“Conversation: The Church in Central America,” Ensign, Aug. 1998, 79–80
The seven countries of the Church’s Central America Area—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—are together growing at the rate of between 20,000 and 25,000 new members per year. To find out more about the progress of the Church in that part of the world, the Ensign spoke with Elder William R. Bradford of the Seventy, President of the Central America Area, and Elders Julio E. Alvarado and E. Israel Pérez, Area Authority Seventies who were serving, respectively, as First and Second Counselors in the Area Presidency.
Question: May we begin by looking at each individual country?
Response: The Church has grown quickly in Guatemala, with about 166,000 members presently, the most of any Central American country. The area offices are located in Guatemala City near the area’s only operating temple, and the Guatemala Missionary Training Center prepares missionaries called from all over the area. Of the 2,200 missionaries serving in the area, about 900 are native to Central America.
Belize was a British colony for more than 120 years before gaining independence in the late 1970s. About 211,000 people live there, most of them descendants of Africans who came via Caribbean islands to work. The people speak a creole language, and the official language is English. Church growth has been steady in Belize, with about 2,300 members presently and 24 missionaries from the Honduras San Pedro Sula Mission laboring there.
A small country geographically, El Salvador is the most densely populated Latin American nation. It has been involved in civil wars for 20 years or more, but the situation is more peaceful now. Today the work is going well, with about 79,000 members presently.
Honduras, with 84,000 members, is the country where the Church is currently growing the fastest in Central America. Much of the growth is happening in and around San Pedro Sula, a hot, humid, flat, coastal area where international fruit companies operate and considerable manufacturing takes place, particularly in textiles. The Area Presidency’s emphasis on priesthood leadership training is progressing particularly well in Honduras.
Nicaragua was under a communist dictator in recent history but is now led by a democratic president. The country’s economic progress is gaining momentum. The Church has no stakes there yet, but about 26,000 members are organized into several strong districts. Membership in Nicaragua is growing at about the average rate as in other Central American countries, and soon stakes will be created.
Costa Rica has enjoyed a stable, democratic government for some 70 years, making it a safe haven in the middle of politically troubled Central America. The nation’s standard of living is the highest in Central America, with many consumer goods available and a strong infrastructure. The Church has about 29,000 members there.
Panama is preparing to assume control of the Panama Canal in 1999, and consequently hundreds of U.S. military and civilian expatriates have left or are now leaving. Local people are stepping up to fill the gap in leadership, and the Church is doing well. Panama has experienced some political turmoil, but the work of the Church has gone forward steadily. Membership there is nearly 32,000.
Q: What are some strengths of the Church in Central America?
R: Home teaching and visiting teaching are showing improvement. The Church is moving ahead with leadership training so that a solid priesthood infrastructure can operate. The goal is to have what we refer to as the “shepherding ratio” be 10 members per active priesthood holder. Missionaries are concentrating on baptizing potential Melchizedek Priesthood holders, with the goal of adult men representing at least 25 percent of total baptisms.
Members are working hard to set up employment resources. The Church has a good reputation within Central America for providing honest and reliable workers. In many countries Church members are involved in the upper levels of politics and business. The Church’s relationship with governments, the community, and other churches is the strongest it has ever been. Even the area’s dominant religion, which used to preach widely against the Church, has been cooperative about letting members microfilm records for family history work.
Now that most of the countries of Central America are relatively peaceful, people can travel throughout the region on highways. The Guatemala City Temple is seeing a large increase in members visiting from other countries. Patron housing at the temple can handle about 100 people, but demand is high enough that reservations must be made well in advance. Temple activity has increased in the last two years by nearly 40 percent, which signals that members are better preparing themselves for temple recommends.
New converts in Central America are pointed toward the temple, and members and full-time missionaries are working closely with them for a greater emphasis on retention. Recently members and missionaries teamed up to perform an intensive membership audit. Tens of thousands of hours have been devoted to finding less-active members and updating records so we can better serve them. All these efforts and developments point toward increased gospel maturity in Central America, which is poised not only for more growth but for higher levels of strength and commitment.
Total Church membership:
1 (Guatemala City)
Wards and branches: