I can't believe that this is the last letter that I'll be writing. It's the weirdest thought in the world, going home. At the beginning, the focus was, "What will I do once I get home?" Lots of Elders would ask that, and lots of Elders would focus on that. Now, ending up, my thoughts are "Why do I have to go home?" It's really hard and a very strange feeling. I'll be excited one minute to see everyone, and then in two minutes I'll be sad and almost crying. This mission has been so awesome for me and so needed by me, and thinking about not doing it anymore is the hardest thing in the world. Like I said last week, I feel like I am betraying the Lord by being excited about going home and that I am betraying my family by wanting to keep working. I would make a very good Two Face if they were ever going to remake Batman.
Well, a lot of time has been spent reflecting on my mission, and much more time will be spent in the coming days. I have done my best to pick out 10 of the best memories that I have and the lessons I have learned from each one. I will try to be brief so as to not bore anyone, and I also want to point out that I have a lot more than 10 awesome memories from my mission. These are just some of the bigger ones. I think that it'll be a good way for me to end my writings, seeing as everything else I can tell you in person. But, these are memories that are very special for Elder Thomas, so Elder Thomas should write them down before he is released.
1. Sector: Guamaní. Companion: Elder Richimondg. Moment: Finding the Escobar family.
When I got to my first sector, everything was a mess. The house was a mess and the work was a mess. There was a lot to do. We spent a lot of time contacting, which wasn't the most fun thing in the world, but we did it. One afternoon, every appointment fell and we faced yet another afternoon of knocking on doors. Just as we started, it started pouring rain. Pouring. And in Quito, when it rains, it's cold. Plus, there was thunder and lightning. It was terrible and we could barely see in front of us. We talked about what we should do. We had a few options, such as studying in the house while the rain stopped or visiting a nearby member to wait the rain out. We praying as the rain poured, and I remember looking up and seeing a lady entering her house and feeling something special. Instead of doing the easier thing and waiting out the rain, we decided to be diligent and contact. It wasn't fun. I felt again that we should go to that lady's house and contact her. We did so, and we left the appointment with a new family with desires to be baptized, and that happened. The lesson that I learned there was that good things can happen on rainy days.
2. Sector: Guamaní. Companion: Elder Sanchez. Moment: The Morales family.
Part of this happened while I was still with Elder Richimondg, but basically we were working as hard as we could in our sector and seeing few, if any, fruits of our labors. It was getting hard to keep going, working without any success. One Sunday, after a hard week of work with no investigators in church, the bishop called us over to him and presented us to Veronica Morales. She told us that she had listened to the missionaries about a year ago, that they got married to get baptized, but they never got baptized. Right there she told us that she wanted to get baptized, and she did two weeks later. Later, her husband, who could only come to sacrament meeting for his work, called us Sunday around 9 and asked to be baptized that day before sacrament meeting, which started at one. We filled the font as we could and he was baptized that day, completing the family in the Church. Those were unexpected blessings, total surprises to us. The lesson that I learned there was that when we do all that we can, the Lord will bless us with what we need.
3. Sector: La Gasca. Companion: Elder Paz. Moment: Esteban LeGrand.
Esteban LeGrand is probably the strongest convert that I have been able to teach. He is awesome, and has already gone to the temple for his endowments and all of that jazz. He has his calling, he is at church every week, he is awesome. And, he contacted us. Elder Paz and I were at the bus stop, and he contacted us thinking that we were high school students, and he wanted to ask us if there was work available in our school. The inital conversation was brief, but we presented ourselves and set up an appointment for the next day. We had little to do with his conversion. We visited him every day, for he lived right by our house, and he did everything on his own. He read almost the whole Book of Mormon in three days, prayed always, and did everything he invited us to do. I get to see him frequently in the offices, and I have grown to love him greatly. I learned there that we don't always have to find them, sometimes they need to find us.
4. Sector: La Gasca. Companion: Elder Paz. Moment: Santos Ganán.
Santos was a father of a family where everyone but him was a member, and he had listened to the missionaries off and on for 16 years, never getting baptized. When we first got the the sector, the bishop introduced us to him and asked us to visit him. The first appointment was to mostly get to know him, but the second appointment was game time. Elder Paz was very new, and I taught a lot of the lesson, but it was basically an hour battle with him giving excuses to not get baptized, we'd read a scripture to tell him that that excuse wasn't valid, and we'd keep going like that. Finally, he ran out of excuses, and he accepted a baptismal date right there after the hour battle, and he got baptized. He was sealed to his family about a month ago. I learned there that good things are worth fighting for.
5. Sector: Various. Companions: Various (esp. Elder Paz and Elder Burr). Moment: Being with them.
All of my companions were great. Not one of them was disobedient, not one of them had any major problems. I was very blessed by my many companions. I don't remember how many I had, it was around 13 or 14, but two very special ones were Elder Paz and Elder Burr. Elder Paz was so much fun to be around, and we worked so hard together. We had to open a sector where missionaries had done dumb things, and we worked so hard to build up confidence again and to find people to teach. We worked so hard, and we had to much fun. We saw lots of fruits from our labors, and fruits that have remained strong in the Church. I am glad that I have gotten to see him again in the offices so often, and he'll be at BYU studying, too. Elder Burr was such a great companion for me. We got along right away, and we never had fights, yelling, or any ill feelings one towards another. We worked so hard and were so dedicated to the work. Together, we saw many miracles and were blessed in many ways. That was probably the time in my mission where I thought least about not mission stuff. It was 100% working, and we made a great team. I've kept in touch with him ever since he finished last year, and his friendship and brotherhood and very important to me. He was a wonderful companion.
6. Sector: Lago Agrio. Companion: Elder Burr. Moment: The Fast.
Things were a disaster in Lago when I got there. Bad leadership, bad membership, bad progress. We worked so very hard with everything, but something would always happen between the members and the investigators and it would impede the progress of the work. My first change, we didn't really see too many fruits. When changes were made and Elder Burr was put in as the branch president, we started it off with a fast. As we finished the fast, I went into a room alone to pray, alone and out loud, something that I hadn't done before. I was going to ask the Lord if what I was doing was what He had wanted from me, for I felt that it wasn't. As soon as I started praying, it felt like someone came up behind me and was giving me a hug. I started crying, and I knew that I was doing all of the right things. I just had to keep going. That was the day that missionary work changed in Lago. We found many families after that fast and saw many fruits from out labors. But, more importantly, I changed a lot that day and became a much more dedicated missionary. What I learned there is that when we are weak, the Lord can make us stronger.
7. Sector: Lago Agrio. Companion: Various (Burr, Tumpay, Murphy). Moment: The people.
We helped a lot of people in Lago receive the restored Gospel, and it was amazing to see their lives change. Membership more than triple in the time from April 2013 when I got there to October of 2013 when I left. Families like the Cedeño Gordón family, the Lopez family, the Lema family, the Moreno family, and many, many more were all changed by the Gospel. Those friendships I formed there are very important to me. Saying goodbye to them last week was so hard for me, because I had grown to love them so much. They feel like part of the family, and it is great to visit a year after their conversion and to see that they are still strong. What I learned from the people, those very important people, in Lago Agrio is that changing others changes you.
8. Sector: Lago Agrio. Companion: Various (Coram, Tuckett, Burr, Tumpay, Murphy). Moment: My conversion.
Before going to Lago Agrio, I was a good, obedient, hard working missionary. I worked as hard as I could every day, and was able to meet and to help many people receive the Gospel. But, I would say that Lago Agrio was the land of my conversion. I look back in my journal now and recognize my growth there so easily. Especially after the fast mentioned above, I became a different missionary. I didn't work hard because it was expected of me or to gain recognition, I began to work because I loved the Lord and wanted to show whatever thanks I could for His Atonement. I walked in the rain because I loved the Lord. I rarely, if ever, thought about home during the week. I thought only in the investigators, the members, the less actives, the people there. They became my family, they became so important to me. I learned so much serving as the branch president there, and learned how to be a loving leader. I studied hard and grew much in those wonderful six months in Lago. Part of me will always be in Lago Agrio, for that is where I became the man that the Lord needed me to be. I became converted. I became dedicated. I became His. I could talk about Lago Agrio for hours. I began working for love, not for anything else. And that is when I really lost myself, which is the lesson learned here: losing yourself really is finding yourself.
9. Sector: La Colón. Companion: Elder Ospina. Moment: Operación Matacuy.
The month of March was a hard month. We had some bad missionaries doing bad things. I have no need to go into the details of what happened, but it was a very real battle of bad vs. good. We worked hard, planned everything out super well, and started taking out the bad missionaries, and we did so successfully, every missionary involved. We took out the bad root in the mission, which allowed us to start growing to be better and more obedient. In my exit interview yesterday with President Richardson, he said that that operation helped the mission so much as we were able to get rid of the bad to replace it with good. I felt bad for the missionaries sent home, but bad things always bring bad consequences. Details can be shared once I am home, but it was a hard month with little sleep and lots of trickery and lies from the missionaries, but in the end, we took them out. There I learned that good beats bad, every time. It may take more time than we would like, but that is always the outcome.
10. Sector: La Colón. Companion: Various (Dearden, Ospina, Miranda, Burleson). Moment: The Richardsons.
Probably the biggest blessing of working so long in the offices is how well I got to know the Richardsons. They really do feel like second parents, offering such great advice and guidance throughout my time with them. What I learned most from them, of all of the many lessons, is the importance of loving everyone, no matter how stupid they are. Both President and Sister Richardson are so good at loving people, especially the stupid ones. I have learned a lot about the importance of love in leadership. Before, I would easily get upset with missionaries when they didn't do what they were supposed to be doing. I have learned that there are two ways to get people to follow you: they can fear you or they can love you. Instilling fear may bring you obedience, but not loyalty. Instilling love will bring you everything you want: obedience, loyalty, diligence, honesty, etc. The Richardsons understand the effectiveness of love, and show it so masterfully, which is the best lesson that I've learned from them. From them, I learned that true love and admiration are deserved by everyone.
Honorable mentions: Peeing blood for a week, loving to study Elder Maxwell's talks, shaking hands with a little monkey.
Like I said, there are a million more things that I could write, but those are some of the standouts. I tried to be brief, as with details I could talk about each memory for a long time.
I've had a good week this week, but I am almost out of time to write. Plus, I may as well just fill you in when I get home.
My mission has been so important to me. I have become my greatest converted, as promised in the MTC two years ago. I have become a servant of the Lord, a defender of the faith, a testifier of Christ. I know that the Gospel that I have preached for two years is true, and that it is worth defending. The truth will be attacked and hated by others, but it will never be abandoned by me. I know that Jesus Christ is my Savior, that He suffered for us, and that by living His Gospel, we can become perfect like Him. He loves everyone, a love that we must try to show as well. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and I know that because I know that the Book of Mormon is true through the power of the Holy Ghost. That Book is amazing and will be studied by me every day for the rest of my life. There is nothing more important than the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. I testify that all of these things are true. My mission in Ecuador may be ending, but my mission on earth is far from over. Through my experiences on my mission, I come home ready to keep defending the faith and serving the Lord, and will do so happily until He calls me home. Nothing is more important than this work, the work of salvation.
I love you all and thank you for your love and support over the last two years. I have felt your prayers, your love, and you kindness from very far away. I have tried to serve in a way so that whatever you think a missionary should be, I have been. I have been obedient and faithful, and any success that I have had has come from that. I thank you all infinitely for all that you have done for me and the numerous sacrifices that you have made for me.
With all of my love,
Elder Joshua Jay Thomas
P.S. I may hop on quickly on Monday to see any last messages or information I may need.