Saturday, November 23, 2013

“Killing” Elder Guerra

December 5, 2007 – December 17, 2007

Elder Guerra and I on a foggy day in Xalapa.

One morning Elder Guerra and I were working in La Reserva again when we came across an area we hadn’t been to before. It was right next to an electrical grid that had a high, barbed-wire fence around it. The houses there were very small and made mostly of sheet metal and heavy cardboard, but the most unusual part about it was how packed together the houses were. There wasn’t any space for a road between them, just little footpaths in a grid. We saw a couple of boys outside one of the houses and introduced ourselves to them. They were brothers; they told us their names were Daniel and César Vera Guerra. Elder Guerra perked up when he heard their second last name. He pointed out that they might be distant relatives. I don’t know how likely that is; Guerra isn’t a super common name, so I guess it might have been possible, but either way, they bonded over their shared name.

They told us they lived in this little cluster of houses, which they called El Mango. We asked if their parents were around, and they brought us up to one of the houses in front and introduced us to their mother. We taught a brief lesson and invited them to come to church with us on Sunday. The two boys told us they wanted to come, but the mom said she couldn’t. We asked her if she had a prior commitment. Her answer was more complicated than we had expected.

She said that El Mango was a new neighborhood; it had just recently sprung up next to the electrical grid more or less overnight. It sounded like the people living there were a large group of squatters that decided to live and work together. Since the houses there had been built quickly, they were pretty insecure and needed constant vigilance to protect against thieves (and maybe the title owners of the land). The families living in El Mango assigned each adult a period of time during the week when they were required to keep watch; if they didn’t show up for it, they’d be fined. (They sounded much more organized than I’d imagined squatters being.) Their mother’s turn to take the watch was Sunday mornings, so she wouldn’t be able to go to church. Still, she was very friendly to us, and she encouraged her sons to go to church with us even though she couldn’t go herself.

From El Mango, we walked over to the Guerreros’ house to see if we could encourage them to keep coming to church with us since they’d missed the last time. No one answered the door when we knocked. Through the (rather large) gaps in their door (which was really just a piece of sheet metal secured with a chain and lock), I could see shadows moving quickly on the other side. Still no answer. We were just about to leave when Joel came walking up the road toward his house. We talked to him briefly, but I don’t remember the details very well. I think his interest in the Church had caused some conflict of opinion between him and his wife, who never really warmed up to us. That was the last time we visited them.

Since Ana and Karina’s baptisms, we’d started to make better progress teaching Raúl, Ana’s older son. He was seventeen, but between his large build and his full-time construction job, he often seemed like a grown man. His schedule made it hard for us to teach him regularly, but he had been more interested recently. When we started talking to him about baptism, we taught him that baptism was a commandment, and that it enables us to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, but the idea came into my mind that I needed to emphasize how baptism allows us to be forgiven for our sins. I did my best to explain all this through my less-than-stellar Spanish, and then I asked him if he would be baptized like his mom and sister. He said yes. We set a date for his baptism a few weeks down the road and asked him to read a few sections in the Book of Mormon we’d given him so that he would learn more on his own time.

Over the next couple of weeks, we knocked on lots of doors, contacted lots of people in the street, and taught lots and lots of lessons to new investigators. Unfortunately, no one besides the Vera Guerra’s and Raúl seemed to be sincerely interested. The Vera Guerra’s didn’t have a lot of formal schooling, so when we taught them, we had to keep things simple and ask lots of questions to make sure they were understanding. Learning a new religion’s beliefs can be confusing for anyone, but it’s especially hard when just reading a sentence takes a lot of concentration. Still, they were interested and wanted us to keep coming.

Raúl was also progressing. He agreed to stop drinking after we taught him about the Word of Wisdom. It really helped to have Ana and Karina there with us as we were teaching Raúl; when we weren’t explaining ourselves well, one of them could jump in and say it in a way that made sense to him. When we had to leave to go to our next appointment, they could provide more consistent support by answering his questions and helping him remember the commitments he’d made.

On December 11, Elder Guerra turned two. He and another missionary in the zone had started their missions exactly two years prior, so the other missionaries in the zone decided to throw them a small party after district meetings.

Elder Antonio and Elder Guerra on their 731st day as missionaries. They would return home the following week. Also pictured are some of Mexico’s unique sodas: Fanta (which comes in like seven different flavors, all of them better than the American variety), Fresca (which tastes better in Mexico because it uses actual sugar instead of artificial sweetner), and Lift (an apple-flavored soda and my personal favorite).

A snapshot of my zone in Xalapa near the end of my first transfer. Top: Elders Sharp, Guerra, and Lindsay; Middle: Elders Joaquín, Bowen, Alonso, Breceda, Antonio, Bowman, Calzada, Schwarting, and Gutiérrez; Bottom: Sisters Sánchez and Sevilla.

The next day was the Virgin of Guadalupe Day, which Catholic Mexicans believe was the day an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared on the cloak of Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican convert to Catholicism. The Virgin of Guadalupe is by far the most important saint to Catholic Mexicans. She appears in images and shrines in most people’s homes, in little huts outside on the street, and even in bus stations, just to be safe. In Xalapa that day, there was a huge parade in her honor, with big trucks decked out with images and other decorations. I wish I’d taken photos. Instead, here’s a photo of a shrine at a bus station elsewhere in the mission:

In the top right is a fairly typical Virgin of Guadalupe shrine in Santa Cruz, Veracruz.

Later that week was Raúl’s baptism. Elder Guerra performed the ordinance this time. It would be the last one of his mission. Raúl was confirmed the next day in church.

Elder Guerra, Raúl, Ana, Karina, and myself at Raúl’s baptism. Lots of Mexicans don’t naturally smile in photos.

Sunday night the zone leaders called us to tell us about transfers. Every six weeks, the mission president decides whether to move missionaries around between areas and companions. One generation goes home, and another arrives. Since Elder Guerra was going home, I knew I’d be staying in Alborada and getting a new companion to replace him. But I didn’t know who it would be. That evening, we did splits with the teens in the ward again, so when the zone leaders called Elder Guerra to tell him about transfers, he called the teenager I was with to tell me who was taking his place. He told me it would be Elder Nájera. Elder Guerra didn’t know him very well, but he said he’d been on his mission for about ten months. Sister Sánchez and Sister Sevilla were both being transferred out of the area next to ours, and two elders were replacing them.

The next day Elder Guerra packed his things and visited a few of the members in the ward. Our last visit was to a family that Elder Guerra and his previous companion had taught. They had all gotten baptized together and were becoming strong members of the ward.

Elder Guerra and myself with the Rodríguez family the night before Elder Guerra left for home. Every time we talked to them, I could tell how much they cared about Elder Guerra. I hoped that I would be able to find and teach a family just like them.

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