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FREEDOM'S CHANGES SEEN IN THE `EYES AND HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE'

I visited Czechoslovakia for three weeks in 1989 and was invited back in 1990 to see the changes of freedom. The most noticeable change was in the eyes and hearts of the people.

"We must now return to Christ," I was told by many.I was invited by non-member friends to speak on freedom, America and the Church before 17 high school and university classes and groups, factory English classes and to USA-Czech Friendship Clubs.

During my month-long visit, I gave away 200 small American flags and other items about Utah and America.

To hundreds, I was the first American and the first Mormon they had ever met.

Perhaps the most astounding question I answered was asked by a high school English class that didn't understand what prayer meant. From then on, I explained the power of prayer and the feeling of unburdening one's soul to a higher being.

Early in my visit, I was taken by my cousin, who lives in Prague, to the nearby place in the heavily wooded mountains called Priests Hill where Elder John A. Widstoe dedicated this country in 1929 to the missionary work which was to follow.

I attended many Church meetings. At the Prague Branch where the meetings are held on Sundays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the mission president, Pres. Richard W. Winder, and his wife, Sister Barbara Winder, spoke. Speaking in the difficult Czech language, Pres. Winder said, "I am very grateful to come back to Czechoslovakia where I served a mission in my youth. There is great interest in the Church in this country."

Sister Winder, former Relief Society general president, said she cried for joy when freedom came to Czechoslovakia on Nov. 17, 1989. "Please know of my love and happiness to be here with my husband at this time in history. The Holy Spirit bears witness that the gospel is true."

Hymns, sung from a hymn book printed in 1948, included "Love at Home" (Radost Vsude Ve Svete) and "Oh, It Is Wonderful" (Nesmirna Jest Laska Spasitele).

In Brno where another of the five branches in the country is located, I witnessed the baptisms of three young men and a young woman. Converted by the teachings of the gospel and the Book of Mormon, they were taught by Elders Damon Streetman and Bradley Barlow, who performed nine other baptisms in the first two months of entering the Czechoslovakia Prague Mission.

"We have so many investigators, we can't keep up," said Elder Barlow. "The saints tell their friends and the groups they belong to about us, and new converts want us to teach their families and friends."

One young man said, "Miracles are happening every week here. There's a baptism every week, soon two a week, then three a week."

In a meeting conducted by Otakar Vojkuvka in his home, many bore witness to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Vojkuvka is one of about 90 Church members who faithfully taught the gospel of Jesus Christ for several years. Dr. Olga Kovarova called Vojkuka one of the Church's great missionaries because he was responsible for her own conversion and helped in the conversion of her parents. Her father is branch president of Uherske Hradiste, where half the people in the congregation are investigators. Vojkuvka's son, Gad, is branch president of Brno.

In the Jicin Branch, Petr Capek, a counselor in the branch presidency, keeps a branch history book, a chronicle unparalleled by anything I have ever seen. Capek, artist, photographer and researcher, recorded the first 13 members of the branch last spring and another photograph pictured the 28 members three months later. Each member and visitor writes his testimony in the book, a witness to all who will be baptized in this area in years to come.

The branch is located near Cesky Rai, a national park located halfway between Prague and the Polish border. I was invited to join with the members on a hike through unusual rock formations, then to a sausage roast at an investigator's mountain cabin. Saturday excursions like these are important to fellowship new converts and a means to introduce the missionaries to others in informal ways.

Another stalwart of the Church in Czechoslovakia is Miloslava Krecji, whose name means Peace-Glory Taylor, a woman in her 80s who translates Church books from English to her native Czech language for the benefit of members. She is responsible for much of my family history work and because of that, I am emotionally and physically bound to help my father's people.

The fifth branch is located in Plzen, an area in which American flags fly in many public buildings and restaurants as a reminder that American forces liberated this area during World War II.

My father, Joseph Strobel, was born in the small village of Novy Hrozenkov, Moravia, not far from the area where great missionary work is now being accomplished. He was the first Czech citizen baptized in America.

During the mission presidency of Arthur Gaeth, my father provided funds to publish some of the first missionary tracts in Czechoslovakia. The second mission president, Wallace Toronto and his wife, Martha, were close family friends, and during the Toronto presidency my father visited the mission in 1936 and 1939. World War II stopped any contact with these saints and my father died shortly after the war's end.

Proud of our Czech heritage, my family continues to love our people and tries to help them in creative and helpful ways. During the past year and a half, with the help of many friends, I have been able to send 550 Church books to build a lending library for the branches. This does not include copies of the Book of Mormon I have sent with my photograph and testimony.

Sending copies of the Book of Mormon to the Czechoslovakian saints and to non-member friends has been my greatest joy. I was privileged to meet five people converted through reading copies of the Book of Mormon I sent. Never having gone on a Church mission, I know the feeling missionaries receive when they teach someone the gospel and it results in baptism. Other investigators greeted me, showing me books I had sent. Can you imagine my joy?

I visited eight people, still not contacted by missionaries, who had completed reading the Book of Mormon I sent earlier, and requested more information. I brought home addresses of more than 20 people who asked me to send them copies of the Book of Mormon. I will also send them the Czech translation of Gospel Principles.

They have a saying, "In Czechoslovakia, even the impossible is possible." Would I dream that people hearing me speak in schools would say, "You are a Mormon. Will you tell me about your Church?"