October 30, 2013


It was called Railroad Hotel. We didn’t find the inn inviting, but it seemed to be the only one in town. The town was Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We had come from La Paz, Bolivia, by bus, boat, and train; and the Railroad Hotel was next to the train station. We didn’t learn much about its quality; we just put down our bags and looked around. There was a phone in the lobby; I found Adventista in the phone book and borrowed a coin at the desk.

It was late Friday afternoon, and we were missionaries in Africa headed home for leave in California. I had heard about Puno a half century before from Fernando Stahl at Lodi camp meeting. I suppose it was he who had bent my young mind toward mission service. I’d learned about Lake Titicaca from Stahl: that it was 12,500 feet above sea level in the heart of the Andes, the highest great lake in the world with great ships and floating islands. Floating islands?

Our own mission service had taken us to Asia, then Africa, but I wanted to check out those floating islands.

“If no one else will take care of this, I will.”

Part of the Family

My call was answered by a pleasant voice that changed from Spanish to English when she heard mine. Mrs. Muñoz was from Los Angeles. Where were we? “The Railroad Hotel? Don’t check in,” she said. “I’m only a block away. I’ll be right there.” She took us to her apartment over the mission office, the hotel porter carrying our bags.

She and my wife bonded immediately; missionary women understand each other. We had supper; we talked. But I was thinking about Fernando Stahl.

Mrs. Muñoz read my mind. Would we like to worship with our Aymara believers on an island of reeds floating on the lake?

The next morning at the pier she found a boat, and we were off through a field of reeds in a cloud of diesel smoke. The great bay was shallow, maybe 10 feet deep, with a forest of reeds growing at its bottom, their tips waving high about the water to the horizon.

We could see no islands yet, nor would we for an hour. Our pilot followed avenues cut through the water, and there really were islands, one with an Advent-ist school and church. We pulled up to a reed pier among reed houses.

Villagers had gathered in the school building. We were late; Sabbath school was already in session. They made room for us on the benches. Older folk sat on the floor; they found benches uncomfortable, they said. The schoolteacher, David, was leading the lesson study, half in Spanish, half in Aymara. Mrs. Muñoz introduced us, then translated for us in a whisper as David resumed the lesson study.

An Interruption? Or an Opportunity?

Then we heard a boat, sounding like our boat. But it wasn’t filled with missionaries in the footsteps of Fernando Stahl, or believers from another island. These were tourists, Mrs. Muñoz said. The floating islands are an attraction, of course. But on Sabbath morning on an Adventist island? The boat approached, its diesel engine coughing loudly. David raised his voice to be heard above the sound. Except for that, no one paid any attention. No one but me, that is.

There was nothing on this island but the school and the homes of Adventist people, all of whom were in church. What could tourists be doing here today? The motor died into silence, and voices rose—loud, excited voices. “We can’t let them disrupt us like this,” I muttered, rising to go out and direct them and their boat to another island. “If no one else will take care of this, I will.”

But I only half rose; my wife had me by the sleeve. “We are visitors here too,” she said.

“But they’ll disrupt the meeting,” I said.

“David will take care of them.”

By now they were coming through the door that their guide had thrown open. I counted 18 voluble Italians, room-filling personalities. David carefully laid his Bible and quarterly on the stand beside him. His smile was genuinely welcoming. Italian voices subsided. David spoke: no Indian tongue now, but careful Spanish that Italian ears could understand. More church members slid onto the floor so the visitors could be seated.

David began what seemed to be a prepared speech. “A thousand years ago our ancestors, peaceful folk, lived on the mainland,” Mrs. Muñoz translated. “When a more aggressive tribe threatened war, our people, who knew the ways of the water, set out in canoes to our little fishing stations made of bundled reeds floating far from shore. With their families and worldly goods, they took refuge. ‘They can never follow us here,’ they said.

“When powerful newcomers took our land, my people stayed on the lake. They broadened the islands, they built reed homes, they stole ashore to collect soil for gardens. They raised chickens and goats. They learned to eat the lake’s tender reeds; their goats ate the rest. Here their children were born, and their children’s children for generations.”

The tourists listened in rapt attention. It seemed as though David’s voice lowered a little. “Then the Spanish came, bringing a new kind of government and a new religion whose forms, at least, my people accepted and long followed. Eventually independence brought further change in our ways and greater freedom. Most important was the coming of a man from North America, a missionary, a Seventh-day Adventist with a message that changed our lives forever. He taught us that Jesus is coming again.”

Here David took his Bible from the stand and turned to several appropriate texts, reading carefully in Spanish. “The man’s name was Fernando Stahl. He taught us that the seventh day of the week, sábado, is the Sabbath of the Lord, consecrated at the close of Creation week, observed by Jesus, and still holy. So we are called Adventistas del Séptimo Día. Thus our worship here today.” Taking up his Bible, David again read some fitting texts.

Command Performance

Gradually I became aware that David was preaching an evangelistic sermon to this tourist audience. He wasn’t sending them away; he regarded them as candidates for the kingdom, and he would miss no opportunity to share his faith with them. Briefly but convincingly, he touched on other doctrines: Christian lifestyle, the spread of the Word to the entire world, even Italy.

“This isn’t only a church building,” he said, “this is a school.” And he raised his hand to a motto on the wall above his head: “God’s children in God’s school.” The message that followed about Christian education was as good as I’ve ever heard. He pointed to the children’s drawings pinned to the wall and their projects displayed on the table. Then he asked if there were any questions. There were: thoughtful questions, framed in careful Italian. And good answers.

Then the tourists stood to go, but not before calling on two students to stand at the door holding baskets. As the tourists filed out, they filled the baskets with generous gifts to the Lord, His church, and His school. They were quiet now, even reverent.

I was nearly brought to tears by what I had seen. And to think I would’ve sent them away.

After they left, David turned without a word to his quarterly and completed teaching the Sabbath school lesson. They asked me to preach in the service that followed. Me, preach after what I had just seen? I tried.

At the close of the service David prayed in the Aymara language. I wonder what he said. Perhaps, “Suffer the tourists to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.”