Merry Christmas 1984

Christmas time was approaching, and I was buried in office work. My companion was the financial secretary, and his job often required him to work late into the night. Invariably, toward the end of the month, he would be busy balancing the books, and then just before the deadline to send the forms to Salt Lake, we would get a telegram from Utah telling us that the church’s official exchange rate had changed, so he would have to redo the books according to the new rate. There wasn’t much time for missionary work.

The weather in December was beautiful. Everywhere you went, the trees were green, and some of the streets were lined with huge, red-leaved poinsettia trees and bright hibiscus. When we did get out to knock doors, people weren’t receptive to our message, so we often went home more than a little discouraged–and of course we berated ourselves for allowing ourselves to get discouraged.

In the middle of December, we heard that one of the welfare missionaries in La Paz had become quite ill and was staying with the Furnisses, who were doing their best to take care of her. She had mononucleosis and strep throat that had gone septic, meaning that the infection had gotten into her bloodstream and had spread throughout her body. Because it was so close to Christmas, we couldn’t get her a flight out; everything was booked solid. In desperation, Brother Furniss went to the airport and bribed a ticket agent $800–the Furnisses’ entire Christmas budget–to bump someone from the flight so that this missionary could go home in two days.

At the immigration offices, I was told that two days was too quick of a turnaround. Forms had to be signed, papers had to be checked; it just couldn’t be done. But I knew the people in that office pretty well by then. In Bolivia, you could get things done quickly if you had money or muñeca (the Spanish word for doll or puppet), meaning you had a personal connection, like the strings on a puppet.

Money was the universal way to get things done. For example, every month the distribution center in La Paz received a large shipment of church books, including copies of the Book of Mormon. At one point, the man in charge of the center, an American transplant, decided that the Lord would not want us to bribe people to get our scriptures; He would somehow provide a way. After a couple of months when no church books arrived, the bribery resumed, and the books began coming in again.

Money was important, but it was the personal that would go a lot farther. Bolivians would do anything for a friend, and by this time I had made friends with everyone in the immigration office. I spent time every visit getting to know each person in the office, who they were, what their families were like, and I just was generally friendly. The office manager, a gruff-looking older man with a gray flat-top and a bushy mustache, took to calling me “Johnny,” and was surprised to learn that my name really was John.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s impossible to get all the forms done in time.”

“Please, I’m asking you this as a favor,” I pleaded. The next step would be a bribe.

“All right,” he said. “Just this once, for you, Johnny.” He backdated and signed the forms, attached a few stamps, and I paid my fee. Two days later our missionary was on her way home. Once again, an ambulance met her at the Salt Lake airport, and she went directly to the hospital.

Sending someone home was really hard for me. For some reason, I was always the one to make the phone call. I remember one sister missionary in La Paz who had contracted strep throat and was sick for over a month with no improvement. President Nichols asked me to call her and tell her she was going home. She was to come to the mission office, get her passport, and get on a plane home to Idaho. I had met her a few months before, and she was a cheerful and enthusiastic missionary. Now, on the phone, her voice sounded tired and nearly lifeless. When I told her she was going home, she simply said, “OK.”

Christmas was kind of strange. On Christmas Eve, we moved our mattresses out to the balcony and had sort of a slumber party. We stayed up long into the night talking about our lives and families, our hopes and dreams as Bolivians around town lit fireworks. Beck asked, “Do you think we’ve met our wives yet?” I was pretty sure I hadn’t. From there the conversation degenerated until missionaries were igniting their farts with a Bic lighter (they called it “blue darts”). I of course was appalled. We slept in late and then headed to the mission president’s house, where after a turkey dinner we sang hymns and the president read Luke’s account of the Savior’s birth and read “The Little Match Girl.” Dannelly was sick, so we left early. My parents called, and I talked to all of my siblings for the first time in almost a year. While Dannelly slept, I wrote in my journal (I seem to have been fond of hyperbole back then):

December 25, 1984

I have been thinking about my mission and the growth I have seen in myself. I remember how I was that first part of January, a dumb kid. I remember being nervous about my mission, but there was a strange calmness as I prepared for the great event. My dad mentioned that in his talk, that he couldn’t believe how calm I was.

As I got into the MTC, all of my weaknesses came out. I realized how selfish, evil, and carnal I was. I still have so far to go on the road to perfection, but I think my mission has made a good start. I remember that I had tried hard to get along with my companion, Elder Grolsch, but couldn’t. I guess I cold have, but I didn’t try hard enough. The spirit was so strong there in the MTC. It was almost scary.

Villa Adela was a nice place to start. Elder Beck was so laid back and mellow that it helped me adjust from the rigidness of the MTC. I loved him then, and I still love him now. What a great man. In that time I still hadn’t realized what my mission was all about. It took Elder Brock to give me the brutal awakening. That month was absolutely miserable. I was completely depressed and fried. I went to movie and didn’t knock on one single door in that entire month. I only hope the Lord will forgive me for that shameful month. I am thankful for that experience. If it hadn’t been for that one month, I never would have “captured the vision,” as President Nichols says. I saw the two sides to missionary work–the two roads I could take–I had taken one, and then jumped off course onto the other. I decided then that I would never be that kind of missionary again. And I never have been since that decision.

Tarija was the big chance to test my will and the decision I had made. I did it. I was the kind of missionary I wanted to be. I was so happy there. Elder Lewis was such a crazy guy, but such a giant of a man. He stood up to things I couldn’t have. He was loving, kind, spiritual, and all the things necessary to be a great missionary. We worked so well together. He is one of the great ones. I loved Tarija because it was a complete turnaround from 16 de Julio.

Then, the office. It’s kind of overwhelming, all the responsibility, but I have learned that all the office staff members are great, spiritual men. I feel like I’m the least of all of them. I know it. They couldn’t possibly be as weak as me. So, I guess I’ll just have to try harder. Maybe someday I’ll make it.

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