When we received our mission call to the Argentina, Neuquen mission we were excited because we were hoping to be sent “out to the sticks.”
We went through the typical “five-day MTC experience” for senior couples (in Provo, Utah) where they familiarize you with the first missionary lesson about the Restoration, feed you more food than you have eaten since you were a teenager, and then wish you luck as you are whisked off to the airport wondering if you are really prepared for what lies ahead.
We now know that senior missionaries have spent a lifetime preparing and that a strong testimony and a desire to serve and love those you serve is the best preparation of all.
We arrived in Argentina after a very long flight and managed to hook-up with a group of younger Elders and Sisters who were also on their way to their assigned missions in the country. Finally we arrived at the Neuquén airport where we were greeted by President & Sister Lovell and the assistants. During our drive to the mission home, President Lovell announced that after much consideration and prayer he had decided that we were going to be assigned to the small town of Trevelin for our entire mission and that I was to be the branch president.
We were told that a car had been miraculously approved to assist us in our labors and that it would arrive shortly. We had to wait a few extra days for the car but it eventually arrived and we were immediately on our way.
We made the eleven-hour drive from Neuquén to Esquel and were met by two wonderful missionaries (Elder Arenas & Elder Slavens) who had already selected an apartment for us in Trevelin. Over the next few days we purchased everything needed to set up a new apartment, and before long we were up and running.
The branch in Trevelin was full of many wonderful and loving members but only a few of them were active. At the time we arrived, there were only two active Melchizedek Priesthood holders (Eugenio Ganga & Rafael Niklitschek) and a total of thirteen members who attended that first Sunday. Trevelin had not had missionaries assigned to it for over three months and had not had a convert baptism in well over a year.
We set out immediately to gain a clear understanding of the layout of the town with a map and a list of members’ names and addresses. Some of the addresses were as detailed as “on the west hill” which may not seem like a big deal, but the town had around five-thousand citizens and one-third of them lived on “the west hill.”
We made friends quickly and made visits to less-active members’ homes to invite them back to church.
The first day we arrived in town we were greeted by a non-member woman in the Anonima (the local grocery store). She ran up to us and hugged us with great enthusiasm and explained that her two young sons, Irving and Ignacio - ages twelve and nine, were members but had become less active. She begged us to come visit their home and help reactivate her sons because one day she wanted them to be missionaries just like the ones she had known and respected so much. We made a visit to meet the boys and in the process determined that their little sister (Ambar) would be turning eight in just a few months. She expressed a desire to be baptized so we spoke with her parents and set up a schedule to teach her the missionary lessons. She was baptized on her birthday on July 4th (the first baptism the branch had seen in over a year and a half) and less than six months later both parents were baptized.
We soon realized that the potential in Trevelin was enormous and that we needed a set of young missionaries as quickly as we could get them. We spoke with President Lovell and requested a set of Sister missionaries and within a few weeks he sent us Sister Obando and Sister Santiago. These were two of the most obedient and hard-working missionaries we have ever known. They kept the rules with exactness and they were bold in their testimonies. Little by little, these Sisters were led to some of the most prepared investigators who were subsequently baptized and became a great strength to the branch.
Our greatest challenge was a lack of worthy or active Priesthood brethren. There were Sundays where I would conduct the meeting, lead the music, bless the Sacrament, and be the main speaker. We knew that for the Branch to survive and flourish it would require active Melchizedek Priesthood holders, so our focus became threefold. First, we worked to reactivate Priesthood holders who had become less active. Second we, and the Sister missionaries focused on finding and teaching families where fathers could be converted and ordained to the Priesthood. And third, we specifically prayed for the Lord to send us active Priesthood brethren from other cities who would move to our city and help strengthen our Branch. It was a miraculous process to watch unfold as all three focuses gained traction and started to bear fruit.
The members started to feel the excitement of missionary work again and together we all worked to find and reactivate numerous less-active members. In particular, one day the Sister missionaries were approached on the street by a woman and her eight-year old daughter and invited to visit them in their home. They went and taught a lesson to the family (including the father) and when they left, the father revealed to his wife that he was a baptized member of the Church. He had never said a word about it to her during their twelve years of being together because his Church membership had caused many problems in his first marriage and he didn’t want to repeat that story. We were very involved with this family and eventually, after many months (due to legal red tape), we were able to get them married so that the wife and daughter could be baptized. The Mario Jara family became a pillar of strength to the Branch. They all served tirelessly and were very instrumental in the growth of the Branch. Brother Jara was eventually called to be a counselor in the Branch presidency.
Among the first new members to be baptized was a bright young man named Gustavo Painenao who was introduced to the sister missionaries by an active member named Delfina Beroiza. Gustavo accepted the Book of Mormon and started to read but shortly thereafter gave it back to the sisters in a subsequent visit. Sister Obando was not about to take the book back and she bore a strong testimony and challenged him again to finish the book. He took the challenge to heart and completed the book and never looked back. Gustavo was baptized and also became a great strength to the branch. He was a sober, hard working, twenty-four year old young man who loved and trusted everyone. He was called to serve as an advisor to the young men. I personally met with Gustavo weekly for additional gospel teaching and discussions. Each week he came to the chapel with a list of questions generated from his personal scripture study during that week. We dug deep into the Gospel and planted seeds for the possibility of serving a mission. Gustavo was eventually ordained an Elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood and was called to serve a full-time mission. By the time we completed our mission he had read the Book of Mormon eight times.
Our prayers were heard and answered as the Lord prepared families from other cities far away to move to our little town of Trevelin. Within one-hundred days of our arrival, Gabriel Vera and his wife Lorena and their three children moved from the coast at the encouragement of Margarita Barrionuevo, our Relief Society President. What a miracle it was to have another active Melchizedek Priesthood holder. He was immediately called as my counselor and finally there was someone other than myself at the Sunday morning presidency meeting. I was relieved to have someone else to assist with conducting meetings and to help run the branch. Brother Vera went right to work in recruiting his brother-in-law, Walter Estrella and his wife Teresa and their two daughters to move to Trevelin from Buenos Aires. The Spirit moved upon them and in a matter of months they were telling us that they didn’t know why, but they felt prompted to move to Trevelin. We all knew why – it was because we prayed them there, and the Lord loved the people of Trevelin and wanted them to have the Gospel in their lives with a functioning branch of the Church. A few months before our mission ended, Brother Estrella was called as the Branch President with me and Brother Jara as his counselors and Brother Vera as Executive Secretary – it was a miracle to see where we were from where we had been.
In addition to the sister missionaries we were also blessed with a companionship of Elders. Sunday attendance swelled with an average close to fifty with periodic attendance that even reached into the sixties on a few occasions.
During our fourteen-month assignment in Trevelin there were eighteen baptisms – seventeen converts and one child of record.
We also took six members to Bariloche to receive their patriarchal blessings. When we left Trevelin, there were twelve active Priesthood holders and we knew the Lord had worked a miracle. All of this we attributed to the hard work of the members and the missionaries. We know that numbers are not what is important and we do not make mention of the numbers to draw attention to any of the missionaries’ efforts but rather as a testimony of the greatness of the Lord and the miracles He brought to pass during this time – we were all truly blessed beyond measure. The “Hastening of the Work” made all of this possible – without the increase in Elders and Sisters we would not have had the man-power or the support to accomplish what was accomplished in Trevelin.
The work was truly exhausting. Because of the culture and the schedule that the Argentine people keep, we were required to adjust our teaching schedule to adapt for effectiveness. Most people went to work around 9:00 am and then came home around 12:30 for lunch and siesta. They then went back to work around 4:00 in the afternoon and worked until 7:00 pm. Dinner was typically served around 10:00 pm. As a senior missionary couple we were given the flexibility to adapt, so we did. We attempted to maintain the 6:30 am regular-missionary schedule at first, but soon found we were only getting five or six hours of sleep each night. We determined that if the Lord was willing to give the young Elders and Sisters eight hours of sleep each night, he would allow us the same. A typical day for us was spent working on branch business in the mornings and afternoons, and the evenings were spent visiting members and investigators. The Elders and Sisters were required to be in their pensions around 9:00, while we were just getting revved up around that time. We usually had appointments every hour on the hour from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm and that allowed us to get into four to five homes each night to meet with people including some that would not accommodate the younger missionaries’ schedule. Once in a while we would eat dinner at some of those 10:00 appointments, but most of the time we staggered into our apartment around midnight, drummed up whatever we could find to eat, and then crashed on the bed. Over and over we looked at each other and laughed while asking, “How do old people do this at age 65? We are young and tough and we can barely keep up with this pace!”
Trevelin is woven into our hearts – members and non-members alike. We served and we loved, and we were changed. We made so many non-member friends in the community – in the various stores and businesses – that we honestly have more friends in that city that are not members of our Church than those that are. People’s lives have been changed. Some have found the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, others have come back to what they left and are feasting at the Table of the Lord again, and others have now been to the temple – a goal that seemed impossible since the temple was a thirty-hour bus ride away from our little city. The ripples will go on through the eternities and all of us have been blessed – those who have served and those who have been served. In the end, we have determined that a mission is more for the missionary than for those he or she may serve while on that mission. As hard as it was, we needed this mission – it blessed our marriage, our children, our parents and siblings, and it brought us closer to the Lord and taught us to trust Him. The Lord is kind and we fully recognize that kindness in allowing us to miraculously step into a space in time where we could forget about ourselves and completely focus on others and in the process of doing so find ourselves. We will be eternally grateful for our mission experience and the friendships we created. Our hearts are drawn out daily towards the people we love and miss in Argentina. We know the Lord loves them too and that he will show them great mercy and compassion upon them as they strive to live the Gospel and keep their covenants.
Elder & Sister Asbell