Juan Carlos and the Conference Shirt


Based on a true story

At the rooster’s first call, Juan Carlos opened his eyes and peeked through the cracks in the wooden wall just above his head. The darkness was fading. Today was his first day to help Sister Fuentes make tortillas. Time to get ready, he thought. He slipped from his hammock to the dirt floor below and went outside to wash himself in the cool water from the pump.

Stake conference would be in two months, and last week President García, the branch president, had announced that a General Authority would be coming. That was fantastic, except for one thing—the city boys would all be wearing either fine Panama shirts or white shirts and ties. Even Juan’s father had a Sunday shirt. One of the missionaries who had completed his mission and gone home had given it to him.

Juan Carlos had only one shirt. His mother had stitched it from a flour sack. He wore it every day of the week, even to church on Sundays. It embarrassed Juan to wear a flour-sack shirt to church—even though the branch met in a one-room home—and he had told his father so. His father had just said, “Remember, son, the Lord looks on the inside of a person, not the outside.” But last conference, Juan had felt so uncomfortable about his shirt that afterward he hadn’t waited in line to shake anyone’s hand, and he couldn’t even remember what the speakers had said. This conference would be different, however—thanks to the tortillas.

Juan loved Sister Fuentes, who was the Primary teacher in their little branch of only four families and six children. She was also the village tortilla maker. It was hard work to soak and grind the corn, haul buckets of water, and search for firewood in the forest up the hill. Tortillas had to be made early, for before breakfast nearly every family in the village would send a child to Sister Fuentes with a small coin to buy some of the steaming, thick, pale, perfectly even circles of dough that she had patted out. Before they left to work in the fields, the men wanted hot tortillas. And later, for lunch, they would eat them cold, folded over some beans.

Saturday Sister Fuentes had come to his home. “Juan Carlos,” she said, “I am looking for someone to help me. So many want tortillas in the mornings! I have tried, but I just can’t make enough for everyone by myself. I was wondering if you would help me. It is very hard work, but I will pay you two lempiras every week.”

Two lempiras! That was a lot of money—why, he could earn enough before conference came to buy a white shirt, if he saved carefully!

Sister Fuentes was already working when Juan Carlos arrived on Monday. The morning passed quickly. He built the fire, hauled water, and ground corn between two stones. He was amazed to see how fast her hands could fly as she worked with the tortilla dough. After the tortillas were sold, there were pots to scrub and wood to gather for the next day.

Day after day he spent his mornings working. Sometimes it was hard to leave his hammock while others in his family still slept. But he just imagined wearing a new white shirt to conference and shaking a General Authority’s hand, and it became easy. Every Saturday he tied two more little silver coins into his handkerchief and hid them under a rock in the corner of his home.

Nearly every week President García traveled by bus to the big city on business. On his last trip to town before conference, after his usual errands, he had a special purchase to make, for in his pocket was Juan’s money, still tied in the handkerchief.

The shirt was beautiful! It was sparkling white, with four pleats down the front and shiny buttons. Juan had never seen such a beautiful shirt. Carefully he folded it and put it back in its crinkly sack. In just a few more days, he, Juan Carlos, would wear it to conference. He certainly wouldn’t be embarrassed then.

The next morning, Juan, eager to tell Sister Fuentes about the shirt, ran all the way to her home. He was surprised to find her still lying on her cot. That wasn’t like her at all. Then his eyes shifted to her ankle, and a cold chill ran down his spine. It was swollen to twice its usual size, and the purple and black colors told him the injury was serious.

“The clinic nurse thinks that it is broken,” Sister Fuentes said. “She has no way to treat broken bones, so I must go to the city to the hospital if I want it fixed. Otherwise, I must stay in bed for a very long time.”

Traveling to the city and then to the hospital by taxi would be very expensive. Juan knew that few people from the country could afford it. Several villagers limped from poorly healed bones, and Juan remembered how his grandmother’s hand had hurt her for many years after she broke it. As he began making the morning tortillas alone, he promised in his heart to help Sister Fuentes get to the hospital—no matter what! A plan had already formed in his mind when he hurried home that day. He would sell his new shirt and give Sister Fuentes the money for the hospital visit. …

A soft breeze blew the scent of flowers through the louvered windows and over to the church bench where Juan Carlos sat. How very warm he felt inside. His sister, Lizeta, was on his lap as usual. Sister Fuentes was on one side, her ankle and foot covered with thick white plaster. His father and mother sat on his other side. He listened carefully to the speakers and was sure that this was the best stake conference ever. The closing prayer was said, and a few minutes later—it was a million times better than he had imagined—he was shaking hands with the General Authority.

“Juan Carlos,” the General Authority said, “I would like you to know that the Lord loves you and is proud of you.”

Juan Carlos’s heart was flooded with joy. His father was right—the Lord did look on the inside, not the outside. No one had even noticed his flour-sack shirt. Not even Juan Carlos.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown