Sunday in Villa Adela was a welcome rest from a hectic first week. At 8:30, we walked over to the rented house where a small tin signed read in handpainted white letters, “La Iglesia de Jesucristo de los Santos de los Ultimos Dias.” Inside, it was just another of the duplexes, but they had covered the front yard with a makeshift roof of translucent green fiberglass panels and had laid concrete over what would have been the garden. A small podium, an ancient piano, and a few rows of wooden benches marked this as the chapel.
Hermana Quispe was there, and she introduced me to her husband, Antonio, the branch president. He was probably in his mid-50s, maybe ten years older than she was, short and squat, white-haired and rather gruff, I thought. Her two sons were preparing the sacrament by setting up a couple of trays of bread and water on a desk in the corner. Victor, the older of the two, had recently returned from his mission in the humid lowlands of eastern Bolivia. His younger brother, Antonio, was 18 and preparing to go on a mission himself. The family was clearly the backbone of the branch.
Just before the meeting was to start, Morgan and Leticia, our promising investigators, showed up. The Quispes welcomed them warmly, and soon other church members filed in. A man with gray slicked hair and rotten teeth came in with his two daughters. A man wearing a brightly colored chullu and dusty brown suit with a swollen eye came in with two cholitas, both of whom carried babies.
“That’s our polygamist,” said Beck. “He’s one of the few active elders, so no one bothers him about having two wives.”
Hermana Galarreta came in with her children. She shrugged when I asked where her husband was. Two families came in, the Lopezes and the Morenos, each with several small children.
Our little group sang together Caros le son al maestro, los de su propio redil (Dear to the Master are those of His own fold), and I really felt like we were His little flock. Antonio Quispe blessed the sacrament, and Tony Moreno, a 12-year-old deacon, passed the sacrament. Victor Quispe gave a talk about the Savior, and then we went to Sunday School. By this time, Edmundo, the semiactive returned missionary, had shown up to teach the investigator class. He bore fervent testimony of the gospel, and Morgan and Leticia were impressed.
Later that day, we showed the filmstrip “Una Herencia Majestuosa,” (A Majestic Heritage), which showcased prominent church members in the Andean countries. Unfortunately, the Bolivian naval admiral shown had a few years earlier been named president in a coup d’etat. His presidency had lasted for a single afternoon, after which he was deposed by one of the narco-trafficking dictators.
Hermana Moreno invited us over for dinner, which was a welcome break from the broth-and-stew routine. We had silpancho, which is basically breaded beef pounded to about one-eighth of an inch thick and then fried and served with rice and potatoes. It was the first good meal I’d had since leaving the hotel. After dinner, Hermano Moreno asked us to help him with his English lessons, which consisted of watching an old black-and-white British program from the 1950s. We watched the program with him and tried to help him with the pronunciation. I’m not sure he had any idea what he was saying, but it was kind of fun.
That evening we wrote letters home and got ready for P-Day. In the morning, we took a bus into the city and mailed our letters at the central post office. A man with no hands sat on the steps outside, reaching out for people to place money in the fold between his two forearm bones.
Mailing letters was tricky because inflation had made the stamps nearly worthless. To mail a letter, you needed to cover both sides of an envelope with stamps, leaving only the address uncovered. After mailing, we walked down the street to have lunch at a small coffee shop called Eli’s, which was a favorite hangout for missionaries. They had halfway-decent hamburgers and passable milkshakes. We sat with several missionaries. I sat across from Elder Brock, the tall missionary who had warned me about mission “rules.”
“Were you here for the conference?” he asked. “Oh, that’s right. You missed Asshole Abrea telling us what lousy missionaries we are.”
Abrea was the Area President, an Argentine who knew our mission president well. Several missionaries recounted how Abrea had come to visit La Paz. Everyone was excited to see a General Authority, as they rarely visited Bolivia. Most of the missionaries in La Paz were demoralized, and many were sick, so they were hoping for some encouragement. Instead, they got a long tongue-lashing from Abrea. He castigated them for not being committed enough, for breaking mission rules, and for being lazy. Apparently, he had seen two missionaries coming out of a theater (where “Porky’s” was showing) with dates. If that was the level of commitment in the mission, he was concerned about our eternal welfare.
“Guy’s a dick,” said Grant, Brock’s companion. “What does he know about being a missionary here?”
Brock invited us to go bowling with them, but Beck said he was going to buy some peanut butter. He’d been looking for some since he had arrived and had never found any, but someone had told him that some could be had at a small grocery store in Sopocachi, in the southern part of the city.
we walked all over the city, and finally we found the store. A tiny jar of peanut butter cost $5 US.
“You’re seriously going to pay that much for that little jar? Are you crazy?” I said.
“I’ve been wanting some peanut butter for a long time,” said Beck, buying two jars and a couple of Breick chocolate bars.
By now it was time for zone meeting. We took a taxi up to El Alto, where we met the other missionaries. We dutifully wrote our goals and accomplishments on the chalkboard and then separated into district meeting.
Beck was the district leader, and he asked how each companionship was doing. He asked the welfare hermanas, “How is Clark doing?”
“Not so well,” said Thomas. “She’s still in bed, still running a fever.”
“Are they going to send her home?” Beck asked.
“We don’t know. President promised he would give her time to get well, but it’s not happening.”
After zone meeting, we walked over to the hermanas’ house, where they commenced making pancakes for everyone. Hermana Clark lay on a mattress in the living room under a stack of blankets. She didn’t move the whole time I was there. “She’s been like that every time I’ve been here,” said Beck.
We had our pancakes and talked for a while. When I told them I was from California, one missionary said, “Ah, crap, not another one. Seems like every problem missionary is from California.”
On the bus ride back to Villa Adela, I vowed I wasn’t going to be one of the problems.