Bolivia: A Bounty of Blessings

Enthusiasm and dedication to gospel truths have brought rapid growth to the Church in this South American country.

Early on a Sunday morning in La Paz, Bolivia, a young family set out to walk the steep, cobblestoned streets of the 450-year-old city to attend a ward in a distant part of their stake. The husband was stake Young Men president, his wife the stake Young Women president. Lacking bus fare, they determined to make their way on foot, a trip that took two hours with young children in tow. While a two-hour trip is not normal for most members, it indicates the faithfulness of Latter-day Saints in this country who are embracing the joys of dedicated gospel living.

“Although Bolivia is a poor country, we are spiritually self-sufficient,” explains La Paz Sopocachi stake president Andrés Pacheco. “The faith of our members is very strong. They sacrifice so the Lord can see their hearts.”

Elder René Cabrera, an Area Authority Seventy, feels that sacrifices for the gospel help lift the people of Bolivia out of their past. “This country faces two major challenges,” he explains. “One is the economy, the other, tradition.” The two are closely tied. Traditions generally revolve around fiestas, which include days of drinking and dancing, often costing a family many months’ wages and worsening their economic plight. “One of our challenges is to help people leave harmful traditions behind as they grow in new gospel vision,” says Elder Cabrera (see “Changing for Good” on page 25).

Since the missionaries arrived in 1964, they have been helping the Bolivian people make the transition from old ways to new. Carmen and Luís Molina were among the first to join the Church in Bolivia, in 1965. “Two missionaries stopped at my door and invited me to Relief Society, which was held in the home of a sister,” explains Sister Molina. “She made cookies that day, and I felt very happy at the meeting. I went home and told my husband about it.” Luís was cautious at first, but the family joined the Church, and he became the first elder to be ordained in Bolivia.

Transportation to church then, as now, was a challenge. “One of my earliest memories is of our family preparing for church,” recalls one of their sons, Rolando Molina, who today serves as president of the El Alto Satélite stake. “I loved Saturdays. We ironed; we prepared. And on Sunday we went to church. We walked slowly so all the children could keep up. It took an hour each way. I have fond memories of those walks together.”

Both Carmen and Luís served faithfully in many callings over the years as they watched the Church grow and expand. In 1979 President Ezra Taft Benson, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited Bolivia and organized the first stake. While there, he rededicated the land for the spread of the gospel.

In the years since, the Church has grown to more than 100,000 members in 21 stakes and 9 districts, most headed by first-generation leaders in their 20s and 30s. “The tendency is for sustained growth,” says Elder Cabrera. “We have 131 chapels in the country and a temple coming soon. We have a second generation growing strong and preparing now in seminaries and institutes. They are the generation of change” (see “A Large and Grand Group” on page 29).

An ever-increasing number of Bolivians are finding strength in gospel teachings that help them leave behind harmful traditions and better themselves economically. As a result, each year thousands of new converts continue to accept gospel standards. A close look at members in three cities demonstrates the challenges of the Church in Bolivia.

Map of Bolivia

Developing Leaders in La Paz

Each evening thousands of lights twinkle on the steep mountain slopes of La Paz, which fills a two-and-a-half-mile-wide, bowl-shaped canyon carved into one of the world’s highest plateaus—known as the Altiplano—at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Standing sentinel over La Paz is majestic Mount Illimani, whose 21,000-foot peak is snowcapped even in summer. Streets are crowded, steep, and filled with taxis and minibuses in a city that is home to more than a million people. Throughout much of the city, businesses hug narrow sidewalks next to closely packed buildings, often with a cluster of apartments behind. Vibrant and colorful, the city is also home to six stakes that are seeing rapid growth as people embrace the gospel.

In La Paz, finding enough leaders—and training them—is an ongoing challenge, as in most areas where the Church experiences rapid growth and subdivides into smaller units. Tender testimonies are often put to the test as callings are extended to new converts. Miguel Herrera and his wife, Teresa, are no exception. “We joined the Church because we were looking for something more in life,” says Miguel. “I’d had an accident earlier in my life where my life passed before me. I saw parts I didn’t like. I wondered why I didn’t feel right about them. What did it mean?”

One day at their children’s school, Teresa was talking with a friend. “I spoke of my concerns for our children, and she offered to loan me a copy of a magazine called the Liahona.” Soon two missionaries showed up.

As Teresa and Miguel studied the gospel, they were befriended by David Angulo, the stake patriarch, and his large family. “They were good examples of what we were looking for in family life,” recalls Miguel. When Miguel’s son was stricken with appendicitis, Brother Angulo blessed him that he would be healed. Later, in surgery, the doctor could find nothing wrong. This deepened the Herreras’ testimony of their newfound faith and the power of the priesthood.

Soon after their baptisms in 1996, both Miguel and Teresa received calls that surprised them: Miguel as a counselor in the bishopric and Teresa as stake Relief Society president. According to Victor Hugo Agramont, counselor in the La Paz Miraflores stake, many names were considered for the stake position, but “hers continued to come to us,” he says. So the call was issued, and Teresa accepted.

“This is the work of the Lord,” says Miguel. “It feeds and fills our spirits. It is the only church we found that teaches the importance of family.”

Besides calling recent converts to fill positions in wards and stakes, leaders also look to young adults, often still attending university classes, to carry significant responsibilities. While many single men are called as elders quorum presidents or counselors in bishoprics, stake leaders prefer to recommend married brethren to be bishops; but that is something not always easy to achieve in some areas where there are relatively few Latter-day Saints.

José Acedo was living in Lima, Peru, as a young adult. “I wanted to get married and felt the time was right,” he says. “I took time off work to go to the temple and then went to the country to ponder.” Days passed, and toward the end of his vacation time he felt directed to La Paz. He made the long trip and arrived in time to attend a district conference on a Sunday. As he sat in the chapel, his attention was drawn to a certain young woman sitting in the choir. After the meeting, he met Rosaura Sainz, and the two began talking. By the end of three hours, they had begun to consider a serious relationship. Four months later, in October, they became engaged and were married at Christmas. “We are so grateful to the Lord for bringing us together,” he says. Such stories are not uncommon among priesthood leaders in nations where the Church is young.

When the Acedos moved to La Paz, José was called as bishop of the North Ward, La Paz Constitución stake. As bishop, he faces the ongoing challenge of helping ward members learn what it means to sustain others in callings as well as give of themselves in service. “Love is the key that opens hearts,” he says. He began visiting families to help them catch the vision of Church service. “When I visit a family, I love them and teach them to love others. I pray with them. I ask for greater harmony to bless their homes. As love increases in the homes, it also increases in our ward. Things continue to improve, and I feel a better spirit in our interviews.”

With love as a foundation, Bishop Acedo extends callings to ward members. “We work with people. We talk of accepting callings and learning to fill the callings. And we talk about what it means to support others in leadership positions,” he explains. With that basis, ward members grow and develop their leadership skills.

“There needs to be a lifting process for leaders,” explains President Pacheco. “First we lift leaders, then they lift the members. We work on spiritual growth, and the levels of spirituality are rising in our wards and stakes. The Church in Bolivia is growing not only in numbers but also in maturity. Today all six stake presidents in La Paz and all but one bishop are Bolivian.”

Strengthening the Church in Santa Cruz

After the oxygen-thin air of La Paz, the heavy, humid air of Santa Cruz comes as a surprise. No two cities in the same country could be more different. Located in the Bolivian interior on the warm and often rainy southern edge of the Amazon basin, Santa Cruz stretches for miles in a flat, oil-rich and mineral-rich part of Bolivia. Gardens, patios, and archways prevail in the near-tropical climate. The Church is strong and growing steadily, with six stakes, whose leaders welcome numerous new converts while strengthening existing members.

Lucio Gil Díez, bishop of the Belen Ward, Equipetrol stake, finds one of his primary concerns is helping new converts stay committed. “I know how it feels to be new in the Church,” he says. As a young man out of work, he went with an in-law to a chapel under construction. He was introduced as an “investigator.” “What is that?” he asked, looking around the construction site. “I haven’t come to investigate anything.” But soon he did and eventually joined the Church. He was called as a bishop for the first time at age 27.

Knowing how important finding friends can be to new converts, Bishop Díez supports weekly fellowship evenings held on Mutual nights—as do many wards and stakes throughout Bolivia—to encourage greater love and friendship among members, investigators, and new converts. “All the ward is invited to come together Thursday evenings, and many bring friends along. Each week a different family takes charge. It’s a lot like a family home evening,” he explains.

When someone joins the Church, the ward is invited to the baptism, and the new member is invited to the fellowship evenings. “We feed them spiritually,” explains Bishop Díez, “and we give them callings.” In one family, baptized only eight months, the wife is already serving as Relief Society president, her husband as elders quorum secretary, and their son as deacons quorum president.

Watching over new converts is a high priority in the Santa Cruz Bolivia Paraíso Stake, where stake missionaries follow the progress of new converts for 18 months after baptism. “Two of the men on the high council work directly with bishops and their new converts,” says stake president Guillermo Quintana. “When someone new comes in, we speak to them, we go to see them, and we see that they get callings and make friends. We are learning to apply President Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel to help each convert find a friend, receive a calling, and be nurtured with the good word of God” (see “Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 51). As a result, the stake is showing 72 percent retention of new members baptized within the past 18 months.

President Quintana knows the importance of finding friends at church. The night of his baptism his best friend told him he’d never visit him again if Guillermo, then 18, joined the Church. Ten minutes before the service began, Guillermo decided to go ahead anyway and left for the meetinghouse. “I lost my dearest friend that night,” he recalls. However, within two weeks he met the woman who later became his wife, and she became the friend who sustained him during his mission.

After his mission, he had an experience that changed his life. Deathly ill, he was rushed to the hospital. As he hovered between life and death, he felt spiritual comfort as an impression came to him that there were many things yet for him to do. The experience confirmed to him that he had important work to do in the Lord’s Church.

“Since that time I have prayerfully sought to know what the Lord would have me do,” says President Quintana. As he seeks ways to strengthen the stake, he often asks, “What do we want to achieve?” Then he and his counselors set concrete objectives for leaders and members. “We teach members not to be afraid to keep the commandments,” he says. “It’s the perspective we must give. Then the blessings come.”

One who has caught this vision is Augusta Ávalos de Ma, Pampa Ward Relief Society president. Under the direction of the bishop, Sister Ma strengthens needy members through an effort called la canasta del Señor (the Lord’s basket). On the last Sunday of each month, sisters bring two pounds of basic food supplies and place them in the basket. “Through the visiting teaching program we determine who is in need and divide the products among them,” she explains.

The stake tries to meet members’ social needs through holding well-planned activities. One annual stake event is a folk dancing festival that showcases Bolivia’s rich folklore heritage. This positive reminder of their country’s traditions draws the attention of the press and makes the papers each year. “This is one way we try to keep the best of our culture,” says President Quintana.

Paraíso stake members also seek ways to serve in their community. Twice a year the Relief Society organizes a visit to a local orphanage. “The sisters go to wash, care, and feed the children. They donate clothing and help dress the children and comb their hair,” explains President Quintana. More than 100 babies and young children are helped during this service project.

Preparing for the Temple in Cochabamba

The eyes of Church members all over Bolivia are on Cochabamba and the new temple scheduled for completion in the year 2000. Area Authority Seventy Mario Guzmán remembers getting a telephone call on 21 January 1995 from Elder Julio E. Dávila of the South America North Area Presidency inviting him to attend a special meeting. “None of us present had any idea why the meeting had been called,” recalls Elder Guzmán. “Elder Dávila was very nervous. He kept asking, ‘Has the fax come?’ Twenty minutes passed, then someone handed him a fax. ‘This comes from the First Presidency,’ he told us, and read: ‘A temple has been approved for Cochabamba, Bolivia.’ A profound silence fell. Us? A temple? We had no words to say. We all began to cry.”

The choice of Cochabamba as a temple site likely is due to its central location in Bolivia. Nestled at 8,000 feet on the eastern slopes of the lofty Andes mountains, Cochabamba’s temperate climate draws many people. The area is subject to drought, however, and in 1996 no rain fell for months. Then, in November, 22 months after the temple was announced, people traveled from all over the country to attend the groundbreaking ceremony. On the day President Hinckley was due, rain finally began falling. When the President arrived at the temple site, Latter-day Saints were already there, having waited for hours in the pouring rain. He stood to welcome the “wet members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and assured them that the Lord was mindful of them and acquainted with their sacrifices.

While helping to build and strengthen people to prepare for temple ordinances is a priority in all of Bolivia, the four stakes in Cochabamba are working especially hard. Each Saturday, members are invited to tour the building site one ward at a time and feel the Spirit there. “We are preparing the people,” says Jaihuayco (pronounced why-WY-co) stake president Ivan Gutiérrez. “We encourage them to be ready spiritually. We have a goal to put a picture of the temple in every home. We have identified those who do not have temple recommends. We visit them and help them set goals for themselves. As a result, great changes are coming into the lives of the people.”

In the Cosmos Ward of the Jaihuayco stake, the bishopric spends Friday evenings visiting in the homes of ward members. “One week we visit new converts,” explains Milton Ayala, a counselor in the bishopric. “The next, we visit less-active families. There have been many who have come back.”

Part of the reason many return is excitement over the temple. “It’s had a big impact on Cochabamba,” says Brother Ayala. “There is joy in our hearts, and people are putting much effort into preparing themselves to enter the temple.” To help them, the ward offers temple preparation classes.

In the Cochabamba Universidad stake, Relief Society president María Mercau de Aquino helped organize a stakewide meeting for couples. “We wanted to strengthen marriages and help women feel valued,” she explains. “I want the sisters to be happy—happy with the blessings the Lord has given us.” Seeking ways to strengthen families prepares them to receive temple blessings—and temple blessings further strengthen the family.

Few have worked harder at preparing their family for temple blessings than Antonio and Gloria Ayaviri, who made arrangements to move from La Paz to Cochabamba just to live near the temple. Brother Ayaviri knows the difference Church membership and temple attendance have made in his life. “Raising children is much easier now that we have the gospel and temple blessings in our lives,” he says. “In our home we have a piece of heaven. We have learned that the way to receive blessings—the way to run our home—is to serve the Lord first.”

Brother Ayaviri, who serves as Universidad stake mission president, wants others to achieve the same blessings. “With a temple here, the Church will grow,” he says. “My calling offers me a way to serve a mission and help others gain the blessings we enjoy. We love the temple; it represents the work of the Lord.”

Throughout Bolivia, many Latter-day Saints echo his feelings. The work of personal preparation and devoted dedication to gospel living goes forward. And on Sunday mornings, many parents continue to take their children by the hand and begin long walks to Church. They see it not as a sacrifice—just a way to confirm to the Lord the sincerity of their hearts. Out of such obedience comes blessings that today flow throughout the land.

Changing for Good

Harmful, age-old traditions nearly cost Patricio and Ivonne Gonzalez Quint their marriage. Patricio, who often spent days drinking with friends to celebrate traditional Bolivian fiestas, didn’t know any other way of life—until his wife left him. “At that point my life collapsed,” says Patricio. One day in deep anguish of heart he cried out, “Oh, God, what can I do to change my life? I will do anything!”

Soon two sister missionaries knocked on his door. “I had just told the Lord I would do anything,” he says, “so I felt I had to listen to their message.” He let them in and arranged to begin the missionary discussions.

Meanwhile, Ivonne also became curious about the Church. “My uncle, a member, had been inviting us to family home evenings for years,” she says, “but we had never gone. While Patricio and I were apart, I grew closer to my uncle and began studying the gospel.”

When Patricio was ready for baptism, he asked Ivonne out for ice cream and invited her to his baptism. “She didn’t believe I was serious,” says Patricio. “I went ahead with my baptism and began inviting her to attend church with me.”

Ivonne, meanwhile, had been praying over many things and felt her prayers were being answered, yet she hesitated to get baptized. One Sunday a teacher spoke of Gideon, who looked to the Lord for direction but when he received it asked for a second sign (see Judg. 6:36–40). The teacher made the point that once we know the Lord’s will, we should comply. Ivonne suddenly looked over at Patricio and said, “I need to get baptized.”

“We started over,” says Patricio. “The past is gone when you start a new life. The old traditions were all I knew, and because of them I almost lost everything.”

Today Patricio and Ivonne Gonzalez Quint and their two sons are members of La Paz’s Sopocachi Ward, where Patricio serves as elders quorum president and Ivonne teaches Sunday School. “We have a guide for our lives that teaches us what is important,” says Patricio. “I have all that matters.”

A Large and Grand Group

The Church Educational System offers seminary and institute classes throughout Bolivia, and both La Paz and Santa Cruz have over 1,000 university students enrolled in classes. “We are preparing missionaries and future Church leaders,” says La Paz institute director Douglas Franco. “We also help students learn to use their opportunities to best prepare themselves for employment. After graduation, we work with the Church employment center to help them find jobs.”

Land has recently been purchased in both cities for new institute buildings that can better serve the increasing enrollment and social needs of students. Many students think of the institute as a second home that offers a quiet place to study, a kitchen where food can be prepared and shared, and friends who keep similar standards.

Classes are taught by 42 different instructors called from among stake presidents, bishops, high councilors, Relief Society presidents, and other local leaders. Guest lecturers from throughout the community are often invited to speak to the students, and invariably they leave both impressed and curious. “How,” they ask, “do you get young people to add a religion class to their schedules?”

They would be further surprised to learn that at least 90 percent of the students are already serving in elders quorum presidencies, bishoprics, Relief Society presidencies, and high councils. Their testimonies are strong and their commitment deep.

“They make a large and grand group,” says Elder René Cabrera, an Area Authority Seventy. “They are the future strength of the Church in Bolivia.”

[photos] Photography by Judy C. Olsen

[photos] Right: Seferina Ramirez and her daughter, Maria Quenallata, attend the San Antonio Ward, La Paz Bolivia Miraflores Stake. Background: The high plateau city of La Paz. Above: A family from the Irala Ward, Santa Cruz Bolivia Cañoto Stake.

[photos] Walter E. Guzmán, center below, and his friends Edson Ibañez (left) and Marcos Ronald Romero attend the Fátima Ward, La Paz Bolivia Miraflores Stake. Background: City buildings surround Cochabamba’s central plaza. Left: Relief Society sisters from the Copacabana Ward, Miraflores stake, enjoy homemaking meeting.

[photos] Below: Bishop Lucio Gil Díez and his wife, Rosminda, center, and their children, from left: Jaime, Sandy, Jorge, Paola, Raquel. Background: Lush foliage of Santa Cruz. Left: Miguel Herrera and daughter Laura. Right: Young women from the Seis de Agosto Ward, Sopocachi stake. Inset, opposite: Elders quorum of the San Antonio Ward, Miraflores stake.

[photos] Background: Colonial-era street in La Paz. Below: Luz Guzmán looks over the shoulder of Sunday School class teacher Sister Saavedra Z. in the Fátima Ward, Miraflores stake. Above: Cochabamba bishop Edgar Balderrama, Cala Cala Ward, Universidad stake, with his wife, Edith, and children Andrés, left, and Graciela. Right: Primary children from the Irala Ward, Santa Cruz Bolivia Cañoto Stake.