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New Harmony: Experiences with Gordon B. Hinckley 30 years later

Published: Sunday, Jan. 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Jerry Johnston's book “Rescued: A Prodigal’s Journey Home" recently published by Covenant Communications.

Before 1969, nobody had heard of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But in the movie that would make them legends, the two bandits go to Bolivia. When they climb from the train, they’re greeted by some wandering llamas, a few rattle-trap shacks and a million miles of wasteland.

“All Bolivia can’t look like this,” Butch says.

“How do you know?” says Sundance. “This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we’re standing now.”

But, as usual, Sundance was wrong. The garden spot of Bolivia then — and now — was Cochabamba, a lush little valley town six hours from La Paz. We elders called it “The Land of Milk and Honey,” because that’s what it was. “Coach” was one city where you could drink fresh milk and eat fresh honey every day at breakfast. It was also flat. You could ride bicycles there. And it was low enough so that even Americans could run and not be weary, walk and not faint.

Elder Tom Coleman, my companion, and I were working in Sucre, the country’s former capital, when we got a telegram telling us of a mission conference in Cochabamba with the dynamic young apostle Gordon B. Hinckley.

For us, it felt like winning a trip to Honolulu.

While Elder Hinckley made his way to Cochabamba from La Paz, Elder Coleman and I were making our way there from Sucre. … I threw up twice on the way. If you didn’t keep your eyes focused on the road ahead, you soon felt you were riding on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

We arrived on April 16, rattled and dusty. The following day we planned to play touch football, do some sightseeing, and, in the evening, have a steak banquet followed by remarks from Elder Hinckley. We felt as giddy as soldiers on leave.

Looking back now, he was the same Gordon B. Hinckley I would meet in Cochabamba 30 years later at the temple dedication. I even went back and read his general conference address from October 1969 where he talked about his trip to visit us. He sounds, in that talk, as he always sounds — his sentences short and strong. His English bold and punchy, clear and transparent. It was the kind of speech that left no doubt the speaker had no doubts. To crib a thought from Randall Jarrell, when President Hinckley spoke, even the dogs and cats could understand him.

“I do not want to boast,” he told the Saints at general conference that fall. “Heaven knows we have problems among us. We are far from perfection. And yet I have seen so much of good that my faith constantly strengthens … I believe in our youth. I believe in their goodness and decency. I believe in their virtue. I have interviewed thousands of them on a personal basis. Yes, there are some who have succumbed to evil, but they are a minority.”

At the mission conference in 1969 he spoke to us, I recall, about “Ten Things to Take Home from Your Missions.” From time to time in his talk, he’d drop the Spanish word maravilloso — marvelous — always to a smattering of chuckles. Decades later, when I’d hear him caress the word marvelous in his conference talks, I’d wonder if he developed an affection for the word while in Bolivia.

Years later, I would come to see two ... symbols as emblems of the Hinckley way — the square and the compass. They were tools for making sure things got done right.

As for the square, I can still hear Elder Hinckley speaking plainly to our corps of missionaries, moving his right hand up and down like a man with a hammer. He would speak that same way 30 years later at the temple dedication. He measured twice and cut once. He squared every corner. Like the Savior, he was a builder. He loved to build things — buildings, programs, testimonies, character. He personally designed the Monticello Temple where, at the dedication, journalists found him inspecting the miter joints in the doorways. He liked things to be plumbed and squared.

But along with the square, he was also the compass — or better, he was the metal spike in the middle that held firm while others whirled about. You always knew where to find him. He was in the center of things. He was as sturdy as a landmark and as helpful as a lighthouse.

And his visit to Bolivia was as spiritually refreshing for the elders and sisters as the rains called down by Elijah.

The day after the conference, on April 18, 1969, Elder Hinckley would again write about us in his personal journal:

“This is one of the amazing and wonderful things of the Church,” he wrote, “to see the young people, who live under difficult circumstances and who have come out of such comfortable homes, express such tremendous love for the land and the people with which they labor.”

He was writing about us.

That was in 1969.

Thirty years later — the year 2000 — the country actually did have a new temple. And I was on my way to Cochabamba to write the first draft of its history.

As my bus huffed and growled into Cochabamba, just as it had three decades earlier, I didn’t know it yet, but at the dedication I’d be singled out to carry the torch for the hundreds of elders and sisters who had left their hearts buried in Bolivian soil. I’d be given a privilege that dwarfed everything I’d done before.

My moment of truth had come.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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