About a week ago we returned from a two-week trip to South America. My wife, Dana, and I spent several days exploring Buenos Aires before flying to Posadas, in northern Argentina, where our son Seth was concluding his two-year missionary assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was, as you might imagine, an emotional reunion.
Over the next 10 days, we covered a lot of ground. We spent a couple of days at Iguazú Falls which . . . I can’t even . . . it’s just . . . I don’t know . . . there aren’t words. Google it and assume that you still have no idea how magnificent and stupefyingly spectacular it all is. My jaw dropped so hard and so often that I was afraid it would become unhinged and I would be forced to spend the rest of the trip storing my chin in my shirt pocket. It was like that.
From there we went to Peru for a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. So cool. The two-week adventure concluded in Lima with dinner at Central, one of the top ten restaurants on the planet (for good reason). I don’t expect to EVER have another meal like it, in part because I’ll still be paying this one off well into my 90s. But inasmuch as travel is about making forever-memories, Central was all that and then some.
So yeah, it was all pretty great. But for all of the exotic wonder of our various stops along the way, it was all shrug-worthy anti-climax compared to the first evening we spent together with Seth. Once we had loaded his few remaining possessions into the back of our rented Fiat (he had already given the good stuff away), he took us to a tiny neighborhood they call Kilómetro 18, about a 25-minute bus-ride outside of Eldorado where Seth concluded his missionary service.
The roads of 18 are all red clay, the homes simple and functional but not much more. Seth had already told us about how he loved the place, and it was easy to understand why. Everywhere we walked we heard people calling for “Elder Wockeen”; they chased him down in the streets, implored him to visit their homes. THEY LOVED HIM. And it was obvious that he loved them back. When we gathered that evening in the home of the Familia Baez for a simple asado, there must have been 20 or so members of their little community of faith there. Given their limited circumstances, the spread was impressively bounteous (I recommend the fried mandioca), a generous gift which humbled us to be sure.
That evening will stay with me a long time. In fact, I would trade the night at Central, with all of its culinary flair, for another seat at the table of the Familia Baez—no question. The experience at Central I paid for, but as I celebrated that asado with Juan Carlos and Natalia, with Rafa and Daiana and Charly and the others, I felt awash in the pure love of Christ. That sort of feast cannot be bought.
Seth’s shoes (or what’s left of them, anyway) are still stained red by the clay on the streets of 18, and I think that’s fitting. When Jesus sent His disciples out to share The Word with the world, He told them that if, for some reason, a town rejected them, they should shake off the dust from their feet as a testimony against those people (Matthew 10:14). What I saw in Seth, in contrast, was the opposite effect: that when kind and loving people embrace a servant of God and his message, you CAN’T shake them off. What happens there sticks to you, perhaps forever, the discoloration on your worn-out shoes a lovely reminder of where you’ve been, who you’ve met, and how it all changed you. Those shoes are a token of selfless service, a priceless treasure made holy by days spent walking on sacred ground.