Tarija: Lewis’s Story

Over several days when we stayed in our apartment, not doing missionary “work,” Lewis told me about himself. His father was an alcoholic, and growing up, Lewis would often wake up on Sunday mornings to find his father passed out on the lawn, so Lewis and his mother would drag his father into the house before heading off to church.

Lewis’s mother had joined the LDS church when Lewis was ten, and being an obedient son, he was baptized, too. Through his high school years, Lewis attended church sporadically. He and his best friend, also a semiactive Mormon, would go to Padres games together and get plastered drunk on a cooler full of rum and Coke. At 18, his friend decided he was going to go on a mission, so Lewis made the momentous decision to get ready to serve himself. Both were called to South America: his friend, Ben, to Ecuador, and Lewis to Bolivia.

Lewis’s first area in Bolivia was literally a refugee camp. A flood had wiped out a lot of houses outside Santa Cruz, and the government was sheltering the flood victims in a makeshift tent city in the jungle. Because there was no place for them to live in the camp, Lewis and his companion would walk an hour and a half through the jungle each day to do their missionary work. His companion would get them both up early, and they would leave the house by 7:30 to arrive by 9:00. They would leave for home at 11:00 at night and arrive at 12:30.

Conditions in the camp were horrific, with only dirty water available, no sanitation, and a lot of mosquitoes. Lewis told me, “I gave blessings to eleven sick babies while I was there. All eleven of them died.” After a few weeks, Lewis was exhausted and discouraged. I read a couple of the letters he sent to the mission president.

“Dear President. I hate this place. Get me out of here. If you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to cut off my right eyebrow and send it you.”

The next week’s letter read as follows:

“Dear President. I’m doing much better. I feel better, and I think I’m going to stay after all. Things are going well. No, they’re not. Get me out of here. I want to go home.”

Finally, he called the mission president and said, “If you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to kill myself.”

“Don’t do that, elder,” replied the mission president. Lewis was brought into Cochabamba to the mission home. Over several days, the mission president tried to convince him to stay, and he got calls from his bishop, his stake president, and his mother, all urging him to stay on his mission. He told me that it was mostly the desire not to disappoint his mother that convinced him to stay.

The president put him with a missionary in Cochabamba “who didn’t want to work.” And for a couple of months, they really didn’t do too much work, and Lewis slowly recovered from the breakdown. On New Year’s Eve, he and his companion dressed in their P-day clothes and went out to light fireworks. Two drunken policemen came up and asked what they were doing. His companion, who didn’t speak Spanish very well, said, “We’re just lighting bombs.”

“Yanqui terroristas!” yelled the one policeman, and the two missionaries ended up in jail in Cochabamba. They bribed their way out of jail by giving their watches to a guard, and then they went home to sleep it off. When the mission president heard what had happened, he said only, “Now you have something to write in your journal.”

Soon thereafter, Lewis ended up in La Paz. After a few weeks there, he came down with pneumonia. The doctor gave him a shot of pencillin, which he was allergic to. He ended up wandering the streets of La Paz all night, his body covered with hives and his tongue swollen.

Then came the incident at the post office. Lewis got a concussion, while his companion, who had been in the country only 3 weeks, was pretty badly beaten.

The next month, he got pneumonia again. This time the doctor said, “Don’t worry. I didn’t give you penicillin. I gave you ampicillin,” which of course is the same thing. Once again he had a bad allergic reaction, this time worse than the first.

The night before our plane trip to Tarija, Lewis fell through a plate glass window and sliced open his wrist. When he got to the airport, his wrist was heavily bandaged. He said he remembered watching the blood stream out and just laughing at it all.

Despite everything that happened, Lewis and I worked together really well and had quite a bit of “success” as a companionship. I believe we baptized 14 people in our three months together. When the new mission president came to visit, he said he had been told I was with a missionary who didn’t want to work. Of all the things you could say about Lewis, you couldn’t say he wasn’t working hard. I told the mission president that, and a couple of weeks later, Lewis was made a zone leader, or “zone king,” as he put it.

He left for the mountains of Oruro, while I spent a few days hanging out with the sister missionaries, waiting for a plane to Cochabamba. Lewis’s first week in Oruro, he broke his ankle playing basketball, and a couple of weeks after that, he passed out in stake conference, having come down with meningitis.

When he went home, I was there at the airport in Cochabamba. He and Sister Howard walked together across the tarmac toward the plane, and one of the office elders said, “It looks like the end of an old movie.” The next letter I got from Lewis, he told me that he and Sister Howard were engaged. I heard her say one time that she wanted to go back to Bolivia as “older couple” missionaries someday.

Lewis laughed and said, “Not me, man. I barely got out alive the first time.”

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