Joyce Brinton Anderson was kind enough to share the following missionary story with M*.
Joyce is a former high school social studies teacher, but is now working as Chief of Domestic Operations for the Anderson Family. She graduated from BYU with a “useful liberal arts” degree in International Relations, and has half a masters degree with no desire to ever finish what she started. She served a full time mission in Bulgaria as well. She and her husband teach the member missionary Sunday School class in their ward when they are not running after their almost-toddler son. In her “spare” time (haha) Joyce is a news/politics junkie, reads, tries to bake things without much suscess and dreams of going to England, Scotland and Ireland to see where her favorite BBC shows were filmed.
I spent one Christmas away from my family on a mission in Bulgaria. My companion, Sister Johnson and I, were really looking forward to this Christmas, our missionary Christmas. We’d planned to spend it with members of the Plovdiv Branch of the LDS Church and visiting less active members of the Branch, we were excited to have this time in Bulgaria and to have time to focus on the Savior. We even had an investigator coming to the branch Christmas party, which made us feel very good about our efforts of late.
The morning of December 22 dawned on us and Sis Johnson and I were busy getting ready for the day in our apartment when the phone rang. It was our mission president. He told us that some of the Elders had been given an early morning wakeup call by the Plovdiv police due to some legal technicalities that we were having with them at the time. The Elders managed to talk their way out of jail with a promise that they would leave the city and take all the other Mormons with them, or face the “hospitality” of the police for the holiday. President instructed us that we needed to pack our bags for a few days and that we needed to come up to Sofia right away.
Of course Sister Johnson and I were mad, sad and felt very put out! After shutting off all the lights in the house and laying on the floor for a half hour (just in case the police were coming to get us, they might think we were not home!!), we changed into our street clothes, packed our bags and decided what to do. President told us as well that we were not to phone anyone and tell them where we were going either, he was afraid the phone was bugged and that we’d put ourselves into more danger by calling people to tell them we were leaving town. We decided, at that point, that we needed to at least go and find our investigator and tell her what had happened and what we were doing. So we boarded a bus and traveled 45 minutes to her house, only to find that no one was home. We slipped a note under her door and prayed that we’d see her again. We rode 45 minutes back to our apartment, gathered our stuff and headed for the train station. There was as train to Sofia at 3pm, and we had to be on it.
When we arrived at the station we found other missionaries and that our Zone Leader had already purchased our tickets for us. It was also not by chance that we ran into the branch president there as well. He told us he had a feeling he needed to come to the train station that day. Apparently it was to be able to run into all of the missionaries. He was very sad that we had to leave and he assured us all that our presence would be missed at the party that night and he hoped we would all be back soon and would have the members of our branch pray for us.
On the train we hopped, and to Sofia we traveled. I was feeling sorry for myself at this point and was quite angry at the Plovdiv police for kicking us out of town and ruining our Christmas. My only Bulgarian Christmas! Did they know what that meant to me? When we arrived at the mission home, we were greeted by other missionaries having their Zone Christmas party. I was happy to see that Sisters Wilhelm and Durfee, my MTC companions, were there. After we exchanged greetings they convinced President to let the Plovdiv sisters, Sister Johnson, myself and two other sisters to come and stay at their apartment for a few days. President agreed and drove us out to their apartment stuffed in the back of his very small station wagon. He also told us that we were free to do whatever we wanted for the duration of our stay in Sofia.
At this point, however, I didn’t care what we did; I just wanted to be back in Plovdiv, in my apartment, with my things, surrounded by the members of the branch and the people we knew there. I’d even go tracting without grumbling if we could go back, which was my least favorite way of doing missionary work.
The next morning we went back to the mission home for instructions. Once we were there, the office Elders started telling us that we were stuck in Sofia and that we were not going back home anytime soon. Of course this news moved me to tears. Sister Johnson, seeing this decided that she and I were going out for a while to see the city. I don’t even remember where we went, but I do remember crying a lot. I don’t do well with change or to disruptions in the schedule, my world was being rocked and I was not dealing with it too well. When we finally got back to the mission home, we were allowed to call home to tell our parents where we were. We had 2 minutes to talk to them. I don’t even remember what I said other than I gave my Mom a phone number where we could be reached for our Christmas Day phone call and had to hang up.
The next days were a blur. Sister Johnson had served in the Sofia Center Branch before coming to Plovidv, so we went and visited some of her friends, ate dinner with members and did other things. Christmas Eve we went caroling with some other missionaries to members in the Center Branch. I thought as we were walking around Sofia, that “Here we are the Army of Helaman out trying to spread the message of Christmas, and this alright because we are really bringing joy to the Bulgarians”. We ended our caroling at the mission home. When President and Sister heard us they came out on their balcony and watched us and thanked us. It was at this point that I finally accepted our homeless situation and knew that things would work out to be fine. That night as we rode a tram thru the empty streets of Sofia, I watched the lights blinking and the holiday displays. I noticed a display of Mary holding the Christ Child. I thought to myself, “This is what Christmas is all about, the Christ Child, that Jesus was born and that he came to earth.” And all was well.
The day after Christmas, Sister Johnson and I had to make our monthly border run. At the time, missionaries serving in Bulgaria had to go to the Yugoslav or Macedonian border once a month, leave the country, and come back in to get visas. We also were required by law to register our passports, visas and address with the police to be able to remain in the country. When we got back to Sofia, we headed over to the Sofia police station with the mission lawyers to get registered. The police in Plovdiv would not let missionaries register, and this was at the heart of why we had to leave town in the first place. President suggested that all of the Plovdiv missionaries have their residences registered at mission apartments around Sofia till the hostilities subsided. It was as this point that we begged President to let us go back home and to see if we could get the Police to register us there, and to leave us alone. President agreed, but on the condition that if we were unsuccessful, we’d come right back to Sofia.
Once in Plovdiv, we called our landlady to come and help us get registered. The “law” or at least what we were told the “law” stated was that foreigners living in Plovdiv had to have their landlord come and help them register with the police. Sadly, our landlady was on her way out of town and would be gone for a month. So this left Sister Johnson and me with a dilemma. We were not allowed to proselyte without being registered, and we could not register without our landlady. What to do? President, instructed us to lay low, obey the law and try to do as much member work as we could till we could be registered. We kept ourselves as busy as we could meeting with members, doing service for our neighbors and practicing the language. Despite this, it seemed like our days lasted forever and that we would never be allowed to go out and find and teach people about the Gospel again. I think it was the longest January on record.
A month later, our landlady came home from her vacation and came with us to the police station to register. Before we left our apartment that morning, Sister Johnson and I got on our knees and both said a prayer. We asked the Lord to soften the hearts of the police, to allow us to be registered legally in the city and to allow us to go and do our missionary work. With those prayers and a whole lot of faith, we went to the police station. We were given no problems when we arrived, we were registered legally in the city and could finally go and do our missionary work. Besides being overcome with joy at this, we knew we had to stop and give thanks. We ducked into an alley to say a prayer, and then we left for our area on the bus to go and work. When we got off the bus we were near an apartment block that was painted yellow-gold, and I knew that was a good sign. We entered the first door and walked up to the top and started to knock doors. By the end of the morning we’d gotten into four apartments, taught discussions and given away several Books of Mormon. It was our golden block, and we knew we’d been blessed for missing our Christmas and for our other trials
The Christmas I spent as a missionary was not what I’d thought or wanted it to be, but it did teach me many things. We were blessed with safety, and given the chance to serve members of the Church in Sofia. We were also taught patience in the following weeks and again, that we were watched and blessed with safety while we waited to comply with the law. Finally, we were blessed with some great investigators when the troubles subsided and were able to work harder than we’d ever thought we could. I’m thankful for the way my mission Christmas turned out, it’s the Christmas I’ll remember the most because it’s the Christmas I learned the true meaning of Christmas.