In November 1997, an Isuzu trooper carrying two missionaries, a counselor in the mission presidency, and his wife traveled through the jungle of Suriname, 25 miles away from the nearest city, Paramaribo. Baby alligators crawled among the dense coconut trees that hung heavily with heat and humidity.
President Rex Hamilton navigated the 4-wheel-drive vehicle over the dirt roads, pulling in front of a shack not much larger than 20 square feet. President Hamilton; his wife, Maurine; and the elders, Jeremy Peterson and Seth Chappell, stepped from the trooper, heading toward the humble home with a shower and lean-to attached to the outside.
As the missionaries entered the house of the Ritfelds, they understood a difficult discussion lay ahead. The family of seven, who, for the past eight years regularly took an hour-long bus ride and sacrificed needed time and money to attend LDS Church services, “were some of the strongest members in the branch, in the country,” Peterson remembers. The only difficulty was, they were not baptized members.
The Ritfeld family
Despite having five daughters and living in a committed relationship together, the Ritfelds were not married—the only barrier standing between their family and baptism. With relatives serving as significant leaders among the Maroon tribes of Suriname, the Ritfelds came from a culture that forbade marriage—a culture where choosing to marry against their family and culture’s wishes would lead to their disinheritance, among other retributions.
So it was little wonder the elders prayed nervously for inspiration as they prepared to teach about the blessing of eternal families. Entering the home—lined with cracks and divided into rooms by curtains—the missionaries decided to teach the children and the parents separately, allowing them to then come together and teach each other.
As the children joined their parents after the discussion, they excitedly exclaimed, “When we are an eternal family, we can have Nicki [their youngest sister] forever,“ President Hamilton remembers. About the tangible reverence that filled the hut, Hamilton says, “There was a spirit you could cut.”
A Miraculous Blessing
During the Hamiltons’ first visit to the Ritfeld home, Brother Ritfeld handed the couple an envelope filled with x-rays taken of their oldest daughter, Fyen.
“He showed us this x-ray, and the neck came down in this great big ‘c.’ It was severe scoliosis,” Maurine remembers. “They said she would be in a wheelchair in three years it was so severe and that she wouldn’t live very long [because] it was crowding her lungs.”
Despite the grim prognosis, Brother Ritfeld told the Hamiltons, “I have faith that this girl can be cured.”
Given the medical care available in Suriname, the family’s situation, and the severity of Fyen’s scoliosis, a cure seemed impossible. Yet, this father chose to cling to faith. “That was my first impression of him, that he had this much faith,” Maurine says.
The missionaries asked if they could give Fyen a blessing.
Beneath the flickering light of kerosene lanterns, 14-year-old Fyen sat in a chair in the center of the room, her shoulders uneven and back humped as the missionaries placed their hands on her head.
“The Spirit was unlike anything any of us had experienced; it was palpable,” Peterson says. “I remember [President Hamilton] taught in the blessing about Jesus, and he said that when [the Savior] was on the earth, He went about healing people. Then [President Hamilton] said, ‘and He still does.’ [President Hamilton] made that very clear, that Christ still touches us and heals us, and he said that [Fyen] would be healed.”
Fyen with the Hamiltons
With tears in his eyes, Rex Hamilton recalls, “I don’t remember much about the blessing except that at the close, I didn’t dare look up. . . . I don’t ever remember feeling the Spirit like that. It was powerful, and Sister Ritfeld wrapped her arms around us and wouldn’t let go.”
And yet, nothing had changed. “I remember we took our hands off her head and Fyen stood up. Her back was still crooked and she was still stopped over, but nobody in the room had any doubt that she wouldn’t be healed, even though we couldn’t see it,” Peterson says.
“As we greeted them and left, the Spirit was strong and both mother and father were shedding tears of joy,” Elder Chappell wrote in his missionary journal of the experience. “I also felt again an overwhelming love for this little girl and her family who are so beautiful and ready for the membership. . . . On the way home, as I felt the warm lingering of the spiritual wonder and contemplated what had just taken place, there came to me a comfort that if we left the matter in the hands of the Lord and His own due time, He could perform His miracle. The very important phrase comes to mind that ‘Thy will be done, oh Lord.’”
Overcoming the Impossible
That blessing came three months before the Hamiltons finished their mission in Suriname and left for the United States. And in that short time, the couple determined to find a way to fulfill that promise of healing.
But the missionary couple came across nothing but roadblocks. A surgery as intensive as Fyen required would mean she would need to travel outside of Suriname under the supervision of a sponsoring doctor. Having worked regularly with the embassy, Maurine understood that “it takes a year to get a passport [in Suriname], let alone a visa.” Of the ever increasing complications, Fyen remembers, “I felt like I was trapped.”
In addition to logistical issues, the Hamiltons needed to navigate cultural concerns by obtaining permission from Fyen’s school and extended family. “It was not something only my parents could decide, but our family together,” Fyen says.
The obstacles seemed insurmountable, and even the workers at the embassy didn’t provide any encouragement.
But, day by day, each hurdle was overcome. President Hamilton’s sister had a daughter with cerebral palsy, and she went to work finding a hospital and doctor willing to perform the surgery. The branch president had contacts that expedited the process of securing Fyen’s passport. A new employee at the embassy sympathized with the Hamiltons’ plight, having had a sister who underwent a similar surgery, and worked to make the demanding deadlines.
Miraculously, all the paperwork settled into place. But the night before Fyen was scheduled to leave for the United States, the Hamiltons received a call.
Driving the 25 miles outside city limits, the Hamiltons arrived at the Ritfeld home to find it brimming with 20 to 30 relatives. Fyen’s grandfather, a leader in the Maroon tribes, wanted to speak with the Hamiltons before he would give his granddaughter permission to leave.
With Brother Ritfeld translating, Fyen’s grandfather asked dozens of questions about the intentions of the Hamiltons. “I think they were afraid we would keep her,” Maurine says. Having celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary on the day they entered the mission field, the Hamiltons had no intentions of raising another daughter.
After assuring the family Fyen would be well cared for and gone only six months, Fyen’s grandfather presented President Hamilton with an intricate wood carving, representing the agreement between the two men.
“Heavenly Father loves us, and He will make a way for us. He will help us accomplish all those things that He wants us to. I really know He made a way,” Fyen testifies.
The next day, the Hamiltons and Fyen traveled to the airport, accompanied by an entire bus filled with Fyen’s relatives wishing to see her off before her life-changing journey.