Working in the mission office was just like being in any other small office. We dealt with the church and government bureacracies and each other, and sometimes the monotony got a little exhausting, but there were just enough oddities to deal with to keep life interesting.
Every month a very short man with a long ponytail would come into our office. We knew him as “James Bond, 007” from the label he had stuck to his briefcase. Brother Bond sold lottery tickets for a living, and he would present the executive secretary with his monthly sales report, along with a rambling typed summary of what was going on in his life. Usually that meant planning for the church to cooperate with Bolivia in invading Peru because of the latter nation’s wickedness in rejecting the true gospel of Jesus Christ. His letters would matter-of-factly discuss people in and out of the church who were making life difficult for him, and he would usually call for them to be brought low into the depths of repentance. He would always sign his letters “James Bond, 007.” We never worried about Brother Bond; he seemed harmless enough, until the day that he submitted a letter indicating that the bishop of the Cala Cala ward needed to be eliminated for refusing to give Brother Bond the keys to the church.
Later a contingent of local women arrived to present President Nichols with a revelation they had received granting women the right to hold the priesthood. He patiently explained that, in our church, revelation came from the top down, and not the other way around. And besides, women could not receive revelation for the church; that was a priesthood responsibility, and the priesthood was for men.
One man often came by asking if we had any “sharshnoof,” or at least that’s what it sounded like he was saying. Frustrated, he kept repeating “sharshnoof” until we figured out that he was asking for the “Church News,” a newspaper insert that was often packed in and around the shipments we got from Salt Lake.
When missionaries would receive their assignment to Bolivia, we would send them a small spiral-bound booklet that was supposed to introduce them to Bolivian culture and prepare them for some of the rigors of living in the country. Written by the previous mission president’s wife, it really didn’t say much other than talk a little bit about the major towns and cities, provide a few recipes for Bolivian food, and of course tell the missionaries how blessed they were to be serving there. When the missionaries arrived, we would send out a form letter telling the parents that their sons and daughters were tired but excited to begin their missionary work. President Nichols would usually take a Polaroid with each new missionary to be included with the letter.
Missionaries always got their mail through the central “casilla de correo” there in Cochabamba, and then they could come to the office to pick it up. Some other church members also used the box for personal mail. One former missionary had either left his mission or returned to marry a local girl (I was never quite sure which), but he was living in Cochabamba and supporting himself somehow. Sometimes we would see him at church, and he would occasionally pop up in a TV commercial, as his blond hair made him pretty unusual among Cochabambinos. He had his mail sent through our post office box, and we had a small mail slot for him on the wall by my desk. His subscription to Sports Illustrated always made the rounds of the office staff before it got to him, though President Nichols was not happy when the swimsuit edition arrived. Beck put it in a manila envelope so that no one would be distracted by the scandalous photos. I think the copy made the rounds anyway.
One morning Follows and I headed downtown to the immigration offices, and on the way back to the office, we passed California Donuts, where we could see two American missionaries going in the front door. As this was not a p-day, and they were out of their areas, we stopped to see what was going on. It turned out that these two missionaries, who were in different zones on opposite sides of the city, had been doing “splits,” leaving their Bolivian companions to do missionary work while they hung out at the donut shop and flirted with the waitresses. A couple of weeks later, one of them sat in the office waiting room, looking terrified. It was clear he was going in to confess something.
I sat with the APs reviewing the week’s letters from all the missionaries as the president yelled at the hapless elder. The APs would read the letters and circle anything important with a red pencil. All the letters would be filed, but the red-circled ones would go to the president’s desk.
“Holy crap, he’s really giving it to him,” said Follows, cringing as we heard the president’s voice rise again.
“You have two choices, elder,” we heard him shouting. “You can be man or a boy. You can fulfill your calling, or you can screw up, like you’ve been doing. It’s time to decide now.” A few weeks later, the elder was on his way to Houston. We figured that he had made his decision.
From that point on, we could tell how the president felt about missionaries by the way he referred to them. “He’s a boy, and he’s learning,” he would say about someone who had screwed up. Of those meeting his approval he would say, “He’s a fine man.”
I was starting to put on some weight, our cook, Benita, having been determined to nurse me back to health. But suddenly no matter what I ate, my insides felt like someone was scraping them with sandpaper every time I went to the bathroom. I was in constant pain, and Dr. Leininger noticed the grimace on my face. I told him what was wrong, and he sent me to a lab to do a stool sample and draw some blood. Everything came back “clean,” so he said that it must just be residual effects from the beating my digestive system had taken. He suggested that I drink a cup of black tea with every meal, as he said it would help improve digestion.
I told him I couldn’t do that. It was against the Word of Wisdom.
“Doctor’s order,” he said, smiling. “The Word of Wisdom is supposed to improve your health, and it makes no sense to follow it if it’s going to hurt your health.”
On the way home, I picked up a box of Lipton tea bags, and that night I had a cup of black tea with my dinner. I felt so guilty about it that I vowed never to drink it again. I suffered silently for a couple more weeks, but I wasn’t going to disobey a commandment.
Each day as we drove downtown we would pass a lot of beggars. One in particular seemed particularly in dire need of help. A young cholita, she held in her arms a badly malnourished baby of perhaps six months. The baby’s arms and legs were incredibly thin, but his belly was distended in a way that was quite familiar to us. We called it “bicho belly,” meaning that the baby’s digestive system was full of parasites (bugs, or “bichos”). The mother stood on the street corner every day begging for help in saving her baby. The welfare hermanas, distressed at seeing a baby so obviously close to death, decided they could help. The brought both mother and baby home and got medical treatment for the baby. Mostly, he just needed to be fed, and the hermanas showed the mother how to breast-feed properly, and they augmented this diet with baby formula. Within a few days, the baby was doing much better, and they told us they were hopeful that he would survive. But one night the mother took the baby and the formula and fled. A few days later she was back on the street corner with her baby, who was again pretty sick.
That’s sometimes how it felt there. You tried hard to make a difference, but things never seemed to change. Poverty, sickness, and death were all around us, and there wasn’t much we could do about it.