Fellow missionaries warned me about Willie ahead of time. A few days later I met him, all attitude, walking down a darkened Lima street. Only a year or two into his twenties, the once-active member now always wore a leather jacket and kept his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, even at night and in the house.
Willie came from a good family. Strong, active members, they worried about their oldest son. A black-belt in karate, Willie was ranked nationally for his age but was now using his skill on the streets.
His family only lived a few blocks from our apartment so often we would visit with them briefly on our way home for the night. If Willie came home during that time and saw us, he would curse, walk into his room and slam the door. His mother--a sweet, tiny woman—would turn to us with tears in her eyes. “Sisters,” she would plead, “please touch Willie’s heart.”
We tried to engage Willie in conversation but he hated the missionaries and wanted nothing to do with the Church. Always it was the same--he threw curses at us, walked into his room and slammed his bedroom door.
His mother never once criticized him. She never complained of the dangerous gang he ran with, his attitude, his cursing, or the commandments we all knew he was breaking. Instead, time and again she pleaded, “Touch Willie’s heart. He’s my son. I love him so much. Heaven wouldn’t be heaven without my Willie there.”
One time Willie’s younger brother asked if we could help him with his math. We couldn’t. He smiled and said, “If Willie was here, he could. He’s really good at math.”
He wasn’t the only sibling praising his older brother. Every single family member, including both parents, spoke only of Willie’s strengths. “Willie teaches me karate moves. He’s really good at it.” “Willie can do anything.” “One day I want to be just like him.” “Willie’s the smartest person I know.” "He has a good heart."
It didn’t matter if Willie was there or not, they only spoke words of praise and love for him. And, continually, his mother restated her powerful words: “Heaven won’t be heaven without my Willie there.”
Through the closed bedroom door, I know Willie heard.
One night, on our way home, Willie’s ten-year-old brother ran out to greet us. He wanted us to stop by the house so he could show us a new karate move. We entered their home. Standing in the living room, I laughed as the boy tried to practice the move on me but he couldn’t get it right. Willie came through the door. The entire family turned with excitement. He was home! Siblings congregated around him, his parents clapped with joy. Willie could demonstrate the move. Would he, please? Through his sunglasses Willie stopped and looked at me--the intended victim. Slowly he shook his head, stepped through his family and disappeared into his room. But this time he did not slam the door. As tears ran down her face, his mother took my hand in hers. “I need Willie in heaven. Even if all of my children make it—it won’t be heaven to me if Willie isn’t there. I love him with all my heart.” The feeling of love in that home for their wayward son was very powerful that night. Soon their efforts would start piercing his armor.
Over the next few weeks I noticed that, if Willie was home, his door stayed cracked open. I noticed, too, the family’s continual praise of him. Their deep love and sincere respect for Willie drifted through the door and into Willie’s heart. Eventually Willie started to find excuses to come out of his room—to get a drink of water, to raid the refrigerator, or to look for something. Then, little by little, Willie stopped disappearing into his room altogether. He started visiting with his family and they loved it because they loved him.
More than a year later, I was assigned to a new area for my last Sunday in Peru. While visiting with members in the chapel before sacrament meeting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around. It was Willie! He had traded his leather jacket for a white shirt and tie and was holding hands with the cutest Peruvian I had seen. She was his fiance. How overwhelmed I was to learn the Lord had assigned me to attend this--her ward during my last Sunday in the field.
As we visited I learned his fiancé was the stake president’s daughter, raised all her life in the gospel. Willie beamed as he told me she accepted his past, he had been to see his bishop and stake president and they were now engaged, with a date to be married in the Lima temple.
That Sunday was the first time I had ever seen his eyes, and they were beautiful.
I was able to attend a farewell dinner at his parent’s home. There he handed me his sunglasses. “I see life better without them,” he said.
I still have a picture of Willie and his mother taken that day. I cherish that photo but, more than that, I cherish the lifelong lesson I learned from their family. They loved Willie unconditionally.
I also learned about divine motherhood. Setting an example the entire family followed, Willie’s mother never once complained or spoke negatively about him. While she pleaded with us to touch his heart, she is the one who actually did. Over and over she lovingly said the words I never forgot and Willie could not ignore: “Heaven won’t be heaven without my Willie there.”
Now, as I look at my own children I remember, with gratitude, the lesson she taught me and I understand her feelings. She had it right. Heaven won’t be heaven without all of my children there.