We had been half-heartedly knocking doors off and on, but as we had promised, our focus was on working with church members to find people to teach. But we did find one man, a young guy named Carlos, who was really receptive to our message. He had dark, piercing eyes and a bushy mustache and a preference for wearing Red Sox t-shirts, though I doubt he had any idea what the Red Sox or even baseball were.
Everything was going great, and Carlos had committed to baptism, until we got to the discussion about the Ten Commandments. When I got to the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” Carlos lowered his head into his hands and began to sob, his broad shoulder shaking.
He told us that he had been a heavy drinker and that one night he and his best friend had gotten really drunk and had started fighting. Carlos had eventually passed out and awoke in the gutter to find his friend dead beside him.
“I’m not sure, but I think I killed him,” he said quietly. “Do you think God will ever forgive me?”
I told him that the Lord forgave everyone, but I would have to talk to the mission president before Carlos could get baptized.
Our little branch had few members who came regularly, but one family, the Alpires, came every week and to every meeting. Their two boys, aged 12 and 14, even went to early morning seminary classes, something that was unheard of in Bolivia. They invited us to spend Christmas with them, and we happily accepted.
We knew that Christmas would be a huge expense for the family, so we did what we could to get some small presents for each of the family members. We were running out of money ourselves, the exchange rates now not at all in our favor, so we bought a few small toys, some school supplies, and a good-sized bag of rice for the family.
We arrived late in the evening on Christmas Eve to the small home where they lived. Somehow they had found a small pine branch, which they had stapled to the wall and then covered with a few makeshift ornaments. We sang a few hymns and read the story of the birth of Jesus as told in the Gospel of Luke. At midnight the family opened the presents we had given them, and we opened envelopes with hand-drawn Christmas cards from the children, as fireworks exploded all over the neighborhood.
Christmas dinner was a traditional sajta de pollo with potatoes, an unbelievable extravagance for such a humble family, so we were very grateful. This is what Christmas was about. Two years before I had been at home celebrating Christmas as always in a middle-class Los Angeles suburb. The year before I had sat in an affluent Cochabamba neighborhood eating turkey and stuffing while millions of Bolivians went hungry. This year I felt like I was having a Christmas where Jesus would have felt at home.
Christmas Day in Bolivia is a quiet, family time, so we decided to stay home. We made pancakes for breakfast and then went into our room to read and sing a few hymns. All day long the radio played the same three songs over and over: Do They Know It’s Christmas, We Are the World, and Cantare, Cantaras, a similar sort of Latin fundraising song. By noon we were really tired of all three songs, and I still can’t hear any of them without thinking of that hot, sunny Christmas.
That afternoon, we decided to accept the branch president’s offer of his motorcycle. I told him we’d fill it up with gas when we were done, but we wanted to take it for a ride. Crouch didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, so I drove, with him sitting behind me on the seat. We must have been quite a sight: a short, skinny kid driving a tall, husky guy around the town.
We rode along the canal road that circled the city, the wide green savanna stretching out all around us. We stopped briefly and talked to some Adventist missionaries from Kansas, who had somehow managed to drive to Trinidad in an old Ford pickup with a trailer. A few people yelled “huevos!” at us as we passed, but we just laughed and waved to them.
The week after Christmas we really didn’t have much going on except trying to get Carlos baptized. I called President Nichols, and after he thought about it and prayed about it, he called back and said it would be all right to baptize Carlos. We walked over to Carlos’s house to tell him the good news.
“This is great!” he said, hugging me. “I’ve been talking to my wife about the gospel, and I think she wants to be baptized, too.”
“You’re married?” I asked. I had never seen a wife in his house.
“This isn’t my house,” he explained. “My parents live here, and I work for my father, so I’m always here during the day.” He then led us to his house, where we met his wife, a very shy young woman named Perla.
We gave her sort of an overview of the gospel, and she looked at us quite stonefaced, with no expression. When I started explaining about repentance, she looked straight ahead and said in a monotone voice, “God would never forgive me for what I’ve done.”
I looked at her and said, “God doesn’t really care what you’ve done. If you repent, He will forgive you.”
She didn’t move, but a single tear went down her cheek. “Do you really think He could forgive me?”
“Of course,” I said, smiling. “He loves you.”
She explained that she had had an abortion earlier in their marriage, and she had always been haunted by guilt. We explained that there was no sin so terrible that God wouldn’t forgive it.
We spent a lot of that week at Carlos’s house, teaching both of them and preparing them for baptism. They decided to get baptized on Monday morning, and that afternoon Crouch and I would be leaving for Cochabamba, Crouch having learned he would be going to Santa Cruz. It would be the perfect finish to my mission, I thought.
I told Crouch that I wanted to work hard and endure to the end, so I was going to knock doors and look for people to teach right up to the end. Even if we couldn’t teach them, later missionaries might be able to find them.
Tuesday morning we had no appointments, so I said, “Let’s go knock some doors.”
“This is kind of pointless,” said Crouch.
“I’m determined to do this right,” I said, and knocked on the door. A woman sat with her son behind an open window. She whispered something to the child, and he came out to the door.
“My mother isn’t home,” he said.
“Oh?” I said. “Then who is that in the window?”
The boy looked a little panicked and went back into the house, where the mother once again whispered into his ear.
“Ha fallecido,” he said. She died.
“The hell with it,” I said, chuckling. “I think that’s a sign that we’re not going to be knocking anymore doors. We went to the plaza and bought ice cream cones, watching flocks of green parakeets fly overhead until it was time for our appointment with Carlos.
Crouch was inconsolable when he learned that we would be leaving before the end of “Tu o Nadie.” “I’ll never find out what happened,” he moaned. Oh, well. I was more interested in getting home than finding out if Raquel and Antonio would ever get together.
Sunday at church we said our goodbyes, and Carlos and Perla sat down with the custodian for their baptismal interviews. The custodian came out beaming afterward.
“Once they get married, they’ll be all set,” he said.
I hadn’t thought to ask, but Carlos and Perla, like most Bolivians, had never bothered to get married legally. They had just moved in together.
I was down to my last $30, $20 of which were emergency money. But I would gladly chip in $10 for a civil marriage before the baptism.
The next morning we went to the Registro Civil to wait for Carlos and Perla. When they didn’t come, I borrowed the custodian’s bicycle and rode across the city to their house. It was my last day of mission work, and it was the first and only time I would ride a bicycle in Bolivia.
When I turned the corner on their block, I found Carlos and Perla walking toward the Registro Civil, Carlos carrying his Book of Mormon. “Sorry we’re late, Elder,” he said, and we walked together to the wedding.
Perla cried at the wedding and then cried some more after the baptism. I had just enough time for a quick photo afterward, and then we had to catch a cab for the airport.
“Thank you,” was all Perla could say, and it was more than enough for me.
I got on the plane, and we took off for Cochabamba.