Early one Sunday in La Paz, Bolivia, a young family sets out to walk the steep, cobblestone streets of the 450-year-old city to attend a ward in a distant part of their stake. The husband is stake Young Men president; his wife, the stake Young Women president. Lacking bus fare, they make their way on foot, a trip that takes two hours with young children in tow. Their two-hour trip to church is an example of the faithfulness of Bolivian Latter-day Saints who are embracing the joys of dedicated gospel living.
“The faith of our members is strong. They sacrifice so the Lord can see their hearts,” explains La Paz Bolivia Sopocachi Stake president Andrés Pacheco.
Elder René J. Cabrera, an Area Authority Seventy in the South America West Area, feels that sacrifices for the gospel help lift Bolivian Saints out of their past. “This country faces two major challenges,” he explains. “One is the economy; the other, harmful traditions.” The two are closely tied. Some traditions revolve around fiestas, which include days of drinking and dancing, often costing a family many months’ wages. “One of our challenges is to help people leave harmful traditions behind as they grow in new gospel vision,” says Elder Cabrera.
Since 1964, when missionaries first arrived in Bolivia, the Church has been helping Bolivian people make the transition from old ways to new. Carmen and Luis Molina were among the first to join the Church in Bolivia. “Two missionaries stopped at my door and invited me to Relief Society, which was held in a home,” explains Sister Molina. “I felt happy at the meeting. I went home and told my husband about it.” Luis was cautious at first, but the family joined the Church in 1965, and he became the first man to be ordained an elder in Bolivia.
“One of my earliest memories is of our family preparing for church,” recalls their son Rolando Molina, who today serves as president of the El Alto Bolivia 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 Luis have served faithfully in many callings over the years as they have watched the Church grow and expand. In 1979 President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994), then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, visited Bolivia and organized the first stake. While there, he rededicated the land for the spreading 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 more than 130 chapels and a temple in our country. We have a second generation growing strong and preparing now in seminaries and institutes. They are a generation of change.”
Ever-increasing numbers of Bolivians are finding strength in gospel teachings that help them leave behind harmful traditions and better themselves economically. A close look at members in three cities demonstrates the blessings these members receive.
Developing Leaders in La Paz
Each evening thousands of lights twinkle on the steep mountain slopes of La Paz, a city that fills a four-kilometer-wide, bowl-shaped canyon carved into one of the world’s highest plateaus, the Altiplano, at an altitude of 3,600 meters. Standing sentinel over La Paz is majestic Mount Illimani, with a 6,400-meter peak that is snowcapped even in summer. Streets are crowded, steep, and filled with taxis and minibuses in this 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, La Paz is also home to six stakes, which are seeing rapid growth as people embrace the gospel.
In La Paz, training enough leaders is an ongoing challenge, as in most areas where the Church experiences rapid growth and subdivides into smaller units. Tender testimonies are often strengthened 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,” Miguel says. “I’d had an accident, and my life had passed before me. I saw parts I didn’t like, and I wondered why I didn’t feel right about them. What did it mean?”
One day 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,” Teresa explains. 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 during surgery, the doctor could find nothing wrong. This blessing 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, first counselor in the La Paz Bolivia Miraflores Stake presidency, 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.”
The Lord’s hand is apparent in many other callings. As leaders are needed, they are prepared, and then they are called. José Acedo was living in Lima, Perú, 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 out to the countryside to ponder.” Days passed, and toward the end of his vacation, 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. At Christmas, they were married. “We are so grateful to the Lord for bringing us together,” José says.
When the Acedos moved to La Paz, José was called as bishop of the Norte Ward, La Paz Bolivia Constitución Stake. As bishop, he faces the ongoing challenge of helping ward members learn what it means to sustain others in callings and to 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.”
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 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 kilometers in a flat, oil- 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 are committed to welcoming new converts while strengthening other members.
Lucio Gil Díez, bishop of the Belén Ward, Santa Cruz Bolivia 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 a family member 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 he soon did investigate and eventually join 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. “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 Guillermo Quintana, who served as stake president. “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, November 1997, 49). As a result, 72 percent of new members baptized recently in the stake are still active.
President Quintana knows the importance of finding friends at church. The night of his baptism at age 18, his best friend told him he would never visit him again if he 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 sought for ways to strengthen the stake, he often asked, “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 members through an effort called la canasta del Señor (the Lord’s basket). On the last Sunday of each month, sisters bring 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 help meet members’ social needs through well-planned activities. One annual stake event is a folk dancing festival that showcases Bolivia’s rich heritage. This positive reminder of their country’s traditions draws the attention of the press, and reports appear in newspapers 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 wash, care for, and feed the children. They donate clothing and help dress the children and comb their hair,” explains President Quintana. The sisters help more than 100 babies and young children 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 completed this year. Elder Mario E. Guzmán, an Area Authority Seventy, remembers getting a telephone call on 21 January 1995 from Elder Julio E. Dávila, then 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 read a fax from the First Presidency: ‘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 is likely due to its central location in Bolivia. Nestled at 2,400 meters on the eastern slopes of the lofty Andes Mountains, Cochabamba has a temperate climate that attracts 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 Gordon B. 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 welcomed 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 people 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 or branch at a time and feel the Spirit there. “We are preparing the people,” says Cochabamba Bolivia Jaihuayco 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, and we visit them and help them set goals. 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 Bolivia 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. 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, Latter-day Saints echo his feelings. The work of personal preparation and 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 come blessings that are flowing throughout the land.