There’s an amazing chapel in Bolivia, the only chapel that has been officially dedicated in the country. When Elder Spencer W. Kimball’s visit to Bolivia was announced in the mid-1960s—at that time he was a member of the Council of the Twelve—the members in Quiriza, a small branch near the Argentine border, set themselves the goal of having their chapel ready to be dedicated.
It was already under construction, and according to Hernán Sainz, now president of the La Paz Bolivia Central District, all went well until it was time to put the center beam in place. Then, to the members’ dismay, they discovered that someone had made a mistake: the beam was a good two feet too short. Splicing was impossible since the beam had to be in one piece to support the roof. The nearest city where they could get another was several hours away by bus, and they couldn’t guess how long ordering, cutting, and shipping it would take. Almost certainly, though, it would be impossible for them to finish the chapel in time.
Discouraged, they held a special fast and prayed for the Lord’s help. The next morning, however, there still seemed to be no alternative to ordering the new beam, so they met at the chapel and lifted the beam up to take measurements. And it fit! It fit perfectly. The members who worship under that roof now share the quiet strength that comes from an unmistakable reminder that the Lord hears and answers prayer.
Bolivia is rich in its legacy of faith. In some ways the Church is in that country because the members have long wrestled with the Lord for that blessing. Long under a ban that forbade non-Catholic religions, in 1963 the Church consisted of a handful of American Mormons with the dream of legal recognition. These three families—Duane Wilcox and Dube Thomas in La Paz, Norval Jespersen in Cochabamba—did much to make people on high levels acquainted with Mormonism during 1963. Doors began to open the next year after some of them had returned to the United States, and missionaries entered from the Andes Mission in 1964.
The first baptisms—the family of Victor Walter Vallejos at Cochabamba—did not occur until just before Christmas of 1964. However, by 1966 branches had been opened at Oruro and Santa Cruz. Members like Sister Graciela Montaño of Oruro and Brother Douglas Barrios of Santa Cruz set a pioneering tradition of dedicated branch work, fearless proselyting, and cheerfulness in the face of obstacles that still inspire the members who follow in their footsteps.
By 1968 the Church had about 350 members, and the first full-time Bolivian missionary, Brother Carlos Pedraja, was called. He served in his own country and later became the first full-time Bolivian seminary director in the country.
At present, Bolivia numbers over 9,700 members who speak soberly about the challenges facing them as they prepare for stakes and temples of their own.
“Error, hostility, and other challenges strengthen some members and weaken others,” says Brother Pedraja. One of those other challenges for the Church in Bolivia is the Church’s close identification with the United States. However, the A mi me importa (I care) program stressed national values and patriotic interests when it was used for several months in 1970–71; and the message of the Book of Mormon, which many Bolivians consider their own story, has created closer ties.
Another problem is that more women than men join the Church. But, the emphasis on the family that began in 1973 for the members and has continued as part of the missionary approach since then is attracting more families. Also, as young people live the gospel, the vibrancy of their testimonies attracts other family members. “Their children will be our second generation, our hope for the future,” says Brother Pedraja. That’s understandable when the Church has been in the country for only thirteen years—and only a few months in some areas.
One strong plus sign for the Church is its good reputation. “Religious bigotry is practically nonexistent in cities,” says Brother Pedraja, “and most Bolivians know that the Church is a 100 percent missionary church.” Also, nearly everyone who has talked to the missionaries is aware of the Church’s emphasis on the family. Young Mormons have radiated vitality and spirituality, especially in the semiannual youth conferences held in different areas. Cultural programs and Mormon Tabernacle Choir broadcasts have received wide radio coverage.
The Colegio Mormon (Mormon school) in La Paz is receiving favorable attention for its low teacher-student ratio (about 1–25) and academic excellence in a country where the teacher-student ratio is sometimes as high as 1 to 60 and many rural children have no opportunity to go to school at all. The school is staffed entirely by Bolivians, and the curriculum is supervised by the government. Tuition is nominal and the 164 children attending agree to live by Church standards whether they are members or not.
Although the school is an urban effort, the literacy program, now in its fourth year, also provides help in rural areas. Reading, mathematics, and writing are taught by local volunteers supervised by a locally trained Bolivian. (The program was developed at BYU and is administered by the Church Educational System.) “It has been more successful than we’d hoped,” officials say, and it fills the crying need, particularly among Indian populations, for a way to become literate in Spanish.
The seminary and institute program, now in its fifth year, is producing “a generation of youth now becoming literate in the scriptures” with home study in every branch involving an estimated 850 persons in 1976–77.
Efforts to prepare local leaders to take over branches and districts have met with outstanding success. All five district presidents and their counselors are local members, and so are most of Bolivia’s thirty-seven branch presidents.
When the Brazil Temple was announced, Bolivian Saints greeted the news with excitement and intense gratitude and immediately began fund-raising projects. Building projects are nothing new since nine branches already have their own chapels and more are under construction. But a temple is different. It gives great impetus toward living the commandments, and the five families who have been able to come to the United States for their endowments and sealings have added their testimonies of its blessings to the growing faith of the members. That faith produces miracles, sometimes the great miracles of lengthened chapel beams, sometimes the quieter but no less great miracles of changed lives.
Sister Gladys Sainz of the La Paz Bolivia Second Branch (no relation to President Hernán Sainz) testifies:
“I was very discouraged one night. We didn’t have a single cent, and my husband was in jail. I was so discouraged that the best solution seemed to be to turn on the gas and go to bed so that I and our five children could die peacefully. As I was turning the handle, I looked up at a picture of Christ on my wall and wondered how God could let anyone suffer as I was suffering. As I stood there, I heard a knock on the door and two young men said that they had come with a message about Jesus Christ. Because of my own religion, I wasn’t interested in theirs, but as they talked, I had a feeling inside that I simply had to listen to what they said.
“At the end of their visit, we knelt in prayer and I asked one of the elders to pray, since I didn’t know how. During that prayer, he asked the Lord to remove the bad intentions that were in my mind and give me the strength to carry on. I was thunderstruck and asked him how he had known of my intention to end our lives. He told me that he hadn’t known—that he had felt inspired to say those things. The elders made sure that I had changed my mind, then left. That night I poured out my heart to my Father in heaven, grateful for his intervention, confused about what to do. The next morning I found $5 outside my door, which was enough to feed my family for some time. Two weeks later I was baptized. I can never again doubt that our Heavenly Father loves us.”
This article was prepared from material provided by Elder Scott W. Smith of the Bolivia La Paz Mission, Carlos Pedraja, and Keith R. Allred, former mission president.