I’ve been thinking lately about how we each, individually, find ourselves in our own personal wildernesses. Over and over again. Are you with me? It could be a lost job, a lost relationship, a valley of misunderstandings, a loss of hope. And sometimes, just a really, really scary or unknown situation. Claire is in the middle of that right at this moment: her own “wilderness” as she works to find her spot in her service as a missionary. Lucy and I are in one as we are in the midst of how ACT prep works when you have dwindling vision. You, dear reader, may be in the midst of one of your own personal “wildernesses” too. And sometimes there is hope in hearing the stories of overcoming those wildernesses. Or at least coping with them in ways that bring growth. SO let’s talk about how two families found light in the wilderness. And how we can too.

One Family Finding Light in their Personal Wilderness

The first family I want to talk about is what this post is mostly about.

It is Dave’s sister’s family. Let’s give them names: they are Christy and James. And they are awesome. I’ve always known this, but a couple weeks ago we got to witness first-hand how God can turn worries (and troubles) into gold if we will let Him.

A Mission Call

A couple years ago these two received a request to head into a “wilderness” (as did some other dear friends of ours) and serve as mission presidents for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Now, the land itself isn’t really the wilderness in this case.

The experience is the real wilderness.

Being asked to serve as mission presidents is no small ask. I mean, imagine leaving everything that is familiar to you, and heading into the great-wide unknown. After you arrive in that “unknown,” you preside over a group of usually between 150-200 missionaries who are teenagers. You don’t pick where you go, you just agree to serve, you get an assignment, and then for three years, you head out into your own “wildernesses” of learning and growing and loving along with all those missionaries in your care.

Christy and James were asked to serve in the Freetown, Sierra Leone mission. As you can imagine, the thought of leaving your family for three years and living in a foreign land can be daunting. Sierra Leone has been called a “green beret” mission in the past since it’s a pretty tough one. It can be dangerous. There are armored guards at the mission home. It is a world vastly different from what Christy and James called “home.”

But just over a year and a half ago they headed out. They took planes and buses and a ferry to the mission home. Due to a flight delay they didn’t even meet the last mission presidents who had to head to the airport before they arrived. Yes, they were in their own “wilderness” for sure.

And since then they have been having the adventure of a lifetime with so many golden threads woven in.

Our trip to visit these mission presidents

Ever since we knew James and Christy were leaving, Dave and I have been planning to go visit them. We’ve had the opportunity to visit our other friends and experience a little of their unique “wilderness” turning to gold. But Sierra Leone is a little trickier to get to. It involves yellow fever vaccines and malaria pills and extensive travel time.

But finally we made it happen.

Arrival in Sierra Leone

Along with Dave’s brother and his wife, we traveled just shy of 30 hours to arrive at the mission home: three flights followed by a crazy bus ride to a ferry (in the lingering sunset) to James and Christy’s huge hugs and the best reunion. Here we are after all those hours of travel.

We didn’t know what to expect

You can see pictures of a place like Sierra Leone and people can tell you all about it, but you just cannot quite grasp the reality of it until you’re immersed in the middle of it.

I mean, we knew Sierra Leone is home to 8.6 million people and only 27 percent of the population has electricity. We knew the Freetown, Sierra Leone mission is the highest baptizing mission in the world right now. We knew we would love to have time with Dave’s siblings and their spouses. And we certainly knew James and Christy would be such great mission leaders.

But we had no idea how much we would fall in love with that place, following these two around.

And how we’d fall so in love with all those strong church members we got to meet over there:

We were so incredulous about how hard those awesome missionaries work over there:

Pictures and writing will never quite do it justice, but I’m going to try to capture at least a glimpse from what I wrote in my journal while we were there.

Some of my biggest observations:

Missionary work is incredible and God is in the details.

Love that we got to go to a district meeting, be part of the mission-wide Friday devotional, attend a baptism and go to church, all surrounded by these African people who sing loud and smile big. I loved being immersed with all these kids (missionaries) in their late teens who are in their own “wilderness” working to reach outside of themselves. Just at an age where so many kids are fully focused on themselves. Love the mosquito nets and smiles on these missionaries who were staying at the “bunk room” by the mission home because of some problems with their apartment in a different area:

Hope is so much more powerful than handouts.

I love the power of giving hope through Jesus and love rather than handouts like we have when we have traveled to Africa in the past. Oh this was so much better. Made me wish we could go be missionaries in the Sierra Leone mission for at least a little while. Although not sure Lucy would be too hip to the jive about that!

Worries and hard stuff has the power to transform to gold.

I love how the scriptures tell us there is “beauty for ashes” and that the “trials of our faith are more precious than gold.” I love that this “wilderness” was so scary and daunting for these guys at first, but that they have continued to turn to God and have found so much beauty in this journey.

Can you see them literally glowing above? James is so good at guiding and directing, loving and protecting. Christy may be the closest contender to Claire for the best “welcoming response” known to man. She throws her arms around everyone and lights up when she runs into someone she knows at the market, on the street, at church. She makes them feel so special.

Our biggest highlight

We loved our time in Sierra Leone, but I think all of us would agree on our very favorite part of that trip. It was when all six of us got to follow some missionaries through the mountains of Freetown on an adventure to teach some lessons.

Freetown is nestled right into the mountains and there are houses crammed all along those hills.

The pathways to get where we were going was sometimes just some plain and simple bouldering:

These missionaries knew everyone and their dog. They have done a lot of visiting and loving and friending in these parts to be sure.

visiting families in Freetown

That place that seemed like it would be a wilderness for this family has turned into an overflowing garden.

Oh sure, there are tough things going on every single day.

But being in your own personal wilderness is exactly the refiner’s fire you sometimes need to grow and also to glow in ways you never could otherwise.

So much more to say soon about all the other things we did there. But this part, being up there in those hills of Freetown, leads me to the second family I want to talk about.

Another family who found light in their own wilderness.

The Second Family who found Light in their Wilderness

We met so many families finding light on this trip. People who were practically glowing with so much happiness. But the second family I want to talk about in this post was an ancient family in the scriptures.

Recently in Come Follow Me we have been reading about the family of Lehi. A family we find in the Book of Mormon who left their own “comforts” of home and headed out into the wilderness as directed by God. They learn vastly different things there in that common wilderness. Some of the sons in that family, although in the exact same experiences, find only bitterness and sorrow. But Nephi, another son, finds light. Because he keeps turning to God to make sense of where he’s found himself.

One of the people we got to meet with on our “hike” to teach lessons with the missionaries was Brother George. He is such an earnest recent convert who has thirteen children, ten boys and three girls, and who has such a desire to learn Book of Mormon stories.

He had a sign that said “College of Knowledge” above his door and big, thick glasses and was trying so hard to understand why Nephi and his family would leave everything they knew and head into the unknown “jungle.”

sitting with Brother George and talking about how to find light in the wilderness

We talked it out, but I wish I had thought to tell him that Christy and James are doing the same thing in that “golden jungle” of Sierra Leone.

As is he.

As are we all in various ways.

In order to progress and learn, we leave our “known” ways to head into our own personal “jungles.”

So how did these two families find light in the wilderness?

I believe the trick is to tether ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. To zoom out and try to see the trenches we are in from the whole big picture.

Oh, sometimes that is so much easier said than done. Some wildernesses are dark. And they last for a long, long time.

But I love that James and Christy, and also Nephi from the scriptures, practiced (and are practicing) the act of tethering to God to help them see the light.

That light doesn’t normally just appear, most of the time it has to be worked on. Continually. And also recognized.

Over and over again.

Sending out so much love to everyone in their own personal wildernesses. May you find the light as you tether yourself to others and to that Power so much bigger and more wise than we are.

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  1. I recently met the Mission Presidents in my area (they came in to my library to get cards.) Lovely folks. Do you think that you and Dave would be willing to serve somewhere in this capacity one day?

  2. Mom: Oh Shawni, this is fabulous! Every pictures was amazing and so fun to study. What a place! What a different world that is full of people on their own wilderness journey! Loved seeing all those beautiful white faces amongst the black. The same bright light coming from each face! Thanks for sharing these astonishing pictures and wonderful stories!
    Dad: Wow, Wow and double Wow!

  3. Shawni, Thank you for this inspiring and comforting story! My son is one of the Elders that was staying in the bunkhouse “ due to some problems with their apartment.” To see his smiling face and to hear the stories of faith brought humbling tears to my eyes. We absolutely love President and Sister Jarvis and are so thankful for how well they take care of the Missionaries. It is definitely a mission with unique challenges and miraculous blessings. Thank you again!

    1. Oh Sara! This is amazing! I love that he was one of those missionaries we got to see. They were the cutest and most earnest elders. What incredible lessons they are all learning and growing from. Sending you and him so much love.

  4. Hi Shawni-
    This is Liz Sorensen (now Stringham) – Your post is making the rounds among parents of SL missionaries… Our son, Elder Stringham is currently serving outside of Freetown in Regent Town. He loves President and Sister Jarvis and we are so grateful for their personal, loving care towards each of these missionaries! It is a long way from home – Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Liz!! Thank you for this note! Oh Elder Stringham is lucky to be there. I hope he feels it, but sometimes your gratitude can’t be as full until you’re looking back and realizing: WOW! I DID THAT!!

      Hello to any of the other parents of SL missionaries. Your kids are in the best of hands. I hope I could give you a little extra glimpse into all the good that’s going on there in this post!

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