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When I Saved an Apostle of God

October 8, 2012

This past weekend, for the first time in years, I watched all sessions of the semi-annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint (LDS – Mormons).  Nowadays you can stream the sessions live on the internet with great quality, even here in the high Bolivian Andes.  I was surprised and pleased during one of the sessions when long-time senior Church authority L. Tom Perry, now 90 years old, got up to speak.  Seeing him brought back strong memories of the momentous April 1984 day in Peru when, unbeknownst to Brother Perry, teenage me had been an instrument in the hands of God to save his life…

In the story that follows, a few words that may confuse readers unfamiliar with Mormon vernacular are in bold font; a short glossary for those words can be found at the end of this post.

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It was just after nine in the evening and my companion, Elder Nuñez, and I had just finished our second discussion of the day.  The discussion had gone relatively well, at least up until we addressed the “adultery” commandment and our recently married female investigator asked if performing sexual acts other than straight intercourse with her husband would be considered a sin.  I quickly showed my youth by turning three shades of red while Elder Nuñez inexplicably deemed it useful to delve into exactly what types of acts she was asking about.  After having satisfied his curiosity, Nuñez skirted the original question by explaining that we all had the light of Christ and that, by listening to our conscience, we could know if something was good or bad.  I then offered a closing prayer to end the discussion and we set off for home.  As we walked, I found myself struggling to avoid pondering the various activities our investigator had sought to obtain spiritual guidance about.

We were halfway home when a young man stepped out of a doorway and blocked our advance.  He was dressed in worn-out blue jeans and a T-shirt with “Filadelfia Fillies” printed across the front.  He carried a loose-leaf notebook and a Bible.  As he spoke, his voice quivered and it was obvious that he was very nervous.

“It’s fate that I found you two tonight,” he said.  “I know that you are prophets sent by Moroni and Heavenly Father.   I have just come out of a meeting with people who plan to attack your meeting tomorrow, but I can’t talk here.  If they see me talking to you, they will kill me.  Please take me somewhere where I can explain.  Innocent lives are at risk.”

It was obvious he was talking about a regional conference that was scheduled for the next morning in the nearby Coliseo Amauta, a large event and concert venue in central Lima.  LDS Apostle L. Tom Perry, one of the 12 living apostles of the LDS Church, had traveled to Peru to preside over the conference and we missionaries were pretty jazzed.  Not only were we going to be able to see and hear directly from a senior Church leader, the regional nature of the conference also meant we could expect to run into friends and families from our previous areas.

Although my immediate thought was that he might be some kind of nut case, the dude looked sincerely terrified.  Nuñez and I indicated that the man should follow us.  We continued our walk back to the room we rented in the back of a local Church member family’s home as our jumpy friend followed a few steps behind.

Elio, the section in Lima to which we were assigned, wasn’t a bad area in which to work.  I actually thought it quite nice after having spent the first four months of my mission in poorer sections of Lima and the bleak southern coastal town of Pisco.  Here, bordering the campus of San Marcos University, we had water 24 hours a day and seldom had to shine our shoes as most of the streets were paved.  That night however, as we made our way along the last few streets before reaching our room, Elio seemed to harbor a secret menace.  People staring out of their front windows seemed sinister.  I was sure I could hear our new friend’s heart pounding behind us.

Once we entered our room and were safely hidden away from prying eyes, the young man appeared quite relieved.  We sat him down on one of the unmade beds and asked him to explain just what exactly he meant when he said he was aware of a threat against the conference.  He explained that earlier that evening he had attended a meeting of radical students who were planning to carry out an attack inside the Amauta.  He said the students were members of a cell of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement (known in English as the Shining Path).

“They know that your leader is coming from the United States tomorrow and they say they want to show that the Peruvian people will not accept imperialist gringo religions in the New Democratic Society,” he said, citing the well-known Sendero phrase.  “I disagree with their plans but didn’t know what to do until I came across you two by chance walking in the streets.  When I saw you, I knew I had to act because I know that you are sent by Jesus to bring the truth of the prophets to the people.  I cannot sit back and do nothing while innocent people are murdered.”

Our repentant terrorist went on to explain that he had taken notes during the meeting and he could give us all the details about how the attack was to be carried out.  He said he even had the name of the security guard who was going to open up one of the gates early the next morning so the students could smuggle in the bombs and guns necessary for the attack.

Nuñez suggested the man come with us to the mission office and give all the information to the mission president.  He refused however, saying there was too much risk that he could be seen by members of the Sendero cell.  He said he would tell us everything but it would then be up to us to act from there.  I told him it was too much to remember and asked if he would mind if I taped what he had to say.  He indicated no problem with the idea and so I slid the only tape I could find into my portable cassette player and hit record.  While I was bummed to record over the 1984 Super Bowl radio broadcast my mom had sent me (Los Angeles Raiders over the Washington Redskins, 38-9), I knew the sacrifice was warranted.

This was incredible.  Here was a member of a terrorist organization whose heart had been touched by the Spirit of the Lord.  He was unwilling to allow violence to occur against an elect messenger of God and was being moved to take action to stop it.  I couldn’t help but think how cool it was going to be to tell some of my missionary buds about this when I got the chance; they were going to freak…

The attack was to take place during the prayer that would open the conference.  Three members of the terrorist cell posing as Church members would enter the building 15 minutes before the conference was scheduled to begin.  They would take their seats at three predetermined points near the top of the arena.  Exactly 30 seconds into the prayer, while the saints were bowing their heads in reverence, the terrorists would reach below their seats and grab the submachine guns that had been stashed there in the early morning hours with the help of the coopted security guard.  They would then open fire randomly on the thousands of conference visitors while proclaiming “¡Viva la Guerra de Guerrillas!” (“Long Live the Guerrilla War!”).  Once they had fired off a full magazine each, one of them would use a remote switch to set off bombs that had been previously placed under the stage.  L. Tom Perry would be blown up along with a host of faithful saints unless we could do something about it.

We begged our young informant to reconsider coming with us to the mission office.  Nuñez assured him that the Lord would surely protect him.  But he continued to answer in the negative, saying he had to get out of town as soon as possible as he suspected his student colleagues would be looking for him once they realized he had disappeared following their planning meeting.  He did want to ask one favor though.  “You name it,” I responded sincerely.

He showed us the Bible he was carrying and explained that he wanted us to take it to his mother, who lived in the Pueblo Libre section of Lima.  He asked us to tell her that he was truly sorry for all he had done to cause her sadness and to pass along that he was leaving the ranks of the Shining Path and would try to come back to her once it was safe.  We accepted the Bible and the task happily and asked our beloved brother where he would go.  He told us that his Uncle Pablo lived in Trujillo on Peru’s north coast and he would hide out there until things had cooled down.  He then seemed to remember something and appeared troubled.  In response to our queries, he explained that he would be unable to return to his home before leaving town for fear of being seen by his radical colleagues, but he did not have enough money to cover a bus ticket to Trujillo.  As Elder Nuñez had already spent his monthly allowance and thus was broke, I was happy to give the young man 130,000 soles, or about US$50.

The whistle blower – who exuded deep calm after having gotten the terrible burden off his chest – asked if we could have a prayer.  Nuñez suggested that the young man himself offer it and we proceeded to experience the most sincere and emotional prayer I had ever heard.  We teared up as the young man asked Heavenly Father to bless his mother, we two “prophets,” and himself, a poor sinner, and beseeched  the Lord to keep safe all the saints who would attend tomorrow’s conference.  After the prayer we exchanged hugs of brotherhood and wiped our eyes.  Our dear friend handed me the Bible with his mother’s address written inside and turned to leave.

Just as he reached the door he turned and, with eyes cast down, said that the worn clothes he was wearing were the only material possessions he would be able to take along on his trip north.  He wondered whether either of us might have an extra pair of pants he could borrow.  This frightened young man had just saved the life of one of the Lord’s chosen and countless others.  A pair of nearly brand new Levis 501s didn’t seem too much to ask in return.  I happily pulled the pants from a drawer and gave them to him.  As he departed, I was sure that great things were in store for him.  I imagined that Uncle Pablo was probably already receiving the discussions from Mormon missionaries in Trujillo.

Nuñez and I grabbed the tape and the Bible and ran the two blocks to Avenida Venezuela, the closest busy street.  We stopped a taxi and headed for the mission office in San Isidro.  Sitting in the back of that cab on our way to save the day, the Spirit hit me like a ton of bricks.  I suddenly knew what it meant to have a true testimony of the gospel.  In the back of the cab I was barely able to hold back the tears.  I was finally experiencing the burning sensation in my chest that I had heard about since Primary.  I knew at that moment that the gospel was true beyond the shadow of a doubt.  The Lord had used me, an unworthy and rebellious missionary, to save one of his apostles.  I would now be able to finish my mission with a new dedication.  The Spirit would flow out from me as I testified to all that would listen that the Lord had restored his true Church upon the face of the earth.

Up until that moment and despite having accepted the calling to serve a full-time mission, I hadn’t truly had a testimony.  What I had was just a sense of security based on years of Sunday School and Seminary.  Sure, I had felt good at the Missionary Training Center when Elder Johnson told us the story about the night he had been praying for a testimony and at that very moment had heard someone whistling I Know That My Redeemer Lives outside in the hallway.  And yeah, I had felt my heart pumping fast as Sister Garcia told us that she had seen my companion and me in a dream and we were walking with Jesus.  But I had never actually personally experienced the sweet burning of revelation before.  I had never before been so moved by the Spirit as I was in the back of that cab.  There was only one way to describe the great joy I experienced; I rejoiced!  I loved Elder Nuñez more at that moment than I had ever loved anyone outside of my own family.  Peru was beautiful; the whole world was beautiful.  Not to mention the fact that Apostle Perry, upon hearing of our actions, was sure to introduce us the next day at the conference and then maybe invite us out to dinner.

As it turned out though, saving the day wasn’t going to be especially easy.  We arrived at the mission office just as a call came in that two other missionaries had wrecked the mission station wagon and were incarcerated in the Zárate jail.  Despite our pleadings, our mission president didn’t have a lot of time to listen to our story or the tape.  He told us to head to the home of Brother Sousa, who was in charge of security for the conference.  We hurried outside and grabbed another taxi to the Sousa’s.  Even though valuable time was passing, I felt secure that the Lord was guiding us and so didn’t worry.  What was the point of our knowing about the attack if we weren’t going to be able to successfully stop it?  God knew what he was doing.

We arrived at Brother Sousa’s home in Barranco, a neighborhood much like Elio, a little after midnight.  Our hearts pounded as we paid the taxi driver and raced up the driveway to the front door.  At the first knock, Brother Sousa opened the door and invited us in.  He said that our mission president had called and told him we were on our way.  He indicated that it must be important as missionaries were not usually out so late.  I confirmed the seriousness of the matter as I handed him the cassette tape. “Just listen to this.”

Brother Sousa plugged the tape into his stereo and sat back to listen.  As our brave, repentant friend on tape explained how the attack would occur, Brother Sousa began to smile.  “Honey, why don’t you bring these boys some of your delicious cake,” he called to his wife who was in the kitchen.  “You Elders have done the right thing, now relax and have some cake and Sprite.”  We were flabbergasted.  What was he doing offering us a snack?  Shouldn’t we be advising the police and getting over to the Amauta?

“Now boys,” continued Brother Sousa, “I don’t want you to feel bad but you two are the third set of folk I’ve gotten this report from today.  It seems your young friend also told his story to a bishop and a stake president‘s wife also.  Did he ask you for any money?”

I began to laugh uncomfortably while my companion sat there dumbfounded.  I felt deeply embarrassed; I had given the fraud my new Levis.  As I tried to feign a sense of humor while moving cake around my plate, I decided in the moment that it would be best to put off trying to analyze the experience – to include my taxicab Spirit witness – until a later date.  Instead, I concentrated on the fact that I was going to have one helluva funny story for my missionary pals the next day at the big conference.  I couldn’t understand why my total dork of a companion had begun crying; I had been saddled with such a boob.  We’d been conned, that was all.  Rather than being instruments of God, we’d simply been tools.  Seeking for any deeper meaning right then didn’t seem the best path, shining or otherwise.

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 Glossary:

companion:  Mormon missionaries always live and work together in pairs.  Missionaries refer to their assigned partner as their “companion.”

Elder:  a level of Mormon priesthood; male missionaries use it as a title, as in Elder Nuñez.  Female missionaries are referred to as Sisters, as in Sister Garcia.

discussion:  Missionaries learn a set of presentations or lessons they share with people interested in the Church.  These lessons are called “discussions.”

investigator:  People that have shown interest in the LDS Church and are in the process of receiving the discussions from the missionaries are referred to as “investigators.”

Moroni:  The angel who, in the 1820s, appeared to Joseph Smith, founder and first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and showed him where to find golden plates containing the engravings that were the source material for the LDS scripture known as the Book of Mormon.

Apostle:  At the top of Mormon Church hierarchy is the First Presidency, made up of the President (or “Prophet”) and two counselors.  Serving directly under the First Presidency are 12 apostles, who Mormons view as comparable to the original 12 apostles that followed Jesus.

“previous areas”:  Missionaries refer to the places in which they are assigned to work as their “areas.”  While it differs depending on the mission, missionaries are generally assigned to new areas roughly every 3-4 months over the course of their missionary service.

testimony:  When a Mormon feels that he/she has obtained a special, personal witness of the veracity of the Church through the intervention of the Spirit, they call it having a “testimony.”

Primary:  Sunday School for Mormon kids from 4-12 years old.

Seminary:  Special religious studies for high school kids.  Growing up in Utah, we actually got released from one school class period per day to walk across the street to the Seminary building for religious studies.

Missionary Training Center:  Located near the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.   Missionaries headed to foreign missions spend the first two months of their service at the Center getting religious and language training.

Bishop/Stake President:  A Mormon congregation is called a “ward.”  Stakes are administrative zones made up of 4-5 wards.  A Bishop is the leader of a ward and a Stake President is the leader of a Stake.

From → Church

2 Comments
  1. Oh man, I’m cracking up now but, you had me on the hook all down this post. I was so there in the text, in Elio watching you and Elder Nuñez saving a special Witness. Boy, that image of Elder L. Tom Perry looks happy to have dogged a bullet or two. – Great sense of humor you got there, Victim of the Fury. So essential in life. Man, I’m still grinning after reading. Thanks for putting all that quality into your taxicab spirit witness protection program. – In Hastings, England, Elder Johnson and I met a contrite self-described warlock. A few discussions later, my wallet was 100 pounds lighter. Our arrangement had something to do with watching a Wrestlemania and rent assistance. I should give a listen to Humble Pie, soon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArEw-EF_iaI&index=4&list=PL74C0ADE4F6E03CB9

  2. At first, the decision to read this story in preference to spinning The Knack seemed, um, perverse. But then I thought, ‘It’s Sunday morning in Melbourne’ and refreshed my orange juice to sustain me. What a good decision. Lovely writing, great story. To M and D* my favourite King Lear quote yet again, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they con us for their sport’.

    Wonder if the recently married woman had a copy of Get The Knack.

    * M and D is a secular Shakespearian term meaning ‘Mangle and Deploy’. It’s used by pretentious tools who only know three quotes but can smash them into any conversation by dint of playing fast and loose with the original meaning.

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