It was hard to tell if Guillermo had dark brown or medium brown or tan skin, for he was encrusted from head to toes with dirt. His black hair, which hung in matted clumps over his ears, had been hacked off with a knife in uneven handfuls just above what used to be the collar of his shirt. There was little else left of the shirt except for a few buttons holding rags across his skinny chest. The rag shirt was stuffed into the waist of a pair of torn, khaki-colored pants, two or three sizes too large, and all of it was held together by a piece of rope. No shoes. No coat. His black eyes darted back and forth suspiciously as he looked at us, yet he stayed put in the corner and listened as we talked.
Guillermo. That’s “William” in Spanish. He had chosen the name himself because, as far as he knew, no one else had ever named him. Guillermo was a gamin, a French term used by Colombians to describe a street orphan. Sometime in his tender childhood, his parents had abandoned him to the street, probably because they were too poor to feed him. So, at age three or four, Guillermo found himself alone, huddling in cold doorways for shelter at night, covering himself with cardboard to keep out the cold night mist. During the day he raided garbage cans or stole apples from street vendors in order to eat. Probably the worst part of all was that he had plenty of competition for these meager luxuries, for many, many gamines roam Colombian cities. How they survive is a mystery, yet they do—or most of them do—living testaments to the human instinct for survival.
Guillermo ended up being one of the luckier ones, for at age twelve (his own rough calculation), he managed to find himself on the receiving end of the mercy of a kind store owner. The man let Guillermo sleep in his back room and even paid him a few centavos a week, plus a meal a day, to clean up around the store. Guillermo was a nice boy who never used crude words and never betrayed the trust of the kind old man by stealing from him. He became the favorite of a number of the housewives around the neighborhood. Occasionally he would find an old pair of pants—worn, but not yet ragged—or an old shirt left for him on the back porch of the store. He was never really hungry, and not cold anymore.
Still, he was not like other children who had families and who found time to play. And, of course, he never went to school. The old man was kind to him, but he was also aloof as befitted his position as the boy’s employer. So even though he was better off than most gamines, Guillermo was lonely, terribly lonely.
When we knocked on the back door of the little store and introduced ourselves to the old man as missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Guillermo stood by. And when we sat with the store owner to teach him the gospel, Guillermo was permitted to crouch in the far corner and listen. He never asked any questions or made any comments. He just listened.
The old man liked our message and invited us back again and again until we had given all of the discussions. Then he told us he was too old to change and would not be baptized.
We were disappointed that cool evening as we walked down the dusty road away from the store. Suddenly, we heard the soft padding of bare feet come running up behind us. We jumped and turned, startled to see Guillermo standing before us, wringing his hands.
“Please, Senoritas, I would like to be baptized.”
We were stunned and didn’t know what to say. How much did he really understand? Why did he want to be baptized? We told him we would meet with him the next day and would bring along two young men who would ask him some questions to determine if he was ready for baptism.
The four of us missionaries sat around the dirty street boy, amazed to hear him answer correctly every question put to him. He knew about Joseph Smith; he understood about the plan of salvation, baptism, the Word of Wisdom, the other commandments. We were further surprised, and thrilled, to find that he had borrowed the old man’s copy of the Book of Mormon and had taken it to a neighbor lady, who had read most of it to him in less than two weeks. He said he knew it was all true and wanted to be baptized.
The elders tested him further by insisting he go to church regularly for a month—which he did, coming every Sunday and every Tuesday night for Mutual. And again he surprised us all by coming bathed, with clean hair and skin (he was medium brown), and with the best, cleanest old clothes he owned. By the time a month was over, he was begging for baptism.
So one Saturday the elders baptized him in the cold water font of a branch in Bogota. When he came up out of the water, a gigantic smile broke across his face, and without the slightest hesitation he ran to me, threw his dripping arms around my waist, and burst into great sobs.
I asked him why he was crying, and when he finally controlled himself, he looked at me with those black eyes and said, “Now that I have joined His Church, I am a true son of God, am I not?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Don’t you see,” he earnestly pled with me to understand, “I finally know that I have a Father!”
All those years of anonymity and loneliness had been washed away that day. The gospel of Jesus Christ had brought to a lonely gamin the knowledge of who he was.
We dried our tears and left Guillermo in the church with other members who welcomed him. Then we went down the street to talk to the lady who had read him the Book of Mormon.