We had such a beautiful day today. It started with a long trip (an hour and fifteen minutes or so) to Punata. For those who haven't lived with me from day to day for the last 40 years, I'll give you a bit of a history. I told some in a past blog, and I may have to correct it since I have been reading my journal to refresh my memory of some things...
On October 1, 1975, I was working in La Paz, in Branch 4, and received a change notice. Here it is:
To this day, I'm still not sure why this assignment to Punata was so impactful in my life and my mission, but the feelings I have had for this small town in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Bolivia changed me forever. For the uninitiated, the information in this "Letter of Change" is as follows:
- Date: October 9, 1975
- New Companion: Elder Tapia - from Montero, Bolivia. He was very short in stature - Bolivian after all, but had the biggest smile, and biggest heart of anyone I knew. He knew how to work hard, and give until it hurt. He was so patient with me and with everyone.
- Address: Plaza Alberto Montaño #105
- Assigment: District Leader, Branch President, Public Relations Coordinator
The only thing I knew at this moment, was that Punata had not been known to be the most desirable spot to be sent as a missionary. But I knew, too, that President McCallister was trying to change those kinds of feelings among the missionaries.
On October 6th, in my journal, I noted that I visited with President McCallister about Punata. I remember that he expressed his desire to have us work hard and strengthen the branch there. There had been some rumblings that it should just be closed, but he didn't want to do that. Later that evening, I got on the bus, ready for an all night ride in the dark.
I arrived in Cochabamba in the morning of the 7th, and took another bus out to Punata, arriving around 9:00 am to meet the Elders there. I learned about Sister Elva Lopez, who was the strength of the branch, her two children, and an investigator, Jeaneth Sanchez a fourteen year old girl, who was going to be baptized the next day.
On the 8th, Elder Tapia arrived (without his baggage - it got misdirected in Sucre - sounds vaguely familiar), we had the baptism for Jeaneth, and Elder Mangum and Elder Gibson split. Now the branch was our responsibility.
Punata sits in a valley much like Heber Valley where I grew up, but the climate is nearly perfect. Daily highs, year round, were between 65 F. and 80 F. Nightly lows in the winter might get down into the 40s', but most of the year they were in the 50's and 60's.
There were two other cities of note in the valley: Cliza and Arani, and there was a member family that lived a ways farther down the road from Arani, up a little valley called Pocohoata. Over time, we got to know all these areas.
So, we served there for four months together, and had many great experiences. I was reassigned to another area for six months, and at the end of that assignment, President McCallister asked me if I had any preference where I would finish my mission, having three months remaining by this time.
I felt that he was going to ask me that, and in the deepest recesses of my soul and heart, I wanted to go back to Punata. I had so deeply fallen in love with the people there, and I knew how much good they had in their hearts, I wanted to go back and continue the work we had been doing.
But, it was very rare for a missionary to be reassigned to the same branch a second time. I'm not sure of all the reasons, but I was pretty sure it wouldn't be in the cards, so I told President M. that I would really like to serve my last three months in Sucre - another beautiful area in Bolivia, with a strong branch, and good members.
He surprised me by indicating that he wanted me to go back to Punata and continue the work there. I was deeply moved that he had come to know my heart and my love for that branch.
I finished my 2 year mission in Punata, this time with Elder Johnny Chambi, who was another native Bolivian from Oruro.
So, that's a bit of the back story. While I was there, Sister Lopez shepherded Jeaneth, and helped her, but I worried that without any support from her family (her parents were pretty antagonistic towards the church), that she would struggle to continue to attend. Join to that the fact that the branch had been closed from 1981 to about 1996, I would not have imagined finding her in Punata today.
I was very wrong.
As we arrived at the chapel in Punata, I was amazed at it's size and beauty. It is now a ward, with about 130 members. As President Jensen and I entered the building, we were greeted by Bishop Rojas. President Jensen introduced me, and told the Bishop that I had served there forty years previously. Bishop Rojas said, "Then you must know Jeaneth Sanchez." I'm sure my eyes got wide with a bit of surprise as I answered that I certainly did.
He then said, "She's right here", pointing down the hallway. As she approached, I easily recognized her, despite the intervening years. She still hadn't recognized me, though.
The Bishop started introducing her, and she, in the very polite Bolivian way, shook each of our hands and greeted us one by one. She shook my hand and then went to shake another, but I held her grip, bent down a bit, and asked, "Do you remember me?"
She looked at my face again, then my name tag, and the realization struck her. "Elder Lyon - Elder Léon!!" She jumped up and down, squealing in delight, and then hugged me, completely enveloping me. She soon was in tears, as was I. Molly and Sister Jensen were in the restroom when this happened, and could hear all the excitement. Sister Jensen said to Molly, "I think someone has just recognized your husband."
The Bishop asked me to share my testimony in Sacrament Meeting, so I had to compose myself during the opening song and prayer. After the Sacrament was administered, I just shared my love for them and for my Heavenly Father, that such a beautiful people could have so much faith to make this day possible. There were probably 60 members in attendance, which is quite the change from the five or six from 1975.
After the meeting, I spoke with her, and she introduced me to Georgina Grageda - another of the few that were members so long ago. Another women stopped me and told me about her aunt whose last name was Villaroel, whom I remember, as well.
Then Molly and I took some pictures of the chapel:
The inside of the Punata chapel
Two strange people
Outside the chapel
Two strange people again
We had to get back to Cochabamba, so I didn't have time to visit anymore. I'm hoping we'll get back soon to visit, encourage, and share our experiences and testimony more.
On our way out, we stopped long enough to get a picture of the view we had every day from the front door of our old meeting place. This is the Cathedral just to the east of the central Plaza:
Punata - Templo San Juan Bautista - just off plaza 18 de Mayo
After we got back to Cochabamba, we walked around the temple and took some pictures, just to make you all jealous - this is the middle of winter here.
View from front door of the Cochabamba LDS Temple
Christo de la Concordia statue in the distance
It is the tallest Christus statue in South America
A second view of the Christus statue from the Cochabamba Temple fountain
Temple grounds - palm trees, flowers, etc.
You'd think our day was full, but not yet. Hna. Lopez's son, Percy "Harry" Avila, works with temple security, and he was at the guard station when we got back. He drew us a map of where his mother lives, and gave us her phone number.
So I called her, and told her it was Elder Lyon - "Charles Lyon?" she asked. She remembered me.
Molly and I took a taxi to where she is living with her daughter, Ivana "Bebita". Such a sweet reunion. We talked for an hour about Punata, what she had been doing, children, grand-children, and even her two great grand-children. She told me how she had been blessed to sit right across from President Hinckley at the Temple dedication in 2000, and how she had been able to teach Seminary to many, many young church members. Such sweet things to hear from such a faithful sister.
I asked her about the members from my time there. Brother Mendez's family is active and faithful, living in Santa Cruz. She said that she had lost touch with Jeaneth, but had seen her in the temple one day. Demetrio Carballo is active and serving as a secretary in a ward near her. Needless to say, my heart was full of love for this sweet sister who had worked and served others so selflessly for so many years. She is now a Temple Ordinance worker, so I hopefully will see her often.
As Molly and I walked home from Sister Lopez's home, we encountered two sister missionaries out visiting members and investigators. One was from Colorado - a tall, red-headed sister, and the other from Lima Peru. I'm not sure if she or I was the most unnatural sight in Cochabamba, but it was nice to see them.
So, that was our Sunday. Such joy I couldn't even have anticipated. I had hoped to see some of these people, but to see and hear of so many, and see how the Punata area has grown was heart warming.