For six long months I worked in the mission office in Cochabamba, which at that time was a beautiful city of about 350,000 people in a mountain valley about 8,500 feet above sea level. The weather was temperate year round, and it reminded me of Utah with its lake-filled valleys surrounded by high Andean peaks. I enjoyed my time there and had a wonderful companion. We were both frustrated that we hadn’t been able to do much missionary work during those six months, so when I was told I would be leaving the office, I asked that I not be given a leadership position. I just wanted to be a missionary.
The mission president called me into his office and told me he had a special assignment for me. He asked me if I knew Brent, and I said I did. Brent had been working in a town about 11 kilometers outside of Cochabamba, and I had seen him at zone meetings. “Brent has been out for 3 months and has had no support from home. He’s discouraged and needs to have some success.” I knew that. Brent had clearly been ill almost since his arrival. He was tall and so thin his clothes hung from his frame like they were on hangers. “I think if anyone can help him have a better missionary experience, it’s you.” I was flattered at that and a little disappointed that he told me I would be a district leader. “I’m sending you to La Paz to a place called Pampahasi, where there haven’t been any missionaries for a while.”
Brent had never been to La Paz, but when we landed, I got a taxi, and we descended down the autopista into the city. The address we had was a miserable apartment adjacent to a family home. The floorboards had large gaps in them so that we could see the family who lived below us, and the wind howled through the apartment, no matter how hard we tried to block the windows and doors with paper, towels, whatever we could find. The landlord had six dogs, and dog droppings were everywhere, including on the floor in our room. There was no lock on the door, and the dogs had figured out how to open the door. We had a shower, but the electric shower head didn’t work, so showers were ice cold.
We started working that first day, both of us struggling in the high altitude. We walked a few blocks to the bus stop and then took the winding road up to our area, which was a sloping plateau above the city. The people in Pampahasi lived worse than we did; there was no running water here. It was rainy season, so we often knocked doors amid snow flurries. Usually these poor neighborhoods meant pretty good success, at least in terms of getting into houses and teaching the gospel, but for some reason, nothing was going right. We taught very few people, and when we did teach, I found that Brent could not speak Spanish at all. He knew a few unconjugated verbs, but that was it. I decided we’d spend companionship study learning Spanish.
After a few days, it became obvious that Brent had very little money. Every time we were invited to eat with other missionaries, Brent would decline. He also declined the “P-Day Eve” tradition of spending the night before P-day in a hotel, where we could get a hot bath and comfortable bed for around $5. He finally confessed that he was living on less than $50 a month. I was living fairly comfortably on $220 a month, and I couldn’t imagine trying to live like that. My solution was to pool our money and live off the combined $270. Even with a favorable exchange rate, that was not going to be easy. We cut back to one real meal a day: lunch with the sister missionaries and another companionship. We had bread and cocoa for breakfast, and tuna sandwiches and cocoa for dinner.
After we’d been together a few weeks, Brent became seriously ill. His temperature spiked way up, and he lay in bed shaking and moaning. I managed to get an LDS doctor to make a house call and check on him. He took blood, stool, and urine samples, and later he called and told me the grim news: “He has four kinds of worms, amoebas, and salmonella. He needs to be hospitalized.” I told Brent we were going to the hospital. He absolutely refused, saying that he did not have the money to pay for hospital bills. I called the mission president, who told me he’d think of something.
The welfare missionaries (two sister missionaries) stopped by later that afternoon. Both nurses, they were alarmed at Brent’s condition and said he’d need to go to the hospital. Again he refused. One of the sisters said, “We have an extra room at our house. Let’s take him there and get him medicated.” I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so we packed up and took a taxi down to the sisters’ house. I called the mission president and told him what we had done, and all he said was, “I trust you to know you did the right thing.”
The next morning, I had the doctor’s prescription, but there was a general strike on, and all the pharmacies were closed. We needed antibiotics and IV materials. The doctor called and told me that there was a pharmacy open in Obrajes, about 3 miles down the canyon from where we were. I walked down to the pharmacy and waited in line for an hour or so and then hiked back up to the house. Brent, though weak and looking like death, sat up in bed and said, “I’m not taking that stuff. You can’t make me!”
I told him, “I’ve been hiking all over this city all day to get this stuff for you, and you’re going to take it, whether you want to or not.” The sisters put the suero (IV) into his arm and started him on the medicine. Before he went to sleep, he asked me what we were going to do about the “Noche de Hermanamiento” (Fellowshipping Night) we had scheduled for that evening. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” I said.
That evening, the sister missionaries and I took a taxi up to Pampahasi to show a filmstrip, “I’ll Build You a Rainbow.” Most Mormons have seen this filmstrip about a boy whose mother dies, but she promises to watch him from the skies and “build you a rainbow.” The place was packed: the room in the rented adobe house was probably 15 by 20 feet, with a swept-dirt floor, teal plaster walls, and a dais made of wooden shipping pallets. A decrepit piano with half the strings missing sat in the corner.
At the end of the filmstrip, the sisters were teary-eyed over the orphaned child in the filmstrip. I explained the Plan of Salvation, and then asked if there were any questions.
“Do people in the United States really live in houses like that?”
“Do people there really have that much food in their refrigerators?”
“Does everyone have a nice car like that boy’s family?”
After the meeting, Sister Stevenson asked where the bathroom was. I pointed her to a weathered adobe outhouse equipped with what we called a “launching pad”: a missing plank in the floor over which you were to squat. She went in with my flashlight, and then a few moments later I heard her scream.
“What happened?” I asked, a little worried.
“I peed on myself, damn it!” she said.
The next day I decided to find a new apartment. Brent would never get well in the place where we lived, with the draft and the dog crap. Hermana Scott said she’d stay with Brent, so Hermana Stevenson and I hiked up to Alto San Pedro to find a better place. I had a tip that some “less-active” members had just built a nice apartment building and had a ground-floor opening. We checked it out, and it was much better than the previous place. I paid a deposit with our remaining funds for the month (fortunately, there were only a few days left before my bishop would deposit the check from my account). We began hiking down to Villa Armonia, but we got lost and ended up climbing down a steep ravine. It wasn’t too bad, and we thought we could both make it fine. I got to the bottom just in time to hear Hermana Stevenson screaming for help. I looked up, and her dress had caught on a branch and had pulled up over her head, pinning her arms above her inside the dress. She was stuck there on the cliff with nothing but her head covered.
“Don’t you dare look!” she yelled, as I scrambled up the cliff and pulled the dress down. I didn’t tell anyone about the episode until much, much later. First of all, we were breaking mission rules. We should never have been alone, but we were doing the best we could. After a week, Brent was well enough to move to our new apartment. The hermanas and I had made several trips transferring our furniture so that it was ready when he was. Another week, and he was well enough to work.
That morning, I began feeling very tired and sore, and by the time we got home at lunchtime, I could hardly move. Now it was my turn to spend the week in bed with salmonella.