Over breakfast this morning my family and I were hosting a What Are Your Favorite Memories of 2010 discussion. Mine included a family from the island of Terceira, in the Azores. A story 20 years in the making…
It was the summer of 1990. Ghost ruled the box office, MC Hammer was taunting that “we couldn’t touch this,” and my LDS mission call took me to Lisbon, Portugal. Though the boundaries might appear strange on a map, the Lisbon North mission included the Azores, a group of islands off Western Europe, about a third of the way back towards the United States. These islands are beautiful, with rolling green hills and farmland, and the occasional small European-style village, complete with cobblestone streets and neighborhood bakery and butcher shops.
When my plane landed on the island of Terceira (one of the Azore Islands) I walked out into the wet, cool air, and I felt a literal, physical stirring in my soul. I had the distinct impression (not uncommon for missionaries) that I was specifically called by the Lord to serve in this area. That sensation was spiritually comforting and emotionally exciting to me. I couldn’t wait to get to work.
That first morning, while eating breakfast, my companion informed me that we were going to visit a family that was not actively attending church. He had met with them a couple of times, and they were warm towards visits from the missionaries. It was the mother of this family who was primarily struggling. She had been hurt by some harsh words of another member, and hadn’t been to church in some time.
We knocked on their door that morning, and when the mother answered she covered her face with her hands and wept. Though I was still new to the country and my Portuguese was not wonderful, I understood her explanation that the week prior she had dreamed that missionaries approached her and told her it was time to go back to church. And I was one of those missionaries in her dream. So when she saw my face that morning at her door, she knew it was time to go back to church. This was by far the easiest missionary work I had done my entire mission. And faithful to the impression she received, she and the entire family returned to full activity in the little Branch.
I served on Terceira for six months, spending many hours teaching, visiting, and eating dinner with this wonderful family, the Alves’. They became a highlight of my mission, and some of my favorite people in my life. They were my family away from my family. The parents, Luis and Nair, were generous with all that they had, and freely gave to the missionaries. The children, Herberto (at the time, 15 years old), Paulo (13) and Nisa (6) were always excited to see us. And Madalena, Nair’s mother, was so grandmotherly, she refused to let us ever leave without eating something. Which worked out well, because her cooking was so good, I usually refused to leave until I had eaten something as well. Their home was one of warmth and love.
My mission ended in the summer of 1992 and this serendipitously coincided with a large temple excursion that many Members in Portugal and the Azores were making to the Frankfurt, Germany Temple. My parents picked me up at the end of my mission with the intent of doing some touring, and we arranged that part of that touring include Germany, at the same time that the Alves family would be there.
I believe there are moments in this life so overwhelming powerful, that earthly words fail to convey the emotions we feel. And sitting in the witness chair that afternoon, in a sealing room inside the Frankfurt temple, watching the Alves family, dressed all in white be sealed for all eternity…well, that was one of them for me. It was a treasured tender mercy from the Lord, and one that I would never have dreamed of asking for. Sitting in that room, I realized that if I had been told beforehand that I would serve my entire mission and have no other success but this, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
The first couple of years I was home from my mission included frequent letters between the Alves family and me. But as time went on and life got busier, we unfortunately fell out of touch. I could not find their address, and even such newfangled contraptions as the Internet and PeopleSearch failed me. But then…Facebook.
Just a few months ago the thought came to me to try Facebook. I searched for Luis and Nair. Nothing. I searched for Herberto and Paulo. Nothing. Then I used my brain and realized that Nisa, who would be about 25, was the exact demographic to be a Facebook aficionado. I searched for Nisa Alves.
Up popped a profile photo of a beautiful dark-haired young lady, a baby in her arms, next to a young man in a white shirt and tie. They were standing atop a grassy hill that overlooked the city of Angra, Terceira, with the quiet bay off to the side. I immediately recognized this as the site where every missionary who served on that island had his photo taken. And this lovely young woman looked exactly like Nisa.
In broken, rusty Portuguese, I penned the following message: Nisa, I don’t know if you remember me, but I am Elder Craig. Almost 20 years ago I went with your family to the temple. This photo sure looks like you. If it is you, and you remember me, please write back.
The next morning I received the following message (in Portugese, of course). I’ll translate: Elder Craig. Of course I remember you. We have searched and searched for you over the years. I have much to tell you. My mom and dad are serving a mission for the Church on the island of Madeira. I am married to a man named Paulo, who served a mission for the Church in New Jersey, and speaks perfect English. He is the District President for all the Azores. We were married in the Madrid, Spain Temple, and we have a beautiful daughter, Madelena – named after my grandmother, who has passed away. My brother Paulo was also married in the Madrid temple, and he and his wife are expecting their first baby. My brother Herberto is married also and has two children.
For days I could think of nothing else but the Alves family. What was once a family on the brink of falling away from the Gospel was now three generations blessed by the crowning sealing ordinance of the Temple. I had never felt more of a kinship with Ammon, who was so overwhelmed in glorifying the Lord that he said, in Alma 26:16, “Behold…I cannot say the smallest part which I feel.”
We are regularly in contact now and I am giddy every time I hear an update from this marvelous family. Including this Christmas card I got from Nisa just last week. This has been a highlight for me this year.