One of the most important things we wanted to do once we arrived in Luanda was find out where and when the church met. One of the charming qualities of Luanda is that although the streets have names, there are no street signs to identify them (hey - it's just like Girdwood!). As a result, everyone has to learn the location of a building or address by reference to nearby landmarks. Even the locals have to ask directions to a new address if they are not familiar with it.
We had called the District President before we left, and he told us we would be part of the Cassequel Branch, which has a few other expat families. He promised to have the Branch President contact us with all the information we needed, but we still hadn't heard from anyone by the time we arrived in Luanda on Tuesday.
One of BP's strict rules for expats here is that they cannot drive. The traffic is congested, and the rules of the road are more like suggestions. I liken it to pushing a shopping cart at WalMart on a crowded Saturday: no one cares which side of the aisle you push your cart on, or who yields to whom. Generally you just try to avoid hitting each other, and live and let live. Its the same with traffic in Luanda. Make your own way. Try not to hurt anyone. If my car is ahead of yours, I go first. As part of BP's safety policy, expats are assigned a car and driver. That's good news because it means someone else does all the driving through the madness.
I had checked the LDS.org website for the address of the Cassequel Branch, and found out it was located at #11 Rua Commandante Economia. The only problem was that on the satellite image of the area, the chapel was shown as being located in the middle of a huge vacant lot. When I searched for it using Google Maps, the street could not be found. We were a little worried because we had no way of telling our driver where to take us. And we didn't know what time to go.
Once we arrived in Luanda, Lisa and I began praying for a way to find out where the church met. I had the phone number of the district president, but he had told me he would be out of town this week. I also had the phone number of the branch president. I had planned to call him and let him tell our driver how to get to the church.
On Saturday, Lisa and I planned to do some shopping. We had already visited some of the nearby markets during the week, and wanted to go to the newer, bigger stores in Luanda Sul. Driving to Luanda Sul on a weekday can take 90 minutes or more, so we hoped traffic would be better on a weekend. We left about 10 am, and arrived at the store around 10:30 - no traffic!
As we pulled into the parking lot, I saw what looked like two missionaries walking into the store. I quickly told the driver to stop and let us out. We ran into the store, but then saw that the guards who stand in front of the cash registers all wear white shirts and black ties. I must have seen some of them going back into the store. False alarm...
Lisa started shopping for some plastic buckets, which were right by the entrance. Like most men, I started thinking about how to kill a little time while she was shopping. Fortunately, the electronics section was right next door, so I wandered over there to take a look. To my surprise, standing 10 yards in front of me were two missionaries! I walked up and introduced myself to Elder Bauer. He looked a little shocked. I explained that we were trying to locate the Cassequel Branch and perhaps he could tell our driver how to get there. I also told him that Lisa would be excited to meet him and his companion. When I caught Lisa's eye and motioned her over to meet the elders, she practically ran. She knew it was against the rules to hug a missionary, so she gave each of them a very hearty handshake!
It was such a relief to meet them. They knew exactly where and when the branch meets (they were assigned to a different branch), and they went out with me to explain the route to our driver. Our prayers had been answered.
The miracle lies in the circumstances of our meeting:
1. The missionaries had just run into the store to get a memory card for a camera - they were there for about 10 minutes.
2. Luanda is a city of about 5 million people. There are 14 missionaries in the city. We managed to meet them on our first Saturday. The next day at church, I met a member from Chile who had lived in Luanda for 5 years before he finally ran into the missionaries on the street. He had been searching for the church the entire time. This was his second week at church.
3. It turns out the Branch President listed on LDS.org is out of the country, and no longer the Branch President - I wouldn't have been able to speak with him anyway.
I am writing this after attending our first Sunday services in our new branch. It was wonderful. The branch was much larger than I expected - maybe 75 people in attendance at sacrament meeting. Everyone was friendly, and a large majority spoke at least a little English. The church is the same wherever you go. We are excited to be here. We also need to learn Portuguese ASAP!