Guest Post: A Bulgarian Christmas

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.

19 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Bulgarian Christmas

  1. Joyce, thanks for this. My wife served her mission in East Germany right after the Wall came down, and she said the most important lesson she learned was: patience. I don’t think she ever had as many problems with the police as you apparently did, however. :)

  2. Joyce, thank you for sharing your story with M*. I was touched as I read your message the first time and continue enjoy re-reading it. This is definitely an instant classic for me!

  3. If that was Sister Durfee from Mesa, I probably knew her.

    Great story. Thanks so much for sharing it. I didn’t go on a mission, and I value getting a better understanding of mission life from stories like these.

  4. @Blain
    Blain, Sister Durfee was not one of the famous Mesa Durfee’s….I say that coming from Mesa. She was from Lake Winnepesaukee, NH. That’s the town of “What About Bob?” fame.

    Thanks to the rest of you all, but thanks to Brian for suggesting posting this here.

  5. @Geoff B

    I’m sure your wife had many similar expereinces with police and the like. You can take the communist out of the country, but not the the other way around…

  6. Ah, the joys of Plovdiv. When I was a greeny there in 2000, we were registered but were getting kicked out of the park for streetboarding. My memory of X-mas in Bulgaria was when three days before I went home, we nearly burnt down the church meeting place in Burgas and nearly the whole blok. There is nothing like Christmas in Bulgaria.

  7. @Hans

    When I was in Plovdiv (1995) we were not allowed to even street board or wear our tags. And how did you almost burn down the blok? Playing with ogunche??

  8. Joyce :

    @Hans

    When I was in Plovdiv (1995) we were not allowed to even street board or wear our tags. And how did you almost burn down the blok? Playing with ogunche??

    I think you are just jealous that you didn’t beat Hans to burning down the city. I can only imagine how you must have felt about the local police and your desire for retribution. Admit it, Joyce. Deep down inside, you wanted to burn down the city after they ruined your Christmas. :-)

  9. I served a mission in France before there was a mission in Bulgaria. Neil L. Anderson was my mission president. While I was serving in Bordeaux, we taught a woman named Marqui Eftimov all of the discussions in one day – a Saturday. She wanted to know more and more and we just kept teaching her. She was in France for a business conference and had met a member of our branch on a train. The member was reading his Gospel Essentials book and she was reading over his shoulder. When she expressed interest in the book, he gave it to her along with our phone number. She attended church the following day and was baptized that night. We taught her in French but really wanted to get her a Book of Mormon in her native language. President Anderson called Salt Lake to see if he could get his hands on something. They put Pres. Anderson in touch with the mission president in Vienna, Austria who was negotiating with the Bulgarian government to try and get missionaries in there. The Austrian mission president was working on a translation of the Book of Mormon. Marqui decided to leave France earlier than planned and go back to her home so that she could share the gospel with her family. Some Elders from the Vienna mission met Marqui with some key passages of the Book of Mormon that were translated and accompanied her home where her husband, oldest son and mother-in-law all listened to the discussions and were baptized.

    All of this happened in the first few months of my mission. Before I left to go home in June of 1991, President Anderson let me know that there was a branch of the church operating in Bulgaria under the direction of the Vienna Mission District and that the first full time Elders were serving there. It was all very exciting to hear. It was even more exciting to me to read your story today and realize how fast the church grows. Heavenly Father has a plan for his children (all of them) to hear the gospel and it is amazing to be able to witness his plan working.

    I spent two Christmases on my mission – one in the MTC and one in France. They were both wonderful.

  10. Joyce, you all had it pretty tough so it was easier for us. We still had problems in Veliko and Pleven when I was there, in fact I think Pleven it’s still illegal to tract and streetboard, but my wife and sis-in-law (both plevenchanki) are in the US and I can’t confirm.

    We almost burned down the building because we filled up the tarp with water for a baptism and stuck those gigantic metal rods into the water to heat it. There as a short in the wall that another Elder had supposedly fixed. We were at a dinner appointment when we got called down there and the fire brigade was putting at the fire. There was no structural damage, but the whole place was black. We weren’t excited about calling president on that one. But what do you expect with three-foot long metal coils to heat up water that are plugged into a contact from Brezhnev-ear wiring?

  11. @Brian Duffin

    Well, I did almost burn down the blok baking browines once, and there was that time we plugged in a space heater that almost blew up, but other than that….

  12. @Hans

    @Hans
    Sounds like the old Nadezhda Srgada in Sofia. I don’t know if they’d already gotten rid of that place by the time you were there, but there was never any water pressure to fill the font. And that would have been the home made font from PVC pipe, tarp and duct tape. They could only ever get it 24″ or so full of water and it would take them three days to fill it to that depth. Thankfully, in Plovdiv we always rented out the town pool for baptisms. The Elders never really had to dunk anyone, just lower their heads a bit. In some cases they had to hold the person up to say the prayer then let them slide into the water.

    As for the trials of a Bulgarian missionary. I know that as areas opened up, things were hard in the new areas. Burgas and Varna opened 3 months before I went home and we were so happy about that. I was very fortunate to serve in Plovdiv, less missionaries to Bulgarian ratio. But I will say this, anyone serving in BG has to be as creative as the Bulgarians are at surviving to survive a mission there. There is a reason the Partridge Era is called the Dark Ages of the mission, but not for many of the reasons people who came after us think.

  13. @Jolene

    I know who Marqui is. Her family was one of the first to be baptized in Bulgaria. The person your mission president spoke with was Elder Neuenschwander (I know that’s spelled wrong) of the 70s, who was just made an emeritus GA this last conference. Anyway, for the first year the mission was part of the Austria, Vienna East mission, which included most of what had been behind the Iron Curtian. In fact, Marqui’s story, or at least her family being baptized was included in the Bulgaria section of the Church Almanac for a while. Many of the first members in Bulgaria found the Church in Western Europe, were baptized and went back to get their families baptized and taught. So, thanks France! :)

    The Church has grown and does grow. It’s humbeling to know that you’ve been part of the gathering of Israel, that you’ve been part of prophecy come to pass and that the people I taught are part of the Lost Tribes of Isreal.

  14. I lived in Lyulin but the old Nadejda building was gone, but I was at the Tsar Boris III building when it was overrun with mushrooms and Predident Stevens’ submarine heaters didn’t keep us warm in the winter.

    I was in Matt King’s ward when he was called to BG in 1991 or whenever it was. I never had a chance to talk to him much because I was young, but I know that, based on looking at the membership records, there was a huge influx of baptisms in 1992 and then everything dropped off circa 1995. When in Lyulin, there was one companionship and we had 250 people on the branch membership roles and only 4 active. We always wondered what happened but assumed it was a more a return to the status quo after the initial excitement of religious freedom and subsided. Or as my mother-in-law would have said, the dangerous sects will brainwash you.

    I was at the tail-end of the Stevens era where everyone was agressive but spent most of my time with the Galbraiths. I am sure you saw just as interesting transitions if not more dramatic while there.

  15. @Hans
    Ah Tsar Boris III…I lived right across the street from there behind the Krasno Selo bazaar and down a few stops. Loved that neighborhood.

    There was a huge influx of baptisims, and a drop off. We spent a lot of time, too much time cleaning out branches of people who no longer wanted to be members. I don’t want to be critical of missionaries that came before me, but the things that I always heard was, “If only Elder/Sister So and So would write me” or people just could not handle the persecution and the slander. I think we could have done better at preparing these new members for that and really doing a better job at creating Church families for support. I just know from my own personal whiperings of the spirit that the Devil was/is working hard on those people, very, very hard.

    I don’t know if you ever heard the stories from the summers of 1994 and 1995, but both were very violent, earning the mission “The most violent” of the Church for a while. In 1994 everyday for 2 months someone either was hospitalized or had to be bailed out of jail from trupmed up charges. The mission home’s windows were broken so many times they just quit replacing the glass and put up plywood instead. 1995, was similar, but not as bad. Some of the missionaires I served with had very dangerous run ins with punk gangs, police, Pravoslav priests — you name it. One of my companions even had a knife held to her throat, another was maced, and on of my DLs had a fully automatic machine gun pulled on him. Thankfully the only bad thing that ever happend to me was that I was arrested street bording by Alexandur Nevski in Sofia and getting felt up on a bus once.

    I do know Pres Galbraith. He was one of my BYU professors, and I loved his class. It was hard, but he was such a good teacher. When I found out he’d be called to be the new president, I was so excited about it. Much of the blessings of our hardships were realized during his tenure as president.

  16. Just so you know, Hans, your Burgas fire story was still told well after you left.In fact, Hunter and I were talking about Christmas plans last week, which led to talking about Christmas in Bulgaria, and so inevitably story that actually came up. (The picture of you and him with the gypsy bear you just posted on FB also came up – classic picture.) I was lucky to get into Haskovo when it opened and spend a Christmas there. It was the year (I think you were gone by then, Hans) of the record-setting snow for central-eastern Bulgaria. We basically spent the entire holidays digging the city our of snow. Many in the city actually thought that the USA sent over young American men to aid the city with snow removal after its record setting snow fall!

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