The Bridge


The compact omnibus speedily wound its way up the winding switchbacks of the El Alto road leading out of the main city of La Paz, Bolivia. I sat on the edge of my seat, aware of nothing other than my thoughts. “What will I say? How can he be persuaded to do the right thing?” I asked myself, as the bus bounced around another curve in the worn cobblestone road. I then peered intently through the window at my right toward the mud streets and houses we swiftly passed, as if I could find an answer in the dirty, yet somehow serene surroundings. I had been given an urgent assignment to work that afternoon with one of our native Bolivian missionaries, Elder Sanchez.

Arriving in Elder Sanchez’s area, I stepped off the bus and walked determinedly to the corner apartment of a dirt-colored adobe house. Elder Sanchez stood apprehensively in the doorway of the small apartment to meet me. I sensed a look of concern in his face as I approached and we shook hands.

Elder Sanchez was not just an ordinary Bolivian, though his features were typical—a staunch 5 feet tall, jet-black hair, dark, intense eyes, and a deep brown complexion. His shoulders were broad and muscular from the year he had spent as a construction missionary before his proselyting mission. This missionary was a special Bolivian—a Lamanite called to serve his own people.

Elder Sanchez was the only member of the Church in his family, and they did not fully understand why he had to dedicate himself in such a manner to his religion. He was also somewhat older than the average missionary, and his family felt that he should be completing his education at this important time. These pressures had weighed heavily on Elder Sanchez, and at times he felt the burden was too great. Possibly he would be more of a positive influence were he with his family. These questions had to be dealt with immediately.

Ducking to fit through the small doorway, I followed Elder Sanchez into the dimly lit room—a typical missionary apartment. The furnishings were the standard items: two identical, well-worn beds, which sagged terribly in the middle; three or four new copies of the Libro de Mormón stacked on a small table in the center of the room, and several tracting pamphlets and Church books nearby. We sat on the edge of one of the beds and reviewed the plan for the afternoon’s work. We knelt together on the bare brick floor, and Elder Sanchez offered prayer. Silently I pled in my heart with the Lord: “Please help Elder Sanchez. Help him to realize just what he should do.” He had to stay—he was vital to the program. We paused briefly at the conclusion of the prayer and looked each other in the eye. We shook hands and rose to leave.

We left the apartment and talked about prospective converts and investigators as we walked down the unpaved dirt road toward the proselyting area we would be working in. I could sense that although Elder Sanchez was a little nervous about our visit, he wanted to talk. Trying to concentrate on cheerful and positive events in the mission, I complimented Elder Sanchez and his companion on the work they were doing, for things did appear to be going well for them.

We turned from the road onto a well-worn pathway that twisted its way up a small hillside. At the top we stopped to rest and catch our breath. The sun was bright and warm, yet a gentle breeze made things cool and refreshing. From the crest of the hill we looked down upon the streets and houses of the community below. The adobe structures all were roofed with sheets of rippled tin, which reflected the bright sunlight like giant mirrors. These were familiar sights to me now. I thought about how I had gone through struggles with the language, adjusting to the customs, and learning how to love these people. Elder Sanchez had not had to go through any of these changes. He knew the language, including the Aymara dialect. He knew the customs; he knew humility; he knew the language of the Lamanite heart.

We continued along the path. The top of the hill leveled into a long, narrow plateau. The other side of the plateau dropped vertically at the edge into a deep and wide ravine. At the bottom of the canyon was a small stream, polluted by garbage and other refuse that people had thrown over the side of the gulch. The stench that rose from the pollution made me shudder, and I breathed through the material of my suit sleeve to try to filter the air. This was one of the poorest areas of the city, and it was evident.

Our pathway ran parallel to the ledge of the ravine, and I scanned the scene below as we walked. In the distance was an ancient-looking railroad bridge that crossed the canyon. The path we followed appeared to pass near it.

Elder Sanchez opened up more as we talked about his family and his missionary calling. He was confused about who to listen to and who to rely on for direction. There were so many pressures!

Suddenly my concentration was interrupted as the pathway crossed an old pair of worn railroad tracks. My heart jumped as Elder Sanchez abruptly turned to follow the railroad tracks instead of continuing on the pathway. I stopped. The old railroad bridge was directly in front of us! My heart began pounding as I realized what was happening. I reached for Elder Sanchez’s arm and beckoned him to stop. “Are we going to cross the bridge?” I asked. He shrugged and replied simply, “Yes.”

I paused. “Isn’t there some other route we could take?” I began to perspire as I looked past Elder Sanchez to the canyon and the bridge. Elder Sanchez walked toward the bridge and replied, “This is the shortest way.” Unwilling to confess my fear of heights, I silently tried to muster courage.

I followed my companion to the edge of the canyon and stopped, stretching my neck to look over the edge. The bottom of the gully was several hundred feet below. My confidence evaporated, and my stomach twisted into a tight knot. I swallowed hard as I studied the bridge. Although it was still in use, it was very old and in poor condition. There was nothing above the rails to aid in crossing—no hand or guard rail, no supports, no girders—nothing at all. The iron rails rested on greasy, black, wooden ties, old and worn from use and cracked from the weather. I looked up at Elder Sanchez—he was already halfway across.

A silent prayer rose from my heart as I braced myself and carefully placed my foot exactly in the middle of the first tie. Then ever so slowly, the second, then the third. Slowly, I moved away from the solid ground. Through the gaps between the ties I could see the ground far below. I seemed to lose my equilibrium and my muscles tightened. I tried to relax and concentrate completely on the ties, avoiding as much as possible the view between the spaces. As I developed a rhythm, each step became easier and smoother.

I proceeded slowly and steadily ahead. One by one the ties moved under me, until I had stepped on each one in the bridge. I leaped from the last step onto solid ground, smiling with pride and relief as my fright turned into exuberance. My heart was still pounding as I joined Elder Sanchez, who had been watching and waiting patiently for me on the other side. With pride in my step we continued together.

Elder Sanchez and I spent the rest of the day tracting and visiting families. For a time, we became so involved in the proselyting work that our concern for the original problem was completely forgotten. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to set behind the distant Andes mountains as we finally directed our steps back toward the apartment. In near desperation I reviewed all that Elder Sanchez and I had talked about during the day. So far I had only been able to listen to Elder Sanchez’s feelings about his situation. I had not been able to offer any convincing suggestions. There seemed to be no conclusions. I searched for the key. Surely Elder Sanchez had problems that would be resolved with patience and faith. The Lord understood his problems, and he would help. We needed Elder Sanchez; the people needed Elder Sanchez; and the Lord needed Elder Sanchez. He was vital to the program! Surely he would sense he must stay.

Suddenly my concentration was shattered as we rounded a corner, and there in front of us again lay the railroad tracks! Panic-stricken, I searched down the rails, and in the distance it loomed—the bridge. Body and mind reacted instinctively. My knees and legs went weak, and my stomach began to tighten again. My heart began to pound quickly. We continued forward. To maintain composure, I tried to be logical: “I’ve done this once,” I thought. “Why not again?” But fear answered: “It’s impossible!” My chances of being able to cross again were too slim! Yet we approached the bridge, and Elder Sanchez again started out in front of me.

Repeating positive phrases and words of encouragement to myself, I reoffered my silent prayer and started out. Step by step, slowly and surely, I tried to follow the same process as before. Again confidence grew with each step. Again I was on my way.

I was near the halfway point on the bridge, concentrating on steady rhythm, when I heard voices—then footsteps. I cautiously stopped and slowly looked up. I froze. In front of me was the largest Bolivian woman I had ever seen in my time as a missionary. The woman was coming directly toward me, and her steady pace clearly indicated who was to make room for whom. I was stunned. I painstakingly lifted my right foot and placed it on the portion of the tie extending several inches to the outside of one rail. I kept my left foot firmly planted on the inside of the rail for balance. I strained to make enough room for her to pass by. Uncontrollably I glanced down over the edge of the bridge to the bottom of the ravine. The stream of water trickled and wound through the debris far below. I felt myself begin to gently sway. Quickly I looked back to the rails.

The woman approached and moved past me. Her long full skirts brushed me gently, and I leaned as far forward into the bridge as I could. But there was another small figure directly behind the woman I had not noticed before—a slender eight-or nine-year-old girl. She clutched her mother’s full skirts with tightly clenched fists. As they both moved past, tears ran down the little girl’s brown cheeks, and she cried out to the woman, “Mamá, tengo temor! ¿Qué hago?¡Tengo temor!” (“Mother, I’m scared! What do I do? I’m scared!”) The old woman merely kept her steady pace, eyes fixed directly ahead, and replied in her native tongue, “Mírame a mí, hija. No mires hacia abajo, sino mírame a mí.” (“Look at me, dear. Don’t look down, just look at me.”)

I stood motionless and watched mother and daughter continue across the bridge. As if a wave of warm air had blown about me, all fear left and inspiration came. I stood in reverence as I realized the simplicity of the answer to Elder Sanchez’s questions. Just as the wise Indian mother had counseled her daughter, I seemed to hear in my mind, “Keep your eye on the prophet.” “Look to the Brethren.” “Come, follow me.

I looked across the bridge to the other side where Elder Sanchez stood. The affirmation of the Spirit came to me, and I knew what Elder Sanchez must come to understand. Although he was fearful and uncertain, he had received a call from the Lord through his prophet; there was no question about what he should do. With childlike faith he had to look to Him, not look down—keep his eye on Him, and he too would cross the bridge.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull