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 home of Manuel and Maria Cerda, parents of five adult sons.
I soon learned why we had been brought to their home. Their story started seventeen years earlier, when missionaries had knocked at their door in Tehuacan, 225 kilometers southeast of their present home. Within six months, father, mother, and five sons were baptized—Víctor 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 María 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 María Cerda were personally involved in the conversion of seventy persons into the Church. Letters from Manuel and María 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 doing missionary work 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: Víctor and his companions—140 persons baptized into the Church; Augustin and his companions, 106 persons; Moises and his companions, 160 persons; Ramón 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 finish with one last 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, Víctor, I asked, “How does it feel to have your father as your counselor?”
With poignancy, he gently answered, “I have great love for my father. He has always counseled me well in my life. He has been an example to me. He has been my inspiration. When I have had difficulties in my life 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.’ (Matt. 17:5.) I understand well love between father and son.”
I turned and went around the circle again. “What,” I asked, “brought about this family love?”
The father, Manuel Cerda summed up the answers of the others—“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 talking and affectionate goodbyes, we left the 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 concept of being a father, which I have sought to understand and apply in my own life.