We just returned from a vacation to South Florida. It was a welcome respite from the brutal cold we’ve experienced all winter in the Midwest.
Yet, while we enjoyed the beaches, Cuban food and warm, balmy evenings, the highlight was walking down memory lane.
We lived in Miami eight years ago. For many of our children, this was a first return to their birthplace. My husband, Seth, and I moved there fresh out of college. Miami is where we forged the fire of our testimonies. It’s where we learned what real service meant. It’s where we saw firsthand what a ward family does in the absence of a flesh-and-blood family. Miami is where we grew from children into full-fledged adults and parents.
For instance, I learned how to be a visiting teacher. I learned that it was more than a monthly message delivered in someone’s living room. We rarely made it into the living room. My companion and I knocked on the same doors for years before getting into some homes. Other visits took years of slow-budding friendship before we saw a return to church.
As a young Primary counselor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Miami, I learned that you don’t stop teaching about the ideal family, even if no one around you has one. I learned through the example of others that children love to work hard for a Primary performance and that they take pride in delivering an exceptional performance. I also learned that parents in tough circumstances can raise incredible children on sheer faith.
Those are the things I learned so many years ago. Yet the real lesson came from returning to this same spot, driving those same roads and connecting with those same wonderful people. It felt similar to that moment in the scriptures when Alma greets his old friends, the sons of Mosiah, and they rejoice that they are all still strong in the gospel.
That’s how it felt, coming back to Miami. Those same organists led the congregation through the hymns. Those same sisters and brothers put their arms around the new members. Those same Primary children, now grown, are going to college and serving Mormon missions.
We spent an evening in the home of a dear friend, Helen, now in her mid-70s. She joined the church in 2005 and hasn’t looked back. For years, she attended the Spanish branch (although she is Dutch) because the ward building was easier to access by bus. She carries her worn scriptures in her purse as she travels an hour and a half each way for a weekly piano lesson. She said, over and over again, “I love the church. It is so beautiful.”
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a recent column about the power of returning home. He wrote in the context of returning to one's childhood roots, but I think the same thing can be said of any place that cemented our lives, such as a mission or even an alma mater.
Brooks writes, “Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match. When we think of the past, we think about the things that seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good in the long run. We think about the little things that seemed inconsequential in the moment but made all the difference.”
Miami was not an easy place for me to live. We lived in a two-bedroom condo and my husband went to school full time during the day and worked an evening shift at the newspaper. I had three young children, not the easy kind. I spent my days on the edge of calamity, chasing toddlers away from busy streets, electrical outlets, unlocked park gates and the ocean’s edge. I cried a lot.
But I also worked hard. We all did, in those tight-knit wards. We made plates of treats at Christmas and took them around to 20 families. We visited new members and less-active members. We pulled together musical programs, linger longers, Saturday training and press releases for the local paper. We pounded that hot Miami pavement, filled with love for the good members of our local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I had forgotten much of that. Not until I drove those streets again, pointing out landmarks to my children, did I remember. Over time, I’ve grown a little more callous, a little more guarded in my service. Going back reminded me of how that service changed others and how it ultimately changed me.
Brooks writes, “The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion.”
Each of us has an Exodus. We have a place that, upon the return, reminds us of what we set out to become. Going back is a way of looking forward, to make sure we are still headed in the right direction. Our future can be incredibly bright, most especially so if we allow it to be illuminated by our past.