Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oberá District Disbanded

A number of years ago when I was serving a Mission for the LDS church I served for a few months in the city of Oberá, Misiones in Argentina. It was a very beautiful city and I really enjoyed my time there. I was sent there along with five other missionaries to help fix the district of Oberá. Normally a district will have several branches (congregations), even as many as 10 or 12, but when we got there the Oberá district (which encompassed more than just the city of Oberá) had only one branch meeting in Oberá and one group (a unit smaller than a branch) meeting in a township just outside of Oberá. Officially there were ~2400 members on the membership list for the entire district of Oberá in more than 10 towns and villages, but there were only a consistent number of about 60 people attending each week in the branch and about 10 more in the group meeting. This is an activity rate of about 3%, compared to the normal activity rate in other areas of my mission which ranged from 20% to 50%.

At the time I was sent there there were only two missionaries there but they brought the total to six for the special assignment of trying to find every member officially listed on the membership roll and determine if they still wanted to be a member of the Church. They gave us the membership records of everyone in the district and told us to go find them.

I was amazed at the number of people that we actually found, but there were also some terrible addresses that were a nightmare to find. The city of Oberá was a hodgepodge of random streets and even more random addresses. While part of the city was very well layed out, there were others that were not. On top of that there were sections of the city that were orderly with very disorderly sections inbetween, and sometimes the orderly sections had grown to the point where they were now overlapping, thus creating disorder out of their individual order (by this I mean that there were neigborhoods that were layed out in a very nice grid pattern, but the different grid patters did not line up so when they met there was a mess of cross and diagonal and crooked streets). To give you an idea here is a screenshot from Google Maps of part of the city:
Imagine walking those streets without a map and trying to figure out how they worked, using only your mental map of where you have been. On top of that each organized neighborhood had its own numbering system which did not use a city wide reference but used an internal reference. For example, if we were on Avenida San Martín and the numbers on the houses were in the 400's then we could walk for 100 meters and cross over into the next barrio, and while technically we were still on San Martín the numbers would now be in the 100's. In some cases the postal service took it upon itself to redo the numbering system, but as they were reissuing house numbers in some neighborhoods they got partway through the neighborhood and stopped before all the houses got new numbers. There was one street we were on that started off numbering in the 100's. We went to the next block at it went to the 200's. The next block was the 300's but partway through the fourth block the numbers went back to the 100's, but only on one side of the street about halfway up the block. We wandered up and down the street for a few minuets noticing that some of the houses we had passed had some odd or random numbers. We eventually clapped at a random house and asked the lady of the house how the numbers worked. She explained that a few years previously the post office had been renumbering the houses but they never finished. She then directed us to the correct house that we were looking for.

Another time we were looking for a house numbering somewhere in the low 100's. We got to the end of the street and we began to walk down it looking at the numbers. They started at about 200 and went down from there. When we got to about where the house should have been there was no house, just a deep ravine with a stream at the bottom. We continued on thinking that it must be on the other side. When we got to the other side of the stream the next house number was lower than the one we were looking for but we kept walking anyway. Pretty soon the numbers went below 100 until it got to about 76 where the numbers began to rise again all the way to the 170's and then proceeded to fall again until finally we got to the right house (number 113 I think, right between 89, on the up number side, and 103 on the down number side). We talked to the people there and commented on the numbers they explained to us in a very matter of fact way that they used to live up by the ravine but a number of years ago they moved and when they did they took the house number with them, as if that were the logical and natural thing to do. It seems like many people on that street did the same thing.

Finally the six missionaries got fed up with the addresses and streets so we went to the municipality and asked the people working there if they had a map of the city. They did not have a map to give us but they did have a large map on their wall that they maintained to show things like utilities and power lines. That day we were looking for a particular street that no one had ever heard of. We asked the municipal workers about the street and they had never heard about it, nor had it on their map. We continued our investigation and went to the local tourist visitor center. Remarkably they had a map. It was not complete but it would do. We also asked them about the mysterious road that we were trying to find. They had not heard about it. This continued one day until we were talking to a member in the branch who had actually heard of the street we were looking for. He said his mother and some other members of his family lived on it. He then proceeded to explain where it was and we realized that we had actually been there. Many times. We had actually walked down the street we were looking for about 20 or 30 times already. The reason why it did not show up on any maps was because it was not an official street, but the odd thing was that it was a very well established street, just not official. We went there and talked to people that lived there and found out that they had been living there for about 20 years. In other words this street had been in use and had well established houses on it (with power!) for about 20 years and the municipality had never known of its existence! Below I have marked the "non-existent" street in red and marked some of the recognized and "official" streets in green around it.
It was quite the adventure to try and find all these people, but there were some remarkable stories where we in a random neighborhood and we stopped at a random house and it turned out that just the person we were looking for happened to be there (as in the person that was literally next on our list to find). Officially their address was in another part of the city, but they just happened to be visiting there that day and had been wondering how to get in touch with the missionaries because they were thinking about coming back to church, but didn't know how. There were many, many of these stories that we had.

After walking the city for months we had finally taken about 500 people off the membership lists. That was just in the city of Oberá where we had ~1600 members on the membership rolls. So overall I actually decreased the total membership of the church on my mission, quite significantly actually. When I got to Oberá they were talking about disbanding the district and having it become part of the Stake in Posadas. Apparently last year they finally did it and now they have officially disbanded the district. Somehow I'm not surprised. The branch in Oberá will continue, and they have a beautiful chapel now, but it will be some time before there is another district there again.

Here is Oberá on Google Maps if you want to explore.

View Larger Map


Anners said...

Randomly I came across your post looking for the chapel in Obera - I remember it was north of Sarmiento, but I couldn't remember whic street (Jose Ingenieros maybe?). It was my first area (ages ago) and I loved it so much!

Quantumleap42 said...

The chapel is on Santiago del Estero (one street over from Jose Ingenieros) between Beruti and French. It's the only building with grass on both sides. When I was there the chapel was being expanded so I never actually met in the chapel. We met as a branch in the house next door to the chapel. It appears that that house is now torn down as it was located where the grassy area is now north of the chapel.

Obera really was a beautiful city.