From Maurine Proctor: Lehi’s journey with his family led him through the scoured, wind-swept desert that is today called Yemen, a country at the cap of the Arabian Penninsula. Ancient stones have recently been discovered, carved with the word Nahom, the name of the place where Ishmael died and was buried. In the byways of Yemen , you can feel that dry and dusty journey the prophet traveled. For those who love the Book of Mormon, it would be an explorer’s dream, but there is one problem. Yemen is dangerous, a place where Al Queda thrives, and if you drive beyond the capital, you are likely to be stopped by men carrying AK47s. My husband, Scot, and I have been to this troubled land, where hostility electrifies the air, to shoot photographs for our book on the Book of Mormon. We knew too well the insecurities that anyone would face who chose to seek the Book of Mormon sites in Yemen.
Thus, last October, after two weeks with a group of 44, exploring Israel, Jordan and Oman to visit the possible sites of Lehi’s trail, it is with some anxiety that we arrived at the airport in Amman and said goodbye to our friend, Leroy Hannon. The rest of us were headed home, but LeRoy wanted to complete seeing the significant sites on Lehi’s trail, and had been working for a year to make arrangements to travel in Yemen . As we said goodbye, I told him I knew there was a story in what he was about to do, and to tell us someday what happened to him. This is his remarkable story, a far different one than he ever supposed.
My story begins in the Amman , Jordan airport at the end of a two-week tour in October 2008, hosted by Warren Aston, and Scot and Maurine Proctor, who are publishers of Meridian Magazine . The tour had traced Lehi’s trip from Jerusalem to a place called Bountiful in the Book of Mormon, where Nephi was commanded by the Lord to build a boat to travel to the American continent, a “Promised Land.” The tour was completed, and it was now time to return home.
As we stood in the airport saying our good-byes, Maurine walked over to me, knowing that while the others were headed back to the United States, Australia, and to other parts of the Middle East, I was headed to Yemen that night where I was to spend an additional twelve days exploring historic sites mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
The highlight of my trip to Yemen was to be my visit to the Marib Dam area where there are votive altars, in a reclaimed temple site, with ancient inscriptions of the word “Nahom” carved into those stones by hands a 1000 years before Christ and 400 years before Lehi’s trip through the area. “Nahom,” (1 Nephi 16:34) mentioned in the Book of Mormon is where Ishmael died, was buried and then, after, the family turned eastward towards Bountiful.
Maurine said to me, very matter of factly, “Leroy, there is a story in Yemen and I want to hear about it.” At first, I was somewhat taken aback, because I am not a writer, never desired to be one, and in fact, English Composition was the only course I failed in college. Dr Lord, my professor, said I was too illiterate, illogical, and ill-prepared to communicate with other human beings. He was probably right about all three levels, but I re-took the class, passed it with a triumphal “C” and went on with my life.
It was now late afternoon, and I stood alone in the Amman , Jordan airport. Destination that evening was Sana’a, the capital of Yemen . My estimated time of arrival was be near 11:30 p.m. I had two security checks ahead of me, where I was to be literally checked from head to toe. It was at one of these security checks I laid my glasses on my vest prior to my personal items being sent through the scanner. It wasn’t until I was on the plane that I discovered my glasses missing.
Greeted by Rainfall
Arriving in Sana’a, that night we were greeted by heavy rainfall. Being from Oregon I thought it no big deal, but in an arid country, three to four days of constant rain can bring havoc to the area. Havoc was indeed wrought where several hundred people had perished and literally 30,000 people had been left homeless due to the flooding.
Not having any eyeglasses, I begged the visa clerk to fill out my visa form which delayed my entry into Yemen . With the paperwork completed, and the necessary tips paid to facilitate paperwork and baggage, I now entered the country of Yemen . I made my way out of the airport to find my driver standing in the rain. He indicated that my tour guide wanted to talk with me that night, so we got in the car and headed into town. The roads were flooded and the traffic snaked in and around the flooded areas which meant driving sometimes required going off the road and onto side-walks.
I met Ibrahim, my tour guide, for the first time that evening in his home. He indicated that my trip to the Marib Dam area was not going to happen because of tribal warfare that was on-going. Also the other areas to eastern Yemen (the “empty quarter”) were also not available to me due to the flooding. I was stunned and visibly disappointed because I had planned this trip nearly a year in advance at significant cost to me. He told the driver to take me to my hotel and that we would discuss it further in the morning.
I was taken to my “first class” hotel where I was to find out later it offered no more than three minutes of hot water to shower each morning, no Internet service available, and an air-conditioning system that would have been beneficial in keeping French fries warm in a fast food restaurant.
In the morning, Ibrahim, and my driver Mohammed, met with me in the hotel lobby to work out a new itinerary. It became evident that my choices had become severely limited, and that my travel budget would at least double, and possibly triple, if I wanted to travel with a guide outside the metropolitan area, which was required by Yemeni law. I spent the rest of the day touring Sana’a with my driver, Mohammed. That evening I returned to the hotel exhausted feeling very miserable with an intestinal bug I had picked up along the way.
As I lay on my bed that evening, I was emotionally down wondering why all the careful planning I had done, suddenly came apart. I still had eleven days to go. In my prayers that evening I asked Heavenly Father what it was I should do, and where I should go. I fell asleep, and in a few minutes I woke up with the distinct feeling that I was to find an orphanage, go there, and give service. The feeling was so strong that tears actually came to my eyes knowing that this was the right thing to do.
The next morning, I hurriedly went down to the hotel’s receptionist desk to ask if there were any orphanages nearby where I could give service for the next few days. The receptionist, whose name was Lata, looked at me as if I were deranged. When she found out I was serious, she said she did know of an orphanage, the Sisters of Charity (an affiliate of Mother Teresa’s orphanages), that she knew Sister Gracia, the director personally, and that she would call her and relay my message to her. I did not receive a call back from Sister Gracia until 9:00 that evening, and she was very cool to the idea that a complete stranger would be coming to her facility. I assured her I was very serious about my offer. Finally, she said, “come by in the morning and we will talk about it.”
The next morning, I was at the orphanage’s door. I was let in and taken to Sister Gracia’s office. There I spelled out my intentions, and the time frame for my service. She agreed that I could help with the children who were severely handicapped and in most need of help. I was led through a series of corridors and courtyards designed in the old French-style architecture to a room approximately 14 feet by 20 feet. By now the heat was stifling, but the place was immaculate, with clean smells, and the sounds of children playing and laughing. Along the wall sat nine or ten young girls in ages from 12 to their 20’s sitting in wheelchairs, tied in chairs, or lying on mats that were positioned around the perimeter of the room on the floor.
Sister Gracia introduced me to Sister Cyprian, a sister nun from Malawi , Africa . Sister Cyprian, a portly lady with a beautiful, immaculately white toothy smile, indicated that I could be of most help by playing with the children and walking them around the courtyard. Each of the girls was physically and mentally handicapped requiring constant care and attention.
Sister Cyprian said, “I need help with Amina, who loves to walk constantly.” I turned around and was introduced to Amina, a frail child of 12-13 years of age. This frail little thing, had huge, brown, sad eyes, who sat expressionless, staring indiscriminately about the room. Her breathing came in waves of gushing sighs, as if she were about to break into weeping at any moment, but never did. Her thin, frail legs were pulled up towards her chest with her hands thrust into her mouth. One could tell she had sucked on those hands a very long time because the skin was red, saliva soaked, and very soft.
It was then that I noticed Amina was tied in her chair to prevent her from getting out. Sister Cyprian went over, gently untied Amina, who recognized that her favorite activity was about to occur, and she was ready to go. Sister Cyrpian then thrust Amina’s soft pink, saliva soaked hand into mine, and we headed for the door and out onto the veranda.
The veranda was a cool, breezy portion of the building which led into the courtyard about the size of a tennis court. The courtyard had four entries to it, one from each side of the veranda where shade and a cool breeze could be enjoyed. By the time Amina and I had reached the open courtyard, we had been joined by two other young girls. One (Aisha) tugged and hung on my vest continually calling, “Ba…Ba…Ba…Ba…” (which means daddy in Arabic). The third girl (Radia) snuggled up on my right hip and wouldn’t let go. She would look up at me and smile with her beautiful eyes.
Consumed by Love
Our entourage crept unsteadily towards the courtyard. As I got to the center of the courtyard I looked down at these three, little innocent girls. It suddenly dawned on me that none of these girls would ever have a chance to understand and embrace the Gospel in this life. They would probably never be intellectually responsible for their behavior and decisions. A feeling of love and concern swept over me for these girls.
This feeling was so intense that I soon found it unbearable to cope with. I began to cry, not a teary cry, but a full scale bawl with groans. This continued for a few minutes. I had originally wept for these little girls and for what was to be denied them in this life, but then I found myself weeping for me. All the hurts, the failures, and frustrations I have experienced in my lifetime started coming to the surface. The guilt, the anger, the poor self-image of myself were literally being extracted from my soul. From here it is difficult for me to express what happened next, but simply put, I felt my soul was being healed. All the hurts that I had received, all the failures I had experienced, the failed expectations I had for myself, and those expectations which I felt Heavenly Father had for me, were being washed away.
It was then that I knew God knew of my pains, my sorrows all these years. It was as if he said, “I have not forgotten you, nor have I forgotten these little girls. They too will enjoy the gospel plan and the fullness thereof at a different time and place.”
The only way I can describe my feelings is how intense was my love for these little girls, and for myself. I believe it was the pure love of Christ that I was feeling. The love I am sure He feels for me, the love I should feel for others, and myself. Even today, it is hard for me to describe other than “it was overwhelming and indescribable.”
I served in that orphanage three days before I was able to set up another agenda to continue my travels. Each day I returned to give service to those little girls, my soul received more and more healing. I was gaining freedom from the guilt, the pain, and the sorrow I had felt throughout my lifetime.
You might ask, have the memories of my failures gone away? No, the scars are still there, the memory remains, but the pain is gone. The healing Balm of Gilead spoken of in the scriptures, and in hymns, has been applied to my soul. My soul has been refreshed and renewed. I know that God knows I am clean. I am worthy. Relationships are still broken, and may not be fixed in this life. I have endured much, and will probably have much more to endure, but there is a purpose to it all, and I haven’t been forgotten, just as those little girls have not been forgotten in their condition.
Paul rehearses in the 11th Chapter of Hebrews how many of the faithful in ancient times did not receive the promised blessings in this life that the Lord had made to them.
In Hebrews 11:13, he speaks about these faithful ones, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
Paul then continues to the end of the chapter, verse 40 (see JST of verse 40 at the bottom of the page), “God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings; for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.”
I do not know the meaning of all things, but I do know, and have full faith in the promises of the Savior that all things will be restored to the faithful, of which I desire to be one of them.
I am still concerned about these sweet children. I asked myself what it is I could do for these innocent souls half way around the world? I committed that I would place their names on the rolls of the temple each week as I attend. There I, and a host of others, will pray for, and on behalf of, these sweet souls. I desire to hope, and to believe, that in another time and place our paths will cross again. That next time, I pray that I will have the opportunity to see that all the blessings promised to the faithful, will be extended to, and received by, these special spirits.
Now a final observation about myself. From this experience my mortal paradigm has been changed. No longer am I the center of the mortal cosmos, but rather the Savior’s work is my core. Too long I have moped and pouted at my variances with the “Mike and Molly Syndrome.” I have weaknesses and imperfections of the soul yet to be corrected. I believe that I am where the Lord needs and wants me. It is here where I will best develop my eternal spirit.
Postscript. Upon returning home, I shared these experiences with my bishop, who said, “surely there is something we can do as a ward to help these children.” With the help of the youth and the Relief Society sisters, each of the girls were sent a monogrammed bib with a hand cloth. Others put in toothpaste and toothbrushes. Our box to the orphanage was so heavily laden, we had to turn away other gifts and donations. So it appears that a long term relationship may be in its formation.
So ,Maurine, there you have “the story” from Yemen . It’s not a story about what I did or saw, but rather how I was changed, how I was healed and given new insights to pursue the rest of my mortal journey.