When I think of pioneers, I think of my husband's ancestors and their wonderful stories of faith and courage crossing the plains, enduring hardships, starting new lives in the west, and you all know the drill. When our children gave primary talks on pioneers, their favorite story was the one about Jens Jorgensen who crossed the plains with a handcart company in spite of his crippled leg. Because he couldn't keep pace, he mostly walked alone catching up late at night after the company stopped to camp. One day as he was out there all alone, he noticed a great cloud of dust in the distance. As it approached he heard a loud thundering noise. The dreaded herd of stampeding buffalo! It was too big to run out of the way, and anyway he couldn't run. Everyone knew that stampeding buffalo don't stop for anything, and these were on course to trample him to death. After a quick prayer, he felt impressed to do something bizarre. He walked over to a nearby knoll, raised his cane above his head and waved it around. The herd parted just like the waters of the Red Sea and galloped around him on both sides. And ever since, he has been infamously remembered as a great cane raiser!
My side of the family doesn't have stories like that. They never crossed the plains, none of them lives out west and I'm the only one in the US. I still like to think of them as pioneers though. They demonstrated the pioneer spirit of moving forward with faith, hope and determination to make life better for those who followed after them.
Around the turn of the century, that's 1900, my grandfather Chedrawi Boulos and my grandmother Martha along with her father Naim Bassil, fled their mother country because they were Christians, victims of religious persecution. They were from Lebanon, a small country on the Mediterranean just north of Israel. It's famous for the great cedars of Lebanon. Sometimes I imagine my ancestors cutting down those giant trees to help King Solomon build his temple. Anyway Lebanon was invaded by the brutal conquerers of the Ottoman Empire. They were killing off the Christians, as is happening in the Middle East today. To this day Lebanon's government is half Christian and half Muslim. So my ancestors got on a ship and waited to see where it would take them. Some went to New York, but mine sailed to the most eastern port of the North American continent. ..... St. John's, NL, which today is part of Canada. These great pioneers worked hard as merchants and eventually owned shops, movie theatres and other businesses. My grandparents raised a family of nine children, although my grandmother gave birth 21 times. My mother Doris was right in the middle of the family.
Meanwhile my father's side of the family had its own pioneers in Italy. My Italian grandfather Leonardo had courageous convictions about changing the politics of his country. Yes he was a pioneer. He recognized the government tyranny that left him and his fellow citizens living in poverty barely able to feed their families. My Uncle Cesare remembers that the family was always moving because his father had to run away and hide from one political group or another. After the Great War, the people of Italy were picking up the pieces of their battle ravaged country. My grandfather had great hope for the future as an opportunity for rebirth. In 1920 he had a brand new baby boy, and he named him with this pioneer spirit of hope for the future, Risorgi, and this was my father. What a name! It's caused me grief my whole life, Risorgi. No one had ever heard of it. No one could even pronounce it, Risorgi. Grandpa Leonardo made the name up because it means resurrection. It symbolized the rebirth that Leonardo dreamed of for his beloved country. Risorgi grew up with a strong willed determination. Uncle Cesare calls him "cativo." Cativo describes someone with a strong volatile kind of personality. When it's stormy outside, you say it's cativo weather. You know the movie Despicable Me? In Italian it's Cativo Mio. Risorgi wasn't despicable, just strong willed to the extreme. Perfect for being a pioneer.
Uncle Cesare remembers a time when this older brother of his took a row boat and set out across the sea in search of a new life. In a few hours, he was overcome by the hot sun, barely alive, and fortunately the boat floated him back to shore.
No doubt Risorgi grew up listening to his father express strong political opinions. When the Italian government under Benito Musolini allied with Adolf Hitler, people like Grandpa Leonardo were enraged. If you remember the movie Life is Beautiful, there are two little boys in it named Benito and Adolfo. Now they were cativo, just like the leaders they were named for! So young Risorgi felt this political outrage, and just like a pioneer, determined to do something about it. He learned about a meeting in Rome where Musolini and Hitler would be together for the evening. He acquired a rifle and got on a train to Rome. After a ride of 5 or 6 hours, Risorgi got off in Rome planning a great assassination. Suddenly he was overcome by a strong fever that made him unconscious for several hours. By the time he came to it was too late, and the meeting was over. He got back on the train and returned to Livorno.
As World War II raged, the Allies bombed Italy for its alliance with the Nazis. International law prevented the allies from bombing national monuments, so they just bombed the people instead. They called it carpet bombing. They would select a specific area and destroy every square inch of it. After one such incident my Aunt Giuliana went searching for her mom, but all she found were her shoes among the burned up rubble.
So the family fled to the mountains to be safe. Even after Italy broke off relations with Hitler, the Nazis still occupied the country, so the people lived in constant danger. There's an old movie called Tea With Musolini starring Cher, where some young Italians run an underground operation that helps a Jewish woman, Cher, escape to safety. Risorgi was one of those young men. He used to put on this black robe to disguise himself as a Catholic priest, then he would lead small groups of people to safety. One day the Nazis caught on, and they chased him. He ran, and ran, and dove into a haystack to hide. Finally they found his mother and questioned her. Was he in the house? The fields? The woods? What about that haystack over there? Of course she told them no, and then she watched while they brutally stabbed their bayonets into that haystack knowing full well that her son hid beneath it. After the Nazis left, Risorgi crawled out, unharmed.
Uncle Cesare looks up to Risorgi for being so smart and having such a pioneer spirit. Risorgi went to college. He did well and graduated with a degree that made him a sea captain. After the war he took a position as an officer in the Italian Merchant Marine. And guess where he sailed? Right to the international port of St. John's, NL. No doubt he frequented those Lebanese shops on Water St where he focused his romantic charms on the owner's daughter Doris who worked there. He even wooed her with some beautiful bright yellow flowers that he picked growing wild in a Newfoundland meadow. She accepted them, however, with dubious sentiments...dandelions...really? Risorgi borrowed a car and took his sweetheart out for a spin. Unfortunately they were pulled over for speeding. The big Irish cop reproached him harshly for breaking the law, then asked him for his name so he could write up the ticket. In all sincerity, he answered with his thick Italian accent, "My name is Risorgi Bernardini." Too embarrassed to admit he couldn't understand, let alone spell that name, the police officer simply replied, "Alright, Sonny, I'm lettin ya off this time, but I'm warnin ya that ya'd better not be speedin anymore!"
And so Risorgi married Doris, and because he couldn't raise tomatoes in the short Newfoundland growing season, they pioneered their way to Toronto, eventually bought a small farm, and raised a family, starting with me.
When I was a teenager, I went on a one-year government sponsored youth exchange that took me to French West Africa and remote parts of Canada.
After a year of university, I traveled again, this time to South America. It was in Peru that I met my sweetheart, decided to investigate the Church and become an American citizen. To be able to return on a mission to Peru 41 years later is a privilege and a blessing that I'm grateful for.
As the only member of my family to leave Canada and join this true Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I consider myself a pioneer in a non traditional sort of way. As I serve this mission together with my sweetheart of more than 41 years, I hope to be able to meet more non traditional pioneers in the mission field and help them along their way. The pioneer spirit has always been about faith, hope and determination.
President Monson says, "Can we somehow muster the courage and steadfastness of purpose that characterized the pioneers of a former generation?" In other words, having courage and strength of purpose is being a pioneer, no matter what the time period. We can all be pioneers today.