The journey to this remote colony of 400 Latter-day Saints is an adventure in and of itself. While the first 200 miles are over asphalt road, the remainder of the 400-mile trip from Asuncion, Paraguay, is on dirt byways leading into the mostly uninhabited Grand Chaco, or forest.
A mechanical breakdown here means at best a one- or two-day walk in search of spare parts. An unexpected rainfall could mean weeks of isolation when roads literally turn to rivers.Yet the journey's reward comes as the trail finally opens to a village of Chulupi, or Nivacle - native Paraguayans.
Visitors are welcomed by this smiling, friendly people with their sweet language. Villagers readily share their society, with its developing cultural arts, music, and commerce. Their culture also includes heroic deeds from their own history. In many ways, the Chulupi live in ways similar to their pre-Colombian ancestors.
A notable exception is a landing strip cleared in the forest to make way for chartered aircraft used for regular visits by Church leaders.
In the cooperative colony that was founded along the Pilcomayo River just a decade ago, villagers grow corn, squash, watermelon and other crops, and make items for sale. They also gather wild honey, fruit, edible pods from trees, and hunt deer, pigeons, rabbits and other game from the forest, and fish with bow and arrow and nets.
To understand their present situation, it is necessary to recall that these are descendants of a conquered people who were pressed into slavery and left for many years without lands, culture, self-esteem or national identity. Under this burdensome heritage, they have continued as exiles until the present. However, their spark of hope, and the desire to improve their existence, is more visible in new generations being influenced by the gospel.
Prior to 1980, they had worked on plantations in a German-Russian Mennonite settlement for 25 to 50 years. During that period, they were introduced to the New Testament and adopted agriculture and city clothing. In 1980, the Chulupi and their landlords had a dispute over property, and the Chulupi elected to return to and colonize their ancestral homeland in the southwest forest.
Their seeking a better future coincided with LDS missionaries praying to find ways to take the gospel to the interior of Paraguay.
In Asuncion, Paraguay, during that period, Elders Bruce Blosil and Ricky D. Lloynd taught and baptized Walter Flores. Now serving on government commissions for indigenous peoples, he is an educated Chulupi who was introduced to the Church through a presentation on television made by Pres. Merle K. Bair of the Paraguay Asuncion Mission. After his baptism, Brother Flores invited missionaries to travel to Mistolar and preach the gospel to the Chulupi. A great number of the villagers were taught, and accepted the gospel and were baptized. (See Church News, Nov. 27, 1983.)
Brother Flores explained the spiritual roots of these conversions:
"Two weeks before I was baptized, I felt the insistence to my spirit of the necessity of my Indian brethren receiving the gospel.
"Later I remembered something my grandfather had taught me many years before. He was 110 years old, and was not able to walk due to his old age. Before I left on a trip to Chile, I said goodbye to him. He told me `This will be a final farewell, but my salvation will depend upon you, and also the hope of a village. Do not resist; there are people who are waiting on you. You go, and I go also. But when you return you will not meet me.'
"It happened as he said," continued Brother Flores. "While I was in Chile for a month, he passed away. At the moment I didn't understand his words, but they remained as though engraved in my mind."
In 1980, Elders Blosil and Lloynd traveled to Mistolar in this, the heart of South America, and taught the people. Some of the people said they wanted to be baptized because in their previous Christian baptism they hadn't received the Holy Ghost as promised by the New Testament.
Although they were taught as a group, they were interviewed and accepted for baptism individually. The majority of the adults - 139 - were baptized on Nov. 18, 1980, in a plastic-lined earthen font. Sixty-three men were ordained to the office of priest. Twenty-two more were baptized on Christmas Day, and in April, 1981, 45 more joined the Church.
Today, the Chulupi have incorporated the gospel totally into their lives. The process of improvement is a gradual one, with challenges and obstacles as large as those of other converts. Among the challenges are the geographic isolation, the few communications with mission leaders, and the lack of contact with other members of the Church, which prevents sharing spiritual experiences of the gospel. Mission and stake leaders visit at least monthly.
Yet they credit the gospel for helping them maintain their colony. The branch has its own leaders. Various families have been to the temple. Two youths have served as full-time missionaries. Youths assist with the seminary, and many adults have completed an institute course on reading and writing. The majority of the members take part in Sunday meetings, and they do home teaching and visiting teaching assignments with unusual diligence.
The group has demonstrated constancy and dedication. On two occasions the Pilcomayo River flooded and carried away their homes and belongings. Meetinghouses they had constructed were leveled. Each time after the floods they cleared away the woods and smoothed the ground for a new location for their colony. They also cleared away a landing strip for the light aircraft that came bearing the leaders of the Church.
Progress here has not been striking, but the fact remains that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been established among the indigenous Chulupi. Two of the faithful families are those of Jorge Arenas and Julio Yegros.
About the middle of 1989, they were among several families who traveled from Mistolar to the temple in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles. There, they received their endowments and sealings. However, on the return trip home, cold weather and other health problems proved too much for the youngest son of the Arenas family and two young sons of the Yegros family. The three youngsters died as they were returning to Mistolar with their families. Despite these sad experiences, Pres. Jorge Arenas of the Mistolar Branch presidency shared his feelings, as translated from Nivacle to Spanish to English.
"Many plans were made in order to travel to the temple, and to return to Mistolar to teach and help other members to know about the House of the Lord," he said. "I realized that inside the temple I seemed to be in the very presence of Heavenly Father. I felt filled with the Spirit in the House of the Lord.
"But outside the temple I was in the world where one must learn to live with problems. When our son died, my wife was encouraged as she remembered that in the temple, we had been sealed to our children. Although our son had died, he will be able to be with us; I know that this is so."
Brother Julio Yegros also shared his feelings:
"The temple is the House of the Lord. I felt His Spirit there; it was a grand experience for me in this life. I know that I will be able to return to the presence of our Heavenly Father; He lives.
"After our return from the temple, I thought that the Lord tried me with the loss of my two sons, but my goal is to obtain eternal life. I know that the little ones have returned to the presence of Father. But my wife and I have to work hard to arrive there."