The mission president and two elders met us at the airport, and after a short meeting, we were whisked off to our various assignments. I guess I was lucky because I was one of the first of the new elders to go.
The apartment where my companion and I were to live was several miles from the mission office, just outside the center of town. Elder Parks was from Houston, Texas, and talked with a slight drawl. He was tall, about six feet six inches, with dark black hair.
We went tracting and were having very little success our first night together. Elder Parks was surprised at how well I spoke Portuguese. I told him my family had lived in Brazil for a year while dad was assigned there on business.
As I opened a gate and Elder Parks and I started up the path to a small, green, wooden home, he whispered, “This one is yours.” I felt a heavy lump in my throat as I knocked on my first door.
An old man let us in. We had to keep repeating ourselves because he didn’t hear very well. We were both yelling by the end of the visit.
“How did I do?” I asked on our way to the bus after the visit.
“Not bad for the first time,” Elder Parks answered. “Too bad the guy’s so old. He must be in his 80s.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, he’s what we call a ‘banana peel case,’” he explained. “When a person gets that old and feeble, he could ‘slip off’ at any time. We like to teach younger men who can later become leaders. Besides, he’ll probably get the gospel in the spirit world anyway.”
“Why not give it to him now?”
“Look, the man is old. I should have stopped you at the door and taken over. He’s obviously not what we’re looking for in new members.”
In other words, case closed. I didn’t argue.
As we went out tracting the next day, we were in an area fairly close to where the old man lived, so I suggested we go back.
Elder Parks was dumbfounded. “I thought we talked about it last night.”
“I know, but I just have a feeling about this guy.”
“I think we’re wasting our time, but okay, have it your way. But consider this his last visit from us.”
We trudged up to the door, and I rang the bell. We waited for what seemed like half an hour. Finally the old man answered.
“You boys have to understand that I’m not as young as I used to be, so I take a little longer,” he said after greeting us and asking us in.
We sat down. I had Elder Parks say the prayer, and we started right into the discussion on the plan of salvation. It seemed to go well. This time the old man asked a lot of questions. He beamed with pride as he told us he had read part of the Book of Mormon and all of the Joseph Smith pamphlet we had left before. He’d even been praying, and he promised to come to church Sunday if we’d help him get there. I was really excited as I scheduled another visit.
“Now didn’t that go well?”
Elder Parks wrinkled his brow. “I guess it wasn’t bad.”
“Now, wasn’t it worth it?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
The following Tuesday I dragged Elder Parks back for a third visit. The old man seemed unusually excited. He pulled the Book of Mormon off a shelf. His eyes sparkled.
“I’ve read the book through once. It’s strange; usually I’m not a very religious person, but I couldn’t put the book down.”
It wasn’t hard to read the “oh no” look in Elder Parks’s face, but I didn’t let it bother me too much. After all, the Spirit was really strong there. There was just something special about this sweet old man. Even Elder Parks had to sort of admit it.
“How many investigators have read the Book of Mormon all the way through by the third visit?” I asked as we walked to the bus stop.
“Not very many,” he had to admit.
“So can’t you see? This man is one of the most golden contacts you’ll run into on your whole mission.”
“Maybe so, but wait until you get to the discussion on the commandments. Then you’ll find out how golden he really is. You saw that cigar dangling from his mouth last time, didn’t you? Do you really think an old man like that is going to be able to give up his stogie for the Church? And he’s too old and feeble to get around. Somebody will have to pick him up for church every Sunday and take his arm and chauffeur him around the chapel. Nobody’s going to do that week after week.”
A week passed by, and Elder Parks refused to go back. He just didn’t want to teach old folks.
Finally, on the following Tuesday, we came back to our apartment from a long, discouraging day in which nobody had shown the least interest in hearing about the Church. We were sitting at our desks planning the next day’s schedule when somebody knocked at the door. People didn’t usually come by that late at night, so I was close behind Elder Parks as he answered the door.
It was a boy about ten years old, with long black hair and blue eyes. He was wearing black shorts, a white t-shirt, and thongs.
“Grandpa said I should come see you. He wonders why you haven’t come back.”
I smiled at Elder Parks as we let the boy in.
Roberto was curious about what missionaries do and asked us all sorts of questions. Finally he told us, “Grandpa wants to see you tomorrow night at 7:00. He wants to know more about your church.”
I pulled out my little black book and began thumbing through it. Elder Parks was doing the same.
“Nothing tomorrow night.”
“I don’t have anything either,” he said. “Tell your grandfather, tomorrow at 7:00 will be fine.”
It was a foggy, cold night Wednesday as our bus jolted out toward the little shack on the edge of town.
The porch light was on, and we could hear a lot of noise inside as we knocked on the door. The old man answered and ushered us into a room packed with people—22 of them. Elder Parks’s face was blank with astonishment as Grandpa Carlos introduced us to his two sons, two daughters, and their families. In the middle of it all was Roberto, excitedly telling his parents about his visit to our apartment.
Well, we baptized the old man, two of his sons, a daughter, and their families—a total of 17 in all. One daughter and her family haven’t joined yet, but we’re working on them. And Elder Parks hasn’t said a thing about teaching old folks since. As a matter of fact, we’re teaching three old friends of Grandpa Carlos right now.