My First Church Assignment


I developed an abiding love of family history as I discovered my roots in China, Great Britain, Latin America, and Switzerland.

Just weeks after I was baptized at age 16, my branch president called me to attend a family history class. Because of that simple assignment, my entire life changed.

Growing up in Uruguay with the uncommon surname of Harris (inherited from my father, who was British), I already had a natural interest in family history because of my unique ancestry—which includes progenitors from Switzerland and China as well as Great Britain. The class made the Spirit of Elijah burn more brightly within me. I began to interview my grandparents, to fill in family group records, to complete pedigree charts, and to write my family history. Soon after completing the class I was called to serve as a family history instructor.

During the next few years I experienced spiritual direction several times while working on my family history, and since then I have learned that events like these are common when we are engaged in this great work.

Archived Records in Uruguay

One of the most extraordinary experiences took place when I was 19 years old. I was released from serving as a counselor in my branch presidency so I could accept an assignment as chairman of family history for the mission. We were preparing for a visit from George H. Fudge of the Church’s Genealogical Department in Salt Lake City; he was hoping to microfilm some of the vital records of Uruguay. I was asked to help make the arrangements.

That night I prayed fervently for the ability to do what I had been asked. Later I noticed a newspaper headline that read, “Genealogy in Uruguay.” The story told about an upcoming meeting of Uruguayan genealogists. Then I saw that the newspaper was several days old. The meeting had already been held, but I decided to visit the address in the story anyway.

On the evening I decided to make my visit, I was also assigned to supervise a youth gathering and had to stay at the meetinghouse until 9:30 P.M. I didn’t have the money for bus fare, so I walked to the place where the meeting had been held. By the time I reached the address, it was late. I rang the bell, hoping for the best, and a few minutes later a man opened the door.

I introduced myself, and the man graciously allowed me to come in. What he said next filled me with surprise: “I am glad you came this late because I just arrived. Had you come a few minutes earlier you would have found an empty house.” I soon learned he was part of the only group of genealogists in Uruguay. I also found out that the newspaper had published the story about the meeting despite having been asked not to do so.

I was able to set up a meeting for Brother Fudge with this group of eminent genealogists. They opened the archives to him. At his request, some of the indexes of family history records in Uruguay were microfilmed. I believe these were the first records microfilmed by the Church in Uruguay.

A Chinese Poem of Generations

A second significant event occurred a few years later when I was called to serve a mission to Peru. My grandfather, who was not religious but was the man I respected most, did not want me to go. Mine was a Chinese family, and my grandfather was its patriarch. In effect, the family was our religion, and obeying and honoring our elders was our moral code. For weeks my grandfather did not talk to me because of my intention to go on a mission. One week before I left, he offered me a present. He gave me the razor I used during my mission—a razor I still keep to this day. He was a loving man. In order to help him feel better about my mission, I told him I would do what I could to find his relatives living in Peru.

In the first three months of my mission, I met Guillermo “Willy” Hauyon, my grandfather’s nephew. I told Guillermo I had heard there was a Chinese poem in the family from which each generation took a word and incorporated it in their given names. To my surprise, he produced the poem and copied it for me. When I returned to Uruguay after my mission, I had my grandfather transcribe the poem in his own handwriting. Today it is a precious reminder of my grandfather and my heritage. The poem contains 48 Chinese characters and is used to mark generations; it has since proven invaluable in helping determine family relations.

A few months after finding the poem—while serving in the mission office—I traveled to Trujillo, Peru. There I met Elsa Hauyon, who was then 82 years old. She turned out to be my grandfather’s cousin, the only relative I have ever known who grew up with him in China. I spent hours talking to her, recording the names of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters. I learned that there were 13 of them and not just the four my grandfather spoke of. With Elsa’s help, I also traced our family back to the founder of my grandfather’s hometown.

Swiss Ancestors in Peru

Another sacred family history event also occurred while I served as a missionary. Upon arriving in Peru, I was assigned to Callao, the port of Lima. It was most remarkable because, unbeknownst to me at the time, the tombs of my Swiss ancestors were in that very city. A relative eventually told me about the tombs, but I was unable to find them before being transferred to another city.

However, I believe the Lord wanted me to find my ancestors. While missionaries are seldom assigned to the same branch twice, I was. Almost a year later, I came back to Callao, and this time I discovered there were two adjacent cemeteries, one where my Schlupp ancestors are buried and the other where the records (dating back to 1820) for the family are stored. Searching through the records, I finally came across what I was looking for: “Elizabeth Schlupp, 57 years old, buried September 16, 1875; Ana Maria Schlupp Kruse, 66 years old, buried January 24, 1918.” I had found my Swiss ancestors!

I was ecstatic. I was able to complete four generations of my family history at last. Of all the places I could have been assigned, the Lord had called me not once but twice to Callao—the place where I could locate my Swiss ancestors.

A Lasting Impression

All of these wonderful events happened during the six years after my baptism. When I look back on my youth, I realize how much my testimony of the Church and its divinity has been strengthened through family history work and the Spirit of Elijah. I can truly say I have felt the Lord’s influence many times in turning my heart to my ancestors. That chord, struck by my branch president who was inspired to get me started at age 16 with family history, still resonates today in the most sacred experiences of my soul.

The Real Reason

Elder Russell M. Nelson

“Elijah came not only to stimulate research for ancestors. He also enabled families to be eternally linked beyond the bounds of mortality. Indeed, the opportunity for families to be sealed forever is the real reason for our research. The Lord declared through the Prophet Joseph Smith: ‘These are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, … they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect’ [D&C 128:15].” Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “A New Harvest Time,” Ensign, May 1998, 34.

Illustration by Robert T. Barrett

Photographs courtesy of John A. Harris

Elder Harris’s family history includes progenitors from Switzerland, China, and Great Britain. From left: The Chinese poem of generations; Swiss relatives; Swiss ancestors’ tombstones in Callao, Peru; Elder Harris’s grandfather’s cousin, Elsa Hauyon; his grandfather and grandmother on their wedding day; and his great-grandfather and family members in China. Background: Mountain High Maps® © 1993 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

Clockwise from left: Elder Harris’s grandmother in traditional Chinese dress; a Swiss ancestor’s tombstone, forgotten under the trees of a Protestant cemetery in the city of Elder Harris’s first missionary assignment; family photo of Chinese relatives, including Elsa Hauyon.

Elder John A. Harris is an Area Authority Seventy serving in the Utah South Area.