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,