“Lifting the African Sky” was the title of a magazine story I read recently. I was inspired! It was about the impact of one man, Layne Coppock, on thousands of Ethiopians. After receiving his doctorate, he headed to Ethiopia as a researcher with the International Livestock Center for Africa. For the next six years, Coppock conducted a wide variety of studies about alleviating poverty on the Borana Plateau. Problems seemed unsolvable for this illiterate pastoral society (“pastoral” means they had no skills beyond herding animals). The people themselves could see no way to cope with new levels of drought and disease. They had been living on the edge, and these new challenges were threatening their very survival.
After putting together a new organization called PARIMA and receiving necessary funding from grants, Layne Coppock found a way to make a difference. He said, “We arranged for a small group of Ethiopian pastoral women to cross the border and meet with peers in northern Kenya who had successfully pulled themselves out of poverty by creating savings clubs and diversifying their economy.”
For the Ethiopian women, the one day encounter was an eye-opener. “These women, who’d had little exposure to the outside world, were amazed,” Coppock says. “They saw women similar to them taking charge and creating new lives despite challenging circumstances.”
Up to that point, the Ethopians had no vision that their lives could ever change. Inspiration and mentoring from the Kenyan peers was just the spark they needed. Coppock found that each group exposed to the new ideas reacted similarly. He said, “Everything just exploded-it was as though a light came on and so many of the Ethopians were full of ideas and energy.”
The next nine years Coppock’s PARIMA team worked steadily with the pastoralists, primarily in the area of skill development. “Fast forward to the present: thousands of people on the Borana Plateau have successfully diversified their livelihoods by finding ways to supplement their income with small businesses. By so doing they have bolstered their ability to protect themselves from being wiped out by one season of drought. Interestingly enough, this progress also unleashed a cascade of unexpected benefits in health care, education, and uptake of technology.” The vision of the people just kept expanding! (Utah State Magazine, Vol. 18, #1, Spring 2012, p. 22) Opening the eyes of a small percentage of the people to a vision of positive possibilities made a huge difference.
Bringing the Lesson Home: The Thurber Story
Now let me tell you a story about how a change of vision brought an amazing change in the lives of a couple who live in my own ward. We might call the Ethiopian story one of temporal salvation. The Thurber story is one of spiritual redemption.
As ward missionaries, my husband and I had the responsibility to teach the temple preparation classes to Stevie and Andy Thurber. Stevie, the wife, was a recent convert. Andy had been reactivated after a long and perilous detour from church activity. Both of them were recovering addicts with prison records.
We were the teachers, yet we were the ones who learned the most. Working with the Thurbers was an experience of great worth to me: an amazing experience because of their humble spirit and desire to move ahead with their lives. Doug and I taught them one-on-one sitting around our kitchen table, and the Spirit was so strong, so tangible! They asked the most sincere and probing questions, wanting to be certain of just what would be expected of them if they went to the temple. Tears of gratitude were common as we had them read scriptures that seemed to open doors of possibility to them. Over and over they expressed their amazement that the Lord could be so good to them to give them this “second chance” to make something beautiful of their lives.
Stevie and I have developed a bond I can’t explain, though our backgrounds couldn’t be more different. She was raised in a home without religion, but decidedly anti-Mormon. Early on she became mired in addictions to drugs and alcohol. She bore three children in decidedly difficult situations, abandoned them, and landed in jail for drug-related crimes. She says during all those years she simply couldn’t imagine that it was even a vague possibility to live differently. “I simply couldn’t see any way to quit doing what I was doing,” she said. Positive change didn’t seem like an option.
Eventually Twelve Step programs gave both Stevie and Andy a new vision. That’s where they met! They both learned that through the power of Christ change was possible, and they began to believe they could change. Perhaps they were drawn to each other because they both wanted positive change so much. Before long they both got jobs and together began to live a more stable life. A few months after they moved into an apartment in our ward, senior couple missionaries knocked on their apartment door. The rest, as they say, is history.
A few months after we concluded their temple preparation lessons, Doug and I joined with other supportive ward members to witness the temple sealing of Andy and Stevie Thurber. It was a mountaintop experience, partly because of the steep mountains they had climbed to get there! The contrast between the beauty of that setting and the lifestyle they had chosen to leave behind couldn’t be ignored. And they were taking none of it for granted! They seemed to hang on every word, radiant and obviously marveling. Their vision of positive possibilities just kept expanding.
Now Andy is serving as Young Men’s secretary and Stevie as a Primary teacher. A while ago Stevie gave a talk in Sacrament Meeting about attending her first general conference in the Conference Center, and it was unforgettable! I asked for a copy of her talk and with her permission offer some of her quotes. She opened the eyes of the whole ward all over again to the absolute marvel of having living prophets on the earth today and what that really means to us.
“As the Prophet Thomas S. Monson walked in with his presidency I was taken aback. I thought, oh my gosh, wow! There they really are in real life… When I watched the gracefulness of the prophet, the real-life prophet, walk up to the pulpit I was stuck. I couldn’t take my eyes off him; I was completely mesmerized with an open heart. As he talked, my experience was so strong, every word he said went right through my soul. My eyes welled uncontrollably with tears of overwhelming gratitude as I came the closest to meeting Heavenly Father our Lord and Savior that I could experience here on earth through our gracious prophet Thomas S. Monson. I could hear every word but looking at him it was like I could not see the president’s face, it was as though it was Jesus Christ himself caressing my heart with the touch of His words–words of comfort that He has marked the way to perfection. He has said, Do not give up, endure to the end.’ I was totally inspired, one of my favorite feelings. All the while He spoke directly but gently to my soul, especially when he said, Our Heavenly Father rejoices for those who keep His commandments; He is concerned also for the lost child, the tardy teenager, the wayward youth, the delinquent parent. Tenderly the Master speaks to these and indeed to all; come back, come up, come in, come home, come unto me.
‘ I am so grateful and inspired, grateful for the Atonement that our Savior died for our sins. This conference experience was such a pure inscription to my soul. Now part of a spiritual awakening of hope, faith, strength that I too have a chance, that we all do.”
Stevie had most of us in the audience in tears. So many of us in the ward see things with new eyes because of the Thurber’s new vision. They remind us of the marvel it is to be members of the Church. They open our eyes to the possibilities we have every day because of our membership that we wouldn’t have otherwise. They remind us to have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand and to have gratitude for every blessing.
The Thurbers have responded to love and acceptance from our ward family like a desert responds to the rain that transforms the dry ground into a field of blooming flowers.
I love these people who have such a capacity to love back! Stevie came up behind me at church the other day and gave me a huge hug on a day I badly needed it! I’m so grateful for the expanded vision I’ve received from working with them. Oh, the blessings of new vision which come pouring out to us when we accept opportunities to serve in this Church!
What positive possibilities await us when we see the Lord’s vision of us and for us! The whole gospel plan is about taking the veil from our eyes and helping us see eternity!
May we learn from the examples of the Ethiopians and the Thurbers and open our eyes to the positive possibilities the Lord knows can be part of our lives.
Author Note: Visit my website darlaisackson.com to learn more about my books, Trust God No Matter What! and After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On. These books are now available in e-book format on Amazon.com, etc.