“In the Vineyards of the Lord,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 16
The Church in Mexico and Central America
In the Vineyards of the Lord
“I could feel the eagerness and hope of the two young missionaries. One of them could barely say ‘Hello’ in Spanish, but their strength and assurance impressed me. I was soon attending church in the small rented house where four or five families gathered for meetings. The members made me feel welcome; they were interested in me, in what I was studying. They made me see that the Church needed me. I was soon working in the branch.”
These are the words of C. Juan Casanova, now president of the Mexico City Stake, as he recalls his conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Unfortunately my first missionary, the senior companion of the pair, returned home after having given me all the discussions, and he never saw me baptized,” said President Casanova. “But eleven years later, when I was second counselor in the Mexico Stake presidency, I met that missionary again at a general conference in Salt Lake City. He is a bishop now. What gratitude I felt for him and for all those who have been, who are, and who will some day be missionaries! I hope that my sons will be like them.”
Conversion stories similar to President Casanova’s abound among Church members in Central America and Mexico.
Guillermo Gonzales, who first met the missionaries in 1956, remembers that “the lady missionaries were very happy to be in our home. I suppose they must have considered us ‘golden’ investigators. I was so ‘golden’ I even locked the door of the house to be sure they did not leave before telling us all they knew about the restored gospel.
“For eight hours they talked with us about the Book of Mormon, Lehi and Nephi, the brass plates, the degrees of glory, the promises of the Lord to Israel, the welfare plan, the stakes of the Church, and many other doctrines and programs related to the kingdom of God.
“I was very impressed and finally asked, a little shyly, ‘When will we have a stake here in Monterrey?’
“It is clear to me now that one of the lady missionaries was trying to obtain a response from that unending source of wisdom which, at the time, was unknown to us. Suddenly there was a change in her whole face. Then, with a smile that lightened her countenance, she spoke. ‘I believe,’ she said, ‘that within fifteen or sixteen years we will have the first stake in Monterrey.’
“Eventually these lady missionaries returned home knowing that they had fulfilled their missions with honor and that the Lord prepares the hearts of those who seek him. But they did not know that they had been God’s instruments in bringing the gospel to a man foreordained to become the president of the first stake in Monterrey—just sixteen years later.”
The city of Monterrey, where Brother Gonzales resides, was the scene of a remarkable series of conversions that began with a greeting in a gas station.
A young boy, Trini, was very pleased that anyone cared enough to shake hands with him, so he decided he’d hear what the elders had to say when they approached him at the gas station. When missionaries arrived for the appointment at Trini’s home, they discovered that he was a member of a family of fifty who all lived on the same street and who were bound together by the leadership of their patriarch, Trini’s grandfather (the abuelito).
Trini joined the Church along with ten other relatives, including his grandfather. And during the next three months, forty-five other members of the family were baptized. Among them were sixteen family heads, seven of whom now hold the priesthood. Since then, the abuelito has written to his relatives and friends in eight different cities, inviting them to hear the missionary lessons and join the Church.
Another convert, Catarino Calamaco, in Purisima, Mexico, tells the story of how the gospel was brought to him and then taken through him to others:
“Before I joined the Church, I was irresponsible,” he recalls. “What money I earned, I wasted. I provided my family with the necessities of life, but the rest of my pay was spent on outings, good times, alcohol, and tobacco.
“It was then that I became acquainted with Reyes Blanco Guerra, and he introduced me to the missionaries. On April 1, 1969, the elders held a meeting with my wife, my children, my mother, three brothers, and about ten friends. When they arrived, I could see they were deeply moved that such a good group was waiting to listen to the gospel.
“I promised the missionaries that I would give up my bad habits so that I could be baptized, and I began making an effort to quit drinking and smoking. But I failed. When the missionaries found me in a state of complete drunkenness, one of them told me that if I would promise to leave all of this, I would see a complete change in my life and my family. With kind words, and in a very intelligent way, I received a good reprimand. I will never forget the wise counsel the missionaries gave me.
“After I was baptized, with my wife and two of my children, I offered my home to the missionaries so they could continue their teaching. I myself have introduced many families to the missionaries, and some 256 persons have joined the Church. This has enlarged our branch in Purisima, where I now serve as president.”
President Calamaco’s desire to bring the gospel to others is shared by many converts in Mexico and South America. As members begin to receive the blessings of the restored gospel in their lives, they reach out beyond family circles to touch the lives of others.
A convert in Honduras tells how he found the gospel after a long pilgrimage from his homeland in Europe:
“I was born of Jewish parents in 1940 in Bulgaria. Life after the war was severe there, so my father immigrated to Israel in 1947. Those four years we lived in the Holy Land were extremely hard. Food was scarce and the economy was poor.
“We left Israel and traveled through Europe, where we nearly starved to death. During that time I discovered for myself that Jesus Christ was the Messiah for whom the Jews had waited for so long. I began to believe and was baptized into a Protestant sect in Greece.
“After considerable wandering, my family finally arrived in Brazil, where we lived for five years. Later we traveled again, living in nineteen Latin American countries.
“Then I moved to the United States and married, and we prospered with a chain of stores we owned. But I began wasting my time and money at the gambling tables and neglecting my family. My wife, in the meantime, had been baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“In the midst of my corrupt life, I suddenly began to read the scriptures, and I made a firm decision to quit that sinful life. It was during this period of meditation in my life that I had a curious and impressive dream. When I awoke, I knelt beside my bed and asked the Lord for his help. From that time on, things began to change. I resolved to find the true religion and obey God’s commandments.
“I moved to Honduras to avoid the temptation of the gambling tables, and a short time later the missionaries came to invite my wife to church. I took the opportunity to ask them some difficult questions in order to confuse them, but instead, they spoke about the Book of Mormon. I decided to read it in order to attack them on their own ground, so I read the book for seven straight hours on the first day. My attitude changed as I read, and I was especially touched when I read about the Jews.
“I finished the book with an open heart and received a testimony that it was the word of God. I became a member in that same year, 1969, and my life changed completely. Now I am president of the San Pedro District and receive great joy in serving my brothers and sisters in Honduras.”
The gospel is often characterized as “the power to make bad men good, and good men better.” This is the testimony of Antonio Cuevas, who relates the story of his conversion to the Church:
“Because I could not find the spiritual peace I needed, I turned to drink. Then I met the Mormon missionaries on a bus by accident, or so it seemed. When I saw that they were consulting a Bible, I asked one of them, ‘Do you sell Bibles?’ He answered me with a question: ‘Would you like to know about the Mormon Church?’ I told him yes and we set up an appointment.”
Brother Cuevas recalls that on the day the missionaries came to give their first discussion, his wife and oldest children had just decided to leave him. “I had been drinking that day and I did not hear the first lesson, but Elder Thomas told my wife, ‘Have great faith and someday your husband will change.’”
His family continued to listen to the discussions, though Brother Cuevas remembers that he was usually so intoxicated when they came that he didn’t follow what was being said. Then one evening the missionaries talked about the Word of Wisdom.
“That night I could not sleep,” Brother Cuevas says. “I thought about what the missionaries had said and then I asked the Lord if the Church was true. I knew that if it was true, God would give me the power to leave the life I was leading.
“The next day I attended church for the first time. It was a testimony meeting, and I was greatly impressed by the sincerity of the members. I asked President Arce for permission to speak. As I spoke, I felt such deep inspiration and love that after the meeting I told Elder Thomas, ‘I want to be baptized.’
“I am forty-four years old. Of those forty-four years, I have had only one happy year—the one in which we have known the gospel. My wife says the same. The twenty-three years of marriage have been suffering for her. Now we are happy and peaceful.”
The happiness that has blessed Antonio and Emilia Cuevas and their family has blessed thousands of converts throughout the world—converts like one woman in Mexico who was such a heavy smoker and so nervous that she was not able to answer the missionaries’ questions during the first lesson.
Her husband was converted, but his wife refused to listen to continued discussions. The missionaries tell what happened:
“It looked as though the family was really divided, and we thought Sister Florez was going to influence her husband against the Church.
“But when we paid a special visit to the Florez home, we found that she had completely changed. She told us she had received an answer to her prayers. She wanted to continue with the discussions. That day she quit smoking and decided she would be baptized with her husband.
“Today she is a counselor in both the Relief Society and the Primary presidencies and her husband is a counselor in the Sunday School presidency. We hardly recognized her when we last saw her, she looked so much younger and healthier. She told us that they now have saved enough money to go to the temple.”
Preaching the gospel is a work filled with constant miracles. The greatest of all miracles, perhaps, takes place in the hearts of men who are changed for the good by the influence of the Holy Ghost. Such a change occurred in the life of Jorge Kaim, who is now bishop of the Condesa Ward, Mexico City Stake.
“It seems the divine hand of the Lord had already prepared me for the gospel,” he says. “Although I had not even heard of Mormonism, I had quit smoking ten years earlier and had not touched coffee, tea, or alcohol in three years.
“When I met Elders Rigby and Mertz, I was willing to listen to them. I agreed readily with what they taught me. They gave me all the pamphlets of the Church that they had in English and Spanish, as well as the standard works, which I studied well.
“Three days before I joined the Church, Elder Rigby was teaching me some important points of the gospel. As he spoke I saw his face change in a divine light. It took on an indescribable brilliance. At the same time, I felt a pleasant sensation come over me. As I spoke, telling the elders what was happening, the beautiful vision disappeared. This and several other experiences have helped increase my testimony of the truth of the Church.
“As I have gained spiritual understanding, my earthly wealth has diminished. At times I ask myself if this is according to the will of the Lord to bring me closer to him. I believe if I had followed after the wealth of the world, I may not have accepted the gospel. Today the only wealth I possess is my testimony, and I would not exchange it for all the wealth on earth. Without my testimony of the gospel, I would rather die.”
For Bishop Kaim and thousands of others in Mexico and Central America, the word of the Lord is very true: “… he that hath eternal life is rich.” (D&C 6:7.)
The work of the missionaries today in those countries, and among all the remnant of Joseph, seems to have been foreseen by the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob, whose words echo through the centuries, inspiring and inviting all men everywhere to receive the fullness of the gospel of Christ:
“And the day that he [the Lord] shall set his hand again the second time to recover his people, is the day, yea, even the last time, that the servants of the Lord shall go forth in his power, to nourish and prune his vineyard. …
“And how blessed are they who have labored diligently in his vineyard. …
“And how merciful is our God unto us, for he remembereth the house of Israel, both roots and branches; and he stretches forth his hands unto them all the day long. …
“O then, my beloved brethren, repent ye, and enter in at the strait gate, and continue in the way which is narrow, until ye shall obtain eternal life.” (Jacob 6:2–4, 11.)