Chances are you haven’t heard of the town of Santa Maria in the Philippines. There’s not much to see in this sleepy farming community—or so you think until you climb the mountains for a sprawling view of the national capital, Manila. It’s definitely kahanga-hanga—a marvel.
And chances are you haven’t—but must—hear of Santa Maria’s other marvel, an ordinary-looking elder who is surely kahanga-hanga too. Elder Bienveniedo Cayetano can tie neckties single-handedly or give left-handed handshakes nonstop. But it’s an armful of spiritual strength that has made him an exceptional missionary.
At first glance, Bien is like any other 19-year-old Filipino Latter-day Saint serving in the Philippines San Pablo Mission. But shake hands with him and you’ll notice something unusual. Bien lost his entire right arm during an earthquake. But that’s going ahead of the story.
Bien comes from a large family. To support their widowed mother, all of the Cayetano children did backbreaking labor in the rice fields. Nevertheless, they managed to attend school. Bien garnered medals in English, newswriting, and fine arts. He won track-and-field awards.
An older brother, Chris, had previously been baptized, but the rest of the family did not follow. While serving a mission, Chris requested that the elders back home visit Bien, who was taught and soon accepted baptism. But as Bien started high school, other pursuits—including a new group of friends—made church seem less attractive.
“My brother could not force me to go,” says Bien, “and I resisted attempts to reactivate me.” But Bien knew that despite good grades and many friends, he felt empty and aimless at times. He remembered how happy people at church were, and finally decided to return.
After graduating with honors from high school, Bien studied political science at the Christian College of the Philippines. “We were talking in class about earthquakes,” Bien remembers, “laughing about getting caught in one.” Suddenly, the whole classroom swayed. It was an earthquake.
Terrified, everyone scrambled to escape. The building was dancing madly. Just as Bien was about to dash to safety through an open door, he was pinned by an avalanche of concrete.
“A broken chair jabbed at my stomach, one of my legs was in a half-kneeling posture, and I was face down,” he remembers. His fractured right arm bled profusely under a block of collapsed flooring. Yet, incredibly, a huge chunk of fallen concrete had barely missed his head. “Classmates were crying for help, but I couldn’t budge,” Bien recalls. One by one they died, including three lying on Bien. The quake struck in late afternoon, and by evening it was pitch dark. Everything was silent.
“I cried,” Bien admits. But as he wept, a Primary song crossed his mind. He started singing “I Am a Child of God.” As each word pierced the silence, a feeling of peace came, a feeling that he was no longer alone. “I prayed, saying, ‘Father, if I still need to live, then please let me live.’” As he prayed, Bien remembered the Savior. “He suffered a lot more than I did,” Bien realized. The cave-in became a tremendous spiritual experience.
As the sun rose the following morning, so did Bien’s hopes. Rescue workers pried him from the rubble and carried him to safety. His relieved family was notified. Bien was rushed to a hospital. Doctors immediately amputated his right arm. “I woke up, looked at my right side and cried out, ‘What’s happening here?’ I thought I was dreaming.” Shock turned to sorrow. “I felt so lonely because I might not be able to do what I used to do.”
After three bedridden months, Bien went home. Nearly all of his 50 classmates had perished. It seemed the same thing happened to Bien’s will to live. How could he, a right-handed person, manage with just his left hand?
While tutoring his nephews one day, Bien felt prompted to practice writing the alphabet. At first it was pure frustration. “My mind knew the shapes, but my hand had difficulty following.” However, practice makes perfect; less than a year after that fateful day, Bien was not only writing with ease but also back to his oil-painting hobby. And he resumed college.
After a year, he felt it was time to make use of his newfound strength to serve a mission. His family was aghast. “We’d really worry about you,” his mother protested.
“I know this is what the Lord wants,” Bien reassured her.
Months later, as a missionary, Bien received a family letter. “Don’t worry about us,” they wrote. “We’re boasting about you already.”
Bien’s personality affects just about everybody. At the Manila Missionary Training Center he was an inspiration, and his dedication has touched the Santa Maria branch. But Bien admits there are still some challenges, like forgoing basketball and service projects like harvesting rice.
One of Bien’s favorite scriptures says God “will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will … also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). It’s a scripture that helps Bien see everything as a learning experience.
Mission life, he says, “is like a school where I learn much, not only about the gospel but also about myself.” He hastens to add that it was in the rubble of another school where he learned to trust Heavenly Father.
Ask Bien to sum up his blessings and he’ll share his motto: “I asked God for health that I might do great things, and I was given an infirmity that I might do greater things.”
Then he’ll smile and extend his friendship to you—with a warm, left-handed handshake.