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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Hollie Gibby and Cristal Hamaker talk during a reunion of the Baltic Mission at BYU in 2002.

When Rafael A. Mendez and his wife, Patricia, attend the reunion of the Dominican Republic Santiago Mission on Friday in North Ogden, it will be just one stop in a cross-country trip to see their missionaries.

The Mendezes, of Statesville, N.C., who presided over the mission from 2000 to 2003, will go on to California to see more of the missionaries they knew in the Dominican Republic.

"It's always good to meet the missionaries again and see their spouses," Patricia Mendez said.

For the more than 350 missions that have reunions planned, LDS general conference weekend means getting together at chapels and homes to renew acquaintances, share food and music, swap mission stories, and meet spouses and families.

The Dominican Republic holds special memories for the Mendezes for a variety of reasons. Rafael Mendez, a native of Puerto Rico, was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Santo Domingo in 1980. A few months later, he was called as a counselor to the first president of the mission, which was established in 1981. During that same time, his wife, who spoke little Spanish, was called as Relief Society president of the whole country.

From 1980 to 1985, the Mendezes saw the church grow from one branch to 57.

Rafael Mendez was called to return to the Dominican Republic in 2000.

"It was great to go back," he said. "We set some goals to reactivate some people we knew."

The Mendezes have stayed in contact with most of the 543 missionaries who served while he was president, and they hope many will attend the reunion.

Robert Warnick of Salt Lake City, who is planning the reunion of the Eastern Canada Mission for the years 1956 to 1962, says 200 have signed up to attend the dinner and chapel meeting.

Warnick, who served primarily in Ontario from 1958 to 1960, said, "We're a bunch of old guys (who) do the reunion every year." Letters went out in late August, and a committee of six people planned the event.

President Thomas S. Monson, who was mission president from 1959 to 1962, is scheduled to speak during the chapel meeting, which is limited to those who served in the mission during those years.

"It's an interesting group — we enjoy getting together," Warnick said. "We've maintained relationships for more than 50 years."

Gretchen Clark of St. George, wife of Paul Clark — president of the Kenya Nairobi Mission from 1994 to 1996 and then physician for all missions in Africa for a year — says a large number of senior missionaries usually attend mission reunions. "It's always worthwhile" to go, she said, to see how the elders and sisters still love their missions and to see their spouses and children. Her husband "smiles for weeks after and says how great it was to see them," she said.

Gretchen Clark says the missionaries quietly did their work and hoped their parents wouldn't find out some of the experiences they were having. In some of the areas outside big cities, there could be "a lion outside (their house) and no electricity inside."

But the greatest joy of the reunions, she said, is hearing of the continuing faithfulness of the African brothers and sisters. "They walk for miles barefoot to get to church," she said. "They are the ones we embrace with all our hearts.

"We left our hearts in Africa."

Ted Jacobsen, a retired Salt Lake building contractor who returned in July after serving as president of the England Manchester Mission, plans to report on the mission, along with two recently returned missionaries, at Friday's reunion. He had planned to set up a panel discussion on employment placement but decided to delay that until the next reunion. His mission included the northwest part of England, northern Wales and the Isle of Man.

Kevin Hague of South Jordan, who is planning the reunion for the Brazil Porto Alegre Mission for 1973 to 1976, says his mission hasn't had a reunion "for quite some time — probably 15 years." In the meantime, there had been some bigger reunions for all Brazilian missions.

He says Bill Shurtleff, an Ogden dentist and one of his fellow missionaries, ran into their president, Lynn A. Sorensen. Shurtleff "called me and said, 'President Sorensen would like us to have a reunion."' Hague, who had planned several of the earlier reunions, got to work again about three months ago planning for Friday's event.

Hague says he was put into contact with a Brazilian woman who caters Brazilian cuisine, so the reunion will include such traditional Brazilian food as rice and beans. All missionaries have also been asked to send in a one-page memory about their mission president, and the pages will be put together as a book to give to Sorensen.

Russell Osguthorpe will host the reunion of the South Dakota Rapid City Mission on Friday at his home in Provo. Osguthorpe served as president from 2003 to 2006 in the mission, which covered most of South Dakota, North Dakota, one-third of Minnesota, northern Nebraska and a piece of Wyoming.

"I spent half the mission in my car and the other half in motels," Osguthorpe joked.

Usually, 100 to 150 people attend the reunions, "so we'll try to squeeze and see how it works," he said. "I hope the weather is good."

He says he expects a good turnout because people keep calling him to ask if there will be a reunion, and one of his missionaries has put the reunion information on his Facebook page.

He plans to deliver a message to his former missionaries along the lines of "hold to the rod, stay true, make your marriage as good as your mission.

"I want them to continue to have success," Osguthorpe said. "Success in the mission was doing something you originally thought was impossible, but with the help of the Lord you accomplish it."

Some of the reunions will be more informal affairs.

Karina Escobar Taylor of South Jordan said she was asked a couple of weeks ago to plan the reunion for the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo East Mission for the years 1996 to 1999.

The reunion Friday at her home will include mingling and treats, and she says she doesn't know how many people will attend.

Joel Meredith of Salt Lake City says he signed up his name "to have a little party with some missionaries" from 1998 to 2001 in the Chicago Illinois Mission, whose president then was Gordon Holbrook.

Meredith's aim is to "see a few of the old mission friends," he said. "Let's just get together and say 'awesome."'


E-mail: rwalsh@desnews.com