LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
The view from the upper rim of the world's highest capital city is like no other on the globe.
Below rests La Paz, a sprawling Latin American community that stretches across a massive geological bowl carved deep in the earth. Skyscrapers and stately government buildings are bordered by red brick apartment buildings numbering in the thousands. Most of La Paz's streets seem to travel two ways — up or down. And a distant gaze in almost any direction is obstructed by a snow-capped Andean peak, a reminder that La Paz (elevation 12,000 feet) is a mountain city.
So it's little surprise that the Church in La Paz, with a growing membership numbering in the thousands, could rightly be labeled unique. The members here — including some who are full-blooded Aymara Indians — are, at once, proudly Bolivian and devout citizens of the Church's global community. Many can speak Spanish as clearly as Cervantes then shift fluently to a local indigenous tongue. Some LDS women still favor the traditional "chola" style (with its colorful, layered skirts and familiar bowler hats) even as they utilize the most modernized family history equipment and techniques.
"And we are eternal families," said Tatiana Davila Vasquez, a La Paz member who points to her recent sealing in the Cochabamba Bolivia Temple to her husband, Rolando, and with their daughter, Yadhira, as the defining moment of her life.
Countless others who call "The City in the Clouds" home share such sentiments. The spiritual lives of the Vasquez family and their fellow members were forever changed with the April 30, 2000, dedication of Bolivia's first and only temple in the city of Cochabamba. Members from La Paz embark on frequent excursions to the temple, typically traveling in groups via bus for the seven-hour journey to the south.
Indeed, the opening of the Cochabamba Bolivia Temple was added to the dynamic list of pivotal moments of the Church in La Paz. While missionary work in South America began in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s, the Church did not enjoy a presence in La Paz until the early 1960s. In 1961, Andes Mission President Vernon Sharp and his wife, Fawn, traveled to the Bolivian capital to explore the possibility of implementing proselytizing work inside the continent's poorest nation. Two years later, a group of LDS American expatriates living in La Paz helped the Church gain legal status in Bolivia. Missionaries arrived in 1964 to begin finding and teaching. They've never left.
President Spencer W. Kimball remains a beloved figure for many LDS South Americans. The Church's 12th leader was instrumental in establishing the Church in many regions of the continent and his prophetic fingerprint can certainly be found in the Church's maiden days in La Paz. Just three years after the Church was formally recognized in Bolivia, Elder Kimball, then serving in the Quorum of the Twelve, paid a visit to La Paz in 1963 and met with Bolivian President Rene Barrientos Ortuno. The national leader would again meet with Elder Kimball two years later at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. The Andes South Mission (which would become the Bolivia La Paz Mission) was organized in 1963.
The next decade for the Church marked a period of slow but steady growth. The first stake in the city — the La Paz Bolivia Stake — was organized in 1979. That number has since grown to four, with several other stakes in operation in the neighboring city of El Alto.
Political unrest in Bolivia has been felt at times in La Paz, causing some who did not understand the mission of the Church to question the motives of the faith and its members and missionaries. But recent Church-sponsored humanitarian projects — including many operated by the Church Welfare Department's Benson Institute — have helped the Church forge friendships with civic leaders and residents alike among La Paz and its neighboring communities.
One such program is an ongoing urban gardening project that is helping folks of all backgrounds raise leafy vegetables and other herbs in their own homes. Benson Institute workers are teaching city people to grow vitamin-rich plants in their houses and apartments that can be used to feed their families and share with their neighbors. The plants can be raised in anything deep enough to bury a seed, including discarded food cartons and old shoes.
"My family and I have been blessed by this project," said Eduarda de Vega, who lives in a densely populated neighborhood in El Alto. "I've learned to use the vegetables in soups and salads. My neighbors know what I'm doing, and some are interested to learn themselves."
As the crop of second- and even third-generation members in La Paz continue to mature, Latter-day Saints here are taking the gospel to their own. La Paz members share the gospel with their neighbors and friends through service and example, and steady waves of local missionaries are answering the call to serve throughout Bolivia and beyond.
Source: 2010 Church Almanac