It was a hot and sultry July day in 1970. Though the wind was blowing in my face, my back felt wet, and perspiration formed on my arms. This was going to be a scorcher, and I only hoped that it would not be a wasted trip. I geared down into third as the little red, four-door Datsun rounded a turn in the road. Many thoughts raced through my mind as I drove toward San Fernando, Mexico, that morning.
It had been only two months since my co-companion, Elder Mont Garrett, and I had been transferred to the city of Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. I had been serving in the Mexico North Mission for two years now, and both Elder Garrett and I felt strange being transferred to a city so close to the United States.
Beginning in 1969 and continuing for the next several years, the Mexican missions had all experienced astounding success in converting people of all ages to the Church. While I had enjoyed some success during my mission, I was still not satisfied that I had done my best, and so the transfer to Matamoros offered a last opportunity to really succeed as a representative of the Lord.
Ten days earlier, as Elder Garrett and I were visiting with the district president, he casually remarked that Hermana (Sister) Villafranca, from the small farming community of San Fernando, had asked him to send the missionaries to visit her. Since neither my companion nor l had ever heard of San Fernando, it came as something of a surprise to us. I immediately asked if there would be any investigators present, if they would be willing to be taught the gospel, and how much planning had gone into this proposed “visit.” The district president smilingly replied that the Hermana had arranged to use her home in the city as a site for a Sunday School that would be held the following week. The district president and several members had agreed to attend and assist with the procedural problems if we would teach a class for investigators. I was rather skeptical of the entire idea but contacted the mission president and asked for permission to go.
The mission president was also somewhat reluctant to accept the idea, but he finally granted his permission—with the understanding that we should make arrangements to see that our commitments in Matamoros were met for that day. We would be able to return to San Fernando only if there were enough investigators present to justify the time involved. Since as zone leader I was responsible for all missionary work outside the city, Elder Garrett and I agreed that he would remain in Matamoros to work with a local companion and I would meet the district president in San Fernando on the next Sunday.
Other thoughts crowded in as I slowly drove toward San Fernando. I supposed that during the time of my mission I had told the Joseph Smith story over a thousand times, but it was something that I still enjoyed doing. I hoped to tell it with particular conviction to the investigators in San Fernando because, with my date of release only weeks away, I knew that my opportunities were very limited. Never did I dream, though, that the next six hours would bring one of the most spiritually exciting experiences of my life.
San Fernando lies about 80 miles south of Matamoros, and as my journey was coming to an end, I was aware for the first time of the physical setting. On both sides of the two-lane highway there were gently rolling hills and seemingly endless fields of sorghum and wild grass. Notwithstanding the hot and monotonously humid days, I later found that the mornings were cool and refreshing in the early hours, and the evenings were graced with strikingly beautiful orange, red, and purple sunsets that led to majestically silent evenings interrupted only by the music of insects. The intense feeling of peace was very relaxing.
My daydreaming was interrupted as I approached the outskirts of town. After asking directions from several hesitant citizens (seeing a gringo, especially one who could more or less speak the native tongue, was something of a novelty in San Fernando), I soon arrived at Hermana Villafranca’s home. The house was situated at the end of a long, uphill street that disappeared into the underbrush of the hillside. The thatch-roofed building was made of adobe bricks that had recently been whitewashed (I later discovered that Hermana Villafranca had ordered the whitewashing especially for this occasion). I drove slowly through a narrow gate and parked under a shaggy tree. The district president greeted me, stating that the Hermana would be along soon.
Minutes later we were roused from our conversation by the insistent honking of a horn that grew louder as a large truck approached. As the truck arrived I discovered the cargo area was bulging with faces of all ages, sizes, and descriptions. The good Hermana stepped down and encouraged her passengers to alight and make themselves comfortable. I exchanged the usual formal greetings with her, and then she immediately announced that we must hurry if we were to start the meeting on time.
In terms of her physical appearance, she was not unlike many Mexican women whom I had met. I soon learned, however, that the spiritual attributes of Hermana Villafranca were entirely her own and can only be described as breathtaking. She always radiated a spirit of goodness, and her seemingly inexhaustible supply of faith was a power that was undeniable and also entirely reliable.
The inside dimensions of Hermana Villafranca’s home were small, about 15 by 30 feet. She had removed all the furniture so that the single room with the hard dirt floor was converted into a hall for the entire congregation. There were about 50 people at Sunday School that morning, and as we sang the opening song a cappella, I couldn’t help but wonder how many were investigators and how many were Church members from outlying areas. I soon found out. After the opening exercises were over, I was asked to remain in the house and teach the investigators while the members moved outside for their lessons.
Sometimes nothing is more difficult than setting up an umbrella-type flannelboard, especially when you are shaking. I was about to present the Joseph Smith story to 30 anxious listeners!
As I began the discussion, the room was expectantly quiet. Every student listened with sincere interest. When I asked questions of the class, it seemed as if they had memorized the answers beforehand, and I found myself becoming more and more excited as it became apparent that I had not one golden contact, but a whole room full of them. When it came time to ask if, after they had studied, prayed, and listened to the rest of the discussions, they would be baptized, I was greeted with a chorus of “Sí.”
After the class was over, I quickly left the room to visit with Hermana Villafranca. Tears came to her dark eyes when I told of the class. She said that she had been looking forward to that day for many years. I could only look at her and marvel at her faith, determination, and persistence.
Two weeks later Elder Garrett and I conducted a small baptismal service in San Fernando. On this occasion I was able to baptize three of the class members, including Hermana Villafranca’s brother, in the shallow waters of a small river that passes through the north end of town. The next month I turned the work over to Elder Garrett and returned home.
The experience in San Fernando ended my mission in a very gratifying way. I sensed that it was an important incident, but I did not then realize how far-reaching the effects would be. Now, six years later, there is a branch with almost 200 members in San Fernando. It is there because of the missionary efforts of one stalwart sister who was not afraid to tell others about the gospel, and to do it with the faith that precedes any miracle.