The second area I served in on my mission was Petrolina, Brazil. Petrolina is located just about 10 hours driving from Recife (although it's only about 500 miles).
Petrolina is located on the Sao Fransisco River (a huge, beautiful river) and produces a lot of food (grapes, mangos, guava, bananas, melons, etc). It is also a total desert. There are few trees and it's just pretty hot all the time (90-95). Not unlike our summers in Utah - but with no shade...
Anyway, the Petrolina area now has more than 500,000 people, but that is nearly twice what it was when I served there (although 250,000 is pretty big too). I served on the far outskirts of Petrolina in three small suburbs - if you can call them that - called cohab I, Cohab II, and Joao de Deus. There were very few members in my area (less than 5 homes total had members). In fact, Joao de Deus had basically no members that we knew of. I became senior companion after 2 months in Petrolina. My senior companion hadn't wanted to work in Joao de Deus, and with good reason. It was a pretty bad place...
- There was no electricity except for the lines that were snaking off the lines along the highway - you didn't walk through the area between the highway and the town for obvious reasons
- The only police station there was a single booth that had no windows (not anymore), was abandoned, and generally was a reminder of the abandonment by the police of the area
- There was a group of horsemen that would come into town occasionally from out in the desert and get drunk and cause problems (not kidding)
- When it started to get dark, you left the place.
- There was one bus that went out there and it drove like it was running from death and the bus looked like death itself (holes in the floor, no windows, etc).
- The town was about a 3 mile walk from my home and you either had to walk the highway out to it, or you walked through desert trails to get there - this is what it looks like in places outside of town:
- It was very poor. A lot of homes looked like this one:
It was generally not a great place to work. Most of the people couldn't go to church and couldn't read. Their poverty was hard on them and hard on us too. With other areas to work in, it wasn't the focus of our work. And from what I was told, we were the first missionaries to have been there. However, once I became senior, we would work out there sometimes. I left some of the first Books of Mormon ever placed there. It was an interesting experience working there.
While I was in Petrolina, there was just a single district that covered the entire city area and the branch we attended was covered by 3 missionary sets (4 elders and 2 sisters). The first chapel constructed there was finished and dedicated while I was there. I sang a duet (I Need Thee Every Hour) with another elder at the dedication. Elder Archibald came to the event. It was a pretty amazing experience - definitely one of my favorites of my mission.
The work in Petrolina was difficult for us. We taught a lot of lessons, but in the 4 months I was there, we only baptized 2 people (sorry guys, but that is really low for our mission - I averaged more than 4 a month during my mission). Many times I felt that our job was to plant the seeds for future missionaries and that our work would not be in vain.
Well, apparently it wasn't!
In 1988, the first sacrament meeting was held in Petrolina with 12 members. When I got to Petrolina, there were 4 branches. In 1998, a stake was created with 4 wards and 1 branch (3,500 members and 54 missionaries sent out) - that 1 branch was made of of members from my area alone! Imagine. 4 years after I left, it's a stake and my area is its own branch. Incredible. And it has continued to grow since.
While I was on Facebook today, brother Vilton Santos Silva, a member from the branch I served in, friended me and started chatting with me! It was amazing talking to him - he's still in Petrolina. I couldn't believe he remembered me. He posted this photo, as well:
Incredible. I was talking instantaneously with a member from Petrolina over the internet! I hadn't even heard of the internet until after my mission! I never saw a single phone or even a VHS player in any home in Petrolina within my area. And now we have this...wow. These guys above are member men in Joao de Deus - it's own branch. Fantastic.
It really is a stone cut out of the mountain. It really is a true work.