While serving in the small city of Tupiza in southern Bolivia, Elder Tommy Upshaw and his companion Elder Ryan Hamilton were walking through the main plaza of town one day when an older man with glasses ran out from his “technology center” to greet them.
Celestino Orellana told the young American missionaries that he had seen them before and wanted them to come and teach English to his computer students.
It was 1998, and Orellana felt that the youth around him needed to learn English and technology in order to be successful.
“We offered him a deal,” Upshaw said, describing the experience from 20 years ago. “We’d teach a class in his school if he’d watch a video about the Church.”
Orellana agreed. One lesson turned into another and then another and each was accompanied by another video or gospel message.
“This man was the definition of a golden contact,” Upshaw said. “He had an awesome wife, two adorable daughters and a son.”
But Upshaw and his companion were transferred away from the area shortly after they met Orellana and were only able to get updates about him from other missionaries in the area when they met together for Zone conferences.
Despite many trials, Orellana and his family were baptized and when Upshaw went back to visit him a year later, before heading home from his mission, he left Orellana with a photo of them together and wrote on the back, “I love you so much. Don’t forget about me and I know that someday we’ll see each other again.”
A reason to return
Fast forward 20 years. Upshaw, like many returned missionaries, longed to go back and visit the places and people he served as a young adult but hadn’t found a good opportunity to do so.
Davis Smith, who served his mission in Bolivia around the same time as Upshaw, has returned to the country several times since completing his mission there 20 years ago and he said that going back and seeing the people whose lives were changed by the gospel can be a life-changing experience.
“Every time I get together with missionaries from my mission, and I've done a decent job of staying in touch with a lot of my mission friends, I'd ask them if they’ve had a chance to go back and most of the time they say, ‘No, but I want to. I've been dying to, I just haven't been able to find a way to do it yet,’” Smith said.
Smith wanted others to have the same types of experiences he had by returning, so, about a year ago, after meeting up with some old mission buddies who had also been able to return to Bolivia, Smith decided they needed to create a reason for everyone to go back.
The four friends set a date. Then, they began reaching out to everyone they know from the mission.
On October 23, 2018, nearly 70 former missionaries, coming from all over the United States and South America, arrived at the Cochabamba Bolivia Temple.
Reunited in the House of the Lord
“Most people had never seen the temple dedicated,” Smith said.
The temple in Cochabamba was dedicated in April 2000, after most of the missionaries he served with had returned home.
Ginny Watts remembers watching the dedication from Utah after returning home from her mission and wishing she was there in Bolivia to see the finished building which had been under construction during much of her mission.
After the reunion, Watts said, “It was a great joy to see the temple completed and to do work there.”
Together, the reunion group filled the temple as they entered to do a session. They brought in extra chairs to fit people, Smith said, and even then, some of the missionaries had to do a separate session to get through.
“Sitting in the session, I was in the front row, and looking back and just seeing the faces of all these missionaries there that I served with, it was like I understood Alma and the sons of Mosiah when they got together again after all those years. … It was just a beautiful experience,” Smith said.
Tavia Mathers, another former missionary in the group added: “I felt like it was really just a glimpse of the eternities when we will all come together from different backgrounds.”
One reunion, many miracles
After meeting at the temple, the group of former missionaries spent the afternoon serving at a local orphanage. They then spent the evening together with some of their former investigators from the Cochabamba area as they gathered for a fireside. Many got up to share their testimonies.
The next day, they split off their separate ways to travel throughout the country seeking out their converts and friends, most of whom they hadn’t seen in 20 years.
“I think it boosted not only our own testimonies, but lit a fire with the people we were able to find again, even if they weren't necessarily active,” Mathers said. “When there's that many missionaries getting together, there’s a lot of miracles.”
The Lord's hand:
For Shawn Moore, one of the greatest miracles was seeing how interconnected everything is, and how eloquent the Lord is in His orchestration.
Moore had returned to Bolivia on his own about 15 years prior to the mission reunion trip. When he did, he prayed he would be able to find people from his mission there.
“On my first Sunday in Bolivia, the first person I saw was Betsabe, the second person I ever taught and baptized,” Moore said explaining that he found her in a chapel he had never attended before, in an unfamiliar area.
“Then this year, I happened to go to that same chapel on my first Sunday,” Moore continued. “On the exact same bench where I saw Betsabe 15 years before, sat another (woman) I had baptized. I was immediately absolutely amazed at how good God is.”
The woman, Natividad, had only recently returned to Church with her two granddaughters who had been baptized a few months prior.
“We embraced and (she) told me that I had come at a special and crucial time in their lives,” he said. “My being there was a testimony for them and for me how much the Lord cared about them and their journey.”
During his trip, Moore also reunited with a young man he had taught named Tono Daza. Moore had taught Daza when he was a teenager and Daza later served a mission, married, and served as a bishop.
“Everyone loves him as a bishop and he has been a miracle for many members in his ward,” Moore said. And among his ward is Betsabe’s family. Although Betsabe was killed two years ago in a tragic bus accident, her husband and five surviving children said Daza was instrumental in helping them through the loss of their wife and mother. “I am ever so amazed at how intricately the Lord's hand works in our lives,” Moore said. “God is good.”
From a single seed
It’s an amazing experience to see the fruit or what we learned as missionaries, Smith said, noting that missionaries often never get to see what comes of the seeds they have planted.
“I've just always felt that my converts, they're my converts forever,” Smith said, laughing. “And I told a few of them, ‘What you didn't realize when you committed to being baptized with me is that you're gonna have to deal with me for the rest of your life.’”
In Tarija, Bolivia, the seeds of many missionaries are particularly apparent through the fruit that has come from the conversion of one man.
Naval Sanchez was a professional soccer player in the late 1990s, and in addition to competing nearly every Sunday, Sanchez enjoyed spending time drinking with his teammates.
Sanchez’s wife and and 8-year-old son had been meeting with the missionaries for a while, and wanted to get baptized. Sanchez too enjoyed the messages shared by the missionaries, but felt he wasn’t ready to get baptized because he didn’t want to change his lifestyle.
That’s when a young David McConkie showed up.
“Something about Elder McConkie touched him,” Smith said, “and he ended up getting baptized after his wife and son.”
Shortly after Sanchez was baptized, McConkie was transferred to a new area and Smith was transferred to Tarija. When he got there, the Sanchez family was on fire when it came to the gospel.
“We actually moved into their house,” Smith said. “I was like, I want to be as close to this person as possible because he is just going to convert his whole neighborhood.”
And, considering half the neighborhood was related to Sanchez, that turned out to be true. During his time there, Smith baptized five or six people related to Sanchez. But now, 20 years later, Smith and McConkie said they are both surprised by the effect of that one man.
“Now, over 30 members of his family are members of the Church,” Smith said. And the small branch that was once the only Church presence in Tarija is now a stake center with 18 missionaries in the area where once there just two.
Both Smith and McConkie returned to Tarija on their recent trip, and they noted the immense strength they felt from members in the area and their excitement in reuniting with Sanchez all these years later.
“It was a joyous reunion,” McConkie said. “To return now and see that the branch was now a stake was overpowering. So many families have been vital to the growth of the Church.”
Miracle after miracle
McConkie noted that the combined efforts, memories, photos, and relationships of the various missionaries helped many to families and converts they may never have been able to find again on their own. It was amazing to see the Lord working to use each of them within His intricate web, Smith said.
And for Upshaw, the Lord’s helping hand was particularly meaningful in one instance.
When Upshaw promised Orellana 20 years ago that they would see each other again someday, he meant it. Prior to arriving in Bolivia, Upshaw did his homework, knowing that if there was only one person he could see on the trip, he wanted it to be Orellana.
He found that although Orellana’s family was still living in Tupiza, Orellana was frequently in La Paz due to medical treatment he was receiving there. So Upshaw and his wife planned to travel to La Paz to meet up with Orellana. “Once we planned our trip we learned that President Nelson would be in La Paz the same day we were,” Upshaw said, noting that they only had 24 hours in the city where thousands were travelling to hear the words of the prophet.
Once they landed in La Paz, Upshaw was distressed to find his phone had stopped working. He hadn’t heard from Orellana about a plan to meet up either, so he and his wife made their way to the El Alto area where President Nelson was speaking.
“I was so discouraged when we left our hotel for the fireside having not heard back from (Orellana) at all,” Upshaw said.
After arriving at the venue, Upshaw realized he couldn’t even contact his friend who had tickets to the fireside for them because his phone still wasn’t working.
“So here we are, two gringos, standing outside an auditorium waiting for a conference with no tickets, knowing no one, with no way to contact anyone, and discouraged that the window we had to meet the person we came to see had closed,” Upshaw said.
“Then the miracles started.”
First, the security guards let them in without tickets. Then, without a seat assignment and thousands of people surrounding them, they walked somewhat aimlessly inside the venue. Standing there in the middle of a huge crowd, Upshaw suddenly heard his name before being instantly embraced by a Bolivian sister who was crying. Another woman came up next to them who was also weeping.
“I had no idea who these people were and why they were hugging me,” Upshaw said. “And then it hit me. It was (Orellana’s) daughters Nivia and Daniela.”
After embracing again, Upshaw inquired about their father and learned that he was standing just around the corner and that their family has room for Upshaw and his wife to join them. The whole family had come together for the fireside, Upshaw explained.
“The joy I felt to see this man after nearly 20 years … left me speechless,” Upshaw said. “As I sat in that auditorium … we cried. I loved these people 20 years ago, and I loved them at that moment.”
It was a small moment in time, but it connected two families, through their love for Christ, across the years and the continents. It was the moment everything felt whole, Upshaw explained, and it left him speechless.
“Who would have thought, that day when Celestino came running across that plaza, that we’d end up here, listening to the prophet of God in Bolivia with his family,” Upshaw said. “I’m so lucky. I’m so blessed.”