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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

Finding water deep enough for baptism was a challenge in Uruguay

By Joseph Shepherd

December 13, 2006 | No one in the small Uruguayan town of Carmen ever expected to have a baptism there, so it's understandable that they had never put much thought into where to baptize someone. "You'll never even find anyone to teach here," said Carlos, one of two men who attended the small Latter-day Saint branch in Carmen. "They're too hard."

I can see why he thought he was living in modern-day Sodom. Although as in all Uruguayan towns there was an imposing Catholic church prominently placed facing the town square, its influence was dwarfed by the number of whiskerias that speckled the dirt streets of the rural town of a thousand. The gauchos, the South American version of our cowboys, living on the surrounding ranges would ride into Carmen to visit the whiskerias there.

"Whiskerias are like bars," my missionary companion told me, "but a whole lot worse."

Just down the street from one of these ill-reputed houses lived Omar, an 18 year old that we met playing soccer on a day off from our missionary efforts. When we visited Carmen the following week a friend of Omar's found us and told us that Omar was waiting at his house to talk about religion with us.

Just a couple weeks later we were scratching our heads to find water deep enough to baptize him. In this green, fertile country I wouldn't have expected so much trouble in finding water. There weren't any rivers for miles around, just miles of vineyards and open range, home of the ostrich-like andu. In Carmen we didn't have a church with a baptismal font, just the living room of one member's house that served as a meeting place for the members.

The only open water around was in the city's swimming pool, so we hopefully visited the town hall in hopes of reserving it for a baptismal service. I don't think there was any protocol about what the pool could or couldn't be used for, but our proposition raised some eyebrows. So they responded that the pool could not be reserved for religious purposes.

We talked to the church members and they told us there was supposedly a hidden lake in one of the vineyards outside of Carmen. So we followed a dirt road out of town, hoping to find the owner of the vineyard and obtain permission to use the lake.

Who would have thought that such a little country could contain so much wide-open emptiness. There wasn't a sign of life except for the tens of thousands of grapevines, each uniformly planted and supported by a wooden frame in a vineyard that stretched beyond the horizon. We walked for miles before we came to a house, a little white-washed ranchito.

We clapped our hands at the gate -- that's the Uruguayan version of knocking on a door -- and out came a hunchbacked old woman with her daughter and grandson. Was this the vineyard with the lake in it? Yes. No, the owner wasn't available right now, but she would be happy to show the lake to us. It wasn't far from here.

The grandmother led us through the vineyard with too much enthusiasm for a woman so bent over. Her daughter and grandson trailed behind, interested in the novelty of the two gringos in suits. We reached the top of a hill, from where I expected to see the lake. The vineyard continued stretching in all directions. Not far from here, the old woman said, and we continued up and down hills. If we held a baptism here, would they like to come? Of course, nothing interesting ever happened in the vineyard.

Finally trees came into view, big shady trees full of the sounds of animal life. We walked through the cool shade and over fallen trunks to the edge of a pristine paradise of a lake. A flock of geese-like birds flew from the surface of the water as we approached. In my heart of hearts I knew that even though we were in South America, deep in the waters was a lunker of a trout.

What elation we felt after our hours of walking. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place for a baptism. In my mind's eye I could already see the figures in white stepping into the clear water. This was the place. I asked the old woman if she thought the owner would let us use the lake.

"I think he would," she replied."But we can't contact him right now. He's in jail for shooting the last person who trespassed to fish here."

Needless to say, the lake didn't work out.

We baptized Omar in a filthy, parasitic puddle of a pond we found in the city park. Omar, dressed all in white, disappeared completely from view when he was immersed in the murky water. I had to wonder if his sins could be washed away in water so dirty, but Omar emerged from the pond exuberant and glowing. Carmen's first new member of the church in years could hardly contain his happiness as he walked half of a mile back to his house, a towel wrapped around him.



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