His name was Elder Willka. A couple of years older than I was, he was a fairly recent convert to Mormonism, but because of the state of the church in Bolivia, he had quite a bit of leadership experience. He had been both a branch president and a counselor in a district presidency. I didn’t know what to make of him when I saw him get off the bus. He had a wide grin, with one broken front tooth, which always made his smile seem crooked to me.
He seemed eager to get to work, which thrilled me, as I had just been through illness and a companion’s depression and was ready to do some positive work again. But when I picked him up, I was really sick with the flu. I apologized profusely as I took him to the pharmacy and then back home and into bed.
“If you’re sick, you’re sick,” he shrugged. I said maybe he could work on learning the new discussions while I slept.
When I awoke, he was still at the small desk in the room, intently studying his scriptures.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked, noticing I was awake.
“No, not really,” I answered. I could tell by my shivering that I had quite a fever, so I took some aspirin and lay back down. It was dinnertime, so I told him there was some bread, butter, and jam in the cupboard for dinner.
The next morning Elder Willka woke me up at 6:30. “Let’s go! I’m ready to get started,” he said, sounding way too chipper.
“I’m still sick. I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can get out of bed today,” I croaked out.
“You can’t possibly still be sick. You were in bed all day yesterday!” he said. He appeared genuinely puzzled.
“No, really, I need to get some sleep,” I said and rolled over.
The welfare hermanas brought some soup and bread over for lunch. Hermana Stevenson said I didn’t look very good and that maybe I should call Dr. Donoso.
“No, it’s just the flu,” I protested. I slept the afternoon away while Willka continued his studies.
By the afternoon, I could tell that he had run out of patience. “I know you’re sick, but at least we could do something,” he said, so I propped my scriptures and discussion notes up against the wall, and we started working on the first discussion.
“I don’t think we should be teaching out of the Book of Mormon,” he said. “People in my country know the Bible, and that’s what is going to convert them.”
I told him it really wasn’t up to us to make that decision. The discussions told us which scriptures we were to use.
“Then I’m not going to follow the discussions,” he said, sounding a little angry. “We need to be talking about the Savior, and they’re not going to get that if we teach from the Book of Mormon.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “The Book of Mormon talks about Jesus. You have read the Book of Mormon, haven’t you?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’ve read up to Jacob.” This meant that he’d read about one-quarter of the book.
“Maybe you need to become more familiar with the scriptures.” I tried to sound supportive. “That way you’ll be able to teach the gospel more effectively.”
I thought maybe I should change the subject and asked him to tell me about his family. His parents had both died, and he, being the eldest of several children, had been the family’s sole support, working a lot of different jobs to make ends meet. I asked him how his family would survive while he was gone.
“The Lord will provide for them,” he said. He sounded really sure of that.
The next morning he again woke me up early, and I thought I could probably make it out the door. We got out to the bus stop by 8:30 and waited with a couple of cholitas who were heading up to Pampahasi to sell limes and soap in the marketplace. Suddenly, Willka started belting out “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning,” a uniquely Mormon hymn, while the cholitas stared at him in disbelief.
Please, God, make him stop, I thought. But no, he sang all four long verses.
Then he paused and started into another hymn, “Ya Regocijemos” (Now Let Us Rejoice). I was so happy when the bus arrived mid-verse.
We worked hard all morning, but for some reason nothing I did was right: I walked too slowly, I didn’t have enough enthusiasm in my voice, and I wasn’t bold enough in declaring my testimony of the truth.
At lunch, Hermana Stevenson asked me how things were going with the new guy.
“Uh, he’s great,” I said.
All week I endured constant criticism from Willka, and I was getting tired of it.
On our way to church Sunday, he turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is? You Americans are weak. You get sick all the time. I never get sick, but you can’t handle it here.”
“You’re used to the parasites and diseases here. I’m not,” I said, wondering why I was even bothering to respond.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Look at you. All you Americans wear glasses, but hardly anyone in Bolivia wears glasses.”
Now I was getting a little irritated. “I think it’s just that none of you ever goes to an eye doctor. How would you know if you needed glasses?”
“I can see perfectly,” he said, indignantly.
“What does that sign say over there?” I pointed to a barbershop a block away.
“There’s no way anyone could read a sign so far away,” he said dismissively.
I read him the sign. He turned away and began singing another hymn as he walked.
On Monday I made a momentous decision: I was going to let him be in charge for the week. I told him that, for me to train him properly, I would have to see him in action making all the decisions. Then I could show him how to improve.
“I know what to do.” He looked smug. “I’ve been a branch president, you know.” I handed him the appointment sheet, a chart printed on bright yellow cardstock.
“You’re in charge, elder,” I said, feeling a little smug myself.
Tuesday morning we got up and left the house at 7:00. By 7:30 we were knocking doors with predictable results: people were angry at us for disturbing them so early in the morning. I said nothing. He was in charge, and we would have to live with his decisions.
Soon it was snowing big, wet, heavy flakes, and we were still knocking doors with the same results. By 9:30, we were soaking wet and had still not taught anyone a discussion.
“We’d better go home and get out of these wet clothes,” I said.
“No, we still have work to do,” he said.
“All right. Let’s knock the rest of this block, and then we’ll go and get changed.”
We knocked every door and got in none, so I hailed a taxi. Willka was angry and did not want to leave.
“Look, I’m going home to get changed. If you don’t come with me, you’ll be breaking the rules.” He got in the cab, and we rode silently to our apartment.
It felt good to put on dry clothes and sit in front of the electric heater. I figured we should wait until it stopped snowing before we left again.
At lunchtime, Hermana Stevenson started talking about her family and home. “Don’t you wish sometimes that you could just instantly go home for a few minutes?”
“Yeah, like the transporter room in Star Trek. You could work all day in Bolivia and then beam yourself home for a shower and a good night’s sleep.” The idea sounded marvelous.
“I think you’ve already beamed yourself home,” she said, winking.
That night as we got ready for bed, Willka looked me in the eye: “Do you know why we didn’t have any success today? You gave up too easily. You know what your problem is? You’re not humble enough.”
That did it. I got out my cassette player. I fished in my suitcase and found one of the tapes my brother had sent me. I hadn’t listened to them in months, but now I popped in a cassette, turning the volume up. I smiled when I heard Echo and the Bunnymen singing:
“It may be hell down there ‘Cause it’s heaven up here.”
“And you don’t follow the rules, either,” Willka said in disgust.