Gifts, Heavenly Mother, & the Elephant in the Room
In late May of this year I traveled to South Africa with my friend and fellow researcher, Liz, to interview Black Mormon women and record their stories, to be stored at Claremont Graduate College as part of the Mormon Women’s Oral History Project, and eventually the Church History Archives. We stayed in the Township of Soweto and tried to have our living conditions closely mirror those of the women we interviewed.
If you’ve ever been in developing countries, you know that you have to be prepared for anything. Who knew that a group of angry immigrants from Mozambique would steal some power cables and leave our section of town without electricity for 2 days, leaving us with no Wi-Fi, no hot water, and no way to charge our phones. That our host’s cell phone would be stolen. And car would break down. All the day before we were to go to Pilanesburg National Park on a safari, which I was desperately looking forward to. So we got a new phone, back up power banks, and rented a car, but by the time we got up there we had missed the evening safari. We were devastated as that is generally the best time to see the animals. Liz was desperate to see a rhino, and I wanted badly to see lions. I am a cat person. (I’m very aware how spoiled I sound right now!) We went to bed grumpy and resentful, praying that the morning safari would be good.
At 6 am the next morning we climbed into a jeep and asked our guide what we’d see. He warned us that rhinos were not often spotted, especially the endangered black rhino. I closed my eyes and pondered what to pray for. Not that I would necessarily get anything I asked for, but I know there is power in the asking, and it’s clarifying to think through one’s desires. I thought of wanting to see lions. And then I thought of Liz, who had done most of the hard work of arranging the trip and who felt responsible when things had gone sideways. She needed a rhino. So I prayed as sincerely as one can pray about wildlife and shortly thereafter, you guessed it, our guide spotted not one but two of the rare black rhinos. Liz burst into tears and my heart was full of gratitude that Liz could get such a beautiful gift. And the Lord wasn’t done handing out goodies. Fifteen minutes later we came upon a female white rhino…and her super cute baby. More tears from Liz. Lots of pictures and off we go when our guide gets radioed that a group of elephants are up ahead.
Elephants are awesome. We saw a group of 20+ elephants, moms and lots of babies. Our guide explained that the parade, which is what you call a group of elephants, has a mature female in charge who looks out for the others. The elephants are marching along, “Hup! Two-three-four!” And they are heading in the direction of the rhinos–they don’t know it but we know it. There is no time to turn around on the narrow dirt road so we reverse at high speed to watch Elephants v. Rhinos. We can see the moment when the elephant at the front of the line gets within smelling distance of the rhinos and signals that there’s potential trouble ahead. As soon as she hears it, the Boss Lady races past her group to the rhinos and proceeds to create a barrier. She plants herself squarely in front of the rhinos, extends her ginormous ears to their full size and signals for the parade to quickly pass through. She has a deputy with her and they are vigilant in getting the rest of the parade by without incident. You could practically here them shouting to the babies, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” The rhinos, however, are unperturbed. Shrugging giant shoulders. Rolling prehistoric eyes. But the Matriarch is taking no chances and continues flapping ears, backing up, swaying side to side, until every last elephant is a safe distance at which point she turns tail and makes a run for it. [at this point I do my best elephant imitation]
As I watched the matriarch protecting the young of her family, I smiled because I recognize that stance. There have been several times in my life when I have metaphorically flapped my ears to ward off danger in order to keep my people safe. I saw myself in that big grey mama and was rooting her on. In fact, a few times this year when I felt my babies were being threatened, I would close my eyes and imagine myself standing guard with my hands out in a protective shield. It made me feel powerful. I had no idea I was imitating a great pachyderm. As we drove off I thanked the Lord for that amazing offering, one that I didn’t know how badly I needed, as is often the case with gifts. I thought I needed Simba, but I needed Dumbo.
When I reflect on this experience, I believe that just as the elephants have a wise and powerful mother to watch over them, I do too. I sense that Heavenly Mother knows me and protects me in ways I may not recognize. There are divine parents watching me, helping me. Now when I am feeling threatened by rhinos, or jackals or other adversaries, I like to imagine a powerful Matriarch is encircling me in her protective arms, guiding me to safety.
What I witnessed and the insights that followed were a spectacular gift that I treasure. It teaches me that though the exchanging of presents that goes on this month is intensified, there is giving and receiving all year long. And it is my wish that we might learn to do as Elder Featherstone said, “The challenge is to receive with humility, with sincere appreciation for the sacrifice behind the gift, the common respect for oneself and the giver, and, above all, with the firm knowledge that every gift ultimately comes from the Creator of all things.”
It is my prayer that our hearts will be open to the many gifts we have received, and our eyes will see when we are being given a treasure.
What gifts have you been given this year that you cherish?