“No One Is a ‘Foreigner’” Ensign, Aug. 1990, 59
“I love helping people into the Lord’s Church,” beams Eric Ochoa, holding a set of keys to the doors of the Vancouver Second Ward in British Columbia, Canada.
As the meetinghouse custodian, Eric has keys that open the door to the building just about every day of the week. However, as ward mission leader, Eric also holds another set of keys that open the door to the Church for investigators in his area. According to stake mission president Joe Cirillo, “you’d have to look a long way in the Church to find a more devoted ward mission leader than Eric Ochoa.” Compact and power-packed, with an exotic Spanish lilt to his every word, Eric Ochoa is a refugee from his turbulent homeland of El Salvador. This might explain why he takes none of his blessings for granted.
His foreign roots, his close work with family and bishop and ward members, and, finally, his cosmopolitan urban ward are all dynamics that make Eric Ochoa’s stake mission both interesting and instructive. Relying heavily on the Spirit of the Lord in his missionary efforts, Eric is quick to credit the Lord with the ward’s seventy-one convert baptisms in the past two years. He also credits members and leaders in the ward, who cooperate to the fullest. His is a story of spiritual devotion, ethnic understanding, and a good deal of real enjoyment.
In keeping with his strong Latin American heritage, Brother Ochoa would just as soon serenade you with love songs as talk to you. His broad grin is that of the classic troubadour. Nearly every time Eric enters the house from work, he picks up his Spanish guitar and strums and hums and before long has translated the tensions of a busy day into the soothing atmosphere so characteristic of his home. “It only takes a couple of minutes,” says the round-faced father of four, “and it seems to do us all some good.”
Eric spends many hours a week at the Vancouver Second Ward chapel on Vancouver’s Forty-first Street. Grateful for work as the meetinghouse custodian, Eric provides food, shelter, and clothing for his family of six. Grateful to be living in a land of freedom and economic stability, Eric and his wife, Emery, ardently educate their family in the principles of freedom and the doctrines of the gospel.
Whenever possible, Brother Ochoa’s missionary efforts include his family. Weekly he invites friends in to hear of the Ochoa family’s gladness in the restored gospel. In short, the family is totally united in the missionary cause.
Rather than leave them home to always “support Dad” while he’s off doing missionary work, the Ochoas support their dad by being with him when they can—especially young Eric, who at thirteen is also his father’s guitar partner. Father and son usually go out together once a week, and Sister Ochoa is often the one who made the appointments they’ve gone to keep.
Emery Ochoa feels that her efforts at home and on the phone enable her to feel as much satisfaction in the success of the missionary work as if she were actually with Eric. She will, for example, fix meals for friends coming to their home for discussions, or for the missionaries when they come over; she has been known to prepare a meal for the whole zone of missionaries who work in Vancouver Second Ward’s area.
“The phone never stops on Sundays around here,” seventeen-year-old Yancy says. “Someone is always either moving in or moving out and looking for a Spanish-speaking person to advise them.” Then she adds, “It seems that we never go to church without Daddy picking someone up. Either he will do it on the way or will drop us off and then go pick the person up.”
“Dad realizes that he’s gone a lot,” says fifteen-year-old Jacqueline, “and he really tries to make up for it by planning special times when we are together. He lets each one of us know he loves us through his singing and giving us special attention—things like that.”
Communication can be difficult in a cosmopolitan culture like Vancouver’s, the bishop will tell you. A man who has lived in enough different cultures to know, Bishop Akihito Inouye came from Japan by way of Hawaii, Saudi Arabia, and France to his present job as an engineer in Vancouver. “With so many different backgrounds in our ward,” he explains, “we are careful to communicate as clearly as possible. Our differences in background, however, have helped us see how much the same we all really are.”
The international backgrounds of both Bishop Inouye and Brother Ochoa have made for a hand-in-glove fit. They are a comfortable complement to each other as they work together to bring others to Christ. Those “others” include the some half-million people in Vancouver who have yet to embrace the gospel, and the less-active, who make up slightly more than one-half of the members on the records of the ward.
The two men have put together a booklet of suggestions for the stake members on how they might share the gospel. Each page contains a clear-cut step members can take to share the gospel. The steps include things as easy-to-do as inviting someone to share family home evening with you. They lead to other steps, such as inviting a friend to a Church social or a worship service. Step thirteen is to invite a friend into your home for the missionaries to teach. Though the steps may not be revolutionary, the booklet does provide—in both English and Spanish—a series of clearly stated reminders, encouraging members to keep missionary work in mind each day.
A large part of Brother Ochoa’s success has been his close cooperation with Bishop Inouye. They have combined their energies, for instance, to see that a five-week member-missionary class gets taught in Sunday School. Members are called to attend the class, in which they are given instruction and encouragement about ways they can be more effectively involved in missionary work.
For many people, showing an interest in one another’s differences does not always come automatically. But because of Eric’s seemingly limitless enthusiasm for sharing his own and learning about others’ ethnic differences, he has been a unifying force in a ward where many cultures blend.
If a roll were to be taken at Priesthood Executive Committee meeting in the Vancouver Second Ward, it would read like a United Nations roll call. As in urban wards throughout the Church—from London to Los Angeles to La Paz, from Boston to Budapest to Bangkok—the gospel net in Vancouver is gathering from all nationalities of the world.
Bishop Inouye is Japanese; his first counselor, Geoffrey Newman, is English; his second counselor, Ricardo Cerna, is from El Salvador; the high priests group leader, Rudolph Puzianowski, is Polish; the executive secretary, David Clay, is part Portuguese and East Indian but was born in Canada; the Young Men president, Juan Garcia, is from Uruguay; the elders quorum president, Bruce Streibel, is German; and there’s Eric, who serves with an Italian mission president in the stake, Joe Cirillo.
“Vancouver is the western gateway to the province,” explains Brother Newman, “and has become a melting pot of cultures, mixed in every conceivable way. Ours is the mother ward of the west coast of Canada. Leaders in the Church in this province very likely had their beginnings here.”
Along with many of the usual approaches to involving members in sharing the gospel, Bishop Inouye and Brother Ochoa have devised a couple that are not so common.
Every Thursday night, Eric opens the cultural hall so that members and neighbors as well as friends of members can play games together. Recent renovations to the building have increased its facilities by nearly 40 percent—including a full-size cultural hall. The hall has become one of the ward’s strongest tools for inviting neighbors and friends in for what he calls “Mormon hospitality and enjoyment.” “Not every adult knows what Latter-day Saints know about good-spirited fun,” he says.
On game night, the cultural hall is open for various activities, volleyball being the most popular. Members and their friends are invited to play games from 6:00 in the evening until they have to go home, usually around 9:30 or 10:00. Investigators have felt great about this activity, since it allows them to become acquainted with members on a very informal basis.
Eric’s resourcefulness goes beyond game night, however. Once a year, the ward holds an International Night, to which they invite the entire community. Music, crafts, dancing, and entertainment from the many cultures in the ward make a perfect resource for holding a true celebration of diversity. And, of course, among the regulars who perform, Eric strums and serenades—either solo or with an ensemble. The ward’s representatives to the stake talent show are often from among these performances.
Ward records show that, of the forty-four convert baptisms this past year, seventeen of these were from member referrals, twelve were in part-member families, ten were in less-active families, four were found when ward members tracted with full-time missionaries, and one was from the Church’s television commercial advertisements.
“You can see,” says Brother Ochoa, “that both last year and the year before, most of these were in some way associated with members. We have great support from ward members. Either we teach in their homes, work in splits with the full-time missionaries, or teach friends referred by members.”
To serve the various cultures in the ward and the stake, there are six full-time missionaries who speak Chinese and four who speak Spanish, in addition to the four who speak English. The Canada Vancouver Mission has 150 missionaries, headquartered in Richmond, and those serving in the Vancouver Second Ward meet regularly with Brother Ochoa. Often, those who speak Spanish go teaching with him.
If Eric can be considered a model stake missionary, it might be for what he has in common with effective leaders elsewhere as well as for what distinguishes him from others. Like every good missionary, Brother Ochoa relies heavily on the Spirit to guide him to those seeking the truth. Like every good missionary, he works closely with other members and his leaders. Like every good missionary, he sees that teaching and fellowshipping continue after baptism. And like every good leader, Brother Ochoa keeps his own family responsibilities in proper perspective.
What distinguishes Eric, though, is his creative use of his gifts and talents. Like a troubadour singing in the cool of the evening, Eric Ochoa has found the right chords for sharing the gospel with all who have been willing to stop and listen.
When missionaries knocked on Karen Elkan’s door, she was in the backyard visiting with friends. “But I’ve always been curious about religion, so we just stopped and visited with them.”
That was early in 1987. Since then, she has read the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, asked lots of hard questions, and prayed.
“Prayer was the breakthrough I needed for obtaining a spiritual feeling,” says Karen. “At first, the feelings prayer gave me were strange, though good. I came to rely on prayer as I went back through the scriptures, since my first reading of them had been purely analytical. Gradually, I became grateful for the knowledge of a living Christ. The change in my life has been a big one.”
After her baptism in October 1987, Karen accepted her first calling and has since discovered the reality of serving—that she truly is serving God as she serves children in the Primary.
Some people’s lives and views are radically changed when they join the Church. Habits are broken. Life-styles are changed. Many people simply find in the restored gospel a confirmation of their own code of beliefs. That is what happened to Ron.
“I was impressed with the character of the young men Karen introduced me to,” Ron says. “I was impressed, too, that these young men had been able to answer all my wife’s questions so completely. My father’s an atheist, and Karen has been agnostic. It interested me that she found truth here that moved her to belong.”
One day, after watching Karen’s involvement in the Church for a year or so, Ron told her he would like to go to church with her. He had already attended some activities and had gone to her baptism. “I have always believed people should be like this—peaceful, loving, and willing to serve one another. After seeing the Church for what it is, I decided I wanted to be a part of it.”
It was important to the Elkans that the missionaries who taught and baptized them were also on hand to help share the fellowshipping lessons as they made their transition into Church activity. Brother Ochoa sees this as one of his most important responsibilities as the ward mission leader, even though his work is often done behind the scenes.
Eric always attempts to introduce new members to other members who can continue to help them find a comfortable place in the Church. “If we can involve members in the lives of converts while the conversion is going on,” he says, “then the conversion and reconversion that we each go through weekly with the sacrament is already in place for the new member.”
When Omar and Rosalie Morales moved from Managua, Nicaragua, to Vancouver, they were hoping to find freedom, stability, and a place to rear and educate their three children. Like many immigrants to North America, they first went to the United States, where Omar found occasional work in Los Angeles. He also found the gospel and was baptized in July 1987, though Rosalie did not feel ready to join him.
Steady work and a permanent visa were difficult to obtain in Los Angeles. Immigrant officials told them that there would be better opportunities for them, both for finding jobs and a home, in Vancouver.
So, after two years in Los Angeles, Omar and Rosalie found themselves in Vancouver. They were not sure about looking up the Church right away, at least until they became more comfortable speaking English. To their surprise, however, Brother Ochoa came to their door within weeks of their arrival to wish them “Bienvenidos” in their native tongue and to make them feel at home in many other ways.
“We were knocking on doors in their new neighborhood,” recalls Brother Ochoa, “and we felt the Spirit just lead us to them to help them know how much the Lord wanted them among us. We didn’t know where they were, but their Father did.” Brother Ochoa taught Rosalie, and she was baptized in 1988. “Now everyone in the family is a member.”
Once in Vancouver, Omar’s brother Alberto came to stay with them, and they began to introduce him to the gospel. Omar recalls, “I was so grateful for Brother Ochoa’s ability to help me share the Church’s teachings with my brother.”
Alberto stayed with Omar and Rosalie until his wife, Iliana, and their three sons and three daughters joined him from Nicaragua in August 1988.