It is now seven years since I met him, but whenever I ponder aspects of fatherhood I still think of Manuel Cerda of Mexico City.
I met Brother Cerda August 1972 while reporting his nation’s first area conference. I had asked to meet some Latter-day Saint families and learn of the gospel’s impact on their lives. Thus it was that my translator, Jesse Trujillo, and I were driven to Benemerito and welcomed into the four-room home of Manuel and Maria Cerda, aging parents of five adult sons.
I would soon learn why we had been brought to their home. Their story started seventeen years earlier, when missionaries had knocked at their door in Tehuacan, 140 miles southeast of their present home. Within six months, father, mother and five sons were baptized—Victor was twenty-three, Augustin twenty-one, Moises nineteen, Ramon seventeen, and Gilberto sixteen. In less than a year, the sons began to be called on missions. Before long, there came an extraordinary six-month period when all five sons served simultaneously in the missions of Mexico. Of equal interest was the remarkable coincidence that all five sons had served two or more months as a companion to one of their brothers.
With the turning of his family to missionary service, Manuel Cerda decided it was not enough to send and support, as best he could, his sons. He decided he must be an example. Together, he and his wife Maria determined that they would be missionaries, too. Were there not nonmember friends and neighbors and relatives all around?
Thus, during the three-year period that five sons served missions, Manuel and Maria Cerda were personally involved in the conversion of seventy persons into the Church. Letters from Manuel and Maria went out weekly to their sons, telling of one acquaintance after another joining the Church. The witness of joy and truth from father and mother burned into the hearts of five sons—father and mother missionarying at home, father and mother encouraging their missionary sons, brothers serving together as companions.
Soon this family witness flamed into a great fire of faith and energy and love, reaching out farther and farther. At the end of their missions, this was the report of the sons to their father and mother: Victor and his companions—140 persons baptized into the Church; Augustin and his companions, 106 persons; Moises and his companions, 160 persons; Ramon and his companions, 75 persons; Gilberto and his companions, 233 persons. Total: 784. When I met them in 1972, the family had brought in 53 more—837 eternal friends among the membership of the Church.
I looked at them as they finished their story; their faces shone with happiness. In what I thought would be a closing question, I asked in halting Spanish what they were now doing in the Church. Among them were a bishop, a Sunday School superintendent, another bishop, an executive secretary, and a mission presidency counselor.
I turned to the father, Manuel, and asked what he was doing. He replied that he was serving as a counselor in a bishopric. I was ready to pursue another last-minute item when one of the brothers added that the bishop to whom their father was serving as a counselor was one of their brothers.
Then came one of the choice moments of my interviewing life. Turning to the bishop son, Victor, I asked, “How does it feel to have your father as your counselor?”
With poignancy, he gently answered, “How I love my father. He has always counseled me well in my life. He has been an example to me. He has been my inspiration. When my life has had rough spots in it, he has helped me. Who else could I ask to counsel me but my father?”
Tears began to well up in my eyes, and I slowly turned to Manuel: “How do you feel about serving your son as a counselor?”
In the great dignity natural to the Spanish tongue, Manuel Cerda softly, slowly, and in an emotionally quivering voice said, “I have great love for my sons. It is an honor to counsel them. It is an honor to advise others to listen to them. I believe I feel something like God the Father felt when he said, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye him.’ I understand well love between father and son.”
The small front room with its one couch and few chairs where five adult sons and two parents sat squeezed together became, that day for me, a most sacred place—and was, in reality, a temple of sacred love. Tears coursed down our faces, and we were unable to talk for several minutes.
I then turned and went around the circle again. “What,” I asked, “brought about this family love?”
Gilberto—“My father, my brothers—they are my heroes. My father is very just, very loving. It makes me want to be like him.”
Augustin—“The sentiment we have for our parents has greatly increased since we learned of the gospel. It took our natural love and made it something more important than life.”
Moises—“I have great love and confidence in my brothers. When I have problems, I talk them out with my brothers. I come to them. I present my problems. I ask for help. They are always my great strength.”
Ramon—“One of the most marvelous things that ever could have happened to me was to live with my father and mother and my brothers, with them loving me and me loving them. My drive for doing much in my life is the realization that we are a family associated forever. Together we can do everything needed to do well.”
Victor—“As elder brother, I have tried to set an example, and then help my brothers when they need me. But I must tell you, they have also been a great example to me. The relationships we have together are very precious. My parents and my brothers—they are my friends, my teachers, my examples. When we were companions to each other on our missions, we all felt a far greater responsibility to set good examples, to teach the younger brother well.”
The mother, Maria—“What gave us this love? We gave it to each other, and God has doubled it many times over. Us and God—we create the love.”
The father, Manuel Cerda—“It was the gospel that changed our home. It taught us to see each other as eternal friends. It has taught me affection and love. It has taught me to esteem my children. We fight against anything that seeks to divide us, that affects our esteem for each other. The truth has changed our lives.”
After more visiting and affectionate goodbyes, we left the small four-room home of Manuel Cerda. But in the years since, I have discovered that Manuel Cerda did not leave me. As I have thought of fatherhood, and contemplated family and home, its society and cultures, the memory of Manuel Cerda has always remained, reminding me of the wonderful example of my own choice mortal father, of the teachings of our celestial Heavenly Father, and of the very idea of fatherhood, which I have sought to understand and apply in my own life.