“A Conversation about the Church in Central America,” Tambuli, June 1993, 21
The Church is growing steadily in Central America, despite the effects in some countries of civil unrest, economic difficulties, and natural disasters. For a firsthand report on that growth, the Church magazines talked with Elder Ted E. Brewerton, president of the Central America Area.
Question: How strong is the Church in Central America?
Answer: There are more than a quarter of a million members spread over seven countries—Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. We have forty-seven stakes, ten missions, and a temple. On average, we have about two hundred baptisms monthly in each mission.
Q: Does this create a great challenge to local leadership?
A: Yes, it does. But I believe that stake, regional, and mission leadership are in very capable hands. Helping us are ten regional representatives who are natives of our area. Seven of the ten missions have Latin American mission presidents, and the background and knowledge of the other members of the Area Presidency add to our strength. My first counselor, Elder Carlos H. Amado, is Guatemalan, with much leadership experience, and my second counselor, Elder Jay E. Jensen, has spent much time in Latin America. Because of this strength, there is more ecclesiastical leadership training going on than ever before.
Q: It sounds as though people in Central America are receptive to the gospel.
A: In many areas they are. And the hand of the Lord is obviously in the work.
In about March 1991 in La Ceiba, on the north central coast of Honduras, missionaries were teaching a family, but the family lost interest after two lessons. Then in July, two lady missionaries found a record of the family and went back to visit. When they arrived, the mother in the family was weeping, and they asked her what the problem was. She told them about a dream in which she saw her twenty-year-old son, who had heard the first two lessons with the family but had died a month before the sisters’ visit. In the dream, her son had told her, “You and Dad must get baptized so I can get baptized.” And she asked them, “How can a dead person be baptized?” There was joy in that household when the family heard the rest of the missionary lessons. Four of them were baptized in August 1991.
Q: Then the spiritual strength of the Church is keeping pace with the numerical growth?
A: Oh, yes. Knowledge of gospel principles and doctrine is strong even among new members. This is partly because of missionaries and local leaders. We have seen a distinct increase in spirituality. Spiritual strength has grown, too, because of ways members have responded to difficulties or turmoil around them.
Q: Have civil unrest and natural disasters in some Central American locales frustrated the progress of the Church?
A: The fighting in some countries has cause difficulty for the Church. Some members’ homes have been damaged or lost in earthquakes and civil unrest. However, when a volcanic eruption spewed ash over southern Guatemala last year, wind blew it away from the location of our six Church units, and in the most recent earthquake, no homes of Latter-day Saints were lost.
It may seem paradoxical, but unrest in some countries has strengthened Latter-day Saints’ self-reliance. They have had to call more missionaries from among their own countries and have had to should heavy leadership burdens themselves. Two of the ten missions in Central America, for example, have no Anglo-American missionaries; all missionaries serving in these missions are from Latin America. This increased self-reliance has been a blessing to members. Also, upon returning home, these missionaries marry in the temple and are stronger leaders and members.
Q: Recently, Anglo-American missionaries were taken out of Honduras. How is the missionary activity continuing in their absence?
A: Both missions in Honduras continue to operate or function with only Latin American missionaries. In addition, the stakes and wards see the increased need to prepare and call even more of the local young men on missions and be increasingly self-reliant.
Q: Have some members been scarred by the effects of the conflicts in their countries?
A: Yes, some have. We have some missionaries who have carried around very painful pasts related to their war activities. Most of these of whom I speak are converts, and some of them had been involved in fighting. But when they change their lives, they become strong leaders! I think in a sense they become happier than most people can imagine because they realize that repentance is real and that the Atonement is for them, too. They recognize that they can really be forgiven of things they didn’t want to do or had to do in the past.
Q: Is Church growth coming at all levels of society?
A: Yes, but I would say Church membership is growing the most in the middle and lower-middle economic levels. We are, however, baptizing professionals.
The self-reliance I spoke of earlier has developed a great corps of leaders. You would be impressed to see the dozens of very strong, devoted men and women who can do anything in the Church. We have many outstanding women in the Church. In Managua, Nicaragua, for example, my wife and the mission president’s wife met recently with five hundred women. Because of poverty and conditions in that country, these Latter-day Saint women had not met in that kind of group for years. They rejoiced greatly in the spirit they felt together.
Q: Members must be encouraged by their efforts to strengthen the Church.
A: They don’t look at themselves as being successful. They are humble. Their lives seem to revolve around the Church. They don’t want to leave the meetinghouse on Sundays; they just want to be there with their friends.
They have an affinity and a sensitivity to the Spirit that’s remarkable. There is no tine of hesitancy in talking to their friends and neighbors about religion. They talk openly about praying and the effect it has on their lives.
Q: Is the Church generally well accepted in Central America?
A: Yes. Many of the biases about religion that used to exist are gone now. We have done some things to help gain acceptance for the Church. For example, we put flagpoles in our meetinghouses in Guatemala, and on 15 September 1991, which is Independence Day in all of the Central American countries, we held flag-raising ceremonies at 154 of our buildings. During the programs, we offered prayers for peace and for rain in the countries involved. The programs were well attended by civic and military leaders, and very well received by people in general. They helped government leaders and others understand the Church’s commitment to bettering the areas where we have members.
But the members themselves have probably done more to gain acceptance for the Church than anything we could have planned. We have a few Church members who are members of high political circles. Other Church members have held high rank in the military—Colonel Augusto Conde, for example. Because of his integrity, he retired from military service in Guatemala with the finest reputation any man could have; then he served in the Guatemala temple presidency. The secretary to the vice president of El Salvador is the wife of a counselor in a stake presidency. She’s outstanding.
Members like these talk openly of their religion and what it stands for. And people in their countries are taking notice. One of the highest ranking ministers in the government of El Salvador invited Israel Pérez, president of the El Salvador San Salvador West Mission, to his office and personally resolved some problems with visas for missionaries. Then he told President Pérez, “I want you to know that because of what you are doing, our country is better. You are family-focused, you are oriented to upgrading people morally. I welcome you here.”
Q: What else do you think has contributed to the success of the Church in Central America?
A: Two scriptures come to mind. The first is from Helaman: “And thus we see that the Lord began to pour out his Spirit upon the Lamanites, because of their easiness and willingness to believe in his words” (Hel. 6:36).
Before sharing the second scripture, let me paint a picture for you. When I stand at the pulpit and speak, I look into the beautiful faces of faithful Saints. When I go to the temple and we are dressed in white clothing, I see a beautiful people with skin a little darker than mine—and the words of the Savior to the survivors of the destructions in 3 Nephi come into my mind: “And behold, ye are the children of the prophets; and ye are of the house of Israel; and ye are of the covenant” (3 Ne. 20:25). The Shepherd of Israel has not forgotten His sheep.