In the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors sent glowing reports to the king of Spain describing the incredible beauty and astonishing wealth of Peru, the country where I was born.
What the conquistadors saw left them speechless. They marveled at the Temple of the Sun, which was covered with massive plates of solid gold. The golden sun rays were profusely studded with precious stones. When the sun came up in the east, the brilliance of the reflection of its rays on the golden plates temporarily blinded the eyes of the beholder.
They saw entire forests, life-size people and llamas all made of solid gold. In the branches of the golden trees they saw birds, fruits, flowers, and butterflies made of gold, silver, and precious stones.
But more than 400 years later very little of that splendor remains. Peru has been ravaged by disease, violence, and guerrilla warfare that has made headlines around the world. Yet in spite of the tragic circumstances that have fallen upon my native land, Peru is recuperating, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church is going forward as never before.
Of the many wondrous accounts of God’s providence in South America, one episode stands out as one of the greatest influences in my Christian experience. It is the story of how the Lord overruled in the northern part of Peru.
My father, Agustín Alva, had the distinction of being not only the first graduate of our Seventh-day Adventist school in Peru, but also the first ordained Adventist minister in the nation. He was called to open the work in Trujillo, a beautiful city at the foot of the majestic Andes Mountains, surrounded by the blue-green waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Before our family arrived in Trujillo, my father preceded us to the city and purchased a large and very old two-story house. The house included an immense patio in which he planned to build a church, as well as a church school.
For several months all the church meetings were held in the living room of our home. Each Sabbath was filled with the various church activities. A teachers’ meeting started the day at 8:00 a.m. At 9:00 we had Sabbath school, followed at 10:00 by the missionary hour. The worship service began at 11:00. We distributed literature at 3:00 p.m., and at 5:00 the Missionary Volunteer meeting was combined with sundown worship services.
The rest of the week was likewise filled with church meetings in our home. Sunday nights we had a cultural program for church members and friends. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings my father operated a night school he had organized for members who had not started or finished grade school. Regular midweek prayer meeting was held on Wednesday nights. On Friday evenings we had a testimony and consecration service.
As you can see, the Alva family kept busy with all the church activities on Sabbath and throughout the week. But we loved it and felt it a privilege to have the meetings in our living room until a church home could be built.
A short while after we arrived in Trujillo, some teenagers knocked at our door. To our utter surprise, they asked to buy any Seventh-day Adventist publications we might have. As the days went by, we noticed more and more people were coming to buy our church materials. Needless to say, we were delighted, for not only were young people coming, but soon parents, grandparents, and small children were also asking to buy our literature.
When all our church publications were gone, my father called the conference office in Lima and asked that more materials be sent by overnight bus. We were so excited when the boxes arrived, and we thanked the Lord for the tremendous success we were having in selling church publications from our home.
One morning a beloved aunt, whom we called Tia Rosa, came for a visit. She was very lovely and very Catholic. She appeared somewhat distressed, and after the usual greetings, she said in a grave voice, “Are you selling Adventist publications to the people of Trujillo?”
All of the literature of the Adventists that has been collected will be publicly destroyed.
“Yes, of course,” my parents answered in unison.
“Do you know why these people are buying your church papers?” Tia Rosa asked.
“Well, because they are interested in the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventists!”
“No such thing,” replied Tia Rosa. “Aren’t you reading the papers? Aren’t you listening to the radio? Don’t you know what’s going on?”
My father answered, “Well, actually, we have been so busy with church activities that we have not had time to read the news or listen to the radio.”
My lovely Catholic aunt, holding her head in distressful disbelief, continued: “Don’t you know that the Eucharistic Congress is taking place in the city with representatives from the Vatican and other dignitaries of the Catholic Church?” With special emphasis she added: “This is the last week of the congress, and this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. they will close the congress by giving large amounts of money to those who have brought in the most Seventh-day Adventist publications. And that is not all, at the end of the program there will be a huge bonfire, and all the Adventist literature collected will be publicly destroyed.”
My parents were stunned and speechless. Finally my mother said softly and reasonably, “Well, if they are buying our publications to burn them, maybe we should not sell them anymore.”
After some deliberation, my father spoke with his usual determination: “No, we will continue selling our books and magazines, for we know that the Lord will be with us.”
Tia Rosa left, flinging her hands into the air in exasperation.
The selling and buying increased, and so did the treasury of the church. During the week before the congress was to close on Sunday, throngs of people of all ages knocked frantically at our door. From early morning to late evening they came, until they had bought all the books, magazines, and pamphlets we had.
On Sabbath morning my father broke the disturbing news to the members of the church. “Our publications are going to be burned,” he said. “Our church is going to be mocked, and God is going to be vilified.”
Then he continued, “Friends, this is not right. There is only one way to triumph, and that is by fasting and prayer. I don’t know any other way.”
Everyone responded with a fervent “Amen!”
Immediately the congregation divided into small groups for prayer. Every hour and every minute of the day and night someone was sending a petition to the courts of heaven for deliverance. The doors of our house never closed, and church members came at all hours of that long Saturday night and into the following morning to join us in prayer. When we looked out and watched the beautiful sunrise as it broke upon the city, we knew that the hour for the big event was fast approaching.
Finally, at 3:00 in the afternoon, we turned on our old radio to listen to the transmission of the closing program of the Eucharistic Congress. The program seemed to be going well. Thousands had congregated in front of the cathedral for the great event.
Then we heard the vibrant voice of the monsignor of the city of Trujillo, who was welcoming the members of his parish. He took a deep breath and announced, “Now we are going to burn all the publications from the heretics, because, as you know, the Seventh-day Adven . . .” And he stopped right there.
We didn’t know what was wrong. We thought at first that it was our antiquated radio, so we shook it and pounded on it. But to no avail. After an awkward silence we heard some popular music being broadcast, but not a word about the Eucharistic Congress.
We were in suspense. What had happened? What was going on?
Minutes later some of the young people who had gone to the plaza to watch the ceremony at the Eucharistic Congress came running to our house. Breathless, they announced: “Do you know what happened? Do you know what happened?”
We did not, of course. So they told us: “The monsignor never finished his sentence. He fainted and collapsed to the floor. The ambulance carried him to the hospital. He was pronounced dead on arrival.”
The dignitaries remained at the cathedral, shaken, frightened, and terrified. No one dared strike a match and burn the Adventist publications. The throng at the plaza, slowly and hesitantly at first, came and took some of the papers. Then others began coming, more confidently, and soon not a trace remained of any of those books, magazines, or pamphlets that had been stacked for a bonfire. People wanted to know what was in those papers that were supposed to be burned and yet would not be burned.
Only heaven will reveal the true impact of that wonderful day of deliverance in front of that cathedral in the city of Trujillo in Peru. But I am delighted to report that Trujillo today has more than 80 Seventh-day Adventist churches! Some time ago a youth congress was held in the city, and 5,000 young people from the churches in the area attended that event!
The combustion we fear, the flames that frighten us, often do not deserve so much of our awe. Again and again God has fulfilled His promise to bring His children through whatever the enemy threatens, including the kindling flame: “When thou walkest through the fire,” He guarantees, “thou shalt not be burned” (Isa. 43:2, KJV).
We do not know, as He does, when and how He should display His power. But we do share the knowledge that the three Hebrew worthies possessed. They knew on the one hand that they could always grant God the freedom to be the Lord who decides when to do what. They also knew that they could ever and always count on the infinitude of His power to confound whatever Nebuchadnezzar could plan and propose (Dan. 3:16-18).
Yes, our God is able. Yes, He intervenes. Yes, He does it just as His providence deems best.* But saving His people—and His books—from the flames is not all He can do. Sometimes He does more, astonishingly more. For He Himself is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).
* Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 417.