Gardening with the hermanas

There was a saying among the missionaries that you could tell by how long someone had been in the country by what they would do if they found a fly in their soda. A greenie would pour it out and refuse to drink it. If you’d been there more than six months, you’d just take the fly out and drink the soda. And if you’d been there more than a year, you’d drink it, fly and all. Not long after I arrived in Tarija, Lewis bought a liter of Pepsi on a hot day. He started drinking, and then he noticed something strange floating inside the bottle. It was a spider-egg sac about as big around as a quarter. Without even thinking about it, he poured out the soda until the sac came out of the bottle, and then he drank the rest of it down.

The lady who cooked for us, whose name was Pochy, lived in the main house where we lived. She was in her mid-twenties and had sad green eyes; her 5-year-old daughter, Carolina, was always playing in the courtyard when we were home. She made lunch and dinner for us and for the zone leaders: Murdock, a farm boy from Southern Utah, and Davis, a tall military brat with thick glasses. We ate together for a few weeks, but for some reason the food here was far more expensive than what we had been paying in La Paz. So, we cut back to paying for just lunch. At dinner time we would make tuna sandwiches with Argentine mayonnaise (Ri-K, con limon!) and instant soup. We almost always finished dinner before the ZLs, so Lewis would tell Carolina he was going to teach her English; he’d get her to repeat phrases and then go and try them out on the ZLs. She’d walk in and say, “Give it to me, baby!” or “I want your body now!” The two of them would be appalled, and he’d been doubled over laughing out in the courtyard.

On P-days, we would eat at a place called Don Pepe’s, a steak house where you could get a marvelous Chateaubriand steak, potatoes, salad, and a liter of Coke for about 75 cents. We realized that we were paying more for our tuna sandwiches and mediocre lunches, so we started eating at the restaurant every day. When we came in, the woman at the front desk would pop in a cassette of Kenny Rogers’ greatest hits, which we had memorized over the next few months.

He had a bizarre sense of humor that way. We’d walk down the street, and he’d point to someone and say, “See that girl over there? I’m going to throw her in the gutter and rape her.” I think he was just trying to shock me, but it never worked. We’d just walk out to our area in the morning with a list of over 200 inactive members of the church. On the way, we had to cross a muddy ravine where there were several emaciated pigs rooting around in the gray mud. Everywhere we went, the members said the same thing: “We’re not going back to church if that Flores is still there. I hate his guts!” Apparently, somebody named Flores had once been branch president and had managed to single-handedly drive out all the members. I assured them that, unless Flores was an elderly woman or a teenaged boy, our only two active members, they could safely return. About 50 or 60 of them did return before we left three months later.

One tool we used to get people interested in the church again was our welfare farm. The church owned a large piece of property on which there would someday be a chapel. For now, it sat empty and unused, so the welfare hermanas got permission to dig it up and plant a garden. We invited the inactive members to come and dig up their own piece of the garden. We would pay for the seeds and water, and all they had to do was plant and tend their garden. We ended up spending most mornings at the garden with the hermanas and the branch members, and then in the afternoons we would knock doors and visit more people on our list.

At first things went really slowly. At zone meetings, the zone leaders got after us for our low tracting numbers. We didn’t care, but one week we decided we’d beat them at their own game. We still spent the mornings in the garden, but we set a goal to give 100 door approaches before the end of the week. We figured it would be easy, as we hardly ever got into any doors. We knocked doors all afternoon and evening through Saturday. As the sun was setting Saturday, we had done 97 door approaches. And then the unthinkable: we got into a door and had to teach a discussion. We taught it quickly and knocked on the next door–and got in again! We weren’t going to make our goal, but we persevered and kept knocking, even after dark, and we accomplished our goal. We learned that day the value of setting and achieving goals, just like we had been counseled since the MTC.

One P-day we had a zone picnic at some small waterfalls on the Guadalquivir River, just outside of town. The hermanas made a huge potato salad, and we cooked hot dogs over an open fire. Hermana Thomas showed us how to make cakes by filling hollowed orange peels with cake batter and setting them down into the coals. Everyone’s cake was burned, and it all tasted like ashes, but we ate it anyway. When it was time to go home, we realized that we had no way to put out the fire. Lewis smiled and said, “Only one thing to do: zone pee!” So the hermanas turned their backs while we unzipped and put out the fire.

Although more people were coming to church, the meetings were kind of depressing. Bolivians could be jovial and high-spirited, but in the meetings, everything was somber and understated. Lewis said to me one day, “I think we’d have more baptisms if the investigators never had to sit through one of these meetings.” I had to agree. One night we walked home after dark, and we could a light coming from the open door of the tiny Pentecostal church in our area. As we passed, we could hear them clapping and singing inside, and Lewis turned to me and said, “Maybe we should join Pentecostals. They sound like they’re having a lot more fun.” On his weekly report, he wrote, “Dear President, we’ve decided to become Pentecostals. We’ll have more success that way.”

Soon our hard work paid off. A man whose wife and children were members joined. We sat at their house one night eating bunuelos and drinking api, the thick, hot drink made from purple corn and spices, and he suddenly announced, “Well, I wish your church had guitars and drums, but I guess I’ll join anyway.” We also taught a young couple with three daughters who were pretty excited about the church. They lived in a small room about 6 feet by 10 feet. The couple slept on a plywood bedstead with no mattress, while one daughter slept sideways along the foot of the bed and another slept between them. The youngest girl, who was 3, slept in a dresser drawer on the floor.

The week before the baptisms, the welfare missionaries visited our branch. After the meeting, Hermana Thomas came up to me and said, “That is so cool that you’re baptizing that big family.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but apparently a family of six had walked in and said we were baptizing them. It turned out that they were from the zone leaders’ area, but the new zone leader, a Bolivian ex-Jehovah’s Witness, had offended them, so they wanted us to baptize them. We were happy to oblige.

The mission president was coming for zone conference that week, so we prepared a special choir number to sing in our small zone of maybe 10 missionaries. The president arrived Saturday and we had our interviews. The first thing he said to me was, “I hear you have a companion who doesn’t want to work.” I asked him where he had heard that, and he told me that our zone leader had told him so. I said, “We have 9 baptisms scheduled for tomorrow. I don’t think we’d be doing that if we weren’t working hard.” He smiled and said, “That’s wonderful, elder!” He asked if he could attend the baptisms.

The next day we met for the baptisms, and sure enough, President Nichols was there. Two of the women sat in the front row, their baptismal dresses unbuttoned so they could breast-feed their babies while I gave my talk. Lewis did the baptisms, and then we went home.

The next morning I was terribly ill, running a fever and barely able to get into a taxi to go to zone conference. During the meeting, I could barely hold my head up, and I had to excuse myself several times to go into the bathroom, having both diarrhea and vomiting. The choir number was a disaster. I couldn’t sing, and in fact could hardly stand up, but I stood there, anyway, doing my best. After the conference, the president took us out for ice cream. I laid my head down on the table while everyone else ate. “Maybe you should go home and get some sleep,” said the president.

A couple of hours later, the zone leaders came by to give me a blessing. I was up all night, but two or three days later I was feeling better. I wondered what the president must have thought of me. The first time he had seen me, I was sick and crying; this time I was just sick.

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One Response to Gardening with the hermanas

  1. Chris says:

    This whole post was great. I especially laughed at the “Dear President, we’ve decided to become Pentecostals” line.

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