Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Week 32 - The North

This is Elder Hacker coming to you live from the small but comfortable house of Jean-Paul. Like a lot of people here he's a balding old chap. He is also super nice! This man is gentleness incarnate— a human shaped teddy bear mixed with a peach.

After 5 hours total of trains, three different trains, I arrived safely in the smaller, more north, and quirkier city of Dunkerque. Or Dunkirk as the anglophone worlds tends to spell it. It is up at the tippy top of France right next to the ocean and to Belgium. There is a bus we can take right over the border. If you follow the beach which is about 5 minutes from the apartment, you can cross into Belgian land. You can tell the boundary because there are waffles buried about in the sand on the Belgium side.

I have already noticed how nice people are here. The Normands were usually pretty nice but up here the people are very very friendly. It reminds me of Cheyenne sometimes a bit. Though with more ocean. And more pastries. The atmosphere here is really something different. There are more bricks and it all feels a bit cleaner. Noises made by cars have swapped with those made by costal birds. As well as the noises heard round the city whenever France scores a goal in a football match. (Note: there was a long and well fought mental debate here about whether to call it soccer or football. In the end, football won out on the grounds that it makes me seem fancier)  There is a mussel and crab graveyard not to far from were we live. Where all the birds chuck their armoured prey to the ground then go clean up the left overs! Things have funky Flemish names here. Christopher Nolan is off filming his film 'Dunkirk' somewhere in Dunkerque and I will find him and force him to join my church.

Did I mention Dunkerque was a little quirky?  Here's a museum display devoted to the Banana.  Plus also notice my nifty new Euro tournament shirt
And some large, cool, but creepy heads.  I liked the one with the red nose the best.

This week consisted of meeting a lot of people and unpacking and getting settled in. It turns out that neither my companion not I really know how to do missionary work here in this city! So we will figure it out together. Exploring and discovering is one of the greatest majesties of this life. We have this great sphere we have all been throw on, the biosphere, the atmosphere, our social spheres, the spheres we give to our children to play with as we take those first steps into parenthood. We have so much to explore. All the fictional spheres people create—the books and movies and worlds of imagination. We have all our pasts to explore, relive, and learn... Our own and all those of others. Exploration is part of our divine nature! Exploration sucks sometimes— we've got trails to blaze, poisonous berries to eat, rivers to fjord, and maps to draw. It is sometimes as unfair as that rigged Oregon Trail game. Make it fun at least! Add those little sea monsters in the ocean bits of your maps. Find fun and joy in the exploration!

My new companion, Elder Siedow, and I overlooking the walled city of Berque

We went to the refugee camp here at Dunkerque to do service. There is a huge population of refugees from Iran and Iraq who live in a large camp to the west of the city. Endless rows of cabins made from plywood and other scavenged materials stretching out as far as the eye could see. We spent a few hours at one point during the day in the "free store": a small cinder block shed full of food with a whole through which we talked. Like a really ghetto movie theater cabin. So we are chilling in here, trying to figure out the French word for chickpeas and what all we actually have in stock. Refugees show up with their food cards and then the game starts. It involves a lot of pointing, gesturing, and holding things up as we struggle to figure out what food they are trying to order. Sometimes there were a couple words we knew in common: yes, no, and thank you. Always that last one. These people never forgot that last one. They would always say thank you. Even people who didn't know yes and no seemed to know thank you. People struggling to live in these pretty rough conditions where never that distracted that they didn't say thank you. Not a single one forgot! I think of all the times I forget to say thank you. All the gratitude I never rendered. I think of the ten lepers Jesus healed and the one who came back to say thank you. I don't think we fully realize the power of gratitude. Be that one who goes back to say thank you. Please! I will thank you eternally if you do.

I'll have a little more to write about the next time! It felt a little all over the place this time. Now then, I love you and hope that you all love yourselves. That you see yourselves the way I see you: awesome incredible lights! Radiant people! Go shine this week.

With love,

Elder Alex Hacker

[Editor's Note: Alex also answered some questions we had about his transfer to Dunkerque, which are included for your enjoyment]:

Tell us about leaving Caen, including sending off your last companion in Caen, Elder Sherren, to go home at the end of his mission:
It wasn't too bad. Towards the last few days it was mostly packing and setting up things so that the sisters would be able to take care of our investigators .  I was happy to see him finish the mission happily and content with the work he had done.

Elder Sherren and I in our apartment in Caen

Sunday was mostly saying goodbye and taking photos. We went a visited a few people here and there. Nicholas—who took us to the beaches and was our good friend drove is us to the train station in the morning. That was really touching. Our dear friend Jean rode with us on the train (he was headed to Paris to take a test anyways) and we had a quick goodbye in the metro.

The transfer was a ride to Paris. Then I met my new companion in the train station and we rode the subways to a different train station. Then we took a high speed train to Lille. Then we switched from the international train station to the local train station and shipped ourselves off to Dunkerque.

Tell us about your new companion and your new apartment:
Elder Siedow is my new companion! He was born in Russia but was adopted over to Wisconsin as a wee baby. He has been out on his mission for 10 transfers and in Dunkerque for 1 of those. He is really awesome. I love him a lot already.  He is very nice and happy all the time.

My new companion, Elder Siedow, in front of boats in Dunkerque.  We live virtually right next to the harbor.

The apartment.... After being spoiled in the two story behemoth in Caen it was only expected. It is pretty small. It is however pretty clean.

How did your first Sunday with the new branch go?  
It's a small branch--we had just 9 people there on Sunday! Everybody is super friendly and nice, and I look forward to really getting to know them.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Week 31 - Father's Day and Goodbyes II

Happy Father's Day!! French lesson: the word Père (father) is pronounced like the English word pear. The French word for pear (poire) is not pronounced like the English word father. Isn't nature beautiful?

Though a happy celebration of fathers to everyone! I think fondly of my own. Even though he wasn't and isn't perfect (one time past bed-time he sent me to my room to go to sleep when I wanted to look at the fish in the fish-tank) he did a pretty good job. Parenthood has got to be one of the hardest, most frustrating, and ultimately rewarding things I reckon. So I thank him! Thank you Dad for all the times you offered to help with homework—all of which I stubbornly refused. Thank you Dad for the support you have always given me. Thank you for trusting me to make my own choices, even though sometimes I didn't choose all that well. Thank you for providing me all that I needed to be able to succeed, to find myself, and to be happy. Thank you for all the times you let me take balloons from restaurants as a child, even though you hated them. (It is really imperative here to recognize the  burning, though totally irrational, hatred my father has for balloons.) Thank you for all you other fathers! It is a pretty thankless job sometime but it is so important. Thank you for what you do!

News!! We were such awful missionaries that the team of Elders here in Caen have been closed down. Or it is that there are not enough Elders right now to sustain the team. One of those two options. My companion is going home to Texas (he's done his time), and I am going off to Dunkerque up in the north-most regions of France. My new address will be: 150 Quai des Anglais 59140 Dunkerque France. All the people that we saw regularly: the Russian Constantine, our friend S who has just quit smoking, Olivier, etc... Our friends will be seen by the sisters from this point on.

The traditional change time picture.  The number we are holding up shows the number of 6 week change periods we have now completed.

It is both exciting and sad to leave. I lived here six months sharing my heart with as many people who would listen. I am attached. I love them all so much. The children who make all the noises children are supposed to make during spiritual moments at church. The kinda grumpy old people. The one teenager who slept all the time. Jasmin, Bunel,and their kids—the beautiful couple from the Congo. Everyone. I love them a lot. I celebrated when they where happy and did everything I could to help them when they weren't. I will miss them a lot. Saying goodbyes are sometimes sad, even when you are supposed to leave. I am very excited to go see and explore a new city. To wander another cultural, human, and physical landscape. To go serve the Lord wherever he would have me go. It is the srangest mix of genuine excitement and joy to go see a new place and sadness at having to leave. Huh.

During my last day during the mission in the city of Cherbourg, (potentially my last day ever in the city, if I never happen to visit it later in life) we met a very nice fellow named Harvard. We turned a corner rather violently and almost collided. So we quickly started speaking to him in French. In response to the confused eyebrows being raised we switched over to English. As it happens Harvard is a self-employed fisherman who lives just off the coast of Iceland. He had this almost natural hipster aura, but in a sincere way. I haven't ever heard an accent like his before but as we spoke there was an honesty in him that impressed upon me so much. This man was perfectly honest with us, and with himself it seemed. He seemed at peace. We learned who he was and explained who we were. We offered him a Book of Mormon to read sometime on his boat when he found time. Out short 10-15 meeting ended with a prayer all together, and then a warm goodbye from all parties.

Goodbyes are only bad if they are made prematurely. They are as meaningful as you make them. That 10 minute period where my life interwove with Harvard's life, is as meaningful or as meaningless as we each make it. The goodbyes we say to one another whether they be at the end of meetings, dates, weeks, vacations, 6 months in a foreign city, or lives, are little exchanged legacies. They are resumes, summaries, and wishes. The goodbyes we give are only permanent if we forget, if we don't change after we say them. The endings are just as important and vital as the beginnings.

Thank you for all the time you take to write and communicate and to read. I love you fellas. Have a good week! There will be much to describe in the next email!

Until the next time,

Elder Alex Hacker

Here we are play acting the funeral of my companion Elder Sherren, who in the slang of missionary speak has "died" due to his two year mission coming to its end.  It was really hard for all of us to keep our serious faces (and not smile or laugh) while we took this silly picture

Friday, June 17, 2016

Week 30 - Just a short email and a few photos


Just time for a very quick email this week.   We had our Game Night on Friday. That went really well! Plenty of people came, and investigators got to interact well with members.  We had an American Cookie contest there as well. (You've got to  specify here).  The picture shows a group of people playing Werewolf.  It was a lot of fun and we have some mad fellow-shipping going on this week.

I'm happy that one of our amis committed to stop smoking entirely this week, so keep him in your prayers.  

I will find out this coming weekend who my new companion will be and if I am transferring or not.

More next week.



P.S. The other photos are from birthday celebrations our district had this week with members for both my companion's birthday and for Soeur Harvey's birthday.  (Thanks to Soeur Marshall for the photos).

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Week 29 - A Busy Week

Next to the ocean in Cherbourg

Curtains draw to reveal black stage. A single light illuminates stage left.)

ELDER HACKER: (Steps into light, speaks slowly, gazes heavenward)   It is already June... June always had that "summer-freedom-joy" connotation. It was a time free from school and responsibility. A time for frolicking with friends through warm Wyoming evenings...

(A series of younger Alexs enter stage right. They represent Alex throughout the summers of his youth. They begin an interpretative dance.)

ELDER HACKER: (Labored) Oh! How different the once warm dance of summer now feels! Without that artificial calendar imposed by the school districts... How strange to see other people celebrating something that no longer has special meaning to you. No longer do I wait for the weekend...

(A large image of Journey flashes across the backdrop.)

ELDER HACKER: ...really though, these things do feel a little strange. Not in a bad way, just a bit strange,

(Suddenly a stream of angry French men march across the stage. They are all wearing mustaches and are complaining. It is a strike! Another one! The audience can tell by how organized the strike is that this happens very often in France. The strike passes and a shadowy figure is left on stage with ELDER HACKER and the still dancing young Alexs)

MYSTERIOUS STRANGER: (With bellowing voice) It is I! Olivier! I am from Cameroon and I like to meet with the missionaries. I kind of speak French and have very white teeth, especially when compared to the general quality of French teeth. I am 23 and am a nondenominational Christian. I like dancing a lot! I was an electrical engineer before coming to France but finding work here even when qualified is very hard. I am currently waiting on legal junk before I can legally work here. I think Elder Hacker is the best!

ELDER HACKER: Olivier! It is good to see you my brother!



So I didn't actually do any missionary work this week, the whole week was spent writing that play you just finished reading.   Just Kidding!!!  Although I have to say that I am running out of creative gimmicks to start my emails with.

This week was nice! We didn't have a chance to actually see Olivier but we did get a chance to spend some time talking about receiving answers to prayers with our Russian friend C. Tuesday we were in Paris for a meeting and then on Thursday we were off in Cherbourg helping the missionaries there. The week has been pretty tiring but overall it was wonderful. We did a little bit of planning and preparation for my companion who is about to finish his mission.

My invitation this week, is to be confident in who you are. However lame you may think you are, you are at least twice as cool as that.  You are a child of God and he'll talk to you if you let him! Take whatever you are in this instant, put all your previous choices behind you, and let yourself be defined by whatever decision you next make. And you better make that a good one. You are more than the product of what you have done. Take confidence in the faith that you have. Or if you don't  feel you have faith in anything, put confidence in the faith you hope to have. You are put on this earth to be a light. To share your personality, thoughts, etc... With the world. You are a light! You're here to shine. To be happy. To be surrounded by darkness sometimes.  And it is those moments where you have even more need to shine. It might be hard to be that light, or even think you are a light and not just a black hole, but I am telling everyone who ever reads this email that you are a light.

One of my favorite lights has to be my father. His balding graying head just had its birthday. If any of you know him be sure to wish him Happy Birthday.

I love you.

Elder Alex Hacker

With our friend Olivier at the train station

Some cool art I saw in a shop window

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Week 28 - Shout out to the Greatest Teachers


How has the week gone?  I do hope and pray that this summer starts of well for you all.

A fair number of people who we talk to, who we invite to hear our message and ponder on it, are at the very least interested in why we came here. Why we left our families, our sheltered lives over in the United States, our friends, our studies, our aspirations? To a pretty unreligious country (even the religious people here aren't always religious) where we are given a pretty cold reception? As I write it in that form it hardly makes sense. And then I think of what this message is. Then I reflect for a moment on what grand measures of purpose, direction, peace, happiness, and (insert positively adjective with a positive connotation here) my beliefs have brought me. And I say that using the most generic terms, but with all sincerity of my heart as well. I am here to share something that has changed my life. To help others in the most lasting and important way I know how. To invite people to find the answers to questions of the soul: Why they are here? Where they are going? How to get there? To bring the most important thing to the most important people— these random strangers on the streets here in France. This is some life changing stuff here.

I am not sure why, but I would like to take this moment to write an ode to a very large influence in my life that I have never properly thanked: Mad props to my 6th Grade Teacher Mrs. Brabson. I finished my 5th grade education not enjoying the year very much. I switched schools that summer from Davis Elementary to Pioneer Park Elementary, trading whoever this guy named Davis was for coonskin caps and cholera. So I enter this new year pretending I'm comfortable and confidant and that I will be fine leaving all my friends behind. The teacher is the worst nightmare of any 6th grader: any older lady that is not the student in question's grandmother. A shorter, nice older lady that would change my life. Mrs Barbara Brabson (She has that super hero alter ego alliteration going on) is a fantastic teacher. One of the best I have ever known. Even though she is retired, I am pretty confident she is still a great teacher. She was a warm, good, happy person. She loved her students. She taught them at their level and held their hands just as much as she needed to, and never more. She laughed with us. She helped us when we were genuinely frustrated and stuck. She asked the best questions. She encouraged us, and me specifically, to be ourselves. She played an integral role in igniting a lifelong flame of learning, progression, and happiness. She was patient, long-suffering (she somehow survived a class of over confident 6th graders in the 'advanced program), loving. It was that class that produced a fictional holiday lauding kumquats, the practice of hiding fake cameras around the room, the love of learning I have now. There was a bit of a trouble student named T in that class. The autumn came and the time to change seating groups arrived. Mrs. Brabson had all of the students write down the people they wanted to sit by and those who they didn't want to sit by/would get in trouble sitting with. Not a single student said they wanted to sit by T. In fact, he was on everyone's 'don't sit with' lists. I can still remember the refrained and righteous fury Mrs. Brabson brought crashing upon that class of stuck up children. She didn't yell. She didn't get in our faces. She told us she was disappointed. In the most loving manner she showed us how grave and wrong our treatment of T was. And that is one lesson burned into my soul. And I thank my God for the wonderful, fun, and cherished year I had as a student of Mrs. Brabson.

She reminds me of another teacher I know. She reminds me of Jesus Christ. Who some of you may know. Even though he is kind of "retired" (like no longer on the earth at the moment) he is still the greatest teacher. He is a warm, good, happy person. He loved his students. He taught them at their level and held their hands just as much as he needed to, and never more. He laughed with his students. He helped those when they were genuinely frustrated and stuck. He asked the best questions. He encouraged people, and me specifically, to be ourselves. He played an integral role in igniting a lifelong flame of learning, progression, and happiness. He was patient, long-suffering (he somehow survived a world of over confident, and very over-grown 6th graders), loving. There was a bit of a trouble student named Alex in that class. And he helped him too. I bear testimony of these two people, My dear teacher Mrs. Brabson and my Savior, Jesus Christ. In his sacred name,

With a great deal of love,

Elder Alex Hacker
Brighten your day.