“The Pilgrims,” New Era, Aug. 1981, 30
For centuries they came, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the well and the dying, day by day over dusty paths, suffering cold and heat and hunger. From all over Europe they came, over the Pyrenees and then on the long trail to Santiago de Compostela. Along the way they were fed and healed by the devout and robbed and murdered by the wicked. They were all on their way to the cathedral at Compostela, where, they believed, lay the blessed remains of Santiago—Saint James the Apostle. This pilgrimage to the city in the green northwest of Spain became one of the great uniting elements of the Middle Ages, and though the armies of walking pilgrims come no more, it is still a place of reverence for many Spaniards. It was under the banner of the seashell—the symbol of Santiago—that Christian Spain launched and won its reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moorish invaders.
Santiago de Compostela is also a university town, and the cafes that line the narrow arcaded streets surrounding the soaring cathedral are thronged with young students indulging their Spanish passion for spirited debate.
And within this city of pilgrims and students lives a people who are both. The Latter-day Saints of Santiago are deeply versed in the wisdom of Adam and Noah and Abraham and many another professor of righteousness who was long dead when Bologna and Salamanca were millennia in the future. And they have undertaken a pilgrimage of their own, one more arduous and more epic by far than those of the Middle Ages. They are engaged in the long pilgrimage from mortality to eternal life, from who they are to who they are ultimately to become, a pilgrimage step by hard step toward perfection.
They have already reached one of the great milestones on that journey, the one which reads, “Love one another.” The youth of the Santiago de Compostela Branch excel in service to others, constantly planning and executing activities for the benefit of their brothers and sisters.
A few years ago a family in search of work arrived from nearby Portugal. Poor but proud, they searched and searched but could find no work. Since Santiago de Compostela lies in the region of Galicia, most people there speak Galician as well as Spanish. Galician is very close to Portuguese, so the family was able to communicate, but it became increasingly difficult to get enough to eat. Finally, utterly destitute, they found themselves one day with neither food nor shelter. Seeing his children hungry, the father of the family choked down his fierce Portuguese pride and took his family onto the street to beg.
Two Mormon missionaries walked past, and with one look they knew that these were no professional beggars. They read the anguish and integrity and pride in the eyes of these people. They told the branch members. One brother offered the family an apartment rent free for as long as they needed it. The young people gathered food for them from members of the Church. Someone went out and found a job for the father. The members provided for them the things they needed to get started in a new city and country. Before long the family was able to pay its own way as well as pay back the assistance they had received and begin to help others in need.
The members put no pressure on this family to investigate the Church, but the family had felt the compelling power of Christlike love. They investigated the Church and requested baptism. There was one more family of pilgrims in Santiago.
The young people of the branch help in every way they can. They have made family home evening assignment boards for every family in the branch. They clean the Church every week. They host a fireside every Sunday night. They tend children for branch members. They do missionary work. They recently put on an exposition about the Church in the chapel. Twenty-five nonmember visitors came, and two of them became serious investigators. Among the youth there is greater than 80 percent Church activity. Almost all the young people are planning on fulfilling missions. They all know full well the importance of missionary work because they are all converts. And each has a fascinating story to tell about how his conversion happened.
One young convert named Fernando was inactive in his own church, but he had great faith in Jesus Christ. He sought out many churches and talked to many ministers but he could not find a church that could answer his most important questions, or fulfill his deepest needs. He finally became disillusioned with organized religions and stopped looking. Then one day he happened to see two sister missionaries teaching with a street board. The board featured a painting of Christ ordaining his apostles. Fernando, who was an amateur artist, liked the painting. The sister missionaries told him they had more paintings like that. They invited him to come to church and see them.
He came. It was testimony meeting, and he was touched by the testimonies, especially that of one sister who had just received her patriarchal blessing. “She bore a testimony of great love,” he later remembered.
He began receiving the discussions. “When I first started studying, I wanted to argue with the elders. I decided I would listen to their whole message, and then refute it all at once. But when I had heard their message, I found that my arguments were destroyed in advance. It really could be true, and if it was true, it was important. If God had really restored his church, then I had to be a part of it. They taught me many things that were hard, many things that would require a great sacrifice compared to the life I was then living. But if it was true, it didn’t matter how hard it was! I had a peaceful feeling about the message I had received. It was all true.”
But those hard things loomed larger and larger as baptism approached, and there were friends to scoff and problems to discourage Fernando. For a time he withdrew from his investigation and his contacts with the Church, even though he knew in his heart it was all true. One rainy night during that time of low spirits and temptation, he went to see a friend off on the train.
He helped her on with her bags and was saying good-bye when he felt the train begin to move. He ran to the door, but it was too late. Santiago de Compostela was rushing past him at a speed that made jumping suicidal.
He got off at the first stop—a dark, deserted station house without a human dwelling anywhere in sight. He walked many kilometers through a cold rain, totally soaked, up a mountain road and into a village. There he found a phone booth, the only shelter available. He entered the booth and phoned a friend who would have to walk many blocks to inform his parents of his plight. Then he took off most of his soaked clothing and stood shivering through the night. Since he had absolutely nothing else to do to pass the long hours, he began thinking seriously about the gospel. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I said a prayer, even though I was afraid I wasn’t worthy of an answer. I had tried to separate myself as far as I could from the Lord and his people.”
He spent the rest of the night praying, thinking, and reading from a small New Testament that he happened to have in his pocket. “During that time, my testimony returned to me. I felt dry and warm even though I was wet. Whenever I prayed for comfort, comfort came to me. The words came to me ‘All is well. Do not worry.’ But I’m afraid my rebelliousness made me unwilling to accept the answer. I asked again and again, although I knew I had already been answered. Then there was a sudden peal of thunder in the night. I had seen no lightning, nor had there been any thunder in the storm before. I felt it was a message; I was being told, ‘Be quiet. You already know the answer to your question.’
“I know that not everybody needs a clap of thunder, because some people are better listeners than I was. I know that a quiet sense of peace is just as meaningful an answer to prayer, but the Lord knew that I needed a night alone in a phone booth and a clap of thunder, and that’s just what he gave me. Every person receives the testimony he needs if he asks sincerely.”
Fernando finally got out of the phone booth, got home again, and dried off, but not long thereafter he was once more soaking wet as he rose from the waters of baptism. But he felt warm, as he had in the phone booth, and this time he knew he was truly at home.
“Baptism wasn’t the end but the entrance,” Fernando says. “I want much more. I was 15 when I was converted. Since then I have had more love for everyone—my father, my mother, my friends, everyone!
“At first I was afraid that my friends would laugh at me when they found out I was LDS, and some of them did. My best friend rejected me. My whole family was angry with me. But I am not ashamed of the gospel. I make sure everyone knows I am a Mormon. I give them copies of the Book of Mormon and bear my testimony. The blessings are much greater than the pain of rejection. Whenever I have a problem, I pray, and it is like plugging in an electric plug. The Lord may not solve the problem for me, but he lets me know what I need to do to solve it for myself, and that’s all I ask.
“I have a testimony that I won’t let be broken. This is the true Church, and I mean to magnify my callings. I am excited about fulfilling a proselyting mission as well as my larger mission in life. I will soon receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, and I feel very inadequate. I know that it is a solemn obligation to accept the greatest power on earth. I hope I won’t ever fail to honor it.”
A young lady named Amalia reported that her first reaction when she heard the Mormon missionaries were coming was not favorable. “Those tall boys?” she had asked contemptuously. But after listening to the message and reading the pamphlets, she and her mother both found the doctrine convincing. But they still lacked a spiritual witness. “We were waiting for a voice or something,” she says, “and it just didn’t come.” But when they went to their first meeting something very special happened.
“When we entered the chapel, the meeting stopped while everyone welcomed us. They received us with so much love that we were touched. They cried and embraced us as if they had known us forever. We were accustomed to images and silence when we went to church, so we were overwhelmed that day by the bare walls and the love. After that I prayed every day, but I still wasn’t sure I had a testimony. Then one day the missionaries challenged us to be baptized, and it suddenly seemed as if I had always known that the Church was true without remembering exactly when I had come to know it.
“Since my baptism my testimony has grown every day. I have had many prayers answered. Whenever I pray, I always hear the answer inside myself. Many of the things I pray about might seem small and unimportant to others, but to me they are important. I remember one evening I was so discouraged that I was crying. I needed help from the Lord in understanding a problem, and so I prayed, and the answer came: ‘Everything will be all right.’ Then I could see the answer to my problem so clearly that I wondered why it wasn’t obvious from the start. My mind was at rest, and I dried my eyes and slept peacefully that night.
“I still have a long way to go, but with faith I will continue to grow. I have to study and learn more every day. I have so much still to learn! I want to share the happiness I have found with everyone. I invited all my friends to my baptism. At school I told my religion class about the Church. That didn’t go over too well with the priest who taught the class, but I wanted to share the gospel with everyone. I help the full-time missionaries every chance I get. I love everybody. I want to bring happiness to as many as I can. I visit the sick. I make presents for the branch members. I teach the children how to help their mothers at home. The gospel has simply turned my life upside down. I’m not the same person I was, and I’m not the same person I’m going to be. I’m never going to stop trying to become better.”
To meet with young members in Santiago is to feel yourself in the midst of a family. They uphold one another, bolster one another’s confidence in the face of life’s disappointments and heartaches, and love one another unconditionally. Their lives fulfill the words of Christ: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). They love being together and meet as often as possible, sometimes visiting the ocean at La Coruña or perhaps picnicking in the beautiful green countryside with its mist of yellow flowers.
And sometimes they go to the cathedral. Like everyone in town, they are proud of its towering beauty. And their love of the Apostle James is second to none. They know that he returned as a resurrected being and helped restore priesthood powers to the earth, powers that can illuminate their path even in the darkest night.
These young pilgrims are serious about their quest. Beginning in Santiago de Compostela where the long road once ended, they travel onward in love and prayer and service, with the Spirit as their guide. Their pilgrimage is still in its morning, and they are fresh and hopeful and strong, but they also have the stamina to endure the hot afternoons and cold nights ahead. They will endure because their goal is not only a place but a presence, the presence of that Lord in whose name each day’s journey begins and ends.