Friday morning started quite early. We had to be out the door around 7:30, which means that we weren’t even in the hotel for eight hours! I had planned for us to visit Sheboygan in the morning and head up to Wausau in the afternoon, but due to the schedule of some of the members in Wausau, those visits were switched. We drove the approximately 160 miles up to Wausau, the furthest north I ever served (and where I was for 7 ½ months collectively). It was beautiful as ever, rivers and trees all over, but none of the brilliant fall colors had yet appeared—give them two weeks. Appropriately, the first Hmong family I took Mom and Dad to meet was the first I met. Tong Lee (who gaveme my Hmong name) and his wife Nou and children Vang and Gao were very sweet and happy to meet us, and even prepared Mom and Dad’s first traditional Hmong meal (very usual fare, but excellent as it ever is at the Lees’—sticky rice, boiled vegetables, spring rolls, three kinds of meat with veggies, pink guava juice, and Mom and Dad’s very first Hmong egg rolls!). They’ve been members for a few years, and Tong and Nou were endowed in the St. Paul temple when Jared Johns and I were in Wausau together. I will never forget the look on their faces and the light in their eyes when they expressed their astonishment at the experience in the Celestial Room. Tong is also currently serving in the Wausau ward Elders’ Quorum presidency.
After that I drove Mom and Dad to an apartment complex wherein live several Hmong people, and showed them the makeshift Hmong farm in the back, maintained by the residents.
Later we stopped by Gilbert Yang’s house (his wife Lilly was working), and spent a few minutes with him and his four kids who were baptized just after I left Wausau the second time and have been going strong ever since.
There were several other people I wanted to visit, but due to limited time we stopped by one Miskas (American) family, the Mikelsens. The parents weren’t home, but I said hello to many of their eight kids (it took a couple of them a minute to recognize me) and they were really excited to see us all.
I had a feeling we should stop by and see Dang Vang, an awesome member, which turned out to be a good idea, since he was getting ready to pack up and move to Oklahoma the next day...
And then, after stopping by our old apartment, I took Mom and Dad to Rib Mountain State Park (and believe me, they use the term “mountain” quite liberally) and we drove up to the top and had a good look at the view from the 96-stair step tower from one of the highest points in Wisconsin, at a staggering 1,940 feet.
We stopped to try the legendary 1 lb. soft-serve cone at the local Briq’s (Mom and Dad shared but I had my own “zebra”, OMG, probably the best ice cream ever) , and after filling up with gas and stopping for a few minutes at the beloved-by-(most-)elders East Bay retail store, headed down toward Sheboygan via Green Bay.
I never served in Green Bay, so I didn’t really know anyone there, but we stopped there briefly, meeting up with dear Elder Petersen at the Lambeau Field parking lot (I know, I know, Easty Bay AND Lambeau Field in one day?? Who am I anyway?!?). Elder Petersen, an English-speaking elder around whom I served for three months in Milwaukee, and thus had grown to love very dearly, was satisfyingly surprised to hear I was in town, and as he and his companion Elder Hansen both go home next week, they were curious about the transition and the feeling of coming down that escalator and seeing your beaming family waiting for you.
I would also have liked to see Elder Hawkes, who trained Elder Banez and with whom I lived for several months in Appleton, but he was in a neighboring town biking with his companion, so I told him it was enough to know we were this close to each other, ha. We raced the sun for the 60ish miles to Sheboygan in order to see the beach on Lake Michigan before sunset and see a few people before driving another hour or so to our plans in Appleton. Stopping to check out the old apartment, we then went to the lake, which was looking stunning and calm, and we were just walking out to the lighthouse when I saw who looked like two sister missionaries (the nametages are pretty unmistakable). Upon closer inspection I saw it was Sister Yoshimoto and her companion (who I had never met), Sister Bryner! Apparently there was a YSA activity for the Winnebago singles branch on the beach and the sisters were in attendance. After saying hello we continued walking until I saw someone who could only have been a swimsuit-clad, very tan indeed Tom Strawn, a member from Sheboygan with whom I had made dear friends during my 4 ½ months there. We had a tearful reunion while Mom and Dad had a stroll down toward the lighthouse to get a look at the seemingly endless lake. Later down the beach I ran into a slew of familiar faces including Elder Brinton, Elder Merrill and his boy Elder Schaffer (who I hadn’t met, but with whom my boy has been serving in a zebra for the last six weeks), Elder Findies, Sister Hafen and Sister Johnson, and Vong Xiong, a Hmong member from Sheboygan who had served a mission in Fresno (and who had been companions with one of my MTC teachers) and who was a good friend and big help to the Hmong elders there. It was such a bizarre coincidence that we would just happen to run into so many familiar faces at once (and thus negate a need to stop a couple of places).
Another hour or two in Sheboygan would have been nice, but we had a reunion in Appleton to attend to. We drove just over an hour into Appleton and straight to the home of Seethong (pronounced See Tong) and Mai Chou Yang.
(For those who are unfamiliar with the Yangs of Appleton, allow me to attempt to describe how amazing they are briefly… Think of the most golden couple you have ever met as a missionary or even heard of. Then multiply how awesome they were by infinity. These are people who were truly searching, people who dismiss anti material delivered by relatives of other faiths almost immediately because of the strong Spirit they feel. This was a newly-wed couple, elegant, educated, sophisticated, adorable, searching for a church to bring their family closer together. Seethong’s father and younger brother had both passed away due to unrelated incidents three years prior to our first meeting, so they were grieving and mourning the loss of family whose absence they couldn’t explain or understand. This is a couple who took their paperbound Book of Mormon and True to the Faith with them on vacation to California and called from their hotel room in the evening with questions about what they had been reading. They read the pamphlets and wrote notes in the margins, looking up the related scripture references. They delivered Christmas presents to us before they left the state for their honeymoon. They picked US up and drove us to church when we were without a car. They took keeping commitments and asking questions to a whole new level, and approached US with a desire to be baptized. I doubt if they will ever know how much they meant to the missionaries and the branch, not to mention the Lord’s evident joy at their joining the kingdom. I had the rare pleasure of participating in not only the finding and teaching, but also the baptizing and confirming of Seethong , his wife, and his mother Nhia. When they were baptized and confirmed, there was something really noticeable in the air… something tangible and electric… Something exciting about to happen. It really is difficult to understand how wonderful they are until you meet them, which is why, after 9:30 pm though it was, I was determined for Mom and Dad to meet them immediately.)
I had been excited to see Wausau and even Sheboygan, but I was sooooo pumped to take that drive into the familiar streets of Appleton. Mom, Dad and I joined Seethong, Mai Chou and Nhia, as well as Seethong’s college-student brother and sister Suying and Pang Kou for more excellent Hmong food and a nice long visit. We were joined a few moments later by dear Elder Findley (my second boy, for whom my last six weeks were basically the MTC) and his companion Elder Chapman (my first boy’s trainee, ergo my “grandson”—one big family reunion). The Yangs were immediately taken with Mom and Dad, and vice versa, and we were all excited that for the first time I didn’t have to rush home at 9:25 in order to be home by missionary curfew! (Although Elder Findley stayed a little late, but he's usually quite obedient, and as he said, this was a magical moment.) Seethong broke the news to me that his youngest brother and sister had been baptized the week before and were being confirmed the following Sunday. I just stood there… eyes wide and hands over my open mouth… WHA?!?!? I just started laughing and crying, I was so excited. How everyone (including the elders) had managed to keep this secret from me is beyond me, but I was so happy to see the light in all of those eyes. Mom and Dad, great sports that they were, were tired out by all the traveling of the day, so went to check into the hotel while I stayed and chatted with Seethong and Mai Chou until 2:30 am. It was nice to talk as friends (although we WERE friends when I was a missionary, it’s just different—you can talk a little deeper and more personally when the nametag and suit are off and the flip-flops and t-shirt are on) and see how strong they’re staying. Mai Chou was recently called as Young Women’s President for the branch and Seethong was about to be sustained as Elder’s Quorum President! I mean… five months after baptism… And they are totally ready. They wanted me to stay the night but I thought I better head to where Mom and Dad were at the La Quinta on College Avenue, where I joined Mom and Dad in getting some much-needed rest.