Consider for a moment what it was like the first time you saw a commercial jet up close. Then think about what it was like to climb aboard and take off for the first time in your life. Were you nervous? I know I was. For me it was in 1976 when I boarded a plane headed to Munich, Germany to begin my service as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was 19 years old. It was my faith in Jesus Christ and my desire to serve that calmed my heart as I stepped on that plane for the very first time.
Now consider for a moment what the same experience would be like for someone who grew up in the “hinterlands” of Sierra Leone. Some would call it “the bush”, others would call it a village or a small town. Consider what it would be like if you never thought you would ever step foot on 175,000 pounds of flying steel, to find yourself and your almost 2-year-old daughter spending 27 hours on jet planes and in airports traveling to the United States of America. Such was the experience of Rebecca and Grace Koroma this week. We suspect it took as much faith for Rebecca to fly across the ocean as it did the pioneers to cross the plains.
We left our apartment at 8:00 am on Monday and drove out to the home of Brother Sandy and Sister Mabaindu Grace Kongoley where Rebecca and Grace had been staying since Saturday afternoon. We picked them up, packed their luggage in a tarp in the back to protect them from the rain and then headed to Freetown, dropping Rebecca and Grace off at Paul’s (Rebecca’s brother-in-law), home around 1:30 pm. Having purchased some Dramamine from Amazon and shipped over, Rebecca was able to arrive in Freetown feeling healthy and strong rather than nausea from being motion sick. We then drove in to the mission home and enjoyed a dinner with the 7 elders and 1 sister who would be leaving Sierra Leone the next day to return home having completed their missions. We stayed with Elder and Sister Child’s in their apartment while we were there.
The next morning (Tuesday), Paul (he refers to himself as Pastor Paul due to his involvement with his own church) brought Rebecca and Grace to the mission home and stayed with them until we left for the boat dock at 11:30 am. Paul is a really fine man who loves the Lord and loves his extended family. They took a boat across the bay to Lungi Airport and then departed later in the day at 3:45 pm to Ghana on Kenya Airways. We were very comfortable with Rebecca and Grace flying as we had aligned their flights with four missionaries flying home to Salt Lake City. Elder Garrett Smith, Elder Jade Jones, Elder Joshua Topham and Elder Justin Lemon. Based on quick reports from Elder Jones and Elder Smith, the trip went well with only a small hiccup in Ghana. Because the ticket from Freetown to Ghana had been purchased separately from the ticket from Ghana to Salt Lake City, Rebecca’s luggage did not automatically transfer. The airline representative insisted that Rebecca go alone to point out her bag to the guys that needed to load it on the new flight.
They wouldn’t let the missionaries go with her so they just waited for her at the gate with Grace and they were then the last ones to board the flight. Elder Smith later texted me when I asked him about problem, “Yeah we did [have some difficulty] but it all worked out thanks to a little help from God.” The rest of the flight apparently went well and they arrived in Salt Lake City just before 2 pm on Wednesday afternoon Mountain Standard Time. Tired but grateful. Thank you to these wonderful missionaries who looked out for Rebecca and Grace for the entire duration of the trip.
Meeting Rebecca and Grace at the airport was Lisa Tanner Sparks. Lisa, Doug McMullin and I all served under President F. Enzio Busche, a General Authority Seventy in the late 1970’s in the Germany Munich Mission.
Dr. Doug McMullin is the person who contacted Dr. Grimmer and enlisted his help and then raised the money for the travel. Interesting that it is a 41-year-old mission connection that is making all of this possible for Grace. I have often wondered what might have happened to Grace if any one of the three of us had decided not to serve. Something to consider. After getting to her home, Lisa made some rice, but Rebecca said it wasn’t very good (sticky and dry) and then showed Lisa how to cook rice the African way. She then taught Lisa how to eat with her hands. Lisa reported that she knew then they would get along just fine.
On Thursday, Lisa took Rebecca and Grace to the “This is the place monument” where Brigham Young first entered the valley and declared that this was the valley he had seen in the vision.
Later that day, Susan Ogden, our sister-in-law (married to LaDawn’s brother Kelly) took them to the Salt Lake Zoo along with her sister-in-law Heather and her son; niece Emily and her daughter; daughter Kelcie and her boys Beckett and Brooks. They had a great time.
Grace and Brooks became friends immediately as they are only 4 months apart in age. Must have been strange for Rebecca to see animals that back home are more often on the dinner table than in a cage. That evening, Lisa took Rebecca and Grace to Kelly and Susan’s for dinner. Jet lag and the trip up the mountain (due to motion sickness) to their house almost did Rebecca in, as she was not feeling well. Grace on the other hand loved the food. Our daughter MiCayla, her husband Lincoln and our son-in-law Brian (in Utah for Education Week) were able to join them for dinner and meet this mother-daughter duo that mean so very much to us.
Friday was the day they went to the doctor for all of the necessary tests, including an MRI. The tumor appears to have created a few more complications than previously thought. If the tumor is a mature tumor then it will be much easier to remove than an immature tumor. It is already putting pressure on her trachea and the doctor said that she will not survive many years without the surgery as her air will be cutoff. This just reinforces to us why the Lord and His angels have worked so miraculously and tirelessly to get this little girl the much-needed surgery to remove these tumors as quickly as possible.
On Saturday Lisa took Rebecca and Grace to temple square where they had a wonderful experience. Temple Square is pretty impressive, but if you are from a small village in Africa, Temple Square really puts the scope, breadth and depth of the Church and the Gospel into perspective.
It was while they were there, that Lisa reported Rebecca “opened up and shared such a powerful and amazing testimony of the Savior”. This is the Rebecca that we know. Completely and fully trusting in her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Converted by the Holy Ghost deep into her heart and soul. We were so happy that they had this wonderful day together.
After leaving Temple Square, they went to the “Powerful African Market” on State Street in South Salt Lake. There Rebecca was able to find food that she could both cook and then enjoy eating. Palm Oil, Maggi, chicken, rice, fish and a few other foods. She was in her own “African food heaven”. Thank goodness for that market!
On Sunday Lisa took them to the African Branch that meets in Salt Lake. Lisa commented that she felt like she had stepped into our world as she explained how colorful all of the clothes were (and how loud the microphone was). She said people sang with gusto and spirit and that it was a different experience for her. There was no one there from Sierra Leone, as most of the people spoke Swahili and/or English. Later Rebecca indicated she also found it to be loud and struggled to understand much of what was being said. (In the home group building in Tongo there is no electricity, so no microphone and no electric piano). Next week they will go to an American ward.
On Sunday evening, Kelly Ogden (LaDawn’s brother), Garrett Smith and Skyler Christy (former missionaries) traveled to Layton to give both Grace and Rebecca beautiful and inspired priesthood blessings in anticipation of Grace’s surgery that will be at 12:00 noon today (Monday, August 26th).
We will make this short today, since the real highlights have already been shared!
While in Freetown we were able to get the truck in and get new tires (two of the old ones were significantly worn), an oil change and even a new clutch. This truck has a small motor and past drivers (ahem….young missionaries still learning to drive a standard transmission vehicle), tend to use too much of the gas pedal while letting the clutch out very slowly. This is especially true entering the mission home compound where there is a steep grade right where you have to stop for the guards to open the gate. New tires and a new clutch. It’s Christmas!
As mentioned earlier, we were able to participate in a dinner meal and closing meeting with the 8 missionaries who departed on Tuesday and then again enjoy a meal and a “get to know you session” on Tuesday evening with the 16 missionaries who had already arrived. This is an impressive group of 14 young men and 2 young sisters. They will be a great blessing to this mission. At 8:30 pm on Tuesday, Elder Dee Child and I drove to the dock where the boat arrives from the airport. Two additional elders, Elder Elliot and Elder Williams finally arrived an hour and a half later. They were pretty beat and the bay waters had not been kind to them on the way over. We got back to the mission home around 10:30 pm.
On Wednesday, I made a quick trip to the US Embassy to renew my passport. Because we have decided to do a photo safari in Kenya and Tanzania after we complete our mission, turns out I did not have enough pages for the required visas. I had filled out the renewal application online last month and set the appointment for Wednesday knowing we would be in Freetown with Rebecca and Grace. When I first arrived at the embassy I was worried that it was going to take a long time as I was cued in a line with 20 or more Sierra Leoneans who were seeking visas. But once I was registered and sent to the consular’s office, I was the only one there for a passport and quickly was whisked to the front of the line. While it only takes them a week to prepare the passport, I told them we would pick it up when we returned to Freetown to retrieve Rebecca and Grace in mid September. I was back to the mission home within an hour.
Because one of the mission vans were down, we and the Moomey’s (they were in Freetown to give a health and medical orientation to the new missionaries) both brought missionaries back to Kenema and Bo respectively. We brought Elder Wagner, Elder Maeser and Sister Oppong. Despite the rainy weather, we made the trip back from Freetown without incident and were able to deliver the missionaries to their appointed apartment and then arrive back to our own apartment shortly after 7 pm.
Earlier last week, one of the mission drivers made his first ever trip to Kailahun to pick up Elder Hefa (transferred) and Elder Lemon (going home). When he returned to Kenema, he reported to us that the road was really bad (he had traded his van for our pickup to make the trip). That surprised us a bit because the last time we drove there, it was a bit muddy but nothing like it was last year at this same time. When President Harper asked if we could take Elder Wagner and Elder Abad to Kailahun on Thursday we were more than happy to do so, but we began to wonder if the road had changed significantly.
To our relief, the road was only slightly muddier than it was when we went in July and much, much better than last year. Today, the road is paved about half of the distance between Pendembu and Kailahun (17 miles) and last year it was all a muddy mess. We made the trip in 2 hours both on the way up and the way back. I used 4-wheel drive several times on the way up, but with the nice new tires on the truck, I decided to try to do it all in 2-wheel drive on the way back, which we successfully managed to do. We were grateful for these new off-road tires for sure!
On Sunday, we attended the IDA branch conference. LaDawn had been asked by President Cobinah to speak for a few minutes on the topic of Faith in Jesus Christ. She did a great job, first explaining what faith is, how we grow it and then tying in the faith of Rebecca Koroma who never stopped believing or trying to find help for little Grace. They are now in the U.S. where today Grace will receive the life-saving surgery to remove the tumors on her neck. I love one of her closing statements in her talk, “… If anyone wants to know if faith makes a difference, they should speak to Rebecca Koroma.” And then her final quote from President Eyring, “Faith is not an inheritance; it is a choice.”
This week we have been so grateful to see the Kingdom of God rolling forth in so many different ways. Missionaries leaving, missionaries coming. Ministering angels caring for people they have only just met.
Priesthood power coupled with mighty prayer. Generosity and kindness, inspiration and revelation. When the works of God are manifest so plainly in the restored church of Jesus Christ, it is easy to “… let your hearts be comforted concerning Zion; for all flesh is in mine hands; be still and know that I am God.” (D&C 101:16). There is another scripture that describes perfectly how we feel about our mission here in Sierra Leone and especially these experiences over the past several months related to little Grace. “… let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.” (D&C 123:17).
With Rebecca, we see her faith in Jesus Christ in every footstep she has walked over the past week and those she will continue to walk until she is safely back home. It is wondrous to behold the hands of God as he s t r e t c h e s them out to bless this little family. We stand in awe of His goodness and majesty and testify that “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26) as we work hand in hand with so many who also walk by faith each day.