Friday, September 19, 2014

Addio Italia

Blossoming trees on Siracusa street

I hope you don't mind, but I have quite a bit to share on this, my final post, so find a comfy spot and make yourself comfortable.

I have officially made it home, my flight was on Tuesday, and so here I am back in America at my mom's computer (trying to figure out where the keys are again on american keyboards) and trying to gather my thoughts on this last week. Lots of goodbyes, lots of packing, lots of final prayers and testimonies and talks and everything else. Where do I start? Last Monday was my last P-day in Siracusa. We saw a Leonardo Da Vinci Exhibit with his many inventions, and then we went exploring a little around Ortigia and enjoyed the beautiful streets and whatnot.

Final Training Talk
Our District with Salvatore and Lucia Paretignotti
Anziano Hansen, Anziano Barrow, me, Sorella Kippen
FHE Coordinator Christian Rosano taking a selfie with our District
Tuesday I gave the training talk in our District meeting (my last one). I talked about two principles I had learned more fully on my mission:

1) Everything Good comes from God. That which edifies, uplifts, elevates, and illuminates - is of God - in the Arts, Sciences, and in Culture.  In fact, our 13th Article of Faith says as much:
If there is anything virtuous, lovely,
or of good report or praiseworthy,
we seek after these things.

2) Act and Don't be Acted Upon.
To be acted upon means that we allow circumstances to control us. One of the best ways to overcome this limiting mindset is to link ourselves with Christ.

How do we do that?  We go to Him, ask for help, then do our best.  With Him by our side, we find our lives empowered to be and to accomplish anything He needs us to do and be.

I like the way the Apostle Paul said it to the Philippians:
I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.

This is what makes the gospel so cool - it is empowering and gives us the tools and capacity beyond ourselves to go out and accomplish good in the world.

Tu Sei Speciale - You Are Special
You Are Special - in Italian
With Isabella and Allison
During my visit to say goodbye to Isabella and Allison we read the book You Are Special by Max Lucado. It's one of my favorite stories. This was a fun way to help Isabella understand the love of God. She loved it.

After our visit, she drove us home and little Allison latched on to me with hugs and kisses, not wanting me to go. We took a few pictures together and then Sorella Kippen and I crossed the street to go home, but before we entered the house Allison ran across the street to give one last hug.  After that, she got in her car and we shouted one last goodbye. I love that little girl, and I know she cares for me too.
'staching with Allison
Illustrations for Allison
Jacob 5 - Allegory of the Olive Tree
One of my final projects this last week was to finish a special goodbye gift for Allison.  I illustrated a copy of the Book of Mormon especially for her.  Here are some pictures:
2 Nephi 2 - Opposition in All Things

Letter to Allison on the inside cover
3 Nephi 11 - Christ's Visit to the America

My hope is that even if Isabella doesn't continue on with the gospel that Allison (who is very mature for her age and has a really good head on her shoulders) will find truth herself and have faith and courage to stick to it.

Final Goodbyes
The remainder of the week was spent in lessons and member appointments and in bidding the sweet people of Siracusa a fond farewell.  I am going to miss this land so much - the people, their love and passion, the vibrant blue sea, the remnants of history imbedded in cobblestone streets and crumbling buildings.  Oh, and the food.  Can we have a moment of silence for having to say addio to the amazing cuisine. I love Sicily. In addition to farewell pictures I posted last week, here are a few more friends.
Federica Bua. She's a model.
Giusi with her nephew
Wonderful Relief Society Pres and her hubby: the Amaldis

Departing Sicily
Messina Sicily is behind me
Saturday we got on a train to Rome. Elder Barrow and Elder Hansen were superheroes in helping me get luggage to the train station. Sorella Kippen and I said farewell in Catania (she is going to train! Yay!).  Then I was joined by Sorella Felice and Anziano Licioli and we continued on our way to Rome, catching the ferry in Messina to the mainland in Reggio Calabria.

Leaving the island for the final time seemed surreal.

The 12-hour train ride was long, delivering us to Rome late in the evening. Sunday I was back in Rome 2 and Rome 6 again. And it was strangely like I never left. It seemed normal to be there again.
Sicily Harbor
Land in background: Sicily on left, Italy Mainland on right

Final Interview with the Pres
In my final interview with President Waddoups - his counsel was mainly to read my scriptures daily without any excuses or exceptions and to keep in contact with him and Sorella Waddoups after the mission.

He also said that the Lord was proud of me and thanked me for my service. In the closing prayer, he said something like, "Please bless this sister who has done her best..." and when I heard that, I felt such a strong confirmation from the Spirit that I had given my all and my sacrifice was an acceptable offering to the Lord.

I know my service wasn't perfect, I made mistakes, but I did my best, and that was enough. What a reverent moment.  It brought tears to my eyes and a sweet feeling of comfort and peace - like a hug around my heart.  I knew the Lord was telling me I had done my best, and that is what mattered most. 

Sorella Hibbert, Kimball, Ghio, Yours Truly, McKenna
photo: Sister Waddoups
Departing Missionaries
Monday was my last p-day ever. I was with Sorella McKenna, my MTC companion (seen on the right in the picture) - made it back full circle.

Sorella McKenna, Moi, Sorella Ghio Singing the Mission Hymn
photo: Sister Waddoups
By the end of the day, we were at the Villa (the Mission Home), had dinner with all the departing missionaries and the Waddoups, and held a testimony meeting before getting one last gelato together in Italy. Gotta top things off with gelato!

During testimony meeting, we made a circuit of the room, and so I was last to bear my testimony.

I talked about how our work isn't over. We are facing a blow-in transfer to a new area (mission term for 2 new missionaries transferring together into an area).

In other words, our mission never really ends.

Sorella Sutton. I love this woman!
photo: Sister Waddoups
We take off the nametag, retire the white handbook, and put away the day-planner, but our purpose is exactly the same - to invite people to Christ.

It's amazing the feeling of love that we all had among us missionaries. It was a feeling of peace and harmony like I have never really felt before. We just all really love each other, even though there have been bumpy pasts between a few. But none of that mattered anymore.

It was a really cool small peek at what heaven will be like. 
The Gang heading home
photo: Sister Waddoups
Ciao Roma
Tuesday we got up dark and early. 2am. Got ready. Ate breakfast. Arrived to the airport. Checked luggage, Organized ticketting, and flew out.

My itinerary was like this: Rome - Frankfurt, Germany - Seattle, Washington - San Jose, California.

I was lucky enough to get a seat by a window: the Roman ground was covered in misty fog in the morning light, and as we took off and rose above the clouds, the dawning sun illuminated the water and green land and colored the clouds and sky in incredible colors. It was the perfect farewell to the beautiful, blessed land of Italy. Ciao Roma.

The Final Passage
Doors open and close throughout our lives and the mission is no different.  My time in Italy has been a passage of sorts that will forever remain a most blessed chapter in my life.  With that said, here are the final doors from Siracusa, Sicily.

I may be leaving Italy, but the doors will not remain closed.  No.  I will definitely return to this beautiful land and unite again with a people and a culture that I love so much.

Coming Home
Luckily, unlike my flight to Italy (18 months ago) I did not get sick on my return flight, but it was very long and sleep, well, it just wasn't going to happen.

But then at about 5:30pm Tuesday evening, I spotted the Golden Gate bridge from the airplane window. I scanned my eyes across the San Francisco bay and found my other favorite landmarks - downtown San Francisco, the Oakland temple, then Stanford University, and finally touched down at the San Jose airport.

After exiting the plane, I walked through the airport toward baggage claim where I was practically tackled by my younger brothers, now taller than me, then massive hugs by the rest of the family and my grandma.

The Release
That same evening we welcomed President Knudsen (stake president), President Huang (2nd counselor) my dad is 1st counselor, and Bishop Gubler. After a brief interview with Pres. Knudsen, my dad gave me blessing, my mom took off my nametag, and that was that. 

So here I am, back in California, not really feeling too much like I ever left. It's a strange feeling like so little has changed when so many things have happened. I don't really know what to say.

I suppose to finish off this post (and I guess this blog as well) I just want to mention how much my mission has meant to me. Last post, you all saw a list of 30 Things I Have Learned on My Mission. That was only a miniscule portion of the millions of things I could have listed.

My mission has changed me heart and soul. How could it not?  This land; loud and passionate, warm and loving, cultural and delicious. Entering Italy, I embraced my mission whole-heartedly, and you know something?  It reached out with its big mamma mia arms and embraced me right back. What a blessing, a miracle really, in transforming me, my life, and (I hope) the lives of others with whom I met and taught and laughed and ate and cried and lived and ate some more.

I don't need to tell you all this, but Italy is a remarkable place. I will miss it deeply. But I know that this isn't goodbye forever. I plan to return, but even if by strange circumstance I never do, my mission - this crazy year and a half of preaching the gospel in that land - will live inside me.

So it is not goodbye. Because it is a part of me, it will simply continue to always bless me.

It's All About Love
This entire year and a half has been illuminated by the purpose for which I went - to Love. And because of love, I changed.

Isn't that remarkable? Leo Tolstoy said,
"Everything that I understand,
I understand only because I love." 

There's nothing that better describes my feelings about my experience. God is love. His work is love. We are because of love. And what gives life its greatest joys, exquisite beauties, fullest experiences, richest moments, and deepest feelings can be traced to the singular grandest expression in existence: love. Love is what it is all about. 

I wanted to share with you the theme from the film Cast Away (composed by Alan Silvestri) which speaks to my heart - not only because I spent the majority of my mission on islands, but also because the stirring music conveys the poignance of goodbyes and hopeful futures. 

I love you all.  Thank you for reading, my friends.  Thank you for going to Italy with me in words.

Ciao tutti! Vi voglio bene, 
Sorella Ashley Nef

Friday, September 12, 2014

30 Things I Have Learned on My Mission

Missions are great.  Give the Lord your all and He gives you more.  My mission is the hardest yet best thing I have ever done and there are so many more things learned that are not on the list.  Suffice it to say that my mission has prepared me for the rest of my life and will bless me for even longer.

This isn't the final post, friends.  Keep your eyes out for my final goodbyes.

Sorella Ashley Nef

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Going Through the Motions Isn't Enough

At the Greek Theater
Teatro Greco
Siracusa holds fantastic ruins of an ancient Roman Amphitheater (dating from 3rd Century AD), and a Greek Theater (dating from 5th Century BC). We decided to meander around the more ancient of the two - the Teatro Greco - Greek Theater.

This huge arena for the arts is home to the first Greek comedy.  It is large enough to accommodate 15,000 spectators, and they still use it today for annual Greek Theater Festivals. How cool is that?!

The Ear of Dionysus
Way up in the nosebleed section are small cave-like rooms that were backstage loitering spots for the writers and actors - one of those being Plato!

Couldn't believe I was sitting where spectators have sat for centuries.

Ear of Dionysus
Not far from the Greek Theater is a huge limestone cave carved out of the Temenites hill. Caravaggio aptly named it the Ear of Dionysus because of its shape and sounds.
The tall, narrow cave has crazy acoustics like you wouldn't believe.

Fun Fact:
Legend has it that the famed tyrant Dionysus (432-367BC) used the cave as a prison, and the cave's awesome acoustics allowed him to eaves drop from the outside on all the conversations of his captives, and then punish them further.  He heard everything.  Hence, the Ear of Dionysus.  Sneaky fellow.

The Date is Set!
Giusi (our 15 year-old investigator) has set a baptismal date!  WOOOHOOOO.  She said it this way,
"I would be baptized, except I am too shy."
     "Whoa - wait - too shy?  Why?"
     "I don't want everyone looking at me when I'm in the font," she said.
     "Is that it?"
We quickly eased her mind and she picked the date of 4 October.  Yay.  But we don't think she gets that this is not just a ceremony, but it is the beginning of a whole new life.  So we have to work with her on that one.  But shoot, if she is already willing, then I think we are on the right track!

Dropping Like Flies
This week investigators have been dropping like flies.  Yep.  Isabella told us over the phone that she still attends the evangelical church and doesn't really need the lessons anymore.  When Kippen and I discussed this with the ward council, the members said they'd like to reach out and contact her.

I am currently illustrating pictures inside a copy of the Book of Mormon for Isabella's 4 1/2 year-old daughter, Allison, as a gift before I leave.  It's looking pretty cute.  I will take pictures when I am done.

Giuseppe and Katia seem to have lost the fire that they had at the beginning, and they have cancelled several appointments.

Sorella Felice and me
photo: Sorella Waddoups' Blog
Catania and Siracusa Sorelle Unite
The Catania Sisters (Sorella Felice and Sorella Cano) came and joined us in Siracusa for a scambio (exchange).  I was paired with Sorella Felice, who will be ending her mission the same time as me.

Three appointments were set, and all but one fell through.  But we managed to teach Giusi's grandmother, Pina, and invited her to Church.

Then we visited a new convert named Salvatore Paretignotti, which turned out to be the most memorable member appointment I will ever have. Let me tell you about it.

I Am a Child of God: Nothing More Special or True Than That
Salvatore Paretignotti (right) with his brother
Only time he has not smiled!
Salvatore was baptized in July of this year.  My first day here in Siracusa.  I met him at the ward activity, and after asking him how he was doing, his first words to me were, "I am doing great. You want to know why?  Because I am a child of our Heavenly Father who loves me.  And there is nothing more special or true than that!"

This man has a light about him, love and warmth exuding from him.  He is incredible.

Boy, did we need this appointment.  The Catania sisters had been having a hard time, as was Kippen and I.  After cancellations and rejections, well, we were all feeling a little down and beaten up.  Enter, Salvatore with open doors, delicious food (pizza, ice cream, and cake), and an inspiring story.

His Story:  Salvatore was walking down the street one day when he saw one of his evangelical friends talking to the missionaries.  Salvatore goes over, greets his friend, and thereby meets Anziano Smith (who has since finished his mission).  They got to talking, Salvatore asks if our church is a Christian church, and when he heard it was - closed the conversation with, "Well, that's the important thing, isn't it." And said his goodbyes and walked away.

Stop.  Go Back and Talk to Them
Graffiti with a great message - "Every Life is Sacred"
He had hardly taken a couple of steps when he heard a voice in his mind - a voice he recognized - say, "Stop.  Go back and talk to them."  Salvatore knew it as the voice of the Lord because he had heard it twice before.

He responded, "Why? - Why go back?"  Before he could get an answer, he was back talking with the missionaries and setting an appointment for lessons. Baptism came soon after that.
     "I was an easy person to teach for the missionaries," he says, "because I was ready to accept the truth.  I had been prepared."

This is where I will leave you in the story because I plan on sharing his full story in my homecoming talk on the 21st.  Sorry readers.  The most riveting part of the story is in hearing about the two other times when he had heard the voice of the Lord.  The Spirit was POWERFUL.

What an incredible man.  We sisters came out of that appointment pumped.  It was a desperately needed recharge.

with Sorella Vinci
Ward Party
The party this week was HILARIOUS.  It was proposed by a sister in the ward named Sorella Vinci who is special.

She loves the sister missionaries.  Loves them so much she writes each of them poems, and picks a different hymn to sing to them.  Mine was "Love One Another."

Bless her heart, she sets up this party, brings an unidentifiable dessert that the Elders described as, "You have to eat this - it's quite the experience," and gets her hair specially done for this party so she can make her presentations.

Vinci Family will Always Be Remembered
After the prayer, she gave a speech addressed to yours truly and recited a poem, gifting me with the written hard copy.  But this wasn't all.  The real present came next, along with another speech as she handed me a silver framed picture of Christ healing Jairus' daughter, and declared, "Now you can have this, take it home, show it to your family.  Your parents will be so happy.  Then you will have it with you when you get married, and keep it in a special place in your house.  And then you will pass it down through the generations to your children, and your children's children, so the Vinci family will always be remembered."  

Then she broke into tears, "Why do you have to go?!"  I swear I have only talked to this woman once before, and it was not a remarkable conversation.

Food table at the Ward Party
Did Someone Say Mangia?
The picture (right) was my first night in Siracusa when I met Salvatore at a ward party.

This is what happens when you have food at a party with Sicilians.  A blessing on the food is offered and every man, woman, and child descends upon the spread of delicacies.

The table looked like this (hovering bodies) until all food was completely consumed.  National Geographic should come and film this.

Food is important here.

Sweet Anna Maria
with Anna Maria
Met with Anna Maria, our friend with multiple sclerosis, for what I think will be the last time.  It was actually a lovely experience.

We read Alma 36, my favorite Book of Mormon chapter, and she was moved nearly to tears.  Then we shared news that I was leaving, and she started to cry, saying, "I don't want you to leave.  You are my friend."

How sweet is that!  We comforted her, and by the time we left, I think she had forgotten all about my departure news.

Fasting for the Temple
Rome Temple September 3, 2014
photo: ldschurchtemples
For the longest time I have said that we must fast and pray the Rome Temple into construction.  Well, Sunday we finally did.  All missionaries fasted for added Heavenly help on the temple's behalf.

Boy has it needed it.  Lately, there have been a slew of problems halting construction and the building has sat for 5 months with no work on it.  5 months!

Apparently, the setbacks have to do with trade unions, re-dos, fitting problems, and costs are sky-rocketing in penalty fees for unmet deadlines.

Sorella Anderson (the cute senior couple I served with in Palermo) had this to say about the Temple: "Some say [the temple's delays] are the Lord's way of saying people are not ready for it, but I think that comment is not in harmony with His decision to do it in the first place.  He certainly knows if it is a go or not before the spade of dirt is turned.  So we hope and pray the problems will be resolved and the work will move forward.  It is man that hinders the work of the Lord."

Our fast was a combined effort of both the Milan and Rome missions - all of Italy's missionaries united in prayer for this one purpose.  What a perfect way to end my mission - with a fast for the Temple.  Pretty special. Please add the Rome Temple in your prayers as well.

Going Through the Motions Isn't Enough
I was thinking this week about how much I have been feeling the Spirit lately, and I feel like it has been lessening as I have been here in Siracusa.  Why would that be?  After thinking about it, it dawned on me that it was because I was not pushing myself as hard as I was when I first arrived in Siracusa.  Reminds me of something President Eyring said.
"As forces around us increase in intensity,
whatever spiritual strength was once sufficient won't be enough."
President Henry B. Eyring
I promised the Lord I would do better, and guess what?  The next day we saw success, both in Finding, and in our lessons.  We even got a baptismal date with Giusi that day!

From this I learned that we are living in a day and age when going through the motions of obedience just isn't enough.  To fight the negative forces that are increasing (especially here in Italy), we need to up our game.  So I recommitted and blessings immediately followed.

Immediate Blessings:  Besides Giusi setting a baptismal date, we talked with Salvatore's brother and he came to Church this week!  And then at my party came two English Course students (Giuseppe and Natale) who I had also invited to Church.  They came to Church.  Yes!  Natale even said, "I feel like God is leading me to be here."

Last P-day in Siracusa
I am gearing up for my final few days in Siracusa.  I leave here on Friday for Rome before flying home next Tuesday.  

Uh - where did the time go?  Gulp. Time is moving faster and faster it seems.  

I am planning on having a good week and looking for people who, like Salvatore, have been prepared.

See You Soon,
Sorella Ashley Nef