The words of Alma 38:4 have particular significance to Elder Kenneth McKenny, of Leduc, Alberta. “For I know that thou wast in bonds; yea, and I also know that thou wast stoned for the word’s sake; and thou didst bear all these things with patience because the Lord was with thee; and now thou knowest that the Lord did deliver thee” (emphasis added).
His initial missionary assignment began in classic manner. “When I received the call, I was overwhelmed seeing my name on it,” he says. “I was shocked. I saw that I was to speak in Russian. I had tears on my face and then the Spirit confirmed to me that that is where I needed to go.”
That was the influence Elder McKenney felt at the opening of his mission assignment letter which would send him to the Ukraine Donetsk Mission. What a missionary’s letter does not explain is what will happen after he arrives.
Current news broadcasts now detail the protests, violence and military conflicts which besieged much of Ukraine. But Elder McKenney arrived before unrest erupted. For more than a year, he and his companion worked diligently learning the language, identifying how to approach Ukraine citizens and then testifying how the doctrine of Christ could enrich their lives. “But after I had served in Donetsk for 15 months, things started to get bad,” he recalls. “We saw large groups of protesters and riots in front of major buildings, some of them near the mission office.”
What Elder McKenney and his fellow servants were witnessing unfolded in the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution. The nation’s president fled his country in February 2014. On March 3rd, citizens stormed the Donetsk Oblast administrative building, waving Russian flags and shouting, “Russia! Berkut are heroes!” As police retook the government buildings and authorities denounced the political status of Ukraine, the missionaries found themselves in the middle of the pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine.
The large entourage of elders and sisters boarded the train in the dark of night and the last pieces of luggage were hurried aboard. Then, the missionaries looked out the windows to see President and Sister Lockhead, and many of the Russian saints, waving goodbye.
Upon arriving in Kiev, Mission President Clebingat welcomed the displaced elders and sisters. It was apparent though that this would not be their permanent new assignment. “We continued to pray and study and hope that we would see some sign of comfort,” remembers Elder McKenney. After a long month in stasis, the word came: all Donetsk missionaries were to pack for another emergency transfer.
“Be glad for where you have served and rejoice,” counseled the president. “Be accepting and be happy where you are sent.” As he started calling names, missionaries sat with nervous attention. Soon, it became apparent to the group that each missionary was being reassigned to his or her homeland. “There were cheers,” said Elder McKenney. “Then it got to my name, and I was called to the Canada Halifax Mission. I almost jumped off my bench! I knew one of my friends from home was serving there.”
When Elder McKenney and another of his fellow Kiev missionaries arrived in Halifax, President Leavitt was there to welcome them. “We felt happy and warm. It felt like home,” he recalls.
Now, with only seven months of his missionary call remaining, the displaced elder had some renewed anxieties. “I remember feeling that I was not sure why I am here, though it felt right to come here when I was called. But I remembered the feeling that this is the right assignment for me to complete my mission. The Spirit confirmed that to me.”
After a transfer to Prince Edward Island, another area within his new mission, Elder McKenney reflected on how the challenges faced during his mission have helped prepare him for future service. “My favorite scripture that has helped me a lot on my mission is from Joshua 1:9. ‘Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.’'
“Unexpected changes come and go in life,” says Elder McKenney. “It is something that we must accept and overcome. But that is easier said than done, as I have experienced. We must first start with having faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Without Him, there would be no hope. Having that faith in Him helps us overcome life's challenges and changes. There is much power that we can receive from the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
“I know that the Lord loves every one of us and that he wants the best for us. I know that changes come into our lives for a reason. We may not understand that reason at first, but there is a reason. I know that we each have the capacity to accept change and become better from it. I know that God lives and that He is watching over us. I know that this is true and I know that the Lord is with us always.”