At 8 years old, Fernando had been through more than most kids his age. Without a father at home, he helped his mother, Concepcion, take care of his two younger siblings. After school he would spend hours on the streets with his mom, foraging for old plastic bottles littered on the ground. Every sack of bottles they collected earned them a few pesos for food.
His family lived in a small destitute community in eastern Mexico where they shared a one-room shack fashioned from wood and sheets of rusty scrap metal. Without electricity, they relied on the sun for heat and light during the day, and at night they welcomed the stars.
Moments before meeting them, I had been complaining about the heat and rubbing my sore muscles. With only two weeks as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mexico, I hadn’t yet adapted to the humidity or the idea that my feet would be my only mode of transportation. When I saw those kids, however, all of those complaints disappeared.
Instantly recognizing my companion, the three kids jumped up and ran to her, their bare feet leaving behind little prints in the mud. When they saw me, however, they backed away.
“Mommy, why is her skin so white?” 6-year-old Rosita asked. “Is she sick? And what happened to her hair? Is it real?”
After one stern look from her mother, Rosita sat down and stopped asking questions.
Using the limited Spanish that I knew at the time, I crouched down next to Rosita, introduced myself and told her that I had traveled a long way to meet her. She gasped when she saw my eyes.
“Your eyes are like the ocean,” she said.
Then she reached out and grabbed a few strands of my blonde hair, rubbing them between her fingers to check if they were real. Her eyes widened.
“That’s enough,” Concepcion said. “Leave the nice girl alone!”
She invited us into their home and motioned for us to sit in two plastic chairs by the door. She then positioned herself on the muddy ground in front of us. Fernando and Rosita sat on either side of her, and Uri, the 4-year-old, rested in her lap.
We discussed faith and the love of God.
“It’s thanks to God that I am here today,” Concepcion said. “Everything I have is thanks to Him, and we are so blessed.”
She put her arms around her children and hugged them tightly.
“We are so blessed,” she repeated. “God is good.”
Through tears, Concepcion praised God and gave thanks. She spoke of God as if He were an old friend. Her eyes reflected His love.
Fernando lifted himself off of the ground and walked to the other end of the room. Lying on top of a plastic table, next to a bag of beans and a small stack of burnt tortillas, were three passion fruits. He grabbed two and brought them to my companion and me.
I held the fruit in my hand, rubbing my thumb against its smooth skin. I couldn’t bring myself to take a bite. How many hours did Concepcion and little Fernando spend foraging for plastic bottles on the street for this fruit?
My companion looked at me, sensing my inner turmoil. She smiled, tore the fruit open and took a bite, motioning for me to do the same.
As soon as I followed suit, Fernando brought the last fruit to his mother. She tore the fruit open and gave it to her children. They took turns hungrily scooping out the pulp with their fingers until there was nothing left. Little Rosita whimpered at the sight of the empty shell.
“Fernando, go get some water for the sisters,” Concepcion said. “I bet they’re thirsty.”
Fernando frowned, but picked up an empty plastic bucket half his size and headed toward the door. My companion and I joined him, carrying a second bucket.
We followed him up a steep hill for over a mile. The humid heat blurred our senses, and we had to stop several times to catch our breath. When we reached the top of the hill, we used a small water pump to fill the buckets.
The way down proved to be even more difficult. Both my companion and I carried an overflowing bucket in our arms. We descended the hill slowly, stopping every few steps to regain our balance and prevent the water from spilling.
To say I was humbled that day would be an understatement.
Throughout my entire 19 years of life, I had never endured true hunger or thirst. When hungry, I could walk to the fridge or pantry for a snack. When thirsty, I could grab a glass and fill it with clean water from the sink. I never wondered when my next meal would come.
It was as if reality had slapped me in the face. My heart ached as I thought back on the times when I was ungrateful. I remembered so many empty, meaningless complaints about things that didn’t matter.
That night, I didn’t sleep. The children’s faces filled my mind. I thought of their little bare feet in the mud, their tattered clothes and their tired mother. I could still taste the passion fruit and feel its smooth skin on my fingertips. That tiny fruit required a substantial sacrifice, yet they happily gave what they had without a second thought.
What impacted me the most, however, was their genuine happiness and gratitude. They thanked God every day for the gift of life. They found joy in simple things like a sky full of stars, empty coke bottles and visits from friends. Their examples opened my eyes and inspired a change of heart.
Throughout the rest of my mission, the people of Mexico never ceased to inspire and strengthen me.
I met Hermano Neftalí in my last area. He may not have had legs, but he had a huge heart. He lived alone and had little communication from his family after joining the Church. He loved to talk and would share his testimony with anyone with ears.
“God is good,” he would say. “He is my everything and has given me everything.”
He loved talking to God. In his prayers, he rarely asked for anything. He just gave thanks and repeatedly told his Father in Heaven how much he loved Him.
I loved listening to him pray. His world melted away as he opened his heart to God. To him, there was no such thing as a lazy prayer. He knew exactly who he was talking to, and the emotion in his voice moved me to tears. Each word beautifully exhibited his devotion and faith.
Neftalí helped me see the beauty and power of prayer in a new light. I learned from him to never take it for granted.
President Russell M. Nelson once said, “The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”
Neftalí’s example brought those words to life. Even though he faced many challenges, Hermano Neftalí focused on God and found joy in his faith. This joy radiated off of him and touched my heart.
“God will give me legs,” he said. “And when He does, I will run to Him.”
His faith and sincere gratitude motivated me to always put God first in my life.
I am forever changed by the people of Mexico. I met countless extraordinary people who taught me that faith and a grateful heart make all the difference.