Technically, we weren’t supposed to go on splits with Chepe at all. Not by a longshot. He was eight years old, one of the younger children of the Serchil branch president, an energetic and chatty little boy.
Splits were a regular part of life in Tejutla. The area covered struggling branches in three different small towns in the San Marcos area of Guatemala — Tejutla, Serchil, and Las Lagunas Secas — each of which were a few hours apart from each other by bus, more by foot. If missionaries didn’t show up on Sunday, the branches (especially Serchil and Lagunas) had trouble covering basic needs like blessing the sacrament or teaching a basic, single Sunday School class. And if there was an ordinance, a baptism or baby blessing or confirmation, we would almost always be called to help. Some of the branches did better than others — the Serchil branch president was learning — but they were all struggling.
Two elders cannot really cover three branches. And so we went on splits nearly every Sunday. They were carefully choreographed things, based on bus schedules and meeting times. We would pick up Alex, the mission leader in Tejutla, then head in to Serchil and pick up Armando, the Branch President’s sixteen-year-old son. Then one of us would stay in Serchil on splits with Alex, while the other raced to Lagunas with Armando. Sometimes there was a discussion to be taught, or an appointment to follow up on, and we’d work that in. “You go visit the Hernandez family outside of Serchil, I’ll visit the Perez family near Tejutla, and we’ll meet up again at six after the bus comes back.”
The three comunities were all incredibly poor. Tejutla was the least poor by far — it was a real town, the county seat of this very rural county, and it boasted a few paved roads, many concrete block buildings, and few thousand inhabitants. It was on the mountainous western border area of Guatemala, and the nights were freezing. We slept on rough matresses — burlap stuffed with sparse, clumpy filling — over wood plank beds. One of the beds had two mattresses — a thin one just an inch or two thick, and a medium one a few inches thicker. The other bed had just a medium mattress. We used Guatemalan blankets of stiff cotton, two or three each, and they didn’t keep out the cold any better than our concrete walls.
Serchil and Las Lagunas Secas were vastly more destitute than Tejutla. Serchil had no paved roads at all and only a few families in the tiny town; most of the families lived out in the fields. The Serchil branch president was relatively well-off by local standards. He lived in a two room dirt-floor house with a kitchen and a bedroom. The bedroom held two beds, one for the parents, and the other for the nine children. Each bed consisted of a few uneven planks, nailed together and held up on legs. If it were in the states, we’d call it a twin-sized bed — except that of course there was no mattress. They did have a single rough cotton blanket for each bed. And though it boggles the mind to recall it, the members in Lagunas, ten kilometers away on a disastrous cobblestone-and-dirt road, were even more destitute.
We did what we could — visited the members, taught meetings, conducted hymns, brought treats for the children sometimes. All on a tightly choreographed schedule. A few times we had other missionaries out to help, people from our district. Mostly, it was splits with Alex and Armando and a few others we could occasionally round up.
Then, one day, Armando wasn’t available for splits. We had appointments in two different directions — a meeting to conduct, a discussion to teach to investigators — and no way to make them both. I looked at my companion. “I guess we miss an appointment,” we said. “Either that, or one of us has to go alone.” We paused, wondering.
The Branch President’s wife looked shocked. “Elders! You can’t go to an appointment alone! Why don’t you take Chepe?” And so we did. My companion and Alex went to their appointment, and I headed back towards the Tejutla countryside with Chepe. He was chatty, excited to be doing adult work, out on splits with the Elders like his older brother usually did. I bought him some chips, and he chatted animatedly about where we were going, about his family, about how excited he was to be out on splits.
The appointment went well, considering that I was on splits with an eight-year-old. Afterwards, we stood by the dirt road again, waiting until the bus back to Tejutla came. When we got in to Tejutla, we checked in with the sister where we ate dinner. Any sign of my companion? None. So we ate dinner, and talked, and read, and waited. A few hours passed. Chepe sat and watched some TV.
Finally, Alex and my companion got back. They had had some trouble with a missed bus. We ran out and checked. The last bus to Serchil was gone. It was past eight o’clock in the evening, far too late to walk the ten kilometers to Serchil and back. And of course, no one in the area had a phone or a car.
It looked like we were going to be putting Chepe up for the night.
(When I think back to that time, I’m amazed by my attitude. I _had_ to have a companion with me — unbreakable rule — even if that companion was just an eight-year-old. And everyone else seemed to think this was normal.)
We headed back to our pad, discussing quietly what to do about our guest. We took the thin straw mattress and laid it on the floor. Each of us gave Chepe a blanket. He curled up on the mattress on the floor. I felt like I should give him more — my thick blanket, or my thicker mattress. But my selfish teen nature intervened. And so I lay in my own bed — colder than usual, minus one blanket, and told myself it was good enough.
My companion and I wondered quietly, in English, how Chepe would sleep. His mattress was thin, his blankets flimsy, and our house was always cold. He is never going to go on splits with us again, I thought. He is going to hate us. He’s going to tell his family about how we put him on a threadbare mattress on the freezing floor.
Morning arrived, cold. My companion and I woke up, and nudged Chepe awake.
I hesitated to ask, but I wanted to know.
“So, did you have a good night’s rest?”
“Oh, Elders,” he gushed. “Que dulce es, dormir solo en una cama.” — It is so sweet to have a bed of one’s own. It was the first time he had ever had a bed to himself.
We dropped Chepe off with his family later that morning, thanking his mother for letting him come on splits with us. He excitedly told anyone who would listen about his adventure. The sweetness of the solo bed was always one of the highlights of his story.