Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Feliz Navidad

My Dear Friends and Family,

I write to you after the most different Christmas of my entire life. It was pretty neat. At midnight on the 24th, everyone and I mean EVERYONE lights a bunch of fireworks. From my area, we can see the other side of the valley where Guatemala City resides, since we're up on the mountain. Before the fireworks had finished, there was so much smoke in the valley that we couldn't see the other side, and we could barely see the fireworks they were lighting over there. Some of the fireworks aren't fireworks, it seems. Some of them are more like bombs. They're really loud. Thankfully, we were in the house for all of this. Either way, it was pretty neat. Imagine this past 4th of July in Utah Valley in a bigger valley, and with 3-4 times more fireworks (at least) and that's about what I saw.

As my family knows very well, the semi-annual phone call was wonderful. We talked for a while about life, Guatemala, and the mission. It was really great. I love you, family!!!

Christmas Day was pretty interesting. I mentioned previously Tamales and Ponche, the traditional Christmas foods of Guatemala, and we received bastante (a lot) of both. We ate with two families of recent converts on the 24th, then with one more on the 25th, along with our relief society president and mission leader. Overall, it's surprising how normal Christmas Eve and Christmas Day felt compared to other days here in the mission. We still had lessons both days, and Saturday we spent the morning studying. I also gave my first talk in Spanish on Christmas. We weren't assigned topics, so I chose to talk about Jesus Christ. I started talking about the signs of his coming here in the Americas as recorded in the Book of Mormon (Helaman 14, and 3 Nephi 1, for those who are inclined to find it). Then I talked about the perfect example he set for us, his teachings, and his infinite atonement, for which I am so grateful. I then closed with the words of my favorite Christmas Hymn, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. I like it because the music and words are beautiful, and because it talks about how our Heavenly Father is still watching over us, and that He, and his Son Jesus Christ, still live and love us very much.

We also had 6 investigators at church, which for us is a record!

Unfortunately, some of the Christmas food must have upset my stomach. I've been having some problems for the last couple days, but I feel that I'm past the worst of it. I'm also coming down with the gripe (basically a bad cold), since my companion had it earlier on this week. But we're still working hard, and it's going pretty well.

Friday was the branch Christmas party. It was pretty interesting. The chapel is the biggest room in the church, and none of the chapels here have the benches fixed to the floor. Ours just has chairs, so they just set them up so the pulpit was at the back, and had the party at the other end of the room. They had some games, a dancing competition, dinner, and a raffle. It was kind of funny, since nearly all the men in the branch were outside cooking the meat, and whenever someone opened the door the chapel filled with smoke. It was pretty funny. We also got a reference, and a couple investigators came to the party as well, which was great.

Also, yesterday, I had some free time on P-Day to write some letters (for the first time from the field)! Some of you should be receiving them as soon as I find out where to go to send them. We found out today that next Monday, we'll be having a zone activity and we'll be going to ANTIGUA!!!! I am really excited to go, and I'll be sure to buy some cool things, and take some great pictures. I've heard it's one of the coolest places here, and I'm really excited to go!

My companion and I are getting along better than ever, at least at the moment. I've been speaking more in the lessons as well, so we've been teaching with more unity. Overall, we're working better together now than ever, and the work is getting better and better in Jerusalen.

To finish, I would just like to share a short spiritual thought. When life is hard, when things don't appear to be going the right way, just remember Psalms 46 verse 10, which reads: Be still, and know that I am God. Remember that He has a purpose in everything, and every experience you have is one to learn and grow. A song my companion has on his MP3 player includes the line: the pain will go away someday but the strength will stay with you. I testify that this is true, and that there are blessings to be found in every experience.

I love you all! Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. Until next week!

Yours in the faith,
Elder Nicholas Banks

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

¡Feliz Navidad a cada uno de ustedes!

Dearest Family and Friends,

This week has been pretty good, as usual. Yesterday, we went to Zona 2, to the dentist. Elder Caceres was supposed to get one of his wisdom teeth out, but they want to wait another week to make sure they need to operate. He's also got the grippe (flu), which isn't fun. We spent a bunch of time at home yesterday so he could rest. I was a little distraught at first, because I wanted to go out and work, and be obedient with the schedule, but he really was in a bad way, so I let him be and things worked out.
Rosa, with whom we set a baptismal date for Jan 1, didn't come to church this week, so we have to move her date forward another week, assuming she comes the following Sunday.

This past Sunday, I saw Hermana Ibañez again, my instructor from the CCM. She came to our branch, because she's in the ward just down the hill. She plays the piano, so I didn't get to this week. It was probably better for the meeting, though, because she actually has time to practice! The only time I can practice is P-day, and I have to go get the church keys, go to the chapel and practice, then return the keys, after I've found time to do it all. Usually, Elder Caceres wants to do something else (like take a nap, since it's the only day we're allowed to), so I actually haven't had the chance to go practice at the church yet. That's OK, I can usually pull together the hymns if I have 10 minutes before Sacrament Meeting.

Honestly, I can't believe it's almost Christmas, even though there are lights on a lot of the houses, and everyone is talking about tamales and ponche, traditional Christmas foods here in Guatemala. Tamales are like what we call tamales in the states, except they make sweet ones too, not just with meat. Ponche (pone-chay) is a warm drink with all manner of fruits in it. It's pretty tasty, and it's unlike anything I've had before.

We're also having our Christmas activity in the branch this Friday. There will be food, games, and hopefully investigators, too!
We're also getting a new mission leader. He's kind of like our ambassador between the branch and the missionaries. The outgoing mission leader is cool but he works a lot, and isn't available very often. The new mission leader returned from the Nicaragua Managua South Mission last week. He's already been out on a visit with us, and he's absolutely great. He'll be a great help to reinvigorate our branch, which used to be a ward.

I feel like sharing a funny story that actually happened a couple weeks ago. We were in a lesson with a sister who's a little less active, and she muted her TV but left it on. Elder Caceres was thinking "Man, she should really shut off that TV." About 2 seconds after he thought that, the signal cut out on the TV. There was a little kid romping around the room, me, my companion, her, and another member who came with us, but she looked right at my companion, and said "Hermano, did you shut off my TV?" (Hermano means Brother. She and many others call us 'Hermanos' instead of 'Élderes') My companion told her "No, Hermana, I didn't!" Then she replied "Oh, well. It's probably better to shut it off anyway!" and proceeded to shut off the TV! The Lord cares about the little things that we care about. And just think, if he cares about the little things, how much must he care about the big things!

That reminds me of another story along a similar line. This happened in the CCM. I was assigned to play the piano in sacrament meeting. I had to learn two new hymns in one week, with very little time to practice. I was praying pretty hard, "please help me play these hymns well, so the spirit will be there in the meeting," and I was thinking in my mind, "and so I don't look like a dunce in front of everyone." I was learning "We'll Sing All Hail to Jesus' Name" and there was a part I just couldn't get right, every time I practiced it. Then, when I played it in church, my fingers just fell onto the right keys and I played the first verse perfectly, thanks to the unseen help I received. After that, I got a little excited and made some mistakes, but the point is that the Lord answered my prayer, to help something small and insignificant go well, because it meant something to me. It was really awesome! When we pray for something, then work towards it, the Lord will help us out, no matter how small the issue.

Thank you for your letters and notes. I am trying to reply, but I don't have much time, because there are a lot of things to do on P-Day. Please know that I have received your letters, I do love you all, and I want to write you more.

Merry Christmas to you all! Don't forget what CHRISTmas is all about, and I hope you all have a great time.

Until Next week,
Elder Nicholas Banks

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Another week in the Tierra Prometida

Hello all!

To be honest, I don't feel like a lot has changed since last week. Elder Caceres and I are trying to work on teaching with more unity, and having more unity in general, and I don't think we're there yet, but we're on the way.

Yesterday and this morning, we helped Hermana Soto move a lot of her stuff to a neighbor's house. She's originally from Nicaragua, and she's going back there for Christmas, and for at least a month afterwards. She warned us ahead of time, and we have two new sisters who help us out now: Hermana Petrona cooks lunch for us, and Hermana Juanita does our laundry. They're both pilas (awesome)! They're really nice, and really helpful.

Moving Hermana Soto's stuff was an interesting experience. I got the sweatiest I have been yet here in Guatemala. It's actually cool right now, probably about late septembet/early october or a little later for Utah. Everyone is complaining about the cold, and it's a little funny, but I know I won't be laughing come summer. If they send me to the coast, it will be about 110 farenheit, and humid!

Anyway, Hna. Soto. She's a seamstress, and I counted no less than seven antique sewing machines that she uses for her work. We moved all but two. Since they're all made of cast iron, they're pretty heavy, and we had to carry them up some stairs, which was um... fun! :) We gave her an old gas stove we had, that she can repair and use. There's just a couple little missing pieces. She can't bring her couch, so she's giving it to us to put in our apartment, which will be awesome!

A little about the gas stoves here: there is no plumbing for natural gas. Every gas stove uses a canister of probably propane to run. Most of the canisters are rusty and look like they're in pretty bad shape. There are people who bring them to your house strapped to the back of a motorcycle. Sometimes, they have several large canisters strapped on, and it's a little disconcerting, to put it lightly. President Brough is phasing out gas stoves in the mission because of this danger. Our stove is now an electric hot plate. He told us to get everything related to gas or gas stoves out of the house, which we're in the process of doing. Don't worry, Mom, it'll all be gone soon! :)

The big thing that happened this week, was we got to watch the dedication of the Quetzaltenango temple in our stakae center!!! It was really neat. President Uchtdorf performed the dedication, and Elder Anderson was there as well. E. Anderson speaks spanish, so he conducted the meeting. Pres. Uchtdorf spoke in English, and had a translator standing beside him, so I got to listen to his talk in English, which was awesome. We also got to see the cornerstone ceremony, which was really cool. P. Uchtdorf spoke of pressing forward in Christ, and working in his work. It was a very timely message for me, and it was especially cool that he was speaking to all the members, not just the missionaries!

Also, there are transfers this week. Because of the training, E. Caceres and I are staying together, but Elders Gomez and Pineda in our district are being transfered elsewhere. I imagine I will stay in Jerusalen for another transfer after E. Caceres leaves, if not more. I'm fine with that, since the members are amazing, and the investigators are great.

Now, I'll tell you about some of our investigators.

We set a baptismal date with Rosa, who has been taking the discussions for about a year and a half. Her husband is an inactive member, and his father is the Elder's Quorum president in our branch. She's been reading and praying, so we're going to get her ready for baptism January 1!

William is really neat. He's a realtor, and he really wants to know more about what we're teaching. We've taught him the importance of asking about our message in prayer, and we're pretty sure we'll baptize him, and hopefully his family too! He's really fun to teach, but he has an accent, so he's a little hard to understand. His parents are both Evangelical ministers, but he's very interested in what we have to teach!

Jissela was a reference from Hermana Petrona. She lives with her son, and her mother, who is very ill. She takes care of her mother full-time, and she seems really close to the spirit. She's sometimes a little hard to get ahold of, but we're doing our best.
Berta is interesting. She loves the discussions, she loves what we tell her. She wants to read the Book of Mormon, but she doesn't want to pray about it, because she doesn't want to change her religion.

Anyway, those are a few of our investigators. We should have some baptisms in January, and really be able to change some lives! IT's really exciting!

I love you all!
Thank you for your thoughts and prayers, they are much needed and much appreciated.
Until next week,
Elder Nicholas Banks

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Super P-Day

Hello All,

Christmas is well underway in Guatemala. Many people have put up their trees and lights on their houses. Our tree was already set up when I arrived, because it's about 12 inches tall! :)

I write to you at the end of our super p-day activities. Yesterday, we started out by cleaning the chapel in Roosevelt (pronounced rooz-bel) which is really beautiful. It's big, and it's a little different than the other chapels around here. The typical Guatemalan chapel is shaped like an H, with one side being the chapel and cultural hall (if there is a cultural hall) and the other being classrooms, bathrooms, and the bishop's office/clerk's office. All have some type of tiled floors, and if there are pews rather than chairs, they are never fastened to the floor. The stake center is the biggest I have seen, and I would esitmate it's similar in size to the Canyon Heights chapel. Others range from slightly smaller to much smaller. None have organs, but the stake center has a digital piano that can sound like one.

After we cleaned the chapel, we returned for lunch, and a few sports and games with Pres. Brough and his family. He has two daughters who are older and don't live with him, a son serving a mission in Uganda, and his daughter, Ganzie, who turns 15 this month, and lives with them here in Guatemala.

After this, we had dinner, and started our fast. We fasted to reach our goal of 204 baptisms in January, and we ended at lunch today.

Pres. Brough showed us the film "17 Miracles" after dinner. It's new, and it's about the Martin and Willie handcart companies of the pioneers, and the hardships and miracles they experienced. He reminded us that Jesus Christ suffered for all of their hardships, and all of ours, and that by comparison, ours aren't so bad. Sis. Brough bore her testimony, which was really touching, and then President talked more about Christ, the reason for this whole CHRISTmas season. He had us stand up with our arms extended for 10 minutes, so we could attempt to feel just a fraction of the pain Jesus felt on the cross. What he did truly was amazing, and is a great blessing for all of us. I know now more than I ever have that he lives, and loves us very much, as does our Father in Heaven.

Last night, E. Caceres and I stayed with the elders in Monte Maria, which is where the stake center is. I didn't sleep very well, I was on a cot without a pillow. E. Caceres said that he went to sleep about 5 minutes before we woke up! We woke up at 3am, to be at the stake center at 4:30, so we could get about 50 missionaries into the temple during a time that wasn't peak. I missed going to the temple, and I can now tell you from experience, that the Spirit is the same there whether the ceremony is in English or Spanish. Likewise, in the 4 different countries in which I have attended church meetings (USA, Germany, Scotland, Guatemala) I can tell you that all is the same there as well, as to the important things. The chapel may look a little different, and they may use different instruments (or no instruments) for the hymns, but the message is the same, and will bless the lives of people no matter where they may be, where their ancestors hail from, or how old or young they are. This gospel truly is universal.

Also, we had a missionary activity in the branch on Saturday. We had 17 investigators there, and the members are just amazing. We came up with the basic plan, and they did the rest. Also, I need to learn some Christmas hymns on the piano! I'm only allowed to practice on P-day, and the past few weeks have been so busy that I haven't had time, so I just have to "follow the spirit."

Finally, some pictures are attached! I don't have many pictures of actual Guatemala, because our area is a little dangerous, and I don't carry my camera, so these are all from the MTC and CCM.

I love you all, and I will write again soon!

Elder Nicholas Banks

P.S. Thank you family and Mette for your letters!

Elder Corrigan & Myself (companions) in front
of the map in the Provo MTC

 Myself and Elder Austin Claiborne, who I know from BYU,
and who welcomed me to the MTC!

 Myself with President Douglas Steimle and
his wife Dyan of the CCM de Guatemala.

 Myself with Elder Aoki (roommate, center) and
Elder Najarro, my companion from the CCM.

 My awesome district from the CCM!

The front of the CCM, for those of you who are curious.