Newark, New Jersey, isn’t a bad place, I guess, especially for a city that’s been around since 1666. A lot of neat people live there, and there are some beautiful parks and buildings. Branch Brook has lots of Japanese cherry trees. In front of the county courthouse there’s a famous statue of Abraham Lincoln by Gutzon Borglum. Downtown, Military Park offers an oasis amid the shopping centers and offices. Its grass is as green as when colonial troops drilled there during the Revolutionary War.
But Newark’s not in great shape financially. The population is declining. A lot of people and a lot of businesses have left for the suburbs. A lot of the housing has fallen into disrepair. A Congressional Budget Office study ranked Newark as the neediest of 39 needy cities in the entire United States.
In short, Newark’s an interesting place to go tracting. Especially with Elder Michaelson. I don’t mean to complain about my senior companion, understand. But you’d think by the time somebody’s a senior, he’d at least know which train to catch to get home. Elder Michaelson was always taking the wrong train. Other than that we got along okay, but he could never remember street names either.
“After you’ve been out as long as I have, elder,” he would say, “you’ll discover that it’s people that are important, not street names.”
You get the picture. I just nodded my head and wrote down the names of the streets in my notebook. If people are that important, I figured we’d better know how to find them again.
There was one neighborhood, though, that Elder Michaelson knew very well. It was filled with orange brick apartments, rows and rows and rows of them. How he ever found his way around in there I’ll never know. But he knew that a member family lived there, and every time we were in the area, he’d look at their window and wave hello. One day when we were knocking on doors there, we even stopped by to say hi.
“Oh, how are you, elders? Come in, come in,” Sister Baichman chimed.
“We can’t stay,” Elder Michaelson said. “Just stopped by to see how you’re doing.”
Wait! I mumbled to myself. We can afford to stay a minute or two. My feet hurt. I’m tired of having doors closed in my face.
“How’s Becki?” Elder Michaelson asked. “How’s Tom?”
“They’re fine,” Sister Baichman said. “Becki’s going to have a birthday!”
A shy little four-year-old with dark hair and a beautiful smile hid behind her mother, just a little nervous as she chewed on her finger.
“Is that right? How old are you going to be, Becki?”
She didn’t say anything. But she stuck out her hand, all five fingers extended.
“I guess that means you’ll be going to school soon,” Elder Michaelson said. “What are you going to do for your birthday?”
“Nothin’,” Becki said.
“We can’t afford it right now,” her mother cut in. “We’ll sing a song and maybe I can get a cake. Ever since her father left …” Her voice trailed away.
“I understand,” Elder Michaelson said. “Well, Becki, you’ll have a good birthday anyway, won’t you? Oh, I almost forgot, this is my new companion, Elder Urrutia. Tell him hello, Becki.”
She hid behind her mother’s skirt. After a minute she looked up again.
“Do you have any other children?” I asked.
“Just one. He’s a boy. He’ll be home from school in an hour.”
“And his name is?”
“Oh, that’s right. That’s who Elder Michaelson was asking about just a minute ago. It’s nice to get acquainted with all of you.”
We excused ourselves and left. It hadn’t been much of a break from tracting, but it was nice to know somebody behind a door knew how to smile.
“You know, elder,” my companion said a few minutes later, “it’s too bad about Sister Baichman. She and her husband had been married ten years. Then one day he just left.”
“Don’t know. She says he was a good man. Maybe the pressures just got to him. Trying to keep up with the bills is hard when you’ve got a wife and two kids. Anyway, a few months later she joined the Church. She’s got a brother in Short Hills. Maybe you’ll meet him at stake conference. He joined the Church first and got her interested. Now he’s lost his job, and they’re both hurting. The branch members here have been real good to her. I don’t know what she’d have done without the Church. And that little Becki. Isn’t she cute? You know, it’s my birthday in a few days, too. Everybody likes to be remembered on their birthday. I’ll probably get something from home.”
“That would be good,” I said. “I hope it’s something to eat.”
We continued tracting.
Two days later the package came. It was huge.
“What’s inside?” I asked, as he ripped open the paper.
“My family sent me a care package,” he said. “Oh, wow! Look at all this!”
Inside, rolled up, was a big banner that read, “Happy Birthday, Elder!” There was a cake. There were party favors, horns, shiny little hats, balloons, candles, plastic forks and spoons, and matching paper plates, napkins, cups, and a tablecloth.
“Now that’s what I call a care package!” I said.
“All the way from Wyoming,” he said. “My family loves me a lot, and we always made a big deal out of birthdays back home. What will we ever do with all this stuff?”
“We could invite the district leaders over to celebrate,” I suggested.
“I think I’ve got a better idea.”
The next evening, accompanied by some of the branch members, we walked past the orange buildings once again. This time at least I knew some of the directions: third building on the right, fourth floor, apartment 36.
I kept the children distracted while Elder Michaelson took Sister Baichman aside and whispered to her. She nodded her head, then ordered the children to go to their room and wait. Puzzled but obedient, they complied.
As soon as they were gone, the members joined us as we opened the paper sacks we had carried with us. First the banner. We had trimmed the word elder away. Now it just said, “Happy Birthday.” We spread the tablecloth on the card table, the only table in the apartment. We blew up balloons and taped them to the wall. We arranged all of the decorations.
Then we called Becki and Tom.
When they entered the room, they squeeled with delight. We lit the candles and sang “Happy Birthday.” Becki blew out the candles and made a wish. Tom hugged Becki and told her that he loved her, in front of everybody.
And we all got a piece of chocolate cake.
I never cried at a birthday party before. We were only at the Baichman’s apartment for 15 minutes. But by the time we left, I could really feel the tears.
We could have saved Elder Michaelson’s birthday package until preparation day and invited the district over to hold a party in his honor. But Elder Michaelson did have a better idea. Those kids will always remember that the members and missionaries were kind to them. Their mother, a recent convert, will know that the members and the missionaries helped her when she needed help the most. And I learned—well, I learned that even a companion who always takes the wrong train can be right.