“Conversation: Caribbean Centers of Strength,” Ensign, Apr. 1996, 77–78
Despite challenges of poverty, hurricanes, and political upheavals, the Church continues to establish strong centers of faith in the islands of the Caribbean Sea, where membership is now approaching 75,000. For an update on how the Church is doing in the general Caribbean area, the Ensign spoke with Elder Stephen D. Nadauld of the Seventy, president of the North America Southeast Area, which includes the Caribbean.
Question: To start, how is the Church doing in Haiti?
Answer: Most members are probably aware that not long ago a political situation in Haiti resulted in that country’s being isolated from much of the world for a while. At that time all of the Church’s non-native missionaries departed from the country, and contact with Church headquarters became very limited. Yet we were gratified to find the Church in marvelous condition when we visited Haiti in December 1994 for the first time in three and a half years. As we toured the mission’s two districts and numerous branches, we found that despite economic and other challenges, the Church was well organized, meetings were faithfully held, buildings were maintained, and members had continued paying tithes and fast offerings. Their understanding and practice of gospel doctrines and programs remained sound, and their leaders are more dedicated than ever.
Haiti’s time of isolation was overall a strengthening experience as far as the Church is concerned. Haitian members sustain the prophet and General Authorities, and they appreciate and rely on help and guidance from Church leaders in Salt Lake City. But during their few years of isolation, Haitian members learned that in many ways they are the Church in their land, and the Church there is theirs. The gospel flourishes in Haiti because of their efforts to carry out Heavenly Father’s will. Thus, the Church is doing well in Haiti. A challenge remains, however, to replenish the nation’s missionary force.
Q: Where is growth the strongest in the Caribbean?
A: More than fifteen years after proselyting began in the Dominican Republic, that country remains the Church’s most successful field of labor in the Caribbean. The country has reached the point now that 40 percent of the missionaries serving in its three missions are Dominican natives. The Church has eight stakes and nine large districts there, and total membership has passed the 50,000 mark. As in developing countries elsewhere in the world, the Church could increase its membership in the Dominican Republic at an almost limitless pace—but our challenge is to manage the Church’s growth wisely, not only teaching and baptizing new converts but retaining them and training them to become strong gospel leaders.
The people of the Dominican Republic are typically very energetic and desirous to improve their lives, and many recognize the gospel as the most powerful way to gain happiness and a greater sense of purpose and belonging. Members across the Caribbean are anxiously awaiting the building of the temple that has been announced for the Dominican Republic. The temple there will be a beacon of strength for members throughout the Caribbean.
Q: What other areas of the Caribbean are experiencing growth and development?
A: Another part of the area we’re excited about is the three adjacent countries of Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. This trio of countries used to be part of the Church’s South America North Area, but geographical barriers such as jungle and the Amazon River cause travel, commerce, and communication of these countries to flow more toward the Caribbean. So it makes sense for the Church to include the three countries with the Caribbean administratively. Guyana used to be a colony of Britain and Suriname of Holland, while French Guiana is still administrated by France. Consequently, the cultural diversity and ethnic influence among the three countries is great, with large African and East Indian populations and little Lamanite heritage as compared with other South American countries. A dozen or so missionaries in each country preach the gospel in the local language, and in each country the Church has flourishing branches that are part of the West Indies Mission. We are beginning to build meetinghouses in these three countries, and we expect strong growth to continue there.
Growth continues in Jamaica and Puerto Rico, which both have missions. The Church is doing particularly well in Barbados and in Trinidad, where the West Indies Mission is based. Growth seems slower in many of the tourist islands that dot the Caribbean, partly because those islands tend to be less populated and are quite homogenous in culture and religion. Our experience has been that people in very diverse places like the Dominican Republic are generally more open to the gospel than people in more insular places. However, on nearly all the resort islands the Church does have at least one branch. Some of these branches meet in Church-owned meetinghouses and others meet in rented facilities. If members who visit these islands during pleasure-boat cruises were to go beyond the tourist shops and beaches and seek out the local Latter-day Saint congregation, they would find warm, loving, dedicated Saints who are striving as hard to live the gospel as Saints anywhere else.
Q: What elements of the gospel do the people of the Caribbean seem to respond to most warmly?
A: We find that, with their opportunities often limited elsewhere, people in the Caribbean are very grateful and eager to become involved with the Church and help the great work of the Lord go forth. Those who want to improve their situation and circumstances in life are naturally drawn to the gospel. Not only do they seek the spiritual and temporal blessings of gospel living for themselves, but they want to teach their children correct principles so that the next generation will be stronger and happier. In reality, the Caribbean is a huge melting pot of different races, languages, and cultures, yet the gospel unifies and blesses Church members throughout all these many lands. We are full of optimism for the continued growth and development of the Church there.