Monday, March 30, 2015

E-mail dated 3/30/15

Mom and Family,

Akwaaba! I am going to apologize in advance today because my time is
being cut shorter than normal due to the terrible internet in this
cafe. I hope that this email reaches everyone safe and sound and that
it can manage to send! I won't waste too much time this week so I will
get right into the excitement.

This week was a crazy one as we had very few real proselyting days.
Thursday was only the second time on my mission that I had zero
lessons in one day, but it was well worth it because we were doing
service the entire day! President Stevenson pulled through for Dunkwa
this week and sent up 9 guys from Cape Coast to come and completely
renovate our rented chapel. They came to get the water running,
install lights, fans, and break down a few walls. We have been doing
without these things for months and it was such a relief to see them
come! We spent about 6 hours helping them on Thursday and then spent
the rest of the day working on the Takyi's house for them to move in
this week. By the time our day was over, we were exhausted! Friday was
somehow the same as all 8 of us then had to clean our construction
work and fill the font in preparation for a baptism on Saturday.
Sadly, Elder Bannerman and I didn't have any candidates, but we have 5
planned for Aprill 11th. After the service on Saturday we received
transfer news in the evening as another one came to a close yesterday!
I will tell you what the news was in my answer to your questions!

1. Are transfers announced this week? Do you think you will be staying put?

I am staying put in Dunkwa! Thank goodness! I actually wasn't worried
at all, I have only been here for 3 months, so I knew that I would be
staying. But as for Elder Bannerman, he received the news that he will
be transferred elsewhere! I found out that my new companion is Elder
Loader, an American. I have never met him before, but I am excited to
work with him starting on Wednesday. I am sad to see Elder Bannerman
go, but I know this is what the Lord has in mind for me. I was very
lucky to serve with a Ghanaian as I was able to learn more Twi than I
ever thought I could. I always know that Heavenly Father has a
specific reason for each companion that I have!

2. As I mentioned, Conference is this weekend. Did you ever get to
watch all 5 sessions from last October's conference?

Nope, I only got to watch two sessions of it about a month after they
happened. Thankfully I have read all of the talks in the Ensign and I
study them often. Please send the Ensign to me when it comes out
again, it is always a great gift!

3. I know you said you haven't played any basketball, how about soccer?

Haha it is a great coincidence that you asked that, because today was
only the second time my entire mission that I have been able to play
football! We went to a small field near a school and played on their
goals made out of thin tree trunks and sticks. It was so fun and I
think we may play again soon!

4. I am so glad you received your package!! Did the chocolate arrive
in one big blob? Was everything eatable?

Everything was edible and it is all so delicious. Thank you so much! I
have been giving the smarties out as rewards for a few of my recent
converts and they love the "American toffee". Oh, I miss chocolate so
much. Nobody take me to a supermarket when I get home, I am going to
buy everything.

5. Do you have any idea how the people celebrate Easter there? Does
the Easter Bunny come?

They celebrate Easter in the only way they are able to, by going to
church! To me, this is way better than any Easter basket or egg-dying
that we do in America. These people really understand the humble
living of the Savior and it is much easier to remember the true
meaning here on my mission. I am so lucky to be among the greatest
people in the world at this joyful time of the year.

6. Are you still healthy? :)

I am still perfectly healthy, nothing to complain about :)

Thank you all for your emails, I hope that I can be able to reply to
all of them and I am sorry if some of them are brief! I need to have a
good day of emailing soon, it's been awhile since I've been able to
send pictures. Don't worry, it will hopefully happen next week!

I love you all, please be safe.

Elder Degen

Monday, March 23, 2015

E-mail dated 3/23/15

Mom and Family,
Akwaabo! Mema mo adwo (good evening)! Thank you everyone for you emails and prayers this week, they were much appreciated. I received great news this week (Go Utes!) so I'm hoping I will have similar emails next week as well! I was so glad to hear from everyone and see the great participation on your testimonies of tithing. I now have some powerful material to share with my investigators and recent converts. Thank you all, I know that your testimonies will strengthen these people so much! 

I want to share my testimony about tithing now. When I was home, I can be honest in saying that I wasn't the best at paying my tithing. It wasn't that I didn't want to pay it, or that I financially struggled, both of those weren't problems at all. There were many times that I would forget from month to month, but I think it was my lack of understanding that held me back. I didn't understand that our Father in Heaven doesn't need our physical money, He wants our spiritual devotion. When we pay our tithing we are showing the Lord that we are ready to listen to His commandments. Also, we are showing Him that we are ready to receive the blessings that come from tithing as well! As you all know, it rains often in Ghana, especially this time of the year. In last October's conference, President Uchtdorf compared blessings to drops of rain. The blessings are always coming down from heaven, the problem is that our sins and shortcomings are like an umbrella blocking those blessings from reaching us. But conversely, when we are obedient to commandments such as tithing, the umbrella is able to close and we are be able to receive those promised blessings, even so much that we won't have room enough to receive them (Malachi 3:10). As a missionary I am not able to pay tithing, but I am grateful that I have gained a testimony strong enough to carry with me when I get home. All of your testimonies have strengthened mine as well!
So this week for me was an eventful one. I know I warned you last week, but this Thursday was my second Zone Conference is as many weeks! All 8 of the Dunkwa elders got in a tro at 7 in the morning and made the dreaded three hour trek to Twifo Praso so that we could go to the Zone Leader's apartment, change and be at the chapel by 10:30. When we finally arrived at the Praso chapel, we met with the Stevenson's, the Hanlon's (my favorite mission couple!), the assistants and the other elders in my zone. We received 3 separate instructions; one from President, one from the assistants and one from the zone leaders. They were all great as we learned more about the times in the scriptures that the Church saw tremendous growth, and the subsequent attributes of astonishment that accompanied them. We all left the conference with a great spirit and a renewed desire to work! After the bumpy ride back to Dunkwa, it was evening time and our day was already was already finished. 

Saturday was an interesting day as well! We thought we had completed our work at the Takyi's house, but they asked us to come back and do some more. We happily obliged and we helped them move more dirt and we built them a bathroom (four poles outside with tin sheets nailed to them). We were there until the late afternoon and then we all moved to a funeral where we stayed for the rest of the evening. One of our member's mother passed away this week and we went there to comfort her. Funerals have a much different feeling to them in Africa though, they feel much more like a party! The elders here in Dunkwa are pretty united, we do a lot of activities together.
Now to answer your questions for this week!

1.  Did the package I sent you arrive yet?  
Yes! I received it when I went to the conference. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed! The candy is much appreciated and my apartment thanks you as well. The plaque you sent is currently standing on my desk. You have no idea how awesome it is as a missionary to get a package, it's like Christmas! Thank you again.

2.  When does your debit card expire?
May 2015! I will email you when I get the new one as well as the IDL. Thank you!

3.  Do you know when Elder Pearmain (spelling?) comes home?  I was able to get a phone number for him so I could go meet him when he comes home.
He came home the middle of February! I'm sorry, I thought I mentioned something to you about it! He has been home for a little over a month now but I know he would be more than happy to talk to you.

4.  We we talking today about how much you dislike spiders.  What do you do when there is a spider in your apartment?
Haha I laughed when I read this question. The small ones are so common to me now that I can pick them up and throw them outside, but the large ones are still creatures of Satan. I normally get the bottle of Permethrin and spray them until they die a slow and painful death. They get what they deserve!

5.  Did anyone respond with their testimony or story on tithing?  If not, I will remind them!  I will send mine on a separate e-mail.  
I had great response to my request! I didn't get one from Josh and Kalli though. I am always ready to receive more next week! I will be asking a few more questions similar to that occasionally so that I can keep everyone involved in my teaching! I hope that is okay.
Well, thank you all so much for your support this week! I can't wait to hear from you all next week. Be safe everyone. I love you all!
Elder Gavin Degen

Monday, March 16, 2015

E-mail dated 3/16/15

Mom and Family,
Akwaabo! I hope this email reaches everyone safe and sound. I know I say this often, but this week it really seems like it was a busy and exciting week!! Plenty things happened and I was very happy to hear how much time the family was able to spend with General Authorities. It's a big blessing to meet one, let alone be in contact with one (and in Eric's case, be in a 10 hour car ride with one)! I'm glad that everything went smoothly with the process of choosing a new stake president, and I was really interested to hear how they called a new president! I have read about how the procedure is roughly operated in the Handbook 2, but it was really cool to hear all the details of everything. It sounds very similar to the way that President Stevenson called the branch presidency here in Dunkwa, which reaffirms my testimony that no matter where in the world the Church is, the Lord's ways are the same. 

My week here in Ghana was a very short one as it was cut short last week due to our crazy activities and conferences. After arriving on Wednesday afternoon and emailing and doing our shopping, our day was almost finished. We only had time to go to midweek, which was a great experience as the new branch presidency put on a great service. Thursday we worked hard to regain some of the lessons that we lost earlier in the week and it was a successful day. In the evening, I switched companions with Elder Riehle for the next day and it was a blast! I went to his apartment and so the 4 Americans in the district were brought together! We made a few pumpkin pies and ate all the American food that we could gather and it was a lot of fun. These Elders in my district are some of my best friends and I love them so much. After exchanging back on Friday night, we rested for what we knew would be a crazy Saturday. In the morning, all 8 of us continued working on the Takyi's house for the 8th week in a row or something like that. After working from 8 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon we finally finished the work they needed done! But our service wasn't finished for the day as we were then needed to put up the signboards for the Church throughout town. It was no easy task as we had to dig holes for each one and cement them down! By the time we finished with everything, it was 5 in the evening. We came home, showered, and went out again in the rain, but sadly no one was able to be seen. Sunday was great as always, and once again Elder Riehle and I taught Young Women's! Mom, I now know how it feels the be the young women's president and I don't envy you :)
Now to your questions!

1.  What did Elder Dube ask you in your interview and how long did it last?  How many missionaries were at the conference and how many were chosen to be interviewed?
It lasted about 5 to 7 minutes and it was just a very simple interview! It began with a prayer and he began to ask me about my mission and to bear my testimony of the Atonement. Then him and I began speaking about the church reopening in Sierra Leone and he told me the same things that Elder Golden told all of you! There was probably around 50 to 60 missionaries there and I think around 5 got interviewed just by random chance. I was pretty lucky!

2.  I see by the pictures you sent when you were at Kakum National Park that the missionaries were in their white shirts and ties?  I thought you didn't have to wear your "uniform" on P-day.  I would think that 8 of you in shirts and ties would bring about a lot of attention.
Whenever we are in a public setting, we should wear our Priesthood uniform. The obvious exceptions are sports and service, but everything else we do in our priesthood! From shopping to emailing to visiting national parks. Thankfully the attention we attracted was good, as we were able to have quite a few gospel conversations with people there doing the treetop walk as well! 

3.  About how many primary and youth do you have attending the Branch?
Way too many. There are around 60 members who have been baptized and their forms are on record, and the rest are all children or investigators. There are so many dang children here, the hardest calling is easily Primary President! Thankfully they called a strong woman in the branch to watch over these crazy kids.

4.  Have you been able to play any basketball at all?  You should teach the little kids how to play!  
I haven't played basketball since the MTC sadly! It's been way too long since I've even seen a court. There aren't any here in Dunkwa and I would be hard pressed to even find a ball to play with. There's a nice outdoor court in Takoradi to maybe one day I will be able to go back and play!

5.  Has the rainy season started yet?  Do you know if it rains more the farther inland you are?
It's fast approaching but it hasn't quite reached yet! I'm actually not too sure if it rains more near the coast or inward.. I'll let you know!
I do have some questions for you this week as well if you could please answer them!

1) I would like to address this question to everyone! Could everyone who reads this email please reply to me with a story or testimony of  how the law of tithing has blessed you in your lives? I am looking for material to show my investigators the blessings that come from keeping the commandments!

Thank you everyone for the love and support you give me each week. I hope that everyone has a great Monday and remainder of the week! I will be going down to Praso (again..) on Thursday for Zone Conference so keep an eye on President Stevenson's blog! I love you all and wish you the best. GO UTES!!
Elder Gavin Degen

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kakum National Park

Gavin with Elder Mocke (his trainer)

E-mail dated 3/11/15

Mom and Family,
Well, let me first apologize that this email is 2 days late, you will have to forgive me! I hope no one has been too worried about me, because I have been safe and sound. Just crazy busy!! I will explain in a minute... But thank you all for you emails this week. It sounds like your weather was crazy and unpredictable! I'll be honest I can't even remember the sensation of being cold right now, let alone the feeling of snow. I'm actually not sad about that at all though... :)
To explain my busy week that I have had I will have to break it down for you almost day by day! So last week was normal on Tuesday through Thursday, but Friday (March 6) was Ghana's Independence Day and it's celebrated just as widely as the 4th of July in America. All 8 of the Dunkwa elders went and observed the huge festival at the football pitch and then went to an amazing family in our branch (man, it feels weird to say branch now instead of group). We had a "boyz boyz fufu" which meant all the elders and the boys of the branch all got together and pounded a massive fufu!! It was so much food and a lot of fun bonding with the members. I love them so much. By the time we finished the fufu, it was already 5 and we were invited to another Free Meal from another member. So all 8 of us rode in the back of a truck and went to top off our stomachs! It was so much food! I could barely walk back to the apartment, but it was a fun holiday. On Saturday all 8 of us continued to work on the Takyi's house and we picked and shoveled dirt from about 8 in the morning to 1 in the afternoon before we all went home to change and then proselyte til the end of the evening. Sunday was interesting as well as the branch is still getting everything together and I taught the young women's class for the 4th week in a row! I hope that President Eshun will soon call leaders to take over the teaching positions instead of the missionaries. The rest of our Sunday was spent visiting our recent converts and other members.
Monday is when things got crazy. Early in the morning, all 8 of the Dunkwa elders went to the station and traveled down to our zone leaders apartment in Twifo Praso. I know I've told you about the ride down there before, but let me remind you; It's 2 1/2 hours on a terrible dirt road. When we finally got there, we were dead. But we dropped our stuff off at their apartment and then got in another trotro for an hour for all of us to go to an amazing place called Kakum National Park. This is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ghana and it's easy to see why. There's a breathtaking rope bridge thousands of feet above the ground on top of the trees that you can walk across. If you google it, I'm sure some great pictures will pop up. Thankfully all of us got to walk across the bridges and I can tell you it was one of the coolest things I've ever done. I'll include a picture! When we finished there we traveled another hour back to the zone leaders apartment and then spent the night there on Monday, all of us sleeping on bamboo mats.
We woke up at 5 on Tuesday morning and the entire Twifo Praso zone traveled 2 hours to Cape Coast! We were all going for combined zone conference with one of the quorum of the 70, Elder Dube. There was tons of missionaries there and I was reunited with Elder Mocke!! It was so great to see him. We were then instructed by Elder Dube and President Stevenson, both of their wives, and ate lunch. It was a really cool conference and we all left with renewed spirits. I even was chosen to be interviewed by Elder Dube, so I got to speak with a general authority one on one! Now I know how you feel, Dad. When we finished, our zone traveled back to Praso and the Dunkwa elders grabbed our stuff to catch a tro back home. But, their were no tros left, so we spent another night in the zone leaders apartment! 12 elders in a 4 man apartment! Needless to say, it was crazy. Thankfully we caught a tro back to Dunkwa this morning and after a short rest, we're out again! So once again, I apologize for the delay of this email!!
To answer your questions...

1.  Do you (or did you) leave the baptismal font assembled or is it something you have to disassemble and then reassemble every time there is a baptism?
We assemble and disassemble it after every baptism because before the branch was organized, we could only have a baptism once a month. We are currently looking for a place we can permanently put the font, but for now we set it up and take it down!

2.  What is your favorite fruit over there?  Do you eat/drink any coconuts?
Mangoes, bananas, guavas and especially the white pineapple. They are all delicious! Yes, I have eaten and drunk plenty of coconuts and they are so good when they are fresh! Sadly, that coconut juice stains white shirts so insanely bad.. But its okay, all it well!

3.  How was the first Sunday with the new branch presidency?  The picture of you all was awesome.  President Stevenson also put some on his blog.  There was one of you and another missionary at a table and then of course you were in the group picture.  
The branch is amazing. I couldn't have asked for better leaders to be called, I know that it was the Lord's doing. In the coming weeks we will be able to really see how it operates as the responsibilities slowly shift from the missionaries to the members! I will keep you updated.

4.  How are the shoes/clothes holding up? 
All the clothes are great so far, nothing has happened that a tailor can't fix. My shoes are holding up great, so I hope they can last me til the end of my mission! I've put plenty miles on them though... 

5.  Any new serious investigators?  Names are always nice so we can include them in our prayers.
YES! We found an amazing new family to teach and they are what some missionaries call "Golden Investigators." Seth, Comfort and their small boy Cyrus are a young family who lives in our area and we were able to meet with them in the past weeks. We taught them the message of the restoration and they both agreed to read and pray about the Book of Mormon. At first Comfort wasn't interested at all, but as the lesson went on it was amazing to see how the spirit worked upon her and she was able to feel of the truthfulness of our message. She cried the entire time as we spoke of the joys of repentance and the weight that can be lifted off of her shoulders. The next time we went there, they both bore their testimonies of the Book of Mormon after praying about it. Seth now tells all of his friends that he attends Latter-Day Saints and he has given us 5 referrals since we first met with him. They are a powerful family! Please include them in your prayers.

6.  President Stevenson mentioned in his blog that he and his wife went to Sizzler for dinner.  Do you know if this is the same Sizzler that we have here in Utah.  That would be sweet!
Haha Sizzler is a French restaurant somewhere near Cape Coast and it's not close to the Sizzler back at home! I have never been there, as this week was my first time going to Cape, but I've heard it's really good. I wish it was the real Sizzler!!

7.  What is the craziest thing that happened to you this week?
Hmm.. From walking above a forest, to celebrating a holiday, to having an interview with a general authority... That's a good question! As you can tell, it was a crazy week!!
Well, I hope that everyone has a wonderful week at home and that everyone is safe. I can't wait to hear from everyone again next week! I love you all. God be with you.
Elder Gavin Degen

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Baptism of Sarfo and Matilda

Baptismal Font

Organization of Dunkwa-on-Offin Branch

E-mail dated 3/3/15

Mom and Family,
Akwaaba! Another week has passed, and this one was one of the busiest of my entire mission! Also one of the greatest as well :) Thank you all for you emails and the news that you sent me! It sounds like Murray played a crazy game in the state tournament and that everyone seemed to be talking about it. I wish I could have viewed the links! Tell Sunday that I still love him. I was also glad to hear that Gram's surgery went well and that everyone is happy and healthy!
I can't believe that February is over already, it truly feels like it just barely started. It's amazing what happens when you are busy with the Lord's work! This week was no different as we were overwhelmed with things to do in preparation for the baptism and the organization of the branch. We saw our baptismal candidates everyday this week and were able to finish all the lessons with all of them. They were all very prepared and our new candidate, Matilda Twumasi, easily passed her baptismal interview (that occurred the morning of the baptism!). The week began to get crazy on Friday as we had to put together our portable font with bolts and screws and then we had to find a way to fill it. One of our members hired 3 women to tote water on their heads from a well to fill the font, so we left early in the morning after we assembled it to work on the Takyi's house in my area. We used shovels and picks to excavate dirt around his foundation as we have been doing for the past month or so and on Friday we worked for about 4 hours there. When we finished, we went back to the chapel around 2 in the afternoon to see if the font was filled. The women had been working nonstop, fetching water from a well 10 minutes away and carrying 40 liters each on their heads. In 6 hours, the font was barely halfway full. We began helping them fetch the water, but our efforts didn't contribute very much, so we took a different approach. We had to have a lot of faith and told the lazy landlord that he needed to fix the water this very second. He grudgingly agreed and finally got the water pump working that he put in almost two months ago. Thank goodness!! The women were relieved and so were we. Everything was set for the next day.
On Saturday morning, the elders in my apartment all woke up early to clean the chapel in preparation for the service later that morning. We do this every Saturday morning for church on Sundays as well. After cleaning and meeting the other elders, we came back to our apartment, got ready and went back to the chapel around 10. When we got there President Stevenson had arrived to witness the baptism. Slowly the chapel began to fill and all of our candidates arrived. Sarfo and Matilda both quickly got dressed in their white baptismal clothes, but Augustina was beginning to very nervous when she got there. She said she didn't feel like she could be baptized because she is pregnant, but we reassured her it was nothing to worry about. We had the women in our group talk to her as well as President Stevenson. She came to a decision that she would like to be baptized after she delivers in June. We of course honored her decision and she still witnessed the others be baptized. I was sad to see her sit out, but it's okay! It was amazing to see Sarfo and Matilda receive their ordinance of salvation. It's hard to describe how happy you feel when someone you have come to love makes a big decision like that in their lives! To celebrate the collective 6 people we baptized as a district, President Stevenson took all the missionaries out to eat (Ironically at the restaurant where we used to hold church). We all enjoyed our rice and stew and talking with president!
The following day we were privileged to be in attendance as President Stevenson and the Praso District president organized the first branch in Dunkwa-on-Offin! We had over 130 people in attendance and we held an inspiring two hour service to commemorate the occasion. After the service we all took our first picture as a branch and it has to be my favorite picture of my mission so far. I hope you received all the pictures that I sent yesterday! Mission President and the District President then set apart all those that were called to the presidency and gave them all the keys necessary to salvation. How great is that blessing to have here in this small town in Ghana! I cannot even express my gratitude to the Lord for the way he has prepared this area. I am no longer serving in a group, but now officially as a recognized branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Wow.
And then yesterday the elders in my apartment climbed a large mountain in Dunkwa that overlooks the whole city, but that seems like a minor event compared to the other things that happened this weekend! Sorry for not emailing yesterday, but the power was out and we had to be to a Family Home Evening. So now I can answer your questions! Once again they wouldn't copy for some reason...
1) Hmmm.. I have really been thinking hard of things that I need, but I haven't been able to think of anything! I know whatever you put in there is exactly what I need :) Thank you so much!
2) Lessons can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 2 hours. Most lessons typically last between 45 minutes to an hour as we have to teach the material slowly so that people can fully understand it. We usually have around 6 lessons planned each day and the Lord typically allows us to be able to meet that goal.
3) In Africa, everything is within walking distance. We only use public transportation when we are going in and out of the main part of town, so we walk to and back from our areas each day. I honestly have no idea how far we walk each day... If I had to guess it's at least 4 miles or so. My feet definitely get a workout!
4) Nope, no change in the weather this week as it continues to be hot, humid and dusty. Small rain one day but not anything large at all. I can't wait for it to cool down during rainy season soon!
5) The biggest challenge for me personally right now is the language as I am struggling to learn it. It's not easy to sit idly by as Elder Bannerman speaks to everyone and I can't understand what they are saying. We are given no resources to learn Twi and even Elder Curtis has asked us to preach the gospel in the English language, so he even discouraged us to deeply learn it. It's not easy at all, but I am finding ways to overcome it!
6) Yes, there are many people that struggle with drinking and smoking, but mainly drinking! Alcohol is cheap and many people are addicted to it. Weed is also a problem.

7) Wow, I have been gone almost 200 days? I never would have even thought that. Times goes by very fast here, but I can admit that there is never a day that goes by that I don't think of home. But not in a longing way, but more of a motivation! When I think of the many blessings that I have at home and the joy that God has given to me, how can I not share that with others? I have become very settled here on my mission though, and it is sometimes weird to think that I have a nice house and American food at home. I love the Ghana culture so much and especially the people, when I wake up in the mornings I truthfully feel like I have lived here my whole life. It's so strange and hard to explain!
8) Yes, I am perfectly healthy!
Thank you all so much for you emails and support! I hope to hear from you all next week. I love you!
Elder Gavin Degen