Even though no one in this small mountain village was ready to join our church, we were able to provide some comfort to a grieving family during the short time we were there. A young man in his twenties drowned when he fell into the river while he was drunk. There was no priest in the area, so the family asked us to conduct a graveside memorial service. Unfortunately, right after we started, the village officer and another man interrupted the service and declared that the law required them to conduct an autopsy because it was not a natural death. There was nothing we could do to detain them. They had no medical training but followed instructions in a large book containing the report they had to fill out while the family wailed in distress. I tried to help them expedite the procedure while my companion moved the family aside and comforted them. I was pleased that we were there to help mollify a horrendous situation, and by the end of our delayed service, the family was consoled and grateful for our support.
Death was a too-frequent part of life in Ecuador, especially in the rural areas. During the time I lived there, half the children born in the countryside did not live long enough to start school. Only two of the eleven children of the first native president of our Quechua-speaking congregation survived childhood. So, we frequently attended funerals for the small children of the families we grew to love. We did our best to comfort their parents and siblings, but I found that sometimes it was best to simply be there and mourn with them without saying much. The children who were able to survive early childhood usually developed enough antibodies to help them live a normal lifespan.
Because of the amount of sickness we encountered, we spent a great deal of our time teaching basic hygiene and nutrition to the people who lived in the countryside. They could not afford to eat much protein, which consisted mainly of the guinea pigs they raised underneath their makeshift beds, so we started a program to help them raise rabbits, which is one of the most proficient ways to produce protein. But they generally preferred their guinea pigs. We also helped dig wells and lay pipe from a spring in the nearby mountain to a town so they would have clean, potable water.
Our frequent encounters with death caused me to reflect on the vicissitudes of life and how unexpectedly it often ends. I recalled my great-grandmother’s last words at the time of her death and my sister’s birth, which provided personal evidence of an afterlife and another dimension beyond this realm of existence. This truth was reinforced by another experience I had later in another town. A mentally challenged man in his thirties or forties lived with his aged mother in a small hut about the size of a pup tent on the corner of the property where we were building a new chapel. This man was hired as part of the workforce to assist with various menial tasks. We lived next door to the lot and would often converse with this man and his mother in the morning while she cooked breakfast on an open flame in front of their makeshift abode.
Early one morning, we learned that the old woman had passed away in her sleep. Of course, as missionaries, we were concerned for her son and sought him out in an attempt to comfort him. I was surprised to discover him sitting by himself, calm and quiet. At first, I thought he did not understand what had happened because of his serene demeanor. I soon realized that I was mistaken as he related a dream that he’d had that night. He said that in his dream, two images of his mother stood in front of him, and one spoke and told him she was going away for a while, and he did not need to be sad. She was fine, and she would come back again later. She then walked away, leaving him with the silent, unresponsive image of his mother. He then explained to us that he knew that his mother was still alive but had simply gone away for a while and that the body she left behind was not his mother; his mother would come back again someday. I was touched to see God’s personal love for this poor handicapped man who the world ignored and how He reached down to comfort him in a way that he would understand. I realized more than I ever had before that God values each of us as his son or daughter, even those whom we consider to be the least among us.
As I contemplated the value of each soul, I felt reassured that life had meaning. We are not adrift in the wide expanse of the universe with no purpose or direction. There is an overarching divine plan for our existence. We did not just pop into being on the chance union of a sperm and an egg to later expire into oblivion without significance. God does exist, and he cares about each of us and has a plan for our personal eternal happiness. We are literally His spiritual offspring with infinite eternal value. Our experience of life is simply part of our eternal growth and progression.
Years later, I was impressed to learn that Plato taught that if the soul exists eternally after death, then it had to exist eternally before death, or it couldn’t be eternal. He claimed that just before Socrates swallowed the hemlock for his execution, he reassured his faithful followers that our souls are eternal, we had no beginning and will have no end, and much of what we discover in life is simply the recollection of eternal truths that we have always known.
This doctrine inspired the famous eighteenth-century poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850) to write his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” which reads, in part, as follows:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!