw a sign indicating that Toronto, and therefore the Canadian border, were only a few miles ahead.
Toronto is the opposite direction from Lansing when leaving Detroit.
They pulled the van off the freeway, righted the course, and made the trip, now just a little longer than anticipated, out to East Lansing and the mission home. We arrived sometime after midnight. In my brand new missionary naivete, I thought we would just go in and go to bed, then maybe be allowed to sleep in the next morning, since we had such a long day. However, once we got to the mission home, President Church interviewed each of us individually, so he could know how to pair us up with our companions the next day. And then in the morning, at 6:00, we were waked up and informed that we needed to get ready for the day, because this was transfer day, and it needed to get started right away so that all the transfers could happen in time. I felt pretty bad for myself, being as tired as I was.
What I didn’t realize was that President Church and the assistants were up much later than us, praying and discussing who to pair us up with, and also dealing with the aftermath of a car accident that some missionaries, known as the assistants’ companions, had got in while driving President Church’s car the night before. But I was nineteen and only thinking about me. Well, and the guy whose picture I now had sitting in front of me. We were each given a piece of paper with a picture and a name, the name of our new companions, our trainers. I looked down at the picture of Elder Staker, and wondered what he was like. We were to be serving in the Lansing South area. I was eager to meet him and to see our apartment and to find out what life was going to be like.
But Elder Staker hadn’t been serving in Lansing most recently; he had been in Muskegon, which was on the far west side of the state, and he wouldn’t be arriving in Lansing until that evening, when the transfer van that had picked him up made its way back from a trip around the entire state. So I waited for him at the East Lansing Stake Center. There was not a lot to do there, except hang out and watch all the missionaries that were coming and going throughout the day.
At one point I was in the kitchen where some snacks had been set out, and there were two other missionaries in there eating the snacks and talking with each other. They were on their way home, and were waiting for the van to pick them up and take them to the mission home for their last night in the field. I was extremely interested in their conversation, so I hung around and listened as they talked. They talked about areas they had both served in and the members in those areas, but, to my surprise, their conversation was all very negative. When they talked about members of the church, they discussed how much they were annoyed by them, and how they couldn’t wait to get back home and not have to deal with all the things that missionaries deal with.
Their conversation continued for a long time with this kind of tone, so I left the room. I don’t think they even knew I was in there. I felt devastated. All my life I had looked forward to becoming a missionary, and now I was finally here on my mission, and I was so excited to get started preaching the gospel and doing all the wonderful things that missionaries do… But according to these two, missionaries didn’t do any of those things, and I found myself thinking that if that’s what mission life was really like, I wanted no part of it, and I would just go home.
The seemingly unending hours of waiting, coupled with the conversation of the two departing missionaries, killed my enthusiasm, and by the time the transfer van finally arrived at the stake center, sometime between 6:00 and 7:00 that evening, I was feeling pretty crappy. I watched as a few missionaries filed into the stake center, and watched for Elder Staker, when suddenly a tall young man, in a trench coat that looked like it went on forever, approached me. He smiled and when he smiled his eyes nearly disappeared from the squinting, and he spoke in a deep voice, “Elder Holdaway.” I was about to extend my hand to shake his, but he pulled me into an affectionate hug before I could do anything else.
That moment calmed me, and I knew instinctively that here was a missionary who was very different from those others I had encountered; here was a missionary who was a servant of Jesus Christ, and I was lucky enough to be his companion.
Mom, Hayley, Kristin, Dad, me, and Mark at the airport.
Probably the last picture taken of Cute Band Alert!