That Sunday we had our first baptism in Pampahasi, a young engineering student named Victor, whom Brent and I had taught, Willka coming in just for the last couple of discussions. Finally the success Brent had never experienced had come just after he had left for Utah. Victor lived in a tiny room with his mother, an aged cholita who sold buñuelos–small fried pastries served with sugarcane syrup–in the market to support her son through college. She was clearly very proud of him, and we could see that he was extremely intelligent. He was interested in the church and devoured the Book of Mormon, translating passages into Aymara for his mother, who spoke no Spanish. He seemed like someone who would make a difference to the church.
I got a letter and a package from Hermana Thomas. She didn’t say much, except that she was glad to be out of the hospital. I couldn’t blame her. The package was a box of jell-o cheesecake mix, so at lunch I bought a bag of leche PIL and started mixing it. It never set up correctly but turned out like runny pudding. But it was good nonetheless, and I was happy that Hermana Thomas had remembered me.
We ate lunch every day with the welfare hermanas at the house of the stake president, whose wife cooked for us. Like so many before her, she treated us as if we were her children. I really felt blessed to know so many caring and loving women who watched out for us as if we were their own. She was very careful about preparing our meals: she had a small barrel that she would fill with water and bleach in the morning, and she would soak the vegetables all morning in an attempt to kill whatever bacteria or parasites were in them. I did get salmonella while I was living there, but I was sure it was from a bad milkshake at a restaurant. I had taken a big gulp of it and noticed a rather acrid aftertaste. I hadn’t finished the shake, but I think the damage had been done.
That week we knocked on a door, and a young black man answered. There aren’t very many people of African descent in Bolivia, except for a community in the Yungas, the jungle area north of La Paz, where slaves had been brought in. They had eventually adopted the traditional Bolivian dress and culture, and occasionally you would see a black cholita.
“Oh, hello,” the young man said.
We gave our memorized door approach: “We’re missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We are teaching some small discussions about Jesus Christ. Our message is very important for you and your family. May we come in?”
“I don’t think your church allows people like me,” he said, sounding a little suspicious.
So much raced through my mind at that moment. Only six years before, he would have been partially right. All my life I had been taught that black people carried the curse of Cain, meaning that they were not allowed to have the priesthood of God. Prophets had taught that they must have done something in our premortal life to deserve such a curse; perhaps, they said, black people had been “less valiant” than we were. Whatever the reason, the church had avoided teaching black people, and in some areas missionaries had been forbidden to teach them. But of course, all that had changed in 1978 with President Kimball’s revelation giving black members the priesthood.
“No, that’s not true,” I said. “Everyone is welcome in our church. God is no respecter of persons.”
“Well, in that case,” he smiled. “Come on in.”
He told us his name was Juan Carlos, and until recently he had been enrolled in a Catholic seminary and had been studying to become a priest. However, he had written a paper explaining why only God could forgive, whereas priests had no right to absolve people of their sins. That paper hadn’t gone over well, he said, and he had been expelled.
We taught the first discussion and gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon. When we came back a couple of days later, he told us he had read nearly three-quarters of the book and was fascinated by it. I noticed that he had marked and cross-referenced verses with his Bible, making notes in the margins of the book. I’d never met anyone who had been quite that excited about our message.
On Sunday Juan Carlos came to church and was welcomed with genuine warmth and kindness. Victor stood at the podium and expressed his happiness at having found the true church of God.
“I wasn’t sure what to think of the missionaries and their message,” he said. “But there was this one American missionary, Elder Brent, who seemed to be struggling so much. He was sick, and he couldn’t speak Spanish, but he was in my home teaching me the gospel. I decided that if it meant that much to him to leave his home and go through all of this, it was worth looking into.”
I knew I needed to write Brent and tell him what Victor had said. In truth, I was a little ashamed that until that moment, I had felt a little pride in having brought Victor into the church. But it had been Brent, the guy I took pity on, who had made the difference.
During Sunday School, I sat with Juan Carlos and we went through the last discussion. He told me that he believed the church was true, but he was afraid. He had just started a job as a youth counselor for a Baptist church. If he got baptized, he would surely lose his job. I suggested that we pray about his decision.
We knelt there on the dirt floor in that tiny room, and he poured his soul out to God, pleading to know if he should be baptized. By the time he finished praying, we were both crying, and he looked me in the eye and said, “I want to be baptized today.”
That afternoon the three of us walked to the church in Miraflores, where there was a baptismal font. Juan Carlos said that his only concern was that “there aren’t a lot of people like me” at the church, but I reminded him of the warm welcome he had received. When we arrived at the church, Elder Teixeira, one of the few black missionaries in our mission, was there, waiting on the steps, dressed all in white.
“I know, I’m out of my zone,” he said. “But my cousin is getting baptized, and he asked me to do it.”
His cousin came out of the church a few minutes later, and when Juan Carlos had changed, I took a picture of these three black men in their baptismal clothes. I thought certainly this was no coincidence. It was a sign from God telling Juan Carlos that he would be welcome.
I’ve often wondered how Juan Carlos felt when he finally learned of our church’s history regarding people of African descent. I’m sure he would have been shocked and saddened, but what would he have thought of me? I had lied by omission and hadn’t told him what he had deserved to know. Maybe he wouldn’t have joined our church had I been truthful, but I would never know. I would have to live with the lie.