Elder Juan A. Uceda knows well the power of a piece of caramel candy.
With a broad smile, the newly called member of the First Quorum of the Seventy remembers being 18 years old, recently baptized and attending his new ward for the first time. The young convert didn't feel comfortable around folks he didn't know — a symptom of a chronic case of shyness.
"I was so bashful. … I didn't have a lot of friends," he said.
So instead of introducing himself to the members coming in and out of his new meetinghouse in Lima, Peru, young Juan attempted to appear as inconspicuous as possible by standing in front of the hallway bulletin board and reading the ward announcements over and over and over again. As he was loitering near the bulletin board, a pretty young woman about his own age passed. She stopped and backpedaled to the lonesome stranger.
The young woman welcomed Juan in the form of a question: "Would you like a piece of caramel?"
He accepted her tasty gift and, with a new friend at his side, felt relaxed enough to attend the Sabbath meetings and get to know his fellow ward members. The young woman introduced herself as Maria Isabel Bendezu — but more about her later.
It's been almost four decades since Elder Uceda joined the Church. He's become a seasoned leader, serving in a variety of callings in various parts of the world. Still, he approaches his new calling with the same humility he likely felt back in 1972 when he walked alone into that unfamiliar meetinghouse.
"I am overwhelmed," he said.
But he is anxious and enthusiastic to serve; to be an instrument in God's hands. He knows he does not serve alone.
If you grew up in South America, it's likely impossible to talk about your personal Church history without talking missionary work. Elder Uceda's experience is no different. The Lima, Peru, native was on the cusp of adulthood when he learned a family friend was LDS. He is forever grateful for accepting that friend's invitation to listen to a message from the missionaries.
"I had a wonderful feeling during the missionary discussions," he said.
He began reading the Book of Mormon and was moved by the power of its message. Sleep evaded him as he pondered the missionaries' teachings and the truths he discovered in the scriptures. He was baptized in 1972.
The friendly young woman with the candy likely saw something of herself in that stranger standing a bit too long at the bulletin board. Maria Isabel Bendezu was also a convert who had been touched by the gospel message of the missionaries. The two would develop a friendship that would ultimately culminate in their marriage. But first a mission call awaited both Juan and Maria Isabel.
Elder Uceda was a college student at the time, "and there were not that many LDS Peruvians serving missions." Still, he was anxious to share with others what he had learned and embraced. Three years after his baptism, Juan answered to "Elder Uceda" for the first time as he began serving in the Peru Lima South Mission.
Missionary work would provide lessons that would serve Elder Uceda throughout his life. Because the vast majority of missionaries in Peru were North American, Elder Uceda learned English, a skill that would prove invaluable in future business and Church settings. More important, he developed a testimony of gospel principles that guide his life to this day.
"I learned about obedience and the spirit of service and I learned to love the people I serve," he said.
When his mission concluded, he renewed his friendship with fellow-returned missionary, Maria Isabel. Their relationship deepened and they decided to marry. The couple wanted their union to be eternal and sealed in a temple. That posed an immediate challenge for a pair of college students fresh from full-time missionary service who had little money. At the time, the nearest temple was on the other end of the continent in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Poor but determined, Juan and Maria Isabel ventured to Brazil in a fashion worthy of a Jules Verne yarn.
"We traveled to the temple in every form of transportation possible — plane, bus, car, boat and horse-drawn carriage," said Elder Uceda, laughing.
They arrived at the Sao Paulo temple exhausted but overwhelmed with joy.
"When we finally arrived at the temple we placed our hands on the outside walls," he said. "We wanted to touch the temple just to know it wasn't a dream."
Since that momentous occasion, the Ucedas have witnessed miraculous growth in their native land. Peru now has 90 stakes, and thousands of Peruvians have served full-time missions. Elder and Sister Uceda celebrated with their LDS paisanos (countrymen) when the Lima Peru Temple was dedicated in 1986. They rejoiced again with the recent announcement that a second temple would be built in Peru in Trujillo.
The Ucedas have remained active participants in developing the Church in Peru. In 1992, Elder Uceda was called to preside over the Peru Lima North Mission. His wife would serve as his companion. A return to full-time missionary work suited the couple whose gospel lives had been defined by such labor.
"It was a wonderful opportunity to be able to serve together," Sister Uceda said.
Now they again go about their duties together, spirits soaring. And yes, Sister Uceda will likely keep a piece of caramel handy in case her husband needs a sugary lift. Elder Uceda plans to share simple counsel with the members he meets throughout the world: Follow the Brethren and meet the challenge of raising faithful children.
Sister Uceda, meanwhile, is excited to share her love for missionary and temple work with all she meets.
Family: Born July 10, 1953, in Lima, Peru, to Juan Jose Uceda and Ines Andrade Uceda. Married Maria Isabel Bendezu on March 28, 1979, in the Sao Paulo Brazil Temple. Parents of five children: Juan Sergio, Jorge Alberto (Bertha), Carlos Felipe (Romina), Cesar Augusto, and Olga Ines. One grandchild.
Career: Church Educational System area director in Peru and Bolivia. Since 2003, owned and operated a school in New Jersey, USA.
Education: Studied business administration at the Centro Andino de G.E. Institute and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public relations from San Luis Gonzaga University.
Church service: Area Seventy, president of the Peru Lima North Mission (1992-1995), stake president, counselor in a stake presidency, bishop and full-time missionary in the Peru Lima South Mission.