“Guatemala: Building toward the Future,” Ensign, Aug. 2001, 36
Berta Lopez points to a row of young women in a picture on the yellowed page of a Church magazine: “There I am.” She was a teenager then, one of a handful attending an activity for Latter-day Saint girls in Guatemala City that day in 1951. There were fewer than a dozen.
But that was two generations ago for the Church in Guatemala.
Now Berta can look out her window at the house next door where her daughter, Gina Ramirez, is directing an activity for a Primary Valiant class. Gina is Primary president in their suburban branch of the Guatemala City Guatemala Stake, one of 20 stakes in the city. What Berta sees represents the kind of growth that members in Guatemala could only dream of 50 years ago.
In another part of the capital city, young Ricardo Ayala goes with his family to their stake center to watch a fireside broadcast from Salt Lake City with simultaneous translation in their own language. Being able to receive these live satellite transmissions is a blessing that came to Guatemalan members just last year.
Ricardo, a member of the Guatemala City Guatemala Palmita Stake, will finish secondary school this year, and then he hopes to go on a mission a few months later when he turns 19. While finding a job may not be easy in a country where unemployment and underemployment are high, he has planned to work and save so he can pay the whole cost of the mission himself.
Because of Latter-day Saints like the Lopez and Ayala families, perceptions regarding the Church have changed in Guatemala. The kind of misinformation about the Church that once circulated freely here has little credibility now. Too many Guatemalans know Latter-day Saints and know what they stand for. The proportion of Church members in this nation’s population (about 1.5 percent) is close to that of the United States (about 1.8 percent). Just as the temple has become a landmark in Guatemala City, Latter-day Saints are becoming landmarks in their society.
Latter-day Saint missionaries were first sent to Guatemala in 1947 after John F. O’Donnal, a North American living there, visited Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and reported that there were people in the country ready to hear the gospel. His wife, Carmen, was the first Guatemalan baptized; Brother O’Donnal would later serve as a mission president and temple president in Guatemala.
In 1952 the Central American Mission was created. When it was divided in 1965, it served six countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. Now there are four missions in Guatemala alone and 40 stakes in the country. In 1989 Elder Carlos H. Amado, a native of Guatemala, was called as a member of the Seventy.
One of the greatest challenges for Guatemalan members is fighting traditions, says Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy, Central America Area President. Traditional religion does not teach strong member involvement in meetings or in teaching and leadership positions. Some new members do not make the transition to living the gospel smoothly, and some older members have simply slipped out of activity, so there is much work to be done in activation.
Following counsel from the Area Presidency, local priesthood leaders visit the homes of less-active members and use the commitment pattern familiar to missionaries to try to help change lives. They ask questions beginning with “Will you?” Will you visit with the bishop about resolving problems that are keeping you from full Church activity? Will you visit with him about getting a recommend and going to the temple? The questions are suited to the members’ needs.
Priesthood leaders are usually surprised at how easy it is to activate using this approach, Elder Robbins says. For example, when Bishop Milton Leonel Lima of the Minerva Ward, Jalapa Guatemala Stake, tried this approach with 14 members, 10 accepted the invitation and began making the necessary changes in their lives. The bishop and his counselors immediately began identifying other members to visit.
The Area Presidency is also putting emphasis on the bishops’ duty to strengthen young men and young women. “Right now, we’re focusing strongly on getting a greater number of our young men on missions,” Elder Robbins says. The percentage of those going on missions rose more than 50 percent in 2000.
There are also economic challenges for many members in Guatemala. As many as 25 percent are unemployed or underemployed. But the Church plays a role here too. The area Employment Services office has a training program that provides help, particularly for returned missionaries, in preparing for and finding a job or in starting a business. The Church also assists microcredit organizations that help small businesses get started. Moreover, some stakes, in an effort to provide uplifting opportunities for youth during school breaks, are offering not only spiritually enriching activities but also classes or instruction that teach job skills.
Life for Guatemalans has changed significantly in the years since the gospel was introduced in their country.
A generation ago, in the mid-1960s, Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint missionaries began learning Mayan languages in order to teach whole families; often only the father of a family, who had the most contact with the dominant Spanish-speaking culture, could communicate with them. Now it is no longer necessary for missionaries to study most of those languages because most of the indigenous people speak Spanish. While the literacy rate in the country remains lower than that of industrialized nations, it has improved, and this, says Elder Robbins, allows many of the Mayan members to take advantage of the scriptures that have been translated into their languages. All of the Book of Mormon is available in Kekchí and selections from it in Quiché, Cakchiquel, and Mam, the principal Mayan languages of the country.
In places like Polochic and other centers of Mayan population, meetings and Church business may be conducted largely in the native languages. Many of these members of Mayan descent have a humble faith that is manifest in their devotion to the gospel and their duty in it. Some will arise early in the morning and walk two to three hours one way to attend their Sunday meetings.
But indigenous members are less and less isolated in Guatemalan society, and many have come into the mainstream in ways that were unforeseen a generation ago. The Boj family of Quetzaltenango is a good example. Members of the family are well known in the community as successful entrepreneurs running their own businesses. Timoteo and Eva Boj joined the Church in the mid-1970s. They, their eight children and children’s spouses, and their 18 grandchildren are well grounded in Church service. The family includes four past bishops, four past Relief Society presidents, six past Primary presidents, four past Young Men presidents, five past or presently serving Young Women presidents, six returned missionaries and one still serving. They are a family of hearty good humor who eagerly serenade visitors with a local favorite song, “Luna de Xelajú” (“Moon of Xelajú”; Xelajú is the old traditional name for Quetzaltenango). Their example and love for others has also brought many into the Church.
Examples of faith can be found in every stake and ward or branch. Following are just a few.
Carlos Santíz, president of the Mazatenango Guatemala Stake, points to notes made on a whiteboard during a meeting with bishops, explaining how they followed the direction of Church leaders to meet in council and plan to serve the needs of less-active members. “I’m grateful to the Lord for putting me in this stake presidency because it’s a challenge, but a challenge I needed, and it has brought growth,” he says.
Nery Eduardo Marroquín, a counselor in the bishopric of a ward in the Retalhuleu Guatemala Stake, was an evangelical Christian before coming into the Church five years ago through the influence of his wife, Ada. He grew up in a home where he learned the importance of personal prayer, the Bible, and worship of Jesus Christ as the Savior, but he also felt there was something more. He found it in ordinances offered through the gospel that could allow him and his wife to have an eternal family. “Christ said no one will come to the Father ‘but by me’ [John 14:6]. And the ordinances are through Him. That’s why it’s such a blessing to have a temple in Guatemala.”
Hector Gonzalez of the Villa Nueva Guatemala Stake says the gospel has given him strength to face the battle with cancer that cost him a leg and nearly cost his life. At one point, when he wondered why this should happen to him—a returned missionary, married in the temple, with a wife and baby daughter—his wife brought him his patriarchal blessing, and he found hope in its promise of a long life of service. When it became obvious that he would lose his right leg, he received a spiritual witness that he would be all right in the end. After the surgery, he recalls, “It was incredible the support I found in reading the Book of Mormon. It was as though it gave me the strength to go on.” Looking back, he considers it a blessing that his job required him to walk more so the cancer was discovered before it could spread farther and that through his work he had the medical benefits he needed. Now back at work, he says, “I know the Lord has been watching over me. I know He has cared for me through all of this.”
Jorge Popá, now a member of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Stake, originally invited the sister missionaries to his home to help his wife understand the English instructions that came with the bread maker he had bought her. The sisters agreed—if they could also share the gospel message with the family. After the missionary lessons and full instruction on the bread maker, Jorge and his wife, Mirna, told the missionaries they still weren’t interested in baptism. But it would not be over so easily. That night, each could not sleep, each felt moved to get out of bed at the same time and pray about what they had been taught, and each received the same strong spiritual manifestation of the truth. They sought out the sister missionaries at church on Sunday and asked to be baptized. After their baptism, they faced the problem that many Guatemalan converts face: how to tell their family they had broken with the traditional religion. Their oldest son (now a deacon, but then just four) solved that problem for them at a family gathering. When someone passed around the tea, he stood and announced, “We don’t drink that! We’re Mormons.”
Udine Falabella was president of the first stake organized in Guatemala, in 1967. In 1965, as district president in Guatemala City, he had organized the first temple trip from the area, by bus across Mexico to Mesa, Arizona. It was a great blessing to Guatemala when the temple was dedicated there in 1984, he says. It was a blessing for him to serve later as its president; he was released in 2000 after more than four years in that position.
He recalls that in dedicating the temple, President Gordon B. Hinckley pronounced a blessing of peace on the country (see “Guatemala City Temple Dedicated,” Ensign, Feb. 1985, 77). Not long afterward, the country’s long period of civil strife came to an end. Perhaps more important, though, was the fact that Guatemalan members could now enjoy the peace of the temple and its covenants no more than a few hours from their homes.
Brother Falabella’s granddaughter Evelyn was married in that temple in December 2000. She says many young Guatemalans who see unhappy or failing marriages around them have lost faith in the institution of marriage and may feel it is better to put time into developing their careers, marrying later if at all. “I believe if I didn’t have the gospel in my life, I wouldn’t have dared get married right now.” But through the gospel, she says, there is peace in facing the challenges because we can know the eternal reasons for marriage and the everlasting blessings it can bring.
And that, says Brother Falabella, is indicative of the change that has come to Guatemala in his lifetime through the Church: thousands of strong Latter-day Saints now have at hand all the means to implement full gospel programs and enjoy their full blessings.
José Sazo agrees that the gospel blessings available in his country and his generation are rich—for those who strive to live up to them. José, who was not yet born when that first stake was created in Guatemala, is now president of the Guatemala City Guatemala Florida Stake.
It takes constant, consistent effort to maintain strong families and marriages, he says. President Sazo and his wife, Claudia, both served missions in their country, and they agree that a large part of the secret to maintaining strong marriages can be found in two good habits learned by missionaries: frequent, loving companionship evaluations (conversations about how their marriage is going) and regular gospel study. “If I had a prescription for happiness,” President Sazo says, “it would be to study the scriptures together always.”
With their own two small sons, President Sazo adds, “We are agreed on this: we want to do everything we can for them so they will become strong leaders and the Lord will be able to call them to do whatever He wants, without reservation.”
So it was with those strong members of the Church in this country more than half a century ago who were willing to persevere in the gospel no matter what challenges they faced. And so it is now with the heirs of their spiritual legacy: the future of the Church in Guatemala will be in the hands of those ready to answer the call of the Lord without reservation.
National population: approximately 11.5 million
Church membership: more than 175,000
Wards and branches: 449
Church-owned meetinghouses: 261
Temple: Guatemala City, dedicated 1984
Missionary Training Center: Guatemala City