Thursday, December 16, 2010


Dear the former Elder Glade,

Thanks for your example. This is my last Sunday.

See you soon -- I'll catch you on Facebook or something.

Elder Bhagwat

Coimbatore, December 12

I am sad to be leaving, but new hands can pick up the work that I left
and give it new direction.

I had an eventful last week. The stories that were in progress finally
got to a reportable point, so this will be a long e-mail.

The main highlight was being able to baptize two families that we had
been teaching.

The first one is named Robert and Girija, they are on the left in the
picture. Elder Riley knocked on their door when he was with a
different elder and met the wife Girija. She told Robert that we came
and he was not interested. He is an ex-military guy who is now working
for a security agency as a training officer.

Though he's a military guy, he watched his father become a drunkard so
he doesn't drink or anything. Actually he used to be an altar boy when
he was young but stopped due to watching priests take money all the
time. So he hasn't really been to church since he was 13. Girija is
much more religious and prays all the time. Funny story actually.

One lesson when we were telling them to pray from their hearts instead
of saying memorized prayer we read a verse from the Sermon on the
Mount. It saaid something like "do not use vain repetitions, as the
heathen do, for they think they shall be heard for their much

At tha Robert just starts bursting up. We're a little bit confused so
we ask him why he's laughing so hard. He points to a Roman Catholic
prayer book that they have, and tells us that one time Girija started
from the beginning and went through all the prayers, *53* times.
Girija's looking find of uncomfortable now, so we laughed and gave
Girija a "well, you didn't know better" shrug and went onwards.

Anyway, that's all later. We came back a second time and when he met
us Robert was way impressed with us. We gave them a Book of Mormon and
invited them to church; they didn't come and we didn't think they were
too interested, so we didn't go back again.

About a month later, after Elder Riley went home I remembered their
house and figured I'd go back with Elder Prabhakar. Meanwhile, Girija
had given the Book of Mormon to her sister, who lives in Kanyakumari,
the southernmost district in India, where they are from. Her family is
all fishermen. Her sister started reading it and was way impressed, so
she told Girija, so she and Robert started praying to get another

Lo and behold, we show up again on their doorstep, let us in, and we
give them another copy and invite them to church again. Robert tells
us how he and Girija are fighting all the time. She stares angrily
back at him. We promise them that they gospel can bring more unity
into their family.

(This is on like Tuesday in late October.)

On Sunday, they come to church and love it, we go to their house again
and discover Girija is like 200 pages into it.

The next couple weeks we get them to have family prayer almost every
day. They come to church every week. We bring over a family in the
neighborhood, husband and wife named Shiva and Latha, and they become
best friends.

They keep trying to get us to sit on their plastic chairs when we come
over but we keep resisting because they only have two so that would
make us sit above them. We insist instead that we all sit together on
a mat on the floor. "All are equal, brother," I tell Robert.

We get the branch president's wife (Shelley Schultz equivalent) to
teach Giija and another sister, Cecilia, English twice a week.

The difference is so obvious. Last week as we're going to their house
Girija rests her arms on Robert's legs and leans towards him, which
for India is all over him. "Girija so much love this week, brother,"
Robert says.

Elder Meservy baptized Robert. I baptized Girija.

The other two people, standing on the right side, are Vincent and
Cecilia. A church member family who lived across the street brought
them to church to see the Primary presentation -- all the children 3
to 11 had a special presentation where they gave talks and sang songs
during the first hour of Sunday meetings. It lasted like 40 minutes.
Vincent and Cecilia were way impressed. "The children are so
disciplined," they said.

As we began to visit their house I was impressed so much by how much
they loved their children, Vincy Jasmine (4) and Christo (0). They
aren't nearly well-off enough to afford diapers, so quite often as we
were meeting them the usually-nude Christo would start to pee or
diarrhea on the floor. Cecilia or Vincent would calmly lift him up,
get a towel, and start to clean up the mess.

Cecilia is a college graduate, so she speaks OK English. Vincent not
so much. Usually when we say something Cecilia translates for Vincent.
Even though he doesn't speak so much English we can really tell how
intelligent he is. They were also raised in a Catholic tradition, so
as we read from the Book of Mormon about how Adam and Eve story, he's

"I always thought it was a bad thing, and finally I learn that there
was a purpose after all," he says. (Well, this is the branch president
translating what he said for us.)

We were always worried about the spirituality of their lessons, as
Vincy was always trying to play with Christo, Christo was crying or
screaming, or some other distraction associated with having small
children happened. But they always just seemed to want to learn. Many
times Cecilia would have to take Christo and walka round the church
building during meetings on Sunday. Sometimes someone is there to help
her, but sometimes not.

Still, they both have so much patience. At the end, we realized: they
know that their children will be children. They don't need the
quietest atmosphere. They just want to learn. They have a vision of
how their future family can be, and they want to get there.

I baptized both of them.

Anyway, that's my last big accomplishment. More good stuff will happen
after I go, but all these families should continue on the path they
started. I helped them build the foundation. So I'm happy.

With love,


Sunday, December 05, 2010

Coimbatore, November 28

Lots of cool stuff happened this week. We went to Chennai for a conference so I got to see a lot of people I knew well there. I met M. and H.,, the family I baptized with Elder Glade.

I also visited another guy named S. He's like 19. I knocked on his family's door with Elder Siyyadri, my second companion. This time I went back, and when we knocked on the door his mom and sister were confused – S. was outside -- but then they recognized me and they were way excited. They made nicknames for all the elders -- Obama, Giant, and so forth. Mine was "Sham." So they called S. and he came back.

Since I met him, S. seems like a new man. Way more confident; much better English, and some other things that are harder to describe. I could barely recognize him. He's planning to go on a mission after he finishes his college, which I was way excited to hear. (He's in his second year now.)

Also saw S.’s brother G. -- and he was still trying to avoid me. That was pretty funny. G. had gotten married to a sister named Sa. since I met him last. So I asked G. how he met Sa. -- it was a love marriage -- and he wouldn't tell me. Then G. left and I asked S. how G. met Sa., and S. said G. wouldn't tell him either. Funny guy.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Coimbatore, November 21

Life is going pretty well, taking care of 50% more stuff is pretty interesting but it seems to be going well.

My main lessons this week are about how to organize stuff instead of doing it myself.

We need to help the wives of a couple of the families that we are teaching learn English. Instead of trying to do it ourselves, we realized that the branch president's wife Sh. and her mom M.C. were free all day and would be more than willing to help.

So we went over to S. and M., some members who knew the families we were teaching (V. and C., the one I wrote about last week) and explained the idea. Then we took S. and M. over to the branch president's house and together we explained the idea to Sh. Then we told Sh and V. and C. to come to church at the same time to meet each other. And now everything is set up nicely for this week and we just have to follow up with everyone.

Some new member families were saying they had a hard time understanding the scriptures so we gave the husband, wife, and adult children some reading tips, a journal and a dictionary and told them to write down what they understood. Then we just sat silently in front of them and watched magic happen. We did this one like three different times in three days with three different families.

I know some missionaries who are, for example, really good motivational speakers. This helps them to help people do some things that they didn't think were possible, like quitting drinking or smoking.

Personally, I'm not great at pep talks or encouraging people. Sure, I've learned to do it if need be. But my particular point of excellence seems to be getting people to read stuff and understand the ideas and apply them. So I do that the most.

The signs of coming home are creeping up on me but I'm having too much fun and so am doing my best to ignore them :) I will be happy to see you though.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Coimbatore, November 14

Dear mother,

Elder Prabhakar went off to Erode, so I'm with Elder Meservy now. It's going pretty good so far, he's pretty laid-back and generally quiet but flexible.

Spent last night running around and saying goodbyes with Elder Prabhakar. Spent the morning cleaning the apartment -- this time I actually got a sense of the order in which I should clean to be most efficient, so that was good.

We're busy also, no neatly tied up stories to tell. There's one family we started newly visiting; and it's amazing to see as we came to their house how easily love transcends language barriers.

Their names are V. and C., and their children are J. (4) and Ch. (0). They can understand half English but not reply well, I can understand a quarter Tamil but not speak. So they'll ask simple questions in mixed Tamil and English and I'll point them to something they can read in Tamil to answer their question. This family goes out together to the market, and whenever we're there in their actions and in the way they answer questions we can see their love for their children. Ch.’s teeth are coming in and when he starts crying I just make a pitch-pipe like humming sound and he becomes happy again. It's very funny.


Coimbatore, November 7

I have learned a new language on my mission. It's called, "Indian English."

When I am trying to get someone to hurry up, I tell them to "Come
fastly." When someone is late and I call them on the phone, I ask them
"Where you are now? How many minutes you are coming?" When I need to
know how many of my 24 hours I've used, I stop and ask someone on the
road, "Brother, what is time now?" Moreover, I sign whatever I speak.
When I say "think," I point to my head. When I say, "feel," I point to
my heart. Occasionally, Indian English includes basic local language
words like "romba" - pronounce "ro" as in "rowing" - for "very" or
"uthkaringa" for "please sit down".

Sometimes I still speak the language we used at home, known as
"American English." Because my companion speaks good English, there
are other American elders, some members of the branch can understand
this language, and I'm in contact with you, I still remember how to
speak it.

Unfortunately, due to lack of usage, while I have maintained my skills
in "American English," I do slip up now and then and am certainly not

Life here continues to be crazy. For various reasons, including being
senior companion again, I am back on my organizing drive. On Saturday,
I finally was able to turn a long-awaited plan into reality.

There's a basic principle I've learned on my mission. Everyone likes
elders, but the amount they actually trust you and are willing to do
stuff for you is usually directly proportional to the amount of time
you spend with them.

I told you about M., the kid from the orphanage we're teaching.
Well, we really wanted to get him some mature people to be his
friends. We were thinking about it, and the best candidates were
actually J. and S., the family we are teaching that I was
telling you about. All the necessary steps -- introducing them,
setting up the appointment, finding the house -- were easier because
both already trusted us, we knew their schedules, where they lived,
etc. This is pretty unorthodox -- you usually introduce them to church
members -- but it was the easiest thing to do. So on Saturday, Elder
Prabhakar and I pumped up our cycles and cycled 30 minutes on some
pretty washed out roads to get to M.’s orphanage, picked him up, and
walked a mile and a half to J. and S.’s house.

In addition, while I was trying to work out all the logistics through
calling M. on his friend's cell phone, we also talked J. into
sending their daughter R. to a church picnic for children on the
same day. They're pretty protective of R. and it was the first time
R. -- who is 9 --ever went somewhere without them but she really
enjoyed it so it worked out.

It was also good before we thought having J. and
S. serve someone else would be good for them, and we plan to
continue this in the future. Also it was a megalith of planning, and
it worked and they really developed a strong bond so it was good.

So I'm getting a new companion, Elder Meservy. Actually this is
because some elders finished their mission and are going home so they
are combining our two companionships in Coimbatore. So now there are a
couple million people in my area. And we're going to have 15 people
coming to church every Sunday. While I'm excited for the new
responsibility, I'm afraid my head is going to explode.

(My companion Elder Prabhakar is going to a nearby city Erode, and
Elder Meservy's companion Elder Ludlow is going to Hyderabad to be
companions with Elder Gervais, my old companion. I really like Elder
Ludlow; this will probably be the last time I see him on my mission,
though he lives in Modesto so we'll probably meet again.)

Thanks for the election news. I read about Jerry Brown when I was
learning about California political history, I didn't know he was
still alive and hopping! So in the race to replace a mucle-packed
weight-lifter and action movie hero, married to a daughter of a
dubious dynasty, a semi-antique, semi-hippie former governor beats the
former CEO of the dot-com era's top 5 success story. Here in Tamil
Nadu we've had the same chief minister for the last 20 years. I'm not
sure which form of theater -- excuse me, government -- I prefer.

Also as you may have heard, Obama is in India. All the Coimbatore
elders wore red, white, and blue ties on Sunday in honor of his visit.


Coimbatore, October 31

Mostly it's just rainy season here, so we're busy getting wet. Yes, we have umbrellas, but we also have bicycles. I've gotten pretty soaked about three times in the last week.

Other visible effects include a decrease in Church attendance -- even though Sunday was clear -- with the general reason that "I have a fever (= a cold), I was out walking in the rain."

It seems rather medically dubious to me (a cold is a virus, right? Does being out in the rain really affect your immune system that much? Does everyone in Seattle and Portland have a cold all the time?) but everyone believes it here.

As per my companion: Elder Prabhakar's name is actually Vasanth Prabhakar; his father's name is Prabhakar. He is from Karnataka, and in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, they take their father's name as the surname and don't have any family surname. (In Andhra they have a surname, same as in the US.) The Maharashtran system, having a surname and your father's name as the middle name, makes the most sense to me. Can you imagine the difficulty of record-keeping without surnames? Abbott and Costello would have a ball...

We are still crazily busy, ie, life is still looking up. Everyone is busy preparing for Diwali. Most everyone will have holidays on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, so we are going to try to get about two weeks of work done in four days. Due to various reasons including our busy-ness, other people's busy-ness, we aren't meeting people frequently enough.

For example, we need to meet J. once or twice in a week to help her have enough upward oomph and encouragement, but we've only been able to meet her once in two weeks. We need to meet another brother named A. every week, but we've only been able to meet him four times in two-and-a-half months.

The main cause of the problem is that in the last two weeks 18 different people that we're actively responsible for came to church at least one week. Of those, 14 are preparing for baptism. Normally, that would be like 6 and 2. This is hardly cause for complaint -- we're really excited -- but it does cause us to be rather busy.

I've gotten to this stage before in Hyderabad with Elder Gervais, but then everything fell apart. Over time we discovered that people just liked Elder Gervais and myself rather than being interested and able to change their lives. So they kind of all fell off the map sooner or later. Part of our mistake was that we failed to honestly evaluate people's motives and challenges and part was we failed to make the right plans and concentrate on the right people. I hope to avoid making the same mistakes here. One difficulty is that I probably won't be able to get much help with Elder Prabhakar with such evaluation, it takes some experience as a missionary, which is why I made that mistake in the first place.

I also have tons more stories to write, but a part of them would not really suffice, so I'll leave it at that.


Coimbatore, October 24

Now that Elder Riley went home, I have a new native companion named Elder Prabhakar.

He's really good actually, great guy, very funny, people person and hard worker. He's new on his mission -- he's only been in the field for a month -- so I still have to gently poke him at 6:35 in the morning to make sure he gets up. He'll get used to it, I'm sure.

He's a very people-oriented person and has already developed a lot of the skills that I had to work hard to develop on my mission. On Saturday we were visiting a church member named W. at his shop when his childhood friend R., who is also the neighborhood rowdy, walked in to say hi to W. After 10 minutes of conversation somehow Elder Prabhakar had made this guy into his best friend by showing a kind of love for R. that is difficult to describe in words. And as a result, we have the potential to help this guy reform his ways...

In a lot of good ways, he reminds me of Elder Gervais. Though we're very different people, we should be able to blend our talents well. Right now he's teaching me how to cook Indian food and I'm teaching him to cook American food. This morning I made french toast and he took the cap off of the maple syrup and started pouring it out because he'd never seen a pop-and-squeeze cap before. The small things you take for granted..

We've been able to have a ton of good things happen in the lives of people we're teaching. 12 people we're teaching came to church today which was really wonderful but also completely crazy.

Today in the leadership meeting before church the branch president made a special plea for everyone to befriend M., the orphan kid I was telling you about. As a result, three or four different people put their arm around him; went and sit next to him, and so forth. It was wonderful.

The question, of course, is: shouldn't this happen spontaneously?

Of course, and believe me I would be very happy about that also. But something I've come to understand is that this requires the correct culture. And culture isn't spontaneous; it must be carefully cultivated.

Moveover, a while back I would have been too frustrated that "this should happen spontaneously!" to do anything to make it happen.

I have some goals for the rest of my mission and am trying my best to complete them as my time window gradually closes....I hope it works...

With love,

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Coimbatore, October 11

This week was pretty good.

This week was general conference, all the church leaders giving talks from Salt Lake. Actually it was last week, but since we're 12 hours ahead we got the DVDs and played them this week. It was really good, I felt rejuvenated.

One of the talks that I felt was meant for me was on the need to slow down and focus on the important things, especially when going through turbulent events, instead of just being busy for the sake of being busy. Obviously this is one of my known weaknesses but I felt like I received a lot of help in going from where I am to where I want to be.

One of the people we're teaching is named M., he's 18 and he and his sister N. live in an orphanage. An American sister named K.R. has been bringing them to church for a while. This was our seating arrangement.

me-M.-KR-N-N's friend

when a speaker with a thick Italian accent comes on.

M. has problems understanding some of the (American) speakers anyway, and often ask us what they are saying.

So when this speaker comes on M. first turns to the right and asks KR what he is saying. She can't tell, so he turns to the left and asks me instead. I also have no idea, at which point he starts laughing pretty hard, followed by the rest of us. The Americans can't understand the speaker, how is he supposed to? We laugh with him.

M. is pretty amazing actually. Visiting him was one of the highlights of this week.

He's been through a lot of stuff in his life but because of KR (she's his teacher) it seemed to work out for good instead of bad.

He said he used to never listen to anyone and always rebel but now he's different. I asked him "what changed?" and he proceeded to give a 40-minute explanation of his life story.

We had planned on teaching the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, translation: no drinking, smoking, drugs, tea, or coffee, sex only within marriage, keep your thoughts pure and choose your life partner carefully.

However, as he was telling his life story, he was basically explaining how all of his different friends had ended up drinking all the time, or marrying crappy husbands who were drunk all the time and cheated on them. So we just had to listen carefully and point out the lessons, which he already realized in the first place.

And then, since this is India, he has two sisters and has to worry about their marriage, so we pointed out that finding good life partners would be far, far easier that way.

The heartless analytical economist in me has a hypothesis.

(1) Actions, especially the type of actions mentioned above, innately have consequences.

(2) Sometimes we as humans can be shielded from consequences by protective factors. These protective factors include
(a) Human action-consquence limitations, ie parents, mentors, and roommates. They make curfews, wait up, pick us up at the police station, ground us, sit with us when we're vomiting into the toilet, etc etc.
(b) Non-human action-consquence limitations, for example access to birth control and abortion
(c) Action-guiders, ie parents, friends, mentors and culture to convince us to avoid patterns of destructive behavior, develop good judgment in the opposite sex, etc.

(3) When protective factors are present behavior can go on for a longer time without serious negative consequences, ie unwanted pregnancy, job loss, addiction, etc etc. Sometimes that can enable people to change course before serious problems result.

(4) Very few to absolutely none of these protective factors are present in an Indian orphanage.

That makes me extremely grateful for KR; she helped M. find the right path. I'm sure his decisions will bless future generations. He has one of the strongest desires to do right of anyone I've met on my mission. Probably because of the stuff he's seen.



Reflections to a Friend Leaving on a Mission

I love my mission.

I am so grateful for the decision I made to serve a mission.

The reasons I am so grateful to serve a mission now, have only casual relevance to the reasons I, your friendly Stanford skeptical intellectual Mormon convert, decided to go on a mission. I see ourselves as very similar, so I hope this helps.

These are the reasons I am grateful now.

I learned how to love, serve, and get along with companions and investigators that were far, far different than me. Because I learned this, I was able to help people I would otherwise be unable to help. I was also far happier.

I learned the power of faith. Starting with, I realized the importance of my faith in choosing to serve, not understanding really what was in front of me.

Every baptism that I've had, or every person I've found that has been baptized, was a miracle. Not in the casual sense, but really, honestly, each one was a miracle. That means I've seen a lot of miracles in 22 months. My faith has grown a lot and I see a vision for my future life.

I now understand what my Heavenly Father wants from me. I understand what the gospel is and how it applies to me. I didn't fully understand this before.

I've felt my Heavenly Father work countless times through me. I've also felt countless disappointments, letdowns, frustration at companions, investigators, etc etc.

Minute mission rules (or culture) might frustrate at times. This is for two main reasons. First, you will be asked to obey things you don't understand. Second, we are both generally self-motivated and do things our own way; in contrast, a mission is very regimented. Other missionaries are not always as self-motivated, they might need the regimentation more, but you might need it too. Rigid schedules -- scheduled exercise, planning and study times -- helped me in some surprising ways to discipline myself.

Finally, whatever your course in navigating and obeying the rules, don't be frustrated at them. The rules are made for the right reasons; frustration wastes time, energy and the Spirit.

Doing the Lord's work is so, so worth it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coimbatore, October 3

We got 'grounded' for a couple days this week because the Ayodhya mosque decision finally came back. Nothing happened in Coimbatore but we were a bit worried so stayed inside.

As a result, on Thursday I had the chance to make chicken curry and chapattis to feed 6, it tasted reasonably well but took like two and a half hours. Probably because it was my first time (I normally don't have time to try). Luckily, I've seen my native companions prepare enough, and tasted enough dishes, to figure out what tastes right.

Also on Saturday it was Gandhi-jayanti, which is a national holiday so there was an activity at church. It started with lunch potluck, but only men were allowed to cook. (The branch wanted to give the sisters the day off, so they were officially not allowed inside their respective kitchens).

Yes, the food tasted good, and there was enough, though I heard in a couple houses the wives had to sit outside the kitchen and give their husbands detailed instructions. I made egg salad sandwiches which had two perks. One, no one had ever tasted it before and two, all I needed were eggs, mayonnaise, bread, and salt.

The main highlight of this week was a wonderful family we're teaching. The father and the mother are named R. and S., they have a 19yo daughter named R. and a 23yo son named P. The daughter is studying aeronautical engineering and the son is doing his MBA. The other elders had been teaching them but they got transferred, so I met them first in about the beginning of August.

Their native place is near the south end of India, a city called Valparrai about 3 hours from here. Studies are better in Coimbatore so after R. finished her 10th they sent their children here for studies and then moved here with them. (How many people would do that in America?)

They have obligatons in Valparrai; S. is a councillor in Valparrai -- it's a politician job, elected office, but not very work-intensive. R. owns some sort of a gas distribution center. Both of their duties seem to go on fine with occasional visits. (Usually one of them will go to Valparrai for half of the week.)

Elders have been meeting them for about eight months. They love us coming, they have great understanding and whenever we give them a scripture reading assignment they do it eagerly.

Since I met them we've been having a lot of spiritual lessons; they had been contemplating moving back to Valparrai in a couple of years, where they have their own house. To continue learning and growing in the church, however, they would have to stay in Coimbatore, and we talked to them strongly about that several weeks ago, and then left it -- they understood, and it's their decision to make. (And for them, it makes some sense anyway; their children are only going to get jobs in big cities; there is no market for their skills in Valparrai.)

After a particulaly spiritual lesson a couple of weeks ago, S. said unprompted to the member we brought on exchange, "We will stay in Coimbatore -- for this church only." They have come to church about 12 times now. Today we were especially excited because they stayed for all 3 hours, it was only the second time they had stayed, and then they met the branch president after church. They are going to be out of station on the 10th, and then their baptism will be on the 17th, Elder Riley's last Sunday.

Because elders have been teaching them for so long, like six or seven different families have come with elders to their house. Last night we were sitting at the church talking to a church member couple named R.and D., that we had brought over there before, and they asked us, "R. and S. are getting baptized on the 17th?" Yes, we said, shaking our heads, sorry, we forgot to tell you the news. We're excited about it, and it's exciting to watch them tell all their church member friends about it.

Thus is life,
with love,

Coimbatore, September 27

I am doing pretty good this week. Elder Riley and I were separated for most of this week - he was in Bangalore for a leadership training meeting and I was here in Coimbatore and then in Erode. So he left last Monday morning and got back only on Friday morning.

He is a really good missionary and is very good at helping me to improve. These last couple days as we applied the things he was learning in Bangalore we had a lot of spiritual lessons with people we were meeting for the first time.

Erode is very hot, Chennai-like. I'm not sure what exactly causes the temperature differential -- the cities are only 60 miles away -- but I'm grateful to be in Coimbatore. Erode is a pretty nice place but I was sweating a lot for two days.

The other highlight of the week - an American in town on business named J. brought his entire office to the church on Friday. He's a programmer but writes books and music on the side. It was a little bit of a miracle of organization what happened actually. One of the local leaders received a call from him on Tuesday so they called us, so we called his office members (you know the problem with having a cell phone while visiting India) and got hold of him.

After a 15-minute phone conversation -- he called back from his computer, while we were on the main road and struggling to hear him, we just cancelled our evening appointment and met him at his hotel room to coordinate plans.

His songs are all themed on gospel themes, so we planned a recital combined with a church tour, laid out the order, schedule and expectations and planning in the hotel room. Then I went out of station to Erode for two days, and returned on Friday morning. Surprisingly and amazingly, we were able to coordinate refreshments, agenda, recital, tour, and everything and it worked beautifully.

The only, completely uncontrollable, problem was that the power kept going on and off, which presented two problems:

(1) It was 7:30 at night


(2) J. was singing on a mic and playing on an electric piano.

With love,

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Coimbatore, September 5

The last week has been pretty good. I ate the best paneer butter masala I've ever had on Wednesday at a church member's home.

It's interesting how you do the same things, repeat the same patterns, over and over again without realizing it.

Of course, this is frustrating when it's a bad habit you're trying to get rid of, but helpful when it's a good thing. For example, at my insistence Elder Riley and I visited a couple of church members named R. and K.

R. is 50 and Anglo-Indian, she is divorced and lives with her mother and her 18yo son, her son used to come to church but then started smoking and some other stuff. She usually sits alone in church and doesn't have any really good friends.

K. is 39, he went on a mission ten years ago and got married, but his brother doesn't come to church anymore and his wife left him and took their daughter so he lives with his mother. He has troubles expressing himself in complete thoughts and also sits alone in church.

They both seemed nice and I felt bad for them so we visited both of them and just talked to and listened to them. And now they are both becoming noticably more active in church.

I got my release date: December 18. It was actually December 29, but got moved up for some reason. I am slightly sad about that. I made a goal to have 20 baptisms in the rest of my mission when I got transferred here to be with Elder Riley. We've had three so far as companions.

In this area there were some people ready to be baptized but who faced insurmountable obstacles.

A woman named P. whose Hindu husband won't let her and her 8 year old daughter take baptism. These families have been investigating for a year and coming to church regularly but can't be baptized.

But Elder Riley and I worked to help them take the necessary steps to get baptized. (Previous elders kind of gave up on them.)

Our efforts included having the mission president meet both of them (this is extremely rare in our mission because of travel and because the mission president has to manage the districts also). And we were assisted by a semi-miraculous event: P.'s husband finally telling her to do what she wants.

As a result, we had 10 people at church on Sunday, 9 of whom are set with a baptismal date.

I think I'm going to make my goal of 20 - we should have 10 more baptisms before Elder Riley goes home (his last Sunday is October 17). This is somewhat ridiculous -- I've never had more than 6 people with dates before. And I have to make sure that I'm working hard than even to find, teach, and baptize the last 7.
With Love,

Sunday, September 05, 2010

To My Friends, With Love

Editor's Note: You may notice that this post is out of chronological sequence. Last spring I received a hand-written letter from Sam via snail mail with the following enclosed. He asked me to type it up and post it here. Unfortunately I received it at a rather busy time of year, and the task of typing it slipped to the bottom of my to-do list until now. I regret the delay, as this post comes seven months after it was written, but upon reading it I realized that, late though it is, it comes as at a fitting time, as Sam embarks on the final months of his full-time missionary service and prepares to return to the States. Let me add my testimony to his, that the work he is engaged in is focused on no other object than enoblement and exaltation of the human family.

Elder Samuel Mohun Bhagwat
January 31, 2010

Dear Friends,

I haven’t corresponded with most of you in quite some time. Time, distance, out of sight, out of mind. Still you all hold a special place in my heart and I want to say hello.

It will be a long hello—be warned.

I have been thinking about what you probably thought when you saw this. “Sam has changed so much since I knew him.” That is true. But you are still just as much a friend of mine as the day we saw each other. I’d love to hear from any or all of you. And I think I’ve gained the experience in my new life to answer your next thought: “I wonder why?”

Let me tell you a bit about myself. You probably already knew, actually, I’m a deeply serious person. If something seems important, I’ll involve myself. In high school, chemistry, biology, physics equations, American history, British literature—all of these seemed important in some ultimate sense. At least, they are part of the Quest for Knowledge, and that is definitely important. And I find joy in learning and understanding how things work. So I did it all—captain of the Quiz Bowl Team, math project for Science Fair, you name it. At the same time I had an avid interest in world affairs—it was Important, after all.

Like any other human being, I have a sense of belonging. I want to be part of something bigger than myself. I want to spend my spare time and share my thoughts with those with the same values as myself. I want to know people who understand my hopes, dreams, interests, aspirations, because theirs are similar.

In high school, I remember Friday night hangouts turning into discussions of the teachers we all had together and the assignments they were giving. We always played games like Apples to Apples and Cranium—geek games for the geeks we were. We spent our free time building upon our common bond, I can say that much. The other smart kids who showed their attachment to different values by spending time with other social groups (Dara, Peter, Jason, Amanda, Frank, etc.), I paid less attention to, had less interest in, and (to only a small degree I hope) judged them as somewhat less of people.

I sought out people like Jesse, another Quiz Bowler, with whom I engaged in political discussions for nigh on six months. We bonded over Kafka and H.L. Mencken, and the libertarianism he slowly drew me to. Reading Chekhov’s “The Bet” in AP English Literature, I was drawn to the story of a man who gave up human associations for books for 15 years. It fascinated and tempted me. That was me. That was the society I was drawn to. That was the society I helped create.

Then I went to Stanford.

[A side note: I believe a society can be judged, in large part, by how its members
spend their free time. Therein are their values revealed.]

Still, I was fascinated with ideas. I spent much of my summer simply sitting and reading books about politics, absorbing ideas, turning them over in my mind. Before me, through books, stretched the history of past centuries, with myself as the arbiter of historical truth, intrigue, and mystery.

I continued this pattern at Stanford. I sunk my heart and soul into a four-member class on Soviet history where we learned to read texts: None of the other students seemed nearly as enthusiastic, so I didn’t become friends with them, but the professor loved me. In my dorm, many students were part of a class/program where they read texts from ancient civilizations to modern times and analyzed them; for example I picked up the nickname “Bhagwat Gita.” Soon I found myself wandering down the hall and joining the impromptu discussions of the more ardent and interested students. I grew close to them, and soon joined the program myself.


Here’s the thing. After some time, I continued to eat, but the food failed to satisfy. I remember especially one novel, called Season of Migration to the North. The protagonist, a brilliant Sudanese man, goes to London and secures an excellent job, but finds ultimate emptiness, spends his time seducing women, marries one, and kills at her request, and finally he attempts suicide by swimming into a raging river. The last words of the book is his cry of “Help” after he realizes he wants to live, after all.

The professor at the head of the program acclaimed the book and lauded its insightfulness, how it really captured the essence of life, and so on. But my friends Lillia, Marisa, and I wondered: “is this all there is?”

Oh yeah, friends. Socially, I gravitated to two extremely dedicated and smart dormmates, Lillia and Marisa. The three of us were very close, and decided to live together the next year.

I was of two minds on another matter. The dorms are filled with 19 year olds who suddenly have no restriction on them; the result—at Stanford, too—is what could generously be termed loose morals. Hearing student co-workers, on the way to teach math to small innocent elementary school students, discuss casually, and with explicit detail, their friends hookups, drunken doings, and the like, I was torn internally between disgust and admiration for their blatant disregard for social norms. Externally, silence means consent, and while remaining so by action and by word I encouraged it more than I’d care to remember.

Over time, a thought grew in me. It took a bit of time for my disgust to overcome my admiration for this stuff and the chutzpah it required. As it did, the thought in me matured: this is the pinnacle of Achievement for American youth. The best and the brightest. This is why they exhaust their energy on differential calculus problem sets, engineering projects, and history papers. This is what they do when Friday night comes and they’re finally free of other obligations.

Three words: I want more.

I found glimpses of that “more”—a campus-wide super-soaker game and other events of the fraternity I joined; its real sense of brotherhood. Late night chats about life, purposes, plans with so many of you—Lia, Marisa, Lillia, Sonja, Martin, Josh, Cosmin. Treading so frantically in the waters of college life as I felt compelled to, your friendships were like so many breaths of fresh air. All of you take life seriously but have about you a sense of joy.

I’ll skip the journey (I’ve written about it elsewhere) and go straight to the oxygen tank. This is what gives me fresh air, what feeds and sates my inner yearnings for Importance. I know who I am. I am a son of God, and through awe and amazement take literally the Biblical promises about my, and all of our, potential to become like Him (for the Christians among you see Matthew 5:48 and 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watching friends become part of that—going with high school friends to college parties, I was caught up a bit. Not to participate in, say, drinking, but to be a part of and feed off of the atmosphere. These were my homeboys—Nice-girl Q’s stories of partying and hookups. Walking with a drunken B. home at 2am, hearing him say, it tastes awful, but you get used to it, watching the beer pong, hearing a tipsy G. say, don’t tell K. [our mutual friend]. Hanging out with K., after the separations of two years of college, and her YouTube videos—wondering what had happened to our closeness. My dear friend H., hearing her sadly/sighingly get used to people describe her as “H. with big breasts.” The thong pictures plastered above my other female friend H.’s bed as a joke.

I love all of you, and I don’t want you thinking, “Okay, Sam turned to religion because he’s a prude and wanted some friends.” And I don’t want you thinking I’m obsessively against booze and sex. Every one of you that has felt the Spirit of God at any time—reading scripture, listening to a sermon, finally understanding something, having a heart-to-heart, serving others—knows the kind of inspired, sometimes excited, genuinely delighted response it elicits in us. My disgust—my sadness and lack of meaning, and wholesale emotional and intellectual rejection of this disorder and licentiousness, of the degraded views of ourselves and others they engender, their lightness with things that are sacred, I believe it was prompted by the same Spirit.

Intellectually, in that program, a landscape of dreary disillusionment—of a prestigious photographer flocked by beautiful women wanting to sleep with him for photos, bored by it all; Charlie Chaplin and a Metropolis plagued by self-destructing machinery (“Blow-Up”); of six play characters in a bizarre incestuous triangle, searching for their other, to complain and plead (“Six Characters in Search of an Author”); of three characters searching for an exit from hell, as a model for life (Sartre, “No Exit”); of a town, under siege from a plague, their hopes growing only to be dashed, having no control over their situation (Camus, “The Plague”). Intellectuals deciding life is pointless, so we may as well help each other.

It’s Saturday night in West Palm Beach. I’m almost 19, working full time for the first time. Now I’m sitting on a the couch in our apartment, listening to “A Tribute to the Prophet” by Joseph Nashville, a musical retelling of the life of Joseph Smith. “The boy, the faith, the prayers, the hate, the persecution, The Spirit, the peace…” remembering my conversion, the words, with strumming guitar and voice rising in intensity: “I don’t know all the answers but I’ll do my best/ To live up to the Rising that won’t let me rest/ Lord help me.” Thinking about my past, thinking about Paul’s analogy in Hebrews of a man traveling in a wilderness of temptation only to finally find rest in the Promised Land. Feeling the emotions well up in me of that summer and those songs and those nights and mornings spent sitting on my couch and letting the music run through me and trigger my emotions and wishes and desire for more.

Remembering: in Chennai on my mission, seven months ago, sitting on the couch of Prahash and Annie’s, with my converts. Listening to Michael and Hemalatha tell how now that they joined this church, their family was serious about God for the first time in their life. Their 18 and 15 year-old sons were actually excited about church. Remembering how Samuel (the 18 year old) absorbed and loved the five steps of the Gospel: faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost, Endure to the end. How energetically he defined and expounded them to his brother Daniel.

Remembering: Standing behind the font, hearing the words from my dear friend and companion Elder Tuscano: “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you…” As Jeremiah, a brother I met on the street, taught, and now I was seeing him dressed in a white jump suit, pure before God, promising to follow Him for the rest of his life.

Thinking of the promises made by God to us, thinking of who God is and that I know who He is—cutting through “I’m already saved” and “God is a point of light, a power behind me” and “you really believe Jesus Christ came to the Americas” expressed in that tone of disbelief and frustration.

Cutting to the fruit, now delicious to me, “This is the great secret: that God who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a man, like unto yourselves….The first principles of man are self existent with God. God Himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because He was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like Himself.” All the intelligences that God sent into the world are capable of enlargement, with “a faculty that may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and like the ancients, arrives at that point of faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker, and is caught up to dwell with Him. But we consider that this is a station to which no man ever arrived in a moment.” (Teachings of The Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p.210, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City Utah, 2007)

I feel home. I am home.

I love you. Come with me.

-Elder Samuel M. Bhagwat

Coimbatore, August 29

I called the office and asked what the situation was for going home and they said that the date is indeed December18th. They said President Funk wanted us home for Christmas.

I appreciate your points about punctuality and respect. In India, people aren't very time-conscious. In addition, people show their respect and courtesy in different ways that often is detrimental to timeliness. For example, I've often told someone I had another appointment to go to, only for them to bring out snacks or tell me to stay so I could eat a meal. I understand this is a "guest culture", however it is still frustrating and challenging. But if I can be timely here, I can definitely do it in any situation.

(I think I told you about an American family I met in Chennai; the husband worked in Caterpillar and one of his main tasks was to instill certain American values, eg timeliness in the culture there. For example, he would start meetings on time and continue giving 20 minutes of his presentation even when no one else was there, and refuse to go back. I thought that was pretty amusing.)

I have been thinking about how people get what they want. Basically people with their lips say they want a lot of things -- a happy family, peace in their lives, leaving bad habits, etc etc.

Some people aren't willing to do anything -- those ones are pretty easy to weed out. But these are others who are willing to do some things towards their goal, but their effort falls short of what is necessary. Those are more difficult to detect and determine if you can help them.

The same thing, of course, applies to me -- we'll always plan our goals in the beginning of the week but when the week is coming to a close we're often short. One of Elder Riley's strengths is that he tracks how we're doing, and is willing to adjust his actions accordingly. On Friday, we hadn't really found anyone to teach this week, so on his prerogative we scheduled our whole afternoon and evening to go knock doors and try to find some new people. And it worked. It's really good -- he's teaching me a lot about meaning the goals we set and being willing to adjust our actions accordingly.


Coimbatore, August 22

You may be amused to know that I can almost solve a Rubix cube now. Elder Riley was in bed sick for three days with body pains so I made him teach me. It wasn't actually that hard but for some reason I never learned. There's still one move I can't do to finish it off but I'm almost there.

(He's better now.)

I don't have a lot to say because I was working on the school stuff and getting a personal statement ready for that application. Elder Riley and I have been talking a lot about hard work and smart work. I am really growing to admire him because he's a goofball and always making jokes but we're also able to have the serious conversations.

For example, something I often do is out of a desire to meet more people (=work hard), is to schedule impossible appointments -- too close to each other in time, figuring some of them will cancel. (You probably recognize this as part of my tendency to overbook myself, and I know that too, but it's quite a difference between understanding the problem and solving it.)

While the assumption that some of them will cancel is often true, Elder Riley and I were talking a lot about good faith and how we should be reliable -- if people aren't reliable in return that's their fault, not ours. It's hard because it's a tradeoff of quantity (number of appointments) vs. quality (peace, stressfree-ness, reliability).

We then got into a discussion of what makes us have our different attitudes toward work, and I think I found some principles that really helped me. I get a lot of stuff done because I am hard-working, which is good, but many times I am hardworking because I become unhappy and frustrated if I'm not working which is not a very healthy attitude towards life.

I would continue on the same topic but I have to go, we're going to a village called Semmedu to sightsee. So with love, your son,

Coimbatore, August 16

So bad news and good news.

The good news is that our preparation days changed to Monday which will be more calm and peaceful (Sunday is our most busy day) and also I get to write twice this week.

The bad news is that I forgot to tell you last week. So I have to wait another week to hear how you are :( sorry...

I got to spend a couple days with Elder Stephen, my first companion in Hyderabad. He is in Erode, which is a couple hours away from Coimbatore, and Elder Riley (=my companion) went to Erode to go on exchange with Elder Stephen's companion. So I got to be back with Elder Stephen.

We didn't get along very well when we were companions, and since then both of us have been trying to mend and repair our relationship. It was good to be back together because we had a chance to do that -- saying hi and catching up is one thing but living and work together is another. That was mostly a success. We just did the small things like exchanging ideas when planning, laying on our beds with the lights out and talking. Another small thing: making jokes.

One of his main problems with us was that I didn't get his jokes, which usually involved saying something that didn't make sense or was obviously untrue, and he didn't get my jokes, which usually involved making up hypothetical situations. And then on Friday I made a joke like the ones he makes. It's 10:30 so we're about to turn off the lights. Elder Stephen is in a new apartment so he's a bit confused. "Where's the light," he asks me. I almost flip the light switch but then suddenly an idea pops to mind so I point at the light. He looks at the light confusedly and scans his eyes around a little bit for the switch, before he gets it. He laughs, "Elder Bhagwat made a joke," he says in half amusement, half amazement. It's a small thing but I was very happy about it.

Yesterday was, of course, Independence Day. I didn't see anything too out of the ordinary, just the normal streamers of flags. One church member pinned an India flag on me which was cool.

Don't have a lot else to say -- I hope everything was good and happy. If I think of anything else I'll definitely write.

With love,


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Coimbatore, August 10

Dear mother,
Life is happy here. My main non-missionary-related accomplishment of the last week is learning Tamil, I can read about 50% of Tamil now. (I can read the writing though I don't know the meaning)

One of the other elders got transferred in the morning on Friday and his companion didn't get in until the evening, so we went around all day in a triple, the other two elders talked to each other and I happily read all the dual Tamil/English signs and started figuring everything out. It's pretty easy because for example, you might have "Sri Venkateshwara Bakery," there are tons of "Sri" signs around so I figured out what S, r, and "ee" were very quickly. Then "Venkateswara" is a name so it's the same in Tamil, and "Bakery" is "Bakery" in Tamil, so the whole thing is just transliterated.
One strange thing about Tamil is they have this weird C-like character except it has curls on the end parts. If they want to make and "O" sound like "Show" you add that C character before and an "aa" character (which looks like the pi symbol) afterwards. So the words all are really long to write out. Hindi and Telugu scripts are much more compact.
President and Sister Funk were in town this week for a church conference. Most of the church in India is at least nominally in English, but there are two Tamil-speaking branches in villages near Coimbatore also, and all the members came on Sunday for the conference. And a bunch of members came on a bus from Erode also, which is another nearby city but more village-like. It was interesting to watch the demographic completely change from what we usually see on Sunday.
President Nichols would often express love for the Indian people, and we could always tell his sincerity by the specific compliments he used. President Funk expresses love also, in a different way, but we could tell by his mannerism and his genuine interest that he meant it.
There is always a deep love between the church members here and the mission president. To start with, they recognize that he and his wife are making a large sacrifice of time and money and energy in serving. Both President Nichols and Funk exude care and concern in their mannerism, and members looking for someone to love and look up to find a perfect model in the mission president.
The LDS Church is young here – most members weren’t born as members. Even if their immediate family also joined the church, their extended family didn’t. And you know how strong the tie of communal identity is in India. For example, I’ve heard people refer to themselves as belonging to the “Roman Catholic caste.” And that’s within Christianity; for the Hindu converts the perceived change in communal identity is even greater.
The results, from personal experience. My convert families Michael and Hemalatha family didn’t tell his family he joined a different church, and my (Hindu-background) converts Raju and Saraswathi family in Vizag didn’t tell their relations (who live in Hyderabad and Mumbai) that they were baptized.
So basically, while church members by and large love the church and seek to identify themselves with it they are also rooted by family and associations in other traditions pulling them in different ways. And even in church, in addition to normal forces of disunity like pride and gossip, people that come from different religious backgrounds and seeking to mold a new identity, results in somewhat of a tug-of-war at times.
As President and Sister Funk come and visit and preside -- and to a lesser degree the senior couples that come also, and again to a lesser degree us as elders -- people find a sense of civic pride and unity, something to rally around. The love and concern they express is readily absorbed and radiated back at them. And they indeed do provide a focal point both of affection and of the directions needed to minimize contention and create a safe and happy family at church, where the people’s desires (for belonging, truth, unity, direction to guide their lives, uplifting friendship) can be fulfilled.
This week was the first time they’ve come to Coimbatore, so it was the beginning of this molding process of affection for the Funks, in this city.
Anyway, hope that was a clear illustration, so with love,

Coimbatore, July 28

Elder Riley and I are getting along well. Like my last American companion Elder Gervais we are very little alike (he was an Idahoan skateboarding and snowboarding semi-punk high schooler before his mission) but it doesn't really matter too much. We've been spending a lot of time laying in our beds at night just talking and telling stories about our lives so we know who each other are, which is the most important thing.

Elder Riley works hard also and understands what things are effective, especially which people we are going to be able to help and which ones we aren't. When we think seriously and honestly about it, we often realize that we aren't able to help someone, but they often are still happy to have us continue visiting. We are visiting far fewer people here than in Hyderabad but it seems we are able to plan for and concentrate on the people we are visiting.

Coimbatore is a pretty nice city, it's fairly developed with some Western shopping outlets (Reebok, etc) but we stay and roam in the more residential, less city-like portion. The sambar is really good here but the vegetable fries aren't any good; in Andhra the opposite is true. So when we get meals (=thali), we just have rice and sambar instead of rice and vegetable fry.

That's about all, life is good, I'm happy, so
with love,

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Hyderabad, July 13

I'm getting transferred to Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, and will be leaving on Friday morning. So much for all my Telugu. I hear it's a very beautiful place and hope to see some of it on preparation day. That will require convincing my new companion Elder Riley. I knew him in Chennai, he's a pretty good guy, hard-working and goofy.

With love,

Hyderabad, July 1

Dear mother,

Everything is going well here. I've been with Elder John for 15 weeks now, which is the longest I've been with any companion. It's really good, because by now we've figured out pretty well how to work together. Also, he was only out 9 weeks before he came with me, so by now being my companion is basically his mission experience. I hope it's a good thing.

Elder Gervais had kind of the same situation (after being out in India six weeks, he was with the same companion for 4.5 months, but told me that he was pretty stunted by it -- his companion never really let him do a lot, so he never learned a lot, and after being in India for six months he was still only pulling 20% of the weight. I kept that warning more or less in mind, and tried to divide the workload fairly evenly.

It was challenging at times, because sometimes Elder John will do things differently than me -- be more bold and direct in telling people they need to change, for example. Is it wrong?'s not how I would do it though. But over the last few weeks, I've gotten a better sense of what is wrong and what is style, and what he actually does better than me. As a result, we can work better, and work together.

It's been especially encouraging the last couple weeks to hear my usually quiet companion offering suggestions here and there - "Let's read from the White Handbook twice a week." "We should study patience." "Let's take Raju to see Kumar." Or when I start to see him doing or saying (good) things that I do and say. "So brother, if understanding correctly you think that...." And when we split up and cover different appointments, it's exciting to hear his enthusiastic reports of what he did, pretty much all by himself.

Sometimes Elder John looks at me, and it's clear he has no idea what to say. But heck, I was thinking about what I was like at his mission age. At this time, I had finished being Elder Tuscano's companion and was with Elder Bartlett. And I remember when I had no idea of how to relate to the guitar-toting college student Anthony that we were teaching, so I would just be quiet and let the more talkative and macho Elder Tuscano take care of it. Or Sister Jerry would burst into tears and unload her heart to us and I would just look at Elder Bartlett because I had no earthly idea what to say. So I went through this too.

I was different than he is, sure. Some of the strengths I had then he hasn't developed -- but also vice versa. That's a reminder to me to shut up and hold my tongue before I re-do or un-do something he just did differently than I would have done it.

That's my life, in short --
With love,
Elder Bhagwat

Monday, June 28, 2010

Hyderabad, June 23

Our exciting adventure story of the week. We got completely drenched on Friday night, there was a movie night at the church and we were trying to leave about 8:30 pm and make the normally-5-minute-walk home but it was completely pouring. That sister Pradeepa lives across the street but she had to call her husband Nagendra to come pick her and the kids up in their car it was raining so bad.

As for us we waited an hour for the rain to stop. It didn't, so we ran across the street and proceeded to carefully walk on the raised, six-inch-wide concrete curb to avoid slushing through the inch of water that had already made it onto the road. And to no avail - the dirt road leading to our apartment building was completely covered, and I ended up back in our apartment building with my feet and socks completely drenched, not to mention the rest of my body. And then the power was out. Luckily, our neighbors have a generator, and due to some strange circuitry it powers one light and the fan in the entrance room, so after changing clothes and hurriedly planning, I dragged my mattress into the room with a fan and promptly collapsed.

Life this week is otherwise pretty good. The branch that we were in split, which I'd been hearing would happen for 7 months. It's very exciting, now we're the only elders in the branch which is a bit weird.

Yeah, the Pradeepa story.

In the family there are five members: Nagendra, Pradeepa, their two children Vineela, 4 and Tej Abishek, 2 -- they go by Vinny and Bunny -- and Pradeepa's younger sister Prashanti. Nagendra and Pradeepa are in their early 30s and Prashanti is in her mid-20s.

(Sorry, this is a much more interesting story when Pradeepa and Nagendra tell it, but I'll do my best.)

They grew up in East Godivari, which is a coastal district in Andhra Pradesh. Their parents were friends, and Nagendra and Pradeepa went to the same college, so they ran across each other from time to time. They had each finished their bachelors' degrees in computer science and Pradeepa's parents were trying to find a match for her when Nagendra got wind of this and in typical Indian commit-first-get-to-know-each-other-later fashion decided to propose to her. Pradeepa, however, wasn't having any of it. They didn't have any contact for two months, until, Nagendra says laughingly, she called him back and said "Ok, I guess I'll marry you."

As you might expect, neither of their parents were at all happy with this. Both of their families are quite well off, but they were welcome in neither home and had to go live on their own for a while. Pradeepa's family not only constantly told her to leave Nagendra and come back, they kept searching for a match for her for three years. Though after 18 months in India I've heard of many ways that parents have threatened, harassed, or otherwise undercut their children's spouses, this seems to be the most innovative. They stopped, for the usual reason -- Vineela was born.

The first thing Elder Stephen told me about this family is: "They really love each other." And whenever we visit I see he was so right.

Gazing around at the crayon-marked walls and pile of toys falling out of the 1m x 1m x 1xm box and scattered around the floor, as Bunny sits in his plastic toy car, turning the pedals and driving it excitedly over the doorjamb and then turning into the hallway.

Pradeepa's comment, repeated many times over these seven months: "My children are crazy brother!" Sometimes this was phrased as a question: "Are my children crazy? Have you seen other children this crazy before brother?" I always said that they were only a little crazy (not true) to be nice; until we brought a member named Solomon with us who said "Yes," and Pradeepa was very happy. We realized then that she wasn't seeing if we'd criticize of her children, she was seeking our appreciation of her for managing her crazy children. Doh.

That same time with Solomon: Bunny started playing with a small rock and after throwing it up in the air a couple of times he decided it would be interesting to throw the rock at us (we elders were sitting on the couch with Solomon). Luckily I was watching Bunny at the time so I caught the rock. Somehow he got the rock back and when I tried to take it away from him he started crying and shouted at me in Telugu that the next time I tried to take it away from me he would come and beat me with it. Pradeepa's response was her typical response at her children's antics --- exasperated, loving laughter.

When Vineela started school, the family moved across the street from the church, so that she could attend a nearby school named Genesis International School. This is a parochial school but unlike almost all other parochial schools it is explicitly Christian but unaffiliated with the Catholic church. To give you a sense of how strange this is I should give you some background.

Pradeepa is Roman Catholic; her father ghostwrites speeches for the local Catholic archbishop. Nagendra is Hindu, but only in the cultural sense. At the beginning of their marriage they decided to adopt a policy of laissez-faire on religion. As we visited this family we kept having conversations like:

Pradeepa (when Nagendra was not around): "I'm not reading my Bible brother! Every time when I have some free time I do something else instead. Nagendra knows that makes me happy so he keeps telling me to read my Bible and come to church for prayer, but I'm not doing it."

Us (somewhat befuddled): "Well you should definitely read your Bible then Sister Pradeepa. And come pray in church anytime."

***(After we re-committed Pradeepa to stop tea and coffee; she was drinking six cups of tea a day. Keep in mind when we committed Pradeepa to stop Nagendra was at work.)***

Pradeepa: "I'm still taking two cups of tea a day brother! I'm trying to stop, but it's hard! I told Nagendra a couple days ago I was trying to stop so he completely left tea coffee, and he's telling me I can definitely stop also."

Pradeepa: "Since you brothers started coming to our house last May Nagendra feels a lot better about Christianity. He says, wow these brothers are serving God at such a young age. He wants to send [2-yo] Bunny for a mission. Should we start saving 5 lakh rupees?"

I'm sure that I would have encountered some similar situations had I served in America, but while India has many strengths, the supportive, understanding, caring husband persona is not really one of them. I'm pretty amazed by Nagendra. He speaks like the system administrator he is. "We can't force Vinny and Bunny to be good, we just have to create the best possible environment for them."

Elders have been visiting since last May, with some occasional interruptions. Mostly, if we don't think someone is ready, or could be after we work some more with them, to commit themselves, make necessary life changes, and be baptized, we'll stop visiting. Pradeepa was coming to church, but we didn't know because her kids would not leave her alone -- she would just come and sit with Vinny in Primary, so we wouldn't see her. I liked the family but thought Elder Stephen was wasting our time when he insisted on visiting the family so often. Moreover, we weren't really getting along so I didn't respect his opinion a lot.

When he got transferred Elder Gervais and I visited maybe twice in three months. Once when we stopped by their house in the afternoon Pradeepa was distraught, seemingly close to tears, that we weren't visiting their house. "Brother, come often, come without appointment, no problem." Tugging on my arm, to boot. Even Nagendra told us to come often, emphasizing we could definitely come visit Pradeepa when he was not there.

After that, to make a long story short, we started coming regularly, dropping by her house, giving her passages to read. She started reading, and by now has read about 300 pages of the Book of Mormon. She expressed her desire to make her children comfortable in the church. So then she started coming to church to meet us. We gave her scripture story books to read with her kids. And then she started meeting all the members. One really wonderful sister named Soumya took her out for shopping. They spent the whole afternoon together and looked happy as clams.

And her vision for the future: coming to church, not even attending services, just sitting with her kids in Primary. So they would get comfortable with church. Week after week, month after month. And last week we finally got them friends with the Primary teacher so they wanted to be in class and let their mom go to class.

Near the end of May, we invited her to be baptized, and she said definitely, yes. Because it was a strange situation with a husband that was supportive but not interested, we had her meet with one of our leaders. Nagendra was deeply concerned about how his extended family would feel and so asked her not to be baptized. Our leader said to definitely honor that request; she'll continue coming to church and when the situation resolves itself, she'll be baptized. She seemed pretty understanding of our youth and inexperience also; she didn't tell us this situation. Instead, she explained it to our leader, who broke it down for us. She told him: "they're like my little brothers, I love them coming, and they're helping my family, but there's no way they'll understand this situation."

Due to the branch splitting we'll no longer be visiting; the other elders will. Her story will pass out of my life and into other elders. Pradeepa seemed distraught again that I was leaving her, one another in a long string. But I'm content. The ribbon is tying together nicely and I'm moving onwards, but I love this family and feel like I have done some good.

With love,

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Hyderabad, June 15

A "share auto" - haven't you learned? Google image search it! :) It's a big autorickshaw that can carry 6 to 12 people at a time, that travel along major highways and bus routes picking up and dropping off people. Share auto drivers do it for a living but are joined by two groups of people.

(1) Private cab and bus drivers. These people pick up and drop off call center and other outsourcing people working night shift, as well as, less common, some people with extremely good corporate jobs on day shift. However, when they're not doing that they have nothing to do with their cars and often run the bus routes along with the share autos. Also many companies will have private buses to get their employees to and from work, and the bus drivers will do the same thing, which is very lucrative but will also get you fired if anyone in authority finds out and presses the matter.

(2) People driving to work.

There is an analogous name for this in the US, which I forget at the moment. I remember reading that these used to be somewhat common in cities until cities instituted the licensing system for taxis (because taxis and buses resented competition and leaned on city councils to stop it).

So no, we are not driving. Anyway, can you imagine Americans driving along Indian city roads?

We had our last zone conference with President Nichols, which was nice but at the same time very sad. He and Sister Nichols will return home on July 1. I will miss him very much, he's perhaps the most understanding, insightful, and genuinely loving person I have ever met. I'm sure the new mission president, President Funk, will be good also, but he will always have a special place in my heart.

These last few days I've been getting better about my exercises and timeliness. I've been pretty bad at these because Elder John is new so he looks to me as an example instead of gently reminding me or inspiring me to do these things. Ie, I have to motivate myself.

It's my experience that if I can discipline myself to do those things, which are entirely within my control, it becomes easier to discipline myself to do harder things. On the most basic level if I don't have a good morning it's difficult to have a good day -- and I can tell that our days are better as I focus myself in the morning. On the time management level, I find myself hanging out and chilling less when we need to go and do something. I engage less frequently in that perennial delusion where I look at my watch and say "well, it won't really take 20 minutes to travel there." (This is of course more tempting in India where the "Baba 5 minutes" is a universal phenomenon.) It's only been a few days but I already feel happier.

There are many side tangents I could go on, but I think I'll leave it at that for now. Life's good, with love,


Hyderabad, June 8

A lot of things have happened this week but nothing neatly wrapped up in a bow to write you about. We started taking a couple of 13 and 10yo kids with us to some families we are teaching (they have kids the same age). We bug all the young single adult males to come with us all the time, so they're kind of sick of it. But Kevin and Calvin are actually way excited to come with us, they eagerly put on their white shirt and tie and jump on the back of our cycles or in share autos with us.

Of course, it makes complete sense - they probably never have any grown-up people other than their parents or their teachers at church pay attention to them, ask them questions, listen to their responses, or give them responsibilities. And we're Elders, which makes us (more-mature) BMOC. Also it helps parents of the family we're teaching get a vision for their family when they ask us about the story in the beginning of the Book of Mormon and a kid answers their questions. Kevin and Calvin are very mature, intelligent, and observant given their age and the parents can see a model for their children.

Not so much to write as I said but life is good.

Hyderabad, June 1

This week has been pretty interesting. I'm learning some lessons in delegation this week.

We had some spare time waiting for an appointment at the church, and was talking to the previously mentioned sister Soumya's husband Suresh. Suresh is in charge for all the young-adult-religion-classes in India, and was having some problems getting local leaders who have stewardship over young adults to take adequate responsibility and initiative for inviting and enrolling their students in these programs. He just started running some ideas past me, not really seeking my advice but just so as he talked to someone he could think more clearly. (I'm sure you know how that works). After he talked for ten or fifteen minutes, reasoning out loud and changing his plans in mid-sentence, figuring out how he would word letters and frame requests, he came up with something he was happy with.

"If I had just done the status quo, I would have left my office a couple of hours ago," he said laughing.

"Isn't it funny," I replied. "Figuring out how to delegate correctly takes more time than just doing everything yourself."

And then, the joke was on myself.

In this branch there are about 500 or 550 members on paper, maybe 200 will come on any given Sunday, and a significant fraction haven't come in several years. As I'm sure you know, technically branch members are supposed to visit each other and support all the members, including those who aren't coming to church, but in reality that requires habit-forming and dedication in busy lives and few members actually do that. The result is that a lot of people don't get visited.

As elders, we're pretty busy running around visiting and teaching people who aren't church members and don't have a lot of time to go spiritually shepherding people who are supposed to be (at least primarily) under the watchcare of the branch. In order to effectively focus our attention, we pay an especially close on people who were recently baptized into the Church and their families.

Generally elders are a pretty unifying force here; perhaps because infighting is a pretty big problem (some explanation: this doesn't have so much to do with the Indian people or the moral quality of people that join the Church; it's just a common problem that happens when a bunch of new people come together and try to form a family or society and happens pretty much whenever the Church is newly organized in a place.)

Moreover this branch in particular is filled with a lot of dedicated, experienced people that returned from their missions but don't have a lot of responsibilities in church.

The bottom line: there are many experienced people want more stuff to do and ask us, or say yes when we ask them.

I was explaining this semi-jokingly this situation to a church member named Raju. "We're entrepreneurs. Businessmen. We're paid to connect people who need stuff with people that have that stuff." (the monetary joke, of course, is on us) "There are lots of people who need stuff to do to grow spiritually. And there are lots of people who need people in the church to be their friend."

When I started to think about it, I realized there were three recently baptized sisters who really needed more friends and advice, plus about four or five recently baptized or married brothers whose wives aren't church members and don't really feel comfortable coming to church.

The former lack supporting sources and counselors as they seek to make important decisions about jobs, marriage, and living location. As elders, even if we had the time we're not allowed to counsel sisters.

For the latter, (and yes, I really believe the following statement) the Church and the teachings of Christ make their most dramatic impact in the relationships Church members have with others, especially family members, and it's difficult for the Church to help a family become stronger, to heal deep wounds and build loving, trusting relationships, if only one spouse is a Church member.

Moreover, we are brothers, and so if we visit their homes their wives will probably just go and sit in the kitchen as per Indian culture, and if they stay outside they might not speak English.

So taking all of this in mind we started organizing Church sisters to go visit these two groups of people. So far we've made plans for five sisters to be visited and four sisters to visit them and have more plans for several of them in progress. It's going to take a lot of coordination, specific instruction and follow-up, but I'm really excited. And this is completely new for me, I've never done it before and never dreamed it was possible to like, coordinate something!

With love,


Hyderabad, May 25

This week some interesting occurences went on with a 22yo brother named Siddharth that we're teaching. The first time we met him about eight weeks back, he was wearing a Playboy shirt (though he might not have known what that actually meant) and was telling us how his primary purpose of life was 'to enjoy', along with rather lewd references about sisters in general and specifically his plans to visit his two girlfriends in Pune. (He's from Maharashtra, a place called Solapur.)

I sighed, took a deep breath, questioned how I could ever connect with this worldly person, thought deeply, and opened my Bible. We read with him a story in the New Testament you might know or remember, the Parable of the Talents. A brief review either way: one man is given five talents, another two, another one, the last buries it in the ground and is scolded severely, the first two take theirs and double it and are rewarded richly. He had a book his friend Lakshman, a church member friend, had left him, and we assigned him to read a chapter on the same topic, called "Developing Your Talents." We came the next day, Tuesday, and he was completely changed.

He read the chapter, he loved it, and he wanted to listen to everything we had to say. He stopped drinking 4 cups of tea a day, changed his plans with his girlfriend and his whole attitude and demeanor towards life, and started praying, reading the scriptures and coming to church and volleyball, also spending several hours in the hot sun searching for a new room for a church member named Vijaya whose family is kicking her out of her house.

This Friday, a chain of events started with his cousin-brother going and taking a couple thousand rupees worth of diesel from Siddharth's work site that he maintains (a cell phone tower). Siddharth let him take it - he thought it was a legitimate request and didn't realize his cousin-brother was going to steal it. His cousin-brother was caught and fired. Siddharth didn't get into any trouble but suffered several consequences like his work site being moved 30 minutes away - it used to be next to the church, so he would come every day to pray and play volleyball - and not being able to come to church and his scheduled baptism on Sunday. Siddharth was pretty let down and depressed about this. We were talking on Monday night. The conversation went something like this, in more broken English than this:

Siddharth: "All of my relatives are calling me and asking me, why Parmeshwar has come back?"

Me: "Did you tell them the truth?"

Siddharth :No, I just told them 'Job is not there.' Tell me, I did the right thing?"

Me: "[some hemming and hawing on my part because I had no idea what the right answer was.] Well, why didn't you tell them?"

Siddharth: "I was praying about what to do. Immediately after praying, the idea came to mind, don't tell them. It's the first time he's done that. If I told them, afterwards they would all be scolding him, 'Why did you do that,' 'Why did you do that." Then he might feel all embarassed by that and do it again." (Jacob omit this) [He later went on to explain how he spent 10,000 rupees out of his own pocket to erase the police complaint against him in case it ever came up for future jobs. And keep in mind this guy earns maybe 4 or 5 thousand rupees a month.]
Me: {deeply impressed} "Well, I think you did the right then Siddharth."

Siddharth: "He said, ki (='that' in Hindi), let me stay at your site and do other job. I told him. ki, you can't do that. Maybe some supervisor come, then they say, We trusted you Siddharth. And I kept telling him, ki, don't smoke, don't drink. (He used to keep coming to Siddharth's site 'fully drunk') He's my elder brother. Each time I told, he just tells, ki, 'I know what is right and what is wrong.' I was sitting next to him on Sunday and I told him about stopping the police complaint and that I wouldn't tell our relatives. I told him, ki, I'm doing this for you."

Me: "What did he say?"

Siddharth: "Silent."

Me: "It's so frustrating, isn't it? You love someone and you give them all of your help and attention and love and they aren't even grateful."

Siddharth: "So frustrating yaar!"

Me: "[laughs] Well I know how it feels too. We deal with that every day. Listen, I want to tell you something. Can I tell?"

Siddharth: "Tell."

Me: "I was asking my leader about that a while ago, and he said, 'Welcome to the club.' Every person who wants to do good things feels like this. It's part of being a good person. We can't feel the joy from helping others without feeling like that. It's all part of the package. [I open my scriptures].

Here, look at this in the Book of Mormon, a brother named Alma. "I trust that I shall also have joy over you, nevertheless I do not desire that my joy over you should come by the cause of so much afflictions and sorrow which I have had for the brethren at Zarahemla, for behold, my joy cometh over them after wading through much affliction and sorrow.'

Or here, a brother named Ammon: 'And we have suffered all manner of afflictions, and all this, that perhaps we might be the means of saving some soul, and we supposed our joy would be full if perhaps we could be the means of saving some.''

Or here, this brother is named Mormon. 'And my people began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of their blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies, and would cut them off from the face of the land. And it came to pass that I, Mormon, did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abominations. Behold, I had led them, notwithstanding their wickedness I had led them many times to battle, and had loved them, according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart; and my soul had been poured out in prayer unto my God all the day long for them; nevertheless, it was without faith, because of the hardness of their hearts.''

So you're not alone."

[Siddharth continues describing his brother's behavior and complaining about it, but it's clear he's happy to have someone to talk to, who understands.] Siddharth: "In world, 80 percent of the people don't care about other people. They only care about 'Myself.' I'm happy to be here with 20 percent." [He smiles, and slaps my knee.]

That's life - all's well.

With love,

Hyderabad, May 18

Life is good. Elder John and I are doing well. Elder John is writing his friend and decided to test her by seeing if she is paying close attention to his e-mails. How? She asked what his birthday was, and he replied, "February 30."

This afternoon there was a wedding so we were attending, eating lunch and then playing table tennis and cricket. This morning we were studying the section in our manual on asking questions and we discovered that the effectiveness of the questions we ask. It was really interesting, an opportunity to reflect back on sixteen months of interacting with people and I found I actually learned a lot, the manual presented some situations like 'The person you're teaching faces opposition from colleagues at work' and I was able to think of the right way to ask questions to show genuine interest and understand what's going on without making the person feel uncomfortable.

Then we looked at the people we're visiting now and realized that the effectiveness of our questions is generally determined by the truthfulness frankness and seriousness of the person answering, which directly correlated with the strength of our relationship with them. Duh, but actually really helpful and interesting.

Probably being able to communicate the right way and ask the right questions in the right way is a large part of building a strong relationship in the first place. So a bit of a chicken and egg problem I guess.


Hyderabad, May 4

Elder John and I after we improved our relationship

Life is good.

Elder John and I had been getting along fine, but 'getting along fine' isn't the goal, 'loving, understanding, supporting and serving' is.

So I was thinking a lot about what I told you about earlier, how President Nichols had been saying that everyone has different ways of communicating and I was trying to figure out how my companion communicates. The immediate cynical answer was "He doesn't," because he's so quiet and it's hard to figure out what he's thinking, on top of that he's new and so probably uncomfortable voicing his opinion due to lack of experience. That made it hard to plan together, talk together, counsel together.

But on Friday morning it came to me. "He makes small jokes."

Some sort of intuition; not prompted by memories, but as soon as it occurred to be a flood of memories marched forward as evidence.

"Okay," I thought. "I can do this."

And so I set off, determined to make fun of my companion until our relationship blossomed. We taught together, we practiced asking questions or teaching material together. And I made fun of him. And the weather. And everyone we knew (in a good way). And voila, it worked, or rather is working. Now he's making fun of me too (which as you know is pretty easy). He has this great, drawn-out way of saying "Elder Bhagwat," and I know, the joke's on me.

Most importantly, a lot of lessons we're in my mouth has been firmly shut for most of the time. Elder Gervais - one of the most people-people that I know - told me before he went to let Elder John talk, because he'd been stunted by a second companion that didn't. He only really started to talk his half of the time when he was with me - after being on his mission for nine months.

Elder Gervais.

Yesterday was zone conference, so all the elders in Hyderabad gathered together with President and Sister Nichols. President Nichols' PowerPoint included different elders' experiences in their own words as they shared experiences showing their maturity (willingness to admit faults without kicking themselves, sharing insights, showing they're recognizing their weaknesses and trying to improve). If they were there they read their own quotes; if not President had one of their former companions read it for them. Elder Gervais' picture, name, and quote flashed on the board, and I automatically stood up.

"That's all mine, President."

"Oh yes it is, Elder Bhagwat. You two weren't companions, you were practically married to each other. (other elders' laughter). Every week I'd get letters: 'Please don't transfer Elder Bhagwat.' 'I'm learning so much from Elder Gervais.'"

"Pretty much, President."

That was the funny part, with me in the spotlight, but it was a really good presentation. My MTC companion, Elder Diamond, shared a really good story. There was a church member named Savitha, and they were visiting her sister Sharmila and encouraging to read the scriptures, come to church, and such. She always said she would, but never did, so he and his companion decided to go back to the basics, to ask questions and start with some things they knew. Or, it turns out, only thought they did.

"Sharmila, do you love your sister?"


(stunned silence on elders' side)

"Well, is there anything you at least like about her?"

(after some hemming and hawing) "Well, she has a cute baby face. And she prays."

The elders ask the next logical question.

"Savitha, do you love your sister?"

The answer was also "no," and this sister couldn't think of anything she liked about the other one. Elder Diamond continued: "We thought we'd made a big mistake, because they started fighting then. In Telugu. But Sunday came around and there was Sharmila, and there was Savitha, and they were sitting right next to each other." (And as time went on their relationship continued to improve.)

One elder that I have a lot of respect for, Elder Hunn, said something really good. "In Rajahmundry we had a lot of people that wanted our help, even were begging for us to visit their home. But nothing ever happened, nothing changed really in any of the families. Looking back on it now, it wasn't that we were doing anything stupid, or outright wrong. It was just that we didn't understand how to focus on those we could help. I'm hoping to change that in Hyderabad."

One of President Nichols' conclusions, which I found very insightful, was that because we loved these people, we were not looking at them with a clear lens and being able to understand exactly what they were thinking and feeling. As a result, we were misjudging their level of commitment and their reasons for it, not understanding what principles really touched them, and not concentrating our limited time and energy on the right people. Thus, we miss the chance to do the right thing at the right time to help the person who's ready to successfully change their life. Not because we are lazy or stupid or unloving, but just because we didn't know what to do.

(As for helping the person who's ready to be helped, there's a whole sidenote about this with that family.. We called President Nichols about it a while back. His response:

"I've been in the marriage counseling business for a long time. If two people come to you and say, 'We want to make this work we just don't know how, please tell us how we can, we'll do whatever you say,' you have a chance, maybe. Otherwise, it's just a good way to suck out all of your time and love and mental energy that could actually be used for doing something productive.")

Mostly, I'm writing all of this because I've been thinking about these topics a lot recently. I guess it revolves around change for good or bad, and how to encourage and facilitate the one and prevent the other, and how many times good intentions are insufficient to the task, and how I must conquer pride, and its stepchild self-deception, to be effective.

My mind comes back to one of my personal mottos, which I stole from a man named Eugene England. I think I'll conclude with it.

"It is not enough to be sincere, you must also be right. It is not enough to be right, you must also be effective."

With love,