Saturday, December 22, 2012


For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.*

Cassie Taylor welcomes home her
daddy on the USS Vicksburg

Elder Draper and I stand on the pier at Naval Station Mayport on a chilly North Florida winter morning, wrapped in our jackets, scarves, and gloves. Homemade posterboard signs flap excitedly in the wind that comes whipping through the harbor from the east, their creators clutching them tightly to keep them from flying away. There is no possibility the sailors at the rails of the ship will be able to read the thin Magic Marker writing: “Welcome Home Daddy”, “We missed you”, “8 months, 2 days, 15 hours, and 49 minutes – but who’s counting?” It doesn’t really matter. Those signs will hang on front doors or in living rooms of scores of homes for at least a month where Honey or Daddy can gaze on them every day and remember this day.

Sister Barns welcomes home her
husband from the USS Hué City
The Navy band files onto the dock through the ten-foot tall chain-link security gate and takes their places on folding chairs set up for them. Shuffling, unpacking instruments, setting up music stands, more shuffling, and then the air comes alive with Stars and Stripes Forever. Already euphoric from the anticipation of the USS Underwood homecoming, and before the band completes even the first bar of the song, a surge of excitement energizes the crowd and leaps from it out toward the Atlantic. Someone spots the Underwood, with her entourage of helpful tugs, steaming along the jetties not quite two miles away. We catch a glimpse of her tall mast moving toward us behind the anchored ships and Navy base buildings. She blows her horn: a deep, vibrating, sonorous note answered almost immediately by the mixed voices of the other ships in their berths welcoming her home. They are Thoroughbred horses in their stalls behind the track whinnying to a returning champion, fresh from the race.
The crowd’s enthusiasm swells and a cheer erupts, seasoned with applause. Anticipation dances in the air like St. Elmo’s fire. Children stand wide-eyed and apprehensive as mothers bend down, pointing to the approaching ship and cry, “That’s Daddy’s ship!”
Some wives or girlfriends, the young ones mostly, wear cocktail dresses and high heels and shiver in the brisk air, wondering if their sailor will appreciate their display of goose-pimply flesh. Others are more practical. Collectively they wait expectantly, impatiently. 
They have to be incredibly resilient and self-sufficient, these Navy wives, to survive the long and frequent separations required of “sea duty”. Adjusting to life again with Honey is even more challenging than separation. Sadly, for too many couples the home-again/gone-again deployment schedules spell disaster for a marriage already frayed at the edges; more than a quarter of Navy marriages never make it. The Navy wives that do stick it out are a tough breed. Alone, they are both mother and father. As single parents they manage car repairs, emergency room visits when junior falls off his skate board and breaks his arm, household finances, sickness, sleepless nights, isolation, and often in the evening stillness, a lonely heart. By themselves they endure the crucible of pregnancy and childbirth: in a few moments several babies will see their fathers for the first time. Many children will hide behind Mom, not recognizing their daddies. Children that had been crawling when Honey went away are now walking. Silent, shy children when he left are now loquacious yammerers.
A lot has changed in eight months.
The Underwood is full in view now and growing larger by the second. Dressed in their whites, scores of sailors "man the rails", stand straight and eager along the ship's railing. Each searches for a familiar face on the dock and smiles broadly when he sees her. The tugs nudge the Underwood ever so gently into her berth. Sweet anxiety flows unabated between dock and ship.
As sailors throw bow and aft lines to the waiting dock crew, a curious parallel comes to mind. Most of us throughout our existence on Earth struggle with heavy shackles of doubt, grief, pain, loss, exhaustion, and disappointment. Hopefully, most of us also create, or manage to find along the way, a measure of comfort, belonging, joy, peace, and love. Eventually we come to realize that there must be more to our existence than this.
We occasionally have a vague sense that we are not permanent residents here: on this planet, at this place, in this life. We are foreigners sojourning on a strange, alien ocean. We toil and watch. We grit our teeth and white-knuckle our way through the storms. We sigh with relief in the calm and rejoice at each spectacular sunrise and sunset. And we sail on.
Somewhere, where we cannot see or touch, they are waiting eagerly for us, just beyond the horizon. From time to time, when we are particularly still or in need, we even sense their gossamer and tender brush against our soul.
We are torn. We cling to life but our spirits long to go home to them, to those who have gone before.
The Barns family, together again
They are waiting expectantly, impatiently for us. They see us coming and call to us. They stand on the dock searching the rails of the ship bringing us home. How excited we are to see them. How joyful the reunion.
We yearn for their touch, their embrace, to sit in a beautiful, quiet place and talk for days, for years, for centuries. We have so much to tell them about our life on Earth, and they have much to tell us. We’ve missed them. We suddenly realize just how homesick we’ve been.
A lot has changed in the years since we left. We’ve amassed a huge reservoir of experience here. We trained and prepared for this, but it has turned out more difficult than we imagined. On Earth we sometimes walk by faith, clear-eyed and confident. Other times we stumble in the dark. Sometimes we stumble a lot.
For now, we wait and work and endure, and look to the day when we man the rails of our own homecoming.

*From “O My Father,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 292

Saturday, September 8, 2012

It's all about the people...and the food

We are now into month four of our mission as military relations specialists at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida.
Finally, what might loosely pass for a routine is beginning to emerge from the happy chaos of this assignment.
Sprucing up base housing with an accent wall
No two days are ever alike. One day we are visiting wives of deployed sailors, the next I am helping paint an accent wall in off-base housing. And yet on another day I’m teaching a Navy wife how to snorkel so when she visits her husband, whose ship will put into port at Key West for a few days, she can snorkel the beautiful reefs of the Keys with him. Lately, our afternoons include reading the Book of Mormon in Spanish with an Hispanic Navy wife. She patiently corrects our gringo pronunciation and we get to learn Spanish. We all benefit by immersing ourselves in sacred scripture.
Evening is our busiest time. An effective way we’ve found to fellowship and build relationships of trust with military members and their families is to invite them over to our apartment for dinner. We host three or four dinners each week, following the promptings of the Spirit on whom to invite. At the end of the meal we bring out the scriptures and invite each guest to pick their favorite scripture, share it with the group, and explain why this particular passage touches them. After each person has taken a turn, we kneel together for family prayer. We can often feel the tender presence of the Holy Spirit as a sweet feeling of love and fellowship attends these after-dinner scripture chats and prayer. Our guests are reluctant to leave and look forward to the next time we meet.
The scene for our "Draper dinner parties"
From out of these little “Draper dinner parties”  has sprouted the tender shoots of friendship, affection, and loving concern. These are amazing people with amazing lives. Over chicken enchiladas, tortellini, or fondue we’ve learned their stories, felt their frustrations, and shared their joys. We extend our experiences and faith traditions. They offer their sometimes fragile faith, their trust, and hopes. We resonate together. The combination yields love and often spawns new opportunities for us to serve them later in ways that don’t involve a dinner table.
As we’ve discovered in this mission, when we find a way to serve that seems to click, we just roll with it. As we seek to serve and when we’re ready, the Lord will present us with something new and then we’ll roll with that too.
May God bless you ‘til we meet again.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


This first month in the “mission field”, as we in the church like to call the area where we are serving, has been one of epiphanies.
Epiphany #1: This mission is nothing like we expected.
I was anticipating only a slightly less regimented daily routine than the single young men and women missionaries (up by 6:00 am, exercise from 6:30 – 7:00, gospel study from 8:00 – 9:00 am, etc.). To my amusement and relief, our schedule is shockingly fluid and entirely of our own design. We don’t set an alarm clock.
I thought I’d be wearing a dress or skirt whenever I stepped outside my apartment door. While we still wear our Sunday best for church and a few special meetings, we dress casually – but tastefully – for everything else. Capri shorts, fashion tees, and wedgies are my daily uniform.
The US Navy's latest scuba certified chaplain
and his proud instructor
Most of my favorite cave diving sites are abundantly and tantalizingly within our mission boundaries. Elder Draper was convinced I would not be able to dive at all while serving here in Florida. This would indeed have been a sore trial, a true sacrifice, and a severe test of my faith. Not only have I been cave diving since I arrived, I’ve already scuba certified one of the Navy chaplains and took him on his first cavern dive! 
My email signature block ends with “Hi, I'm Kristi. I'm a scuba instructor, a cave diver, a missionary...and I'm a Mormon.” All of these attributes are active in me on this mission. It is likely no other senior missionary on the planet can say all that.
Happily for us, almost none of the rules that apply to the single missionaries apply to couples.
Epiphany #2: Depending heavily on daily personal revelation is difficult.
Our marching orders are to assist the military members and their families with temporal and spiritual needs. We are not here to preach. Because we do not have a set schedule or a close relationship yet with the people we are here to serve, we have to rely heavily on personal revelation to know who God wants us to reach out to each day and how to contact them.
Hanna Park picnic for some of our military families
Most days I feel a vague sense of frustration that I should be doing more. The closing scenes of Schindler’s List keep playing in my head, where a tearful, remorseful Oscar Schindler laments he didn’t do enough to save more Jews from Nazi torture and death. 
I envy a little bit the office couple missionaries who have the luxury of a structured 8 to 5 job. I’m fairly certain our dear office couple would disagree with me, but it feels like the stakes are higher in what we have been called to do versus the job of a missionary sitting behind a desk all day.
Relying on the Spirit so completely every day is more difficult than I thought it would be. We fall short much of the time. But God is patient and is teaching and blessing us little by little. We’ve felt His gentle influence on enough occasions already to give us confidence we will succeed.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Marching with the Army of Helaman

We are as the army of Helaman.
We have been taught in our youth.
And we will be the Lord’s missionaries
To bring the world his truth.
-- from “We’ll Bring the World His Truth: Army of Helaman,” Children’s Songbook of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, words and music by Janice Kapp Perry

Here’s a delicious irony: our mission call is to serve as military relations specialists and our first day in the Church’s Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah found us among 2,500 nineteen and twentysomething-year old missionaries, as well as a few other retired couples like us, singing enthusiastically about being “as the army of Helaman”.
Helaman was a first century B.C. Mesoamerican army general during a period of savage wars and insurrection. The Book of Mormon relates how he took command of 2,000 young men, sons of conscientious objector parents, who volunteered to go to war in defense of their nation. These “stripling warriors” were “exceedingly valiant for courage…strength and activity” and “were men of truth and soberness”

who earned such a degree of God’s protection through many fierce battles with their enemies that not one of them fell in the conflict. The account of the “sons of Helaman” is rendered in a song for children and is a beloved and popular metaphor for missionary and other Christian service in the Mormon church.

With Elders Su'filo and Blatter

From all over the world, but predominantly the United States, these newly-minted young men and women missionaries have descended on Provo for a crash course in language, communications, and spiritual training before taking up the work in their assigned areas, before “going out into the field” as they say. For many, this is their first time away from home, and home is often thousands of miles away. The contrast between their youthful innocence and mature spiritual strength is compelling. These are the very best of the best and at the same time the “weak and simple”, tasked with proclaiming the gospel “unto the ends of the world.” [2]  Perhaps their most defining characteristic is their faith in Jesus Christ which is inexorable and inspiring.
The Colonel and I are but small cogs in this highly oiled and incredibly efficient MTC machine. Meetings start and end on time. Meal service is punctual; the food simple, plentiful, and nutritious. Our Comfort Inn-style room is on the third floor of one of nineteen buildings that make up this city-within-a-city, with a stunning view to the east of the towering Wasatch Mountains and the Provo Temple. Tomorrow morning before breakfast I’ll enjoy a brisk 5K run on one of the high-quality treadmills on our floor's exercise room. 

Military Relations
 training in Salt Lake City
Even though we are but two humble missionaries just passing through, somehow we still feel important to the work. Everyone we’ve met, from the MTC security officer, to the desk workers, to the other senior couples and volunteers, have been unfailingly welcoming and friendly. We have been thanked for our willingness to serve the Lord more times in the last 24 hours than I can count.

The spiritual drink is not taken here by sipping from a gentle gurgling fountain, it is gulping from a firehose. Tomorrow morning we begin our crash course in earnest.
May God bless you ‘til we meet again.

[1] Alma 53:20-23
[2] Doctrine & Covenants 1:23 -- That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.

Friday, April 6, 2012

They that be with us

Like the air in my scuba tank, time seems to have compressed now that we are only five weeks away from leaving for the mission. We are deep in the final preparations for this important call and I seem to be using up time even faster than normal. The needle on my time gauge is rapidly heading toward the red zone.

It seems every event in our lives, every decision we've made for the last several years has directed us toward serving this mission. As surely as I know my name, I know this mission is what we need to be doing, where we must be. For the last few years I've peered ahead, squinting into the future, and the only thing I've seen is my husband and me serving as missionaries. When I tried to envision alternative futures, I saw only grey fog.

I feel the Lord has important things for us to accomplish because the forces of opposition have raged against us at every turn. We've been assailed with challenges spiritual, moral, financial, and physical that seem uniquely engineered to distract and discourage us from this commitment. But the forces of Good have  prevailed also at every turn. It seems to be with us as it was with the prophet, Elisha, when the king of Syria sent his army to capture him. Elisha's servant cried out, "Alas, my master, how shall we do?" Elisha counseled him to "Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them."  Elisha prayed for the Lord to open his servants' eyes. When He did, the servant saw the mountain full of "horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha". (2 Kings 6:14-17)

So it has been with us. In moments of doubt and fear I have cried, "How shall I do?" and I have felt the Comforter speaking peace to my soul that all will be well, to stay the course, to be faithful and diligent because they that be with you are more than they that be with them.

And so here we are, poised on the edge of this great adventure and opportunity of dedicating the next two years of our lives to serving our fellow brothers and sisters, and by so doing, serving our God.

Please click back here from time to time. We invite you to come with us through this missionary diary on a wonderful journey of love.

May God be with you 'til we meet again.