The Big Group

The second week of January, a large group of missionaries–18 in all, I think–was scheduled to go home. I had all the paperwork done, but it was a nightmare tracking them all done. One missionary, whom I’ve referred to as “Elder Dark Meat,” had decided to stay in Bolivia, but he had had a last-minute change of heart and was going home. Lewis and Sister Howard were going home, as was my old zone leader, Elder Barrett.

A couple of weeks before the big day, we got a phone call from one of the zone leadersin Potosi, who said that his companion, Barrett, had left for Sucre, where Barrett had planned to pick up his MTC companion, also a zone leader, for a road trip. The zone leader in Sucre said that they had already left, but he had overheard them talking about going to La Paz to visit some girls. The president had the assistants start making phone calls to find out where they were.

Eventually, they found them at the Hotel Gloria. They had been spending their days in El Alto with a couple of girls they knew.

“You have 24 hours to get to Cochabamba, or I’ll be holding a church court,” the mission president said, clearly livid.

“Mellow out, prez,” Barrett had said. “We didn’t do anything.”

“Look, I can hold a court just on suspicion. You have 24 hours,” he said, hanging up the phone.

The next morning, Sister Nichols said she had never seen him so upset. All night he had tossed and turned in bed, grinding his teeth. Barrett and his companion showed up in the afternoon, looking a little embarrassed. When they went into the president’s office, we could hear President Nichols yelling through the cinder-block wall. Sister Nichols cringed and said, “Oh, dear, I feel so bad for those boys. But he wouldn’t do that if they didn’t deserve it.”

Another elder in the big group, a farm boy from Idaho named Harley Earl, had been travel secretary long before I occupied that desk. One day I found a packet of letters hidden far at the back of the bottom drawer. They were postmarked from Tarija and expressed undying love for “querido Harley.” They were signed “Pochy,” and in one of the letters, I found a picture of our cook, Pochy, from Tarija, posing with her daughter, Carolina. Earl had also gone missing a few weeks before his scheduled departure, but we couldn’t find him. I suggested the APs try Tarija. We never did figure out where he had gone or what he had done; he showed up the day before his departure and went home, never saying anything to anyone.

Downtown as I was coming out of the immigration office, I ran into Elder Lewis and Hermana Howard, who were walking together through the Plaza Central.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“Oh, just doing some last-minute shopping,” said Lewis, smiling. He told me they were staying at the Hotel Ambassador with several other missionaries from the big group.

“It’s a little crazy over there.” He told me that one sister missionary had browned out and didn’t have a change of garments, so she borrowed some bottoms from an elder. At one point, he and Sister Howard had been caught in a downpour, and they had run back to the hotel to get warm and had ended up huddled under a blanket together on the bed. Another hermana had entered the room and gasped in horror. “What’s the matter?” Lewis had said, laughing. “Haven’t you ever seen a man and a woman in bed together?”

Finally, the day arrived, and everyone had shown up to go home. After the traditional dinner with the mission president, we loaded all three of our mission vehicles and headed toward the airport. I have never seen so much luggage in my life. One sister missionary had two large wicker baskets full of alpaca sweaters and llama-skin rugs tied tightly with string.

It took some doing, but we got them all checked in, their boarding passes stamped and their luggage checked, though some of them had to pay a lot of money for overweight baggage.

“I can’t wait to get the hell out of this place,” said Elder Dark Meat. Noticing me, he turned and said in a snotty voice, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sure you don’t approve of such terrible language, do you?”

“Get the hell out of our mission,” I said, glaring at him. He laughed.

All around us were tearful farewells, and then the call came for boarding. The gate opened, and a stream of missionaries walked across the tarmac toward the Lloyd 727. One missionary turned to me and said, “A lady gave me this package to take to Miami, but I don’t feel right about it.” He handed me a package about the size of a coffee can wrapped in brown paper. We took it back to the office and opened it. Inside was a large powdered-milk can full of white powder. But it wasn’t powdered milk. We flushed it down the toilet at the mission office.

A few days later we received a letter from Pentecostal missionary headquarters in Cochabamba. They wrote that they had been extremely unimpressed with the bad behavior displayed by the big group that day at the airport. Surely, if we were truly representatives of God, they wrote, we should set a better example.


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