“Pioneering in the Andes,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 16
From the high plain known as the Altiplano, which stretches northward from central Bolivia to southern Peru, to the dense, green jungle of the Amazon basin on the east and the arid coastal plains on the west, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ has found fertile soil in northwestern South America. With faith and testimony, pioneering Church members in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru have forged a path that hundreds of thousands of people have followed since the introduction of the gospel here in 1956.
Political and economic conditions have posed special challenges for Church growth, but the progress of missionary work among these people has been steady, and in some areas dramatic. Each nation had only a few hundred Latter-day Saints in the 1960s, but by 1970 total Church membership was approximately 15,000. By 1980 membership had jumped to 14,000 in Bolivia alone, 19,000 in Ecuador, and 23,000 in Peru. Forty years after the arrival of the first full-time missionaries, the lives and labors of people whose hearts have been touched by the Spirit have brought the Church in these three nations to nearly 500,000 strong.
When full-time missionaries first called at the home of Roberto and Elizabeth Vidal in 1957, Sister Vidal felt a sincerity in their message that prompted her to ask them to return when her husband was home. Roberto was reluctant to meet with the missionaries when Elizabeth told him of their message, but he honored her commitment.
Following the first missionary discussion, Roberto, then an active member of another church in the coastal city of Lima, Peru, was determined to read the literature the missionaries had left in order to find and expose doctrinal contradictions and scriptural misrepresentations in their message. But after reading and studying all night, he was convinced that the missionaries had taught him the truth. From then until his death in 1989, Roberto Vidal never doubted the truthfulness of the restored gospel, and he always let the light of testimony and truth shine in his words and deeds.
When the missionaries brought him their message, Roberto Vidal was working as a young junior bank executive. He was bright, hardworking, and articulate, ultimately rising to become a senior vice president of Peru’s largest privately held bank. Nearly everyone with whom Roberto dealt professionally knew him as a Mormón and respected him for his values and standards. He was never overbearing about his religious beliefs, nor was he ever ashamed of the gospel.
This widespread respect for Brother Vidal became apparent to missionaries laboring in Cajamarca, Peru, in late 1970. Cajamarca was the principal city between two major centers of the ancient Inca empire: present-day Cusco, Peru, and Quito, Ecuador. Hoping to overcome the opposition and religious superstition that greeted them, full-time missionaries laboring in Cajamarca arranged to use a municipal building to present a weeklong exposition featuring displays and explanations of the Book of Mormon and its ties to the ancient inhabitants of America.
The day before the much-publicized exposition was to open, city officials told the missionaries that a local religious leader had instructed them not to allow them to proceed. Frustrated and discouraged, the missionaries chanced to meet the head of the local bank, with whom they had earlier visited about the Church. Learning of their predicament, he telephoned Brother Vidal in Lima.
“Señor Vidal, I know you are a Mormon,” he said. “I have great respect for you. Some of your missionaries are in a difficult situation. I am willing to risk my influence in this community to help them if you tell me that theirs is a good cause.”
Brother Vidal urged the bank executive to help the missionaries. As a result, the exposition was a success.
He had already served as a branch president, district president, and counselor in the Andes Mission presidency. In early 1970, when Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and A. Theodore Tuttle of the Seventy traveled to Peru to organize the 501st stake of Zion, they called Brother Vidal as the new stake president. Later he served as a regional representative in several regions throughout Peru.
Brother Vidal’s retirement from banking coincided with the establishment of offices for the Church’s Andes Area (now the South America North Area) in Lima, and he became executive assistant to the director for temporal affairs. Another important calling came in 1985 when Brother Vidal was called to preside over the Ecuador Quito Mission.
The following year, at the dedication of the Lima Peru Temple, President Hinckley expressed concern about the absence of Brother Vidal, who had done so much to spread the gospel and strengthen the Church in Peru. So Brother Vidal was authorized to travel to Lima from Quito and participate in the memorable spiritual experiences associated with the temple’s dedication.
Shortly after finishing his service as mission president, Brother Vidal was called as the recorder of the Lima Peru Temple, a position in which he again showed his commitment to serving the Lord and enduring to the end. Brother Vidal was diagnosed with cancer while serving as temple recorder. Though he had to relinquish his duties to an acting recorder as the disease progressed, he was retained as official recorder.
On the day a new temple recorder was appointed, Brother Vidal slipped quietly from mortality—his work completed and his testimony as vibrant as it was on the night he discovered the truthfulness of the gospel nearly three decades earlier.
The headwaters of the Amazon River start in the mountains ringing the Altiplano and flow northward past the ancient Inca sites of Cusco and Machu Picchu, joining the waters of the Rio Napo flowing out of Ecuador. Spanish is the most common language of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, but on the Altiplano and in the Sierra (the mountainous Andean Highlands) the Aymara, Quechua, and Quichua languages predominate.
While proselyting efforts initially were focused in large cities, they soon moved into the Altiplano and mountain cities like Otavalo, Ecuador, which is situated in a verdant mountain valley about 60 miles northeast of the capital city of Quito. The area’s Quichua-speaking inhabitants are mostly Otavalo Indians, a vibrant, industrious people who, through their acceptance of the restored gospel, made up the first non-Spanish-speaking stake in western South America.
One of the first Otavalo Indians to accept the gospel was Rafael Tabango, who lived on a small plot of ground just outside the city. Though he could not read well, Rafael felt a powerful spiritual witness in the message two young missionaries had brought to his home and soon gained a testimony of the Book of Mormon. After being baptized, he committed himself and his family to the service of the Lord. Every Sunday thereafter Brother Tabango arrived at the small rented meetinghouse and handed an envelope containing his tithes and offerings to one of the missionaries who was serving as branch president. Brother Tabango’s modest income came from a job in a textile mill and from what he could grow on his small plot.
Not long after their baptism, Sister Tabango and several of the couple’s children became seriously ill. Brother Tabango prayed for their recovery and did all he could to provide medical care. On Sunday, when Brother Tabango handed the branch president his donations for the week, the young missionary handed back the envelope, expressing concern that Brother Tabango would need the money for medicine that week.
Brother Tabango again handed the envelope to the missionary and with great conviction said, “Presidente, this money is not mine—it is the Lord’s. I have no right to buy medicine with his money. Please accept my tithing.”
The very next day, Brother Tabango’s prayers were answered as each sick family member recovered.
Through the years the Tabangos’ humble home was blessed with 15 children, but only four survived beyond the age of five. The couple’s faith, however, was not shaken. In the fall of 1978 and at great personal sacrifice, Brother and Sister Tabango traveled across the South American continent to Brazil for the dedication of the São Paulo Brazil Temple, where they renewed their friendship with President Spencer W. Kimball, who greeted them warmly. Following the dedication, the couple was endowed and sealed, giving them hope and assurance of an eternal family. Later, the children they had lost in life were sealed to them for eternity.
Brother Tabango did not let his lack of education prevent him from studying and understanding the gospel. When Elder Tuttle once asked him how he had gained such a profound understanding of the Book of Mormon, Brother Tabango replied, “I was taught from on high.”
Brother Tabango’s spiritual insights enabled him to magnify his callings as the first branch president among the Otavalo Indians, as the first district president, and, in 1981, as the first stake patriarch of the Quichua-speaking Otavalo Ecuador Stake.
Visitors to La Paz, Bolivia, situated at an altitude of 12,500 feet on the eastern edge of the Altiplano, invariably struggle for breath their first few days in the thin mountain air. Western influences are increasingly evident in this bustling city, but the culture of La Paz is still quite traditional. In the mid-1960s, members of the Church’s three budding branches were ostracized for their “peculiar” beliefs that challenged centuries-old traditions.
One of those members was Jorge Leaño, who had been invited by a fellow employee to listen to the message of two gringo missionaries. Jorge was so impressed with the account of Joseph Smith’s First Vision that he wanted his wife, Zorka, to hear it. Zorka’s sister had listened to the missionaries a year earlier in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba, so Jorge and Zorka welcomed them into their home.
When the missionaries finished the discussions and challenged the family to be baptized, the Leaños told them that they could not be ready so soon. The missionaries again challenged the family to read the Book of Mormon and pray about the things they had heard. Until then, Jorge and Zorka had prayed only at the end of each discussion with the missionaries.
That night, for the first time in their marriage, Jorge and Zorka knelt together and prayed to Heavenly Father. They did so with sincere hearts, intending to do their Heavenly Father’s will as he revealed it to them. Both felt an overpowering witness that the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ was true and that the Book of Mormon was the word of God. The following day they told the missionaries that they were ready to be baptized, and on 19 September 1965 they became members of the Church.
As he grew in the gospel, Jorge became convinced that God had indeed spoken to man again. “All my questions were answered as to where we came from, why we are here on earth, and what our eternal future will be,” he said.
After his baptism, Jorge had to forgo many social customs associated with his budding banking career. At first he was the target of teasing and jokes from coworkers who were curious to see how long he could go without a drink or a cigarette. But Jorge remained faithful to his covenants, and his critics eventually became his greatest protectors from those who tried to pressure him into disregarding the Word of Wisdom.
Of those early days as one of only a few Latter-day Saint pioneers in Bolivia, Brother Leaño said, “I learned that if one is not ashamed of the Church and the gospel, he will be greatly blessed.”
During their early years in the Church, Jorge and Zorka faced serious economic challenges. On one occasion they desperately needed money to buy shoes and other essentials for their four children. But the only money they had was what they had set aside as tithing. Should they “borrow” that money temporarily to buy the shoes? Sister Leaño expressed her deep feelings that the money was not theirs to borrow and that they should quickly pay their tithing rather than be tempted to use the money for something else.
Brother Leaño immediately sought out branch leaders and gave them the tithing. On the way home, he wondered, Now what will we do? Where will we get the money we need? Arriving home, Jorge learned to his surprise and gratitude that his children had discovered a 100-boliviano bill inside a small plastic flower vase they had found. The money was sufficient to buy the much-needed shoes. Since that day, Brother Leaño has eagerly borne his testimony of the law of tithing.
Brother Leaño’s life has been one of continual service to the Lord. Not long after his baptism, he was called to the branch presidency in La Paz. Later, he served as branch president, district president, and president of the La Paz Stake when it was created in 1979. Four years later he was ordained as the stake’s first patriarch. He also served twice as a regional representative, and between those calls—from 1987 to 1990—he was president of the Colombia Cali Mission.
Since 1995 Brother and Sister Leaño have served as president and matron of the Lima Peru Temple, a calling they say has been “muy, muy especial” (very, very special).
“Every time the Lord has called me to serve, I have felt so unprepared and inadequate—even for long periods after the call came,” Brother Leaño says upon reflection. “But I know that the Lord has his plan and that it is well organized. Even though I have felt inadequate, the Lord has always blessed me and made me equal to my responsibilities before him.”
Missionaries working in the Magdalena section of Lima, Peru, in the mid-1960s enjoyed stopping at Teresa Gai’s bodega (store) for a cold drink and cheerful chat. The little store occupied less than 800 square feet, and the shelves on its walls were stocked with a limited variety of canned and packaged foods. To its owner, the visits of the gregarious North Americans brought back memories of happier times.
Before World War II, Teresa’s family enjoyed a comfortable living in their native Italy. For a year, Teresa had been the equivalent of today’s Miss Italy. But the government confiscated the family’s properties, and they were forced to flee their beloved homeland. Teresa eventually found her way to Peru, where she married and bore a son. In time, Teresa’s husband passed away, and her only son married and left home.
Teresa busied herself by operating her bodega, with its modest two-room apartment in the rear, from early morning until late in the evening seven days a week. She welcomed the opportunity to befriend and offer moral support to the missionaries, who were far from their homes. And the missionaries welcomed the opportunity to share their gospel message with Teresa.
As the missionaries began to teach Teresa, she felt the spirit of their message. But she was troubled about whether she could keep the Sabbath day holy. Sunday, after all, was a big day for her little bodega. The missionaries encouraged her to attend church with them, but she resisted, not wanting to commit to closing her business on Sunday. After much thought, she promised, “I will go to church with you next Sunday.”
A few days later, much to her distress, Teresa realized she had promised to close her bodega and go to church the day before New Year’s—her biggest, most profitable business day of the year! She had already planned to be closed on New Year’s Day, which meant her store would be closed for two profitable days, only to open on Tuesday, her slowest day of the week.
She wondered how she could get out of her commitment, but to Teresa Gai, a promise was a promise. She closed the store and went to church with the missionaries. She enjoyed the services, but couldn’t help thinking about the people in the neighborhood going elsewhere to buy food for their New Year’s Eve gatherings.
Sunday afternoon and evening, from her little apartment in the rear, she could hear her customers knocking on the steel roll-down door over the front of her store. It was hard to ignore them. People depended on her. Would they understand? Would they ever come back to her bodega? With no income for two days, where would she find the cash to restock her shelves that week? Her suppliers gave no credit.
With considerable apprehension, Teresa opened her bodega Tuesday morning. To her amazement, she had sold more goods and taken in more money by the end of the day than she had on any other single day since opening her store. She felt strongly that the Lord had blessed her because she had kept his day holy. The store was never again open on Sunday.
Partway through a worn notebook of Teresa’s daily sales, a heavy line was drawn across the page. Daily totals after the line showed a significant increase.
“That line marks the day I was baptized,” Teresa said years later through tears. She was especially grateful for her testimony of the restored gospel and the many spiritual blessings that enriched her life after she joined the Church.
Following her baptism, Sister Gai immediately plunged into Church activity with her characteristic enthusiasm and willingly accepted callings to serve. In the gospel she found great joy, which she radiated and which buoyed the spirits of those around her, including the missionaries who served in her section of Lima. With all the treats she gave the missionaries, it was a wonder she stayed in business.
In 1986 Sister Gai attended the dedication of the Lima Peru Temple. The temple gave her one last opportunity to unselfishly give of herself to others. Sister Gai, then nearly 80 years old, gratefully accepted a calling to be a worker in the beautiful new temple, where she served until passing away a few years later.
Why has the Church attracted so many faithful and valiant people in the countries of northwestern South America? Jorge Leaño answers that question:
“First, because the majority of the people are direct descendants of the house of Israel. They have in their blood the power to believe the truths of the gospel,” he says. “Second, because of the excellence of the leaders whom the Lord has prepared for the Church, beginning with the missionaries. Third, because of the history of these lands. Many have taken advantage of and put down these people. But they want to rise. They feel great hope in Jesus Christ and in his Church.”