Pioneer member of the Church has been great strength in Bolivia

A few months after the first two elders arrived in Cochabamba in 1964 to open Bolivia for missionary work, one of the doors that opened to their knock was that of Jorge L. and Maria Pedraja.

The two missionaries, Elders Craig L. Carpenter and Daniel K. Rime, had found a family that would become a strength to the Church in the Book of Mormon land of Bolivia.The first in the family to be baptized, however, was neither the father nor the mother, but their teen-aged son, Carlos, who quickly absorbed and accepted the gospel.

Now, 32 years later and a seasoned leader, he was recently called as president of the Argentina Salta Mission. As the first missionary to be called from Bolivia, he is among the pioneer members of the Church in that country. His contributions have included serving as stake and district president, Church Educational System coordinator and regional representative.

"Many and great are the blessings the Lord has given me," said Pres. Pedraja. "I know that one of the greatest blessings is to know that my ancestors received wonderful promises that are now being fulfilled and that influence the destiny of my country and its inhabitants."

The arrival of the missionaries to the Pedraja home at the time they came was providential. Carlos, a good student, had been invited to apply for a scholarship to go to school in Russia. He was excited about the opportunity but when his scholarship papers were lost in the mail, he was deeply disappointed. The prospect of having received those papers, which would have taken him out of the country when the missionaries knocked on their door and missing out on finding out about the Church "has been a cause for special reflection," he said.

He was baptized May 30, 1965, about six months after the arrival of the missionaries to Bolivia on Nov. 24, 1964.

"When my parents decided to postpone their baptisms, I was able to receive their permission to be baptized," he explained. "I had read the Book of Mormon, attended meetings and even accompanied the missionaries on their various teaching appointments.

"This was a period of very difficult missionary work when converts came in one by one. The people in the other churches had little understanding and were in great confusion

about the ChurchT."

Following his baptism, he was immediately called as teacher of the youth and as branch clerk. "These callings helped greatly to strengthen my testimony," he reflected.

He also began taking classes at the Catholic Normal Superior University in Cochabamba where, he said, the gospel helped him "care for and serve God and my neighbor."

The baptism of his parents a year after his baptism strengthened him and the branch. About that time, he was ordained an elder.

"The branch president personally helped me fill out my mission papers," he recalled. "A short time later, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, who was visiting Cochabamba, interviewed me about my goals and to see if I was ready to become a missionary. During this time, missionary callings were very late in coming. I finally received my calling to work in the Andes South Mission. I left in August 1968, being the first Bolivian to be called from Bolivia. During those two years, I served in Peru and Chile, and ended my mission in my own country. I came to love all the children of our Heavenly Father."

One experience during his mission came as he and his companion were teaching an elderly man who spoke only Aymara, an ancient Bolivian Indian language. "The day before his baptism, we found him ill in bed with an extremely high fever," remembered Pres. Pedraja. "Through the brother who served as our interpreter, we counseled this man to postpone his baptism. He was extremely emotional as he sat up in bed and said, `The Lord wants me to be baptized tomorrow and so it will be. You have the priesthood and I beg you to give me a blessing of health.'

"It was a great lesson to us. We administered to the elderly man and the next day, early in the morning, he was healthy and strong, waiting for us, and ready to go into the waters of baptism."

After his mission was completed, the young elder returned to his studies, majoring in education. During this time, he and Amalia Pinto Fanola, who had faithfully waited for him to serve his mission, were married. He had met her on the first Sunday he attended the branch in Cochabamba. She was also investigating the Church. Now, two of their four daughters - those old enough - served or are serving full-time missions.

He was called as branch president, then as district president twice. He served as counselor where he worked at the side of three mission presidents. In 1973, he was assigned to work in the Church Educational System in the seminary program.

The Church Educational System made important contributions during this time, he said. Young people who joined the Church participated in the seminary and developed strong testimonies that helped bring in other family members. As youth were instructed in scripture reading, they developed closer ties with the Book of Mormon. In the 1970s, a Church school, Colegio Mormon, was opened for a time in La Paz and added additional strength and improved the literacy rate among the youth. By the late 1970s, the seminary program was reported in the Ensign as "producing a generation of youth now becoming literate in the scriptures with home study in every branch involving an estimated 850 youth in 1976-77."

Being one of the first members, Pres. Pedraja has been a witness of the unfolding of the Church in Bolivia.

"I have had the opportunity to see the growth of the Church throughout Bolivia," he explained. "I have seen the Church grow from a small nucleus of members in small branches. By keeping track of the newly baptized converts and improving the leadership, the Church has increased in number, activity and testimony.

"Little by little, the Church began to buy property and to construct chapels as the Church grew. In the Lord's proper time, the branches and districts were strong enough to become wards and stakes."

In 1979, when the first stake was created in Cochabamba, Carlos L. Pedraja was called as its first president. "The stakes that have been created since then have multiplied in spite of opposition and many problems," he said.

Pres. Pedraja served as stake president for nine years and in 1988 was called as a regional representative. Released from this calling in 1992, he has served as bishop of the Cochabamba University Ward until being released to be a mission president.

"I thank my Heavenly Father that He called me to be a member of His true Church and to participate in the work of His kingdom in this part of the vineyard," he said. "The Book of Mormon is a treasure in my life. I have been able to be sealed to my parents, to my wife, and I have an eternal family with four precious daughters, all born in the Church and in the covenant.

"I know that God lives and loves me and that His Son, Jesus Christ, has prepared our country so we, as His children, will be able to flourish as the rose."

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