I'd been wondering when my stake conference was here in my part of Piura, Peru, where I teach English at a local university. After the first couple of weeks after I had come back from the United States in January, I counted how many Sundays I still had left. Attending church had become very difficult for me then, and I wanted to count how many Sundays left I had to endure 3-hours of not understanding anything during a service. When I counted, I almost gleefully counted General Conference and stake conference weekend as free passes from church attendance. I actually felt those weekends would be a reprieve from the feelings of stress, anxiety, and confusion that I'd been feeling during church. I actually considered one of my options was to stop attending church entirely. I shouldn't have to leave church crying every Sunday because I felt so lost and alone.
Fast forward to this weekend, I'm happy to report that I chose not to stop attending church. Through many prayers from me, my family, and my friends here and back in the USA, those tough times have been overcome. I have felt the fellowship, support, and encouragement from my fellow ward members as well. I still count Sundays, not to avoid church, but as a marker towards when my time here has come to an end. I don't continue to look for ways to avoid church. I want to attend.
For my friends who may not know, stake conference is a bi-annual meeting of local congregations (wards) that are organized into larger geographical units called stakes. During stake conference, we don't meet at our local church building, but attend a 2-hour service at the stake center, where all the wards in our geographical area come as well. There are no Sunday School classes or Sacrament services, but rather, the meeting features members of the stake giving talks on assigned gospel principles. Also, there are usually special musical numbers and choir performances.
So, what would I do about stake conference?
I started musing on this last Sunday when the 1st counselor announced the dates for the 16-17th of March. I decided that it would be a good free day to sleep in and do self-study, maybe have personal church. I wouldn't understand much of what was being said and it was a far walk, I hated to pay for a moto on Sunday, and I don't have much money, so I couldn't really spare the cost. Surely the Lord would understand why I couldn't attend - the language barrier, the distance. He would be okay with it.
Yet, I received strong council to attend stake conference. I tried to argue with the promptings - I wouldn't get anything from it, I could feel the spirit if I studied myself. Then, I felt that there really wasn't an excuse not to attend. I finally said "Okay! Okay! I will go to the both the Saturday and Sunday meetings!" When chatting about this with a friend, I wrote that "I knew the Lord expected me to be at stake conference."
That was my plan. I resolved to attend both meetings - the Saturday night adult session and the Sunday morning general session (for youth and adults). I turned down an invitation to hang out with some girl friends on Saturday night. Unfortunately, there was a misunderstanding about the meeting, and I wasn't able to attend the Saturday session - but my heart was in the right place, and I know the Lord understood that I
was willing and prepared to go.
So this morning, I prepared to walk to the stake center, a good nearly 2 mile walk - doable and not a problem...when I leave on time. I left too late. It was overcast and slightly raining. I tried walking as far as I could, but I realized I'd be very late -which is one of my biggest pet peeves. I hate arriving late to a function like church, a movie, etc late. A party? That's okay. So, I hired a moto, which I didn't want to do. I wasn't too far really, as far as motorized vehicles go, but for 2-legged me, I was still quite far.
When I arrived at the stake center, I saw Elder Smith, one of the former missionaries that served in my ward. He's from Layton, Utah and has always been very nice to me. He was moved to a different area so it was good to see him again. Some of my fellow ward members came in after me, and we went upstairs to the chapel. It was huge! The place was packed with many people. Many more people came flooding into the chapel. Thank goodness for air conditioning. The cool, gentle air conditioned air felt like such a relief. I had imagined 2 hours of misery under fans and a layer of humidity sticking to my skin.
In the entire congregation of people from many wards, outside of the missionaries and the mission president and his wife, I was the only American there - that wasn't a missionary or attached somehow to the mission. It's an odd feeling, to be the only one of something in a group. I'm in an very unique position. I'd like to think I'm not the only non-missionary from America here that also is LDS, but I'm not sure. Sometimes, okay, many times it's hard being here in Piura, because I am alone and nobody quite understands my position here.
I prayed that the Spirit would be with me and I would be able to understand what I needed to understand. Right away, the first speaker, a young woman said something that hit me. Or at least what I think she said..hit me..
"Dios sabe mi nombre y me llama por mi nombre." or "God knows my name and calls me by my name." I know this is true.
Another thing she said that touched me was about blessings.
I wrote in my journal that "tengo muchas bendiciones aqui," or "I have many blessings here."
Other speakers followed and other thoughts I felt impressed on included "Dios siempre esta conmigo." Okay, I cheated and used Google Translate for this entry...hah, but it means "God is always with me." The church is true. Heavenly Father has a plan for us. I mixed my thoughts in a form of Emily Spanglish.
I also wrote "Necesito la ayuda de Dios y Su hijo, JesuChristo por mi vida aqui y siempre," which translates to "I need the help of God and His Son, Jesus Christ for my life here and forever."
Stake conference isn't much different in Piura as it would be in Phoenix or Panguitch. There were fussy babies, restless children, young adults playing with their phones, adults nodding off. There were people getting up to go after children or go to the bathroom. Moms passed out snacks for their children. People aren't really that different from each other after all.
Other impressions from the talks I wroet down included:
1. Todo es posible con Dios. (Everything is possible with God.)
2. Sabe el amor de Dios? (Do you know the love of God?)
3. Servir Dios (Serve God.)
4. Jesu es mi ejemplo (Jesus is my example.)
Then my mind stumbled upon a thought. What was my most important possession? Truly, the first thing that came to mind was my faith. Mi fe es muy importante para mi. My faith is very important to me. My religion is (should be) the primary focus of my life and day. I hold my knowledge, faith, and experience most sacred and I'm grateful for it.
Next, Sister Rowley, the Piura Peru Mission President's wife spoke. President Rowley spoke after her. It is a lot easier to understand them in Spanish because they have the (good) Utah American accent and speak slower so I can keep up a little easier. Sister Rowley talked about the importance of the scriptures for learning and studying. We need to study the scriptures every day. I have truly been blessed with knowledge and comfort as I have read the scriptures here.
President Rowley had all the missionaries stand up - wow, what a group! There were a lot. Then he had the new members that joined the church in 2012 and 2013 stand up. As the people stood up, I felt a wave of the Spirit touch my heart. This work is true. This gospel is true. The church is true no matter where you go.
I feel about my experience here that I had to break away to stand on my own - to learn humility, patience, and trust. I had to strengthen my faith and change my lifestyle to follow the Lord's plan for me. As President Rowley spoke and bore his testimony of Joseph Smith, being called of God as a prophet, and of the gospel, my heart was filled. I felt the Spirit testify of the truthfulness of his words.
The stake choir perfomed with a violin ensemble and piano. They sang one of my favorite hymns - "Yo se que vive mi Senior" or "I Know My Redeemer Lives."
The stake president finished the session. I wrote down "cambio en mi corazon," or "change of heart." We need and I need to have a change of heart. We need to let the Lord have our broken, tired, hurting hearts so he can heal them.
As the choir closed with "Count Your Blessings," I felt a warm sense of peace fill my soul. I am glad I came to stake conference. I understood much more than I thought I would. I understood what I needed to understand. I understood the Spirit. I am glad I came to partake of the Spirit. As I have been struggling emotionally these last few weeks, I needed this spiritual refueling and cleansing. I need the fellowship of like-minded sojourners to keep myself strong and focused on the finish line of eternal rest and glory. I need the all the spiritual fuel I can receive so I can stay strong in the face of the cruelest adversity. I need to be where the Spirit dwells. I need to keep my armor strong.
I wasn't afraid to come- even thought I hadn't been to conference here before. By attending the conference this morning, my soul feels restored after grappling with sheer desperation to escape. This past week, I had prayed to God that I simply couldn't go on here any more. I desperately prayed to go home -even if it meant a medical problem. Why was I struggling so bad and at this time?
Yet, when I left the meeting, I felt calm and at peace with my life. I felt renewed. I felt at terms with my life here. I felt the power of all the prayers of my family and friends rest upon me to remove the hurt and anxiety from my heart. It buoyed up my spirit to help me do more than just endure but to enjoy the moments I have remaining here in Piura. The true power of the gospel is the peace and strength it brings to hurting hearts.
On my way home, it was very lightly raining. I walked back towards my house and I was about halfway there, I heard a voice say "Do you want a ride?" It turned out to be President and Sister Rowley and two sister missionaries! They were gracious enough to give me a ride home, so I am thankful for all the large and small blessings the Lord gives me every day. The simple act of a ride home was a blessing to count. I also definitely feel blessed by attending stake conference.
The next time I attend a stake conference, I will be home in Utah. What stake? I don't know, but I will always treasure the spiritual feast and healing I felt here in the Miraflores, Piura , Peru stake conference today.