“Spain: Exploring Horizons of Faith,” Liahona, May 2000, 36
The Plaza de España in the heart of Madrid is dominated by a tall, impressive monument to the past glories of Spain. But the monument is dwarfed by glass and steel towers on three sides of the park, topped by arrays of broadcast and telecommunications antennas.
That quiet, whitewashed Spanish village you may see in your mind’s eye still gleams on the hillside in the afternoon sun. But the drivers of sleek German sedans and large Swedish trucks on the autopista a kilometer away hardly give it a second glance.
And today Don Quixote’s looming windmills might be the dozens of high-tech wind machines—part of an electric power project—that line the ridges above Algeciras on Spain’s south coast.
This isn’t the Spain described in history books. This is a country prepared to be a significant force in the economic community, a country no longer dominated by a central religious or political power, a country where the pendulum has swung far toward freedom. Some say too far; Spaniards now struggle with the same challenges to morality and spirituality that are common in any modern nation.
Spain is also a country where the Church is coming out of obscurity because of the strength and example of its members.
Freedom of religion was not legally guaranteed in Spain until 1967. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received official recognition in October the following year, and the country was dedicated for missionary work in May 1969 by Elder Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The Church grew slowly at first, with early converts often feeling strong pressure from others to give up their faith. But growth has been steady, and there are now some 30,000 Latter-day Saints in Spain.
One measure of Church growth is the temple dedicated in Madrid in March 1999. The temple complex includes a stake center, Missionary Training Center, Family History Center, and housing areas for temple missionaries and patrons.
Another landmark of growth for Spanish members was the visit of the Tabernacle Choir in 1998. The choir’s performances—particularly in the historic El Escorial monastery—generated much attention at the time and even greater opportunities to share the gospel later when those performances were widely broadcast.
While Church members are no longer either an invisible presence or a mere footnote in the Spanish sociological landscape, they are still a puzzle to many. Probably the most common question Spanish members hear when others learn they are Latter-day Saints is, “How is your church different from the Catholic Church?”—a known benchmark. These days, the news that a loved one or friend has joined the Church may bring reactions ranging from curiosity to indifference, but seldom does someone’s baptism stir the alarm it often raised two decades ago.
In the mid-1970s when the Jiménez family of Cádiz joined the Church, people turned against them. Their little son was dismissed from the nursery school he attended. Clients for their shoemaking and shoe repair business gradually deserted them. They survived in part because they had heeded President Spencer W. Kimball’s (1895–1985) counsel to build up their food storage after hearing him speak at a conference in Europe in 1976. But they struggled.
Things are better now. The Lord has blessed them with new, more reliable clients, Enrique Jiménez says, and they have lived to see the day when neighbors and acquaintances ask how to get whatever it is that makes their family stand out.
The Jiménez family is large by Spanish standards today—eight children. Families of two, sometimes three, children are more common. Costs of supporting a family are high, and the average family has a piso—a two- or three-bedroom flat on one floor of an apartment building. The Jiménez family has two pisos in a building on one of the narrow, winding cobblestone streets in old Cádiz.
In the Jiménez living room, a specially made tabletop is stored out of the way until mealtime, when it fits onto a smaller table so the whole family can sit down to dinner together. Others ask Margarita Jiménez how she and her husband are able to support such a large family; she replies that the Lord blesses them by meeting their needs and helping her to manage well what they have.
Their challenges have not gone away, Enrique says, but the ability to meet them has grown. “The Lord has tried me many times, but He has always made the way for me to pass the test.” Enrique currently serves as first counselor in the bishopric of the Cádiz First Ward, Cádiz Spain Stake, and his wife is a counselor in the Relief Society presidency. Through the years, they have led the way in service; all of their children are active in the Church, and three sons have served missions.
Latter-day Saint parents throughout Spain understand the eternal value of the gospel to their children.
Ferran Silvestre, second counselor in the Hospitalet Spain Stake, and his wife, Pilar, are working hard to instill gospel principles while their children are young. They attend the small Vilafranca Branch, about 80 kilometers from the next nearest city with a unit of the Church. They know their children (the oldest is now six) will grow up surrounded by people whose standards are different and whose vision of life may be clouded by worldly considerations. Pilar says she feels somewhat isolated from women around her because she has chosen to stay at home with her children rather than work outside the home to help support the family. But when neighbors ask why she has made that choice or why the Silvestres do not drink or smoke, Pilar sees an opportunity to explain the spiritual reasons for their lifestyle.
Pilar believes in teaching children gospel principles as early as possible, a belief shared by other LDS parents like Luis Ángel de Benito of the Madrid Fifth Ward, Madrid West stake. “We need to follow the doctrine taught by Joseph Smith, to teach them correct principles so they can govern themselves,” he says. “It’s necessary both to teach them the principles and to give them the opportunity to feel the Spirit of the Lord in the home.”
Luis Ángel and his wife, Rosa, are musicians—pianist and cellist. They teach at a university in Madrid and sometimes perform concerts together. Thus far they have been able to arrange their teaching schedules so that one of them is always at home with their children. Despite opposition, both joined the Church in their late teens, and they are determined that their own children will have full parental support while learning to prove gospel principles for themselves. “We want to be friends to our children—but parents before friends,” Luis Ángel says.
Rosa expresses gratitude for the way the gospel fosters “unity between my husband and me and in the family.” She has seen too many homes in which fathers deeply involved in outside interests are ineffective in the family; as a result, the parents are not united in their efforts. The gospel, she comments, can help overcome machismo and other traditions that hold families back and can bring healing in families in which children have obeyed the father only out of duty or fear.
María Carmen Anta, Young Women president in the Seville First Ward, Seville Spain Stake, says strength in the gospel is a gift young people can be given through the examples of parents or youth leaders.
Her husband, José, is bishop of their ward. “The problem here in Spain is that the youth are few,” he says. It is difficult for LDS youth to draw strength from each other when they are so isolated, he says, so he and his wife sometimes schedule activities in their home and invite not only the youth from their ward but also others from the stake.
The value of consistent gospel teaching from childhood into teen years is easily seen in the lives of young members.
“My goals are very clear,” says 19-year-old Erik Lara of the Barcelona First Ward, Barcelona stake. “I want to serve a mission, finish school, and start a family.” Erik, raised in the Church, says life is by no means so clear cut for many of his friends who, lacking strong role models, see little reason for starting a family and little purpose in life other than entertaining themselves. Many young people, he says, are simply wandering. He shares gospel principles with friends as he can, although often they back away from learning more when they realize what would be required by obedience.
The philosophies of the world teach youth many false ideas, says Juani Parra, who, though still young herself, has filled leadership positions in the Relief Society, Primary, and Young Women organizations of the San Fernando Ward, Cádiz stake. Like other youth leaders, she reports that young people who have not had the influence of the gospel in their lives sometimes laugh at the idea of chastity, saying it is foolishness or it is impossible and unnatural to live such a standard. Some react angrily to the idea of chastity. With the growth of ideological freedom in Spain over the past two decades, sexual license somehow became associated with basic liberties such as freedom of thought and speech, so some see the concept of chastity—along with other standards that require self-control—as an attack on personal freedom.
The pressure on youth to conform to the majority view can be intense, says Juani’s 22-year-old brother-in-law, Jorge Parra, who recently returned from serving in the California Anaheim Mission. He did not attend his own graduation from secondary school, he recalls, because some classmates had threatened to hold him down afterward and force him to drink liquor. Fortunately, the pressure is usually not so overt for LDS youth who make it clear they intend to stick by their standards, but there may always be a sense of isolation from some of their peers.
That sense of isolation is not limited to teens. Marisa Rosado of the Madrid Fifth Ward, Madrid Spain West Stake, teaches organic chemistry at a Catholic university. Social life, she says, can be “a bit difficult” for someone who lives gospel standards—and as a single woman, it is not easy to find young men with direction and goals in their lives. Still, she is not lonely. “Really, the Church hasn’t separated me from people; rather, it puts me together with a certain type of people,” she says.
Some tell her politely that she is “conservative” because of her beliefs. That does not influence her to change. “Being a member of the Church isn’t always easy, but it is the essence of my life,” she says. “The gospel gives me peace when I need peace, and it gives me strength when I need strength.”
Members try to share that peace and strength with their neighbors. In San Fernando, Rogelio and Olaya Parra, Jorge’s parents, have been sharing for decades now. Their stake president says more than 100 local members have come into the Church through contacts with this couple.
When they were baptized in 1972, Rogelio recalls, “My father told me I was crazy.” Olaya says her family also was upset, but, “I’m not influenced by what people think if I know it’s right.”
Shortly after their baptism, Olaya recalls with a laugh, “I was president of the Primary, and I had no idea what the Primary was. I was lost.” She learned quickly. She has gone on to teach and hold leadership roles in all the auxiliary organizations, and her husband has held a variety of leadership positions; currently he is stake patriarch and serves as a temple sealer.
Back in those early days in San Fernando, the Parras hosted the missionary discussions for many of the first converts in the area. That is exactly the way it should be, says former mission president Faustino López of the Alcalá de Henares Second Ward, Madrid Spain East Stake. He served as president of the Spain Málaga Mission—the first Spaniard to preside over a mission in his home country. “Members are the only ones who can open some doors,” he says. The Church has a good reputation among those who know of it through friends. Without member help, however, missionaries often have difficulty finding people to teach.
What dissuades people from listening? Prosperity is one important factor, says Brother López.
Jorge Parra, the returned missionary from San Fernando, agrees. It was easier to teach the Hispanics in the United States, he recalls, because they often were found in humble circumstances. But many people in his home country, comparatively prosperous and comfortable, seem to feel little need of God or organized worship.
A high percentage of the current baptisms in Spain are among South Americans drawn to Europe to find good jobs. Transplanted South Americans who have been members of the Church for many years are strong members of many urban Spanish units. One example: the Zacarías family of Madrid, originally from Perú.
Orlando and Esperanza Zacarías have three adult daughters—Rocío, Gabriela, and Alice—and a son, José, living with them, as well as a niece, Jenny Castro. The family members’ long experience in the Church before coming to Spain has been an asset as they serve in ward or stake callings.
Orlando, an accountant, came to Spain first to find work; then he sent for the rest of the family. All four young women hold jobs and at the same time study—largely European languages—to make themselves more versatile at work. The job market is very competitive.
As a measure of the strength of the Church in Spain, some members express their faith as follows:
Pepita Mompó of the Sabadell Ward, Hospitalet stake, was undoubtedly one of the earliest members in Spain; she was baptized in 1964 during a visit with relatives in Brazil. She has served in a wide variety of Primary and Relief Society callings since the pioneering days of the Church in Barcelona. She says: “Every calling carries its own blessings. You learn something from each one.”
Jesús Galván of the Jeréz Ward, Cádiz stake, advocates greater involvement in community service by members. He says, “We have to show the Lord that we want to take care of our brothers and sisters, and then the Lord will do His part.”
Alicia Blasco and her husband and children live far out of Madrid, but they endure the regular travel to Church meetings because the gospel, as nothing else can, offers “a future for our children,” Alicia says. Isolated from other Latter-day Saints, Sister Blasco faithfully holds seminary class every day with their daughter.
Brothers Manolo and José Viñas of Algeciras, both former branch presidents, talk enthusiastically about activation programs and missionary opportunities. Can their small branch, with its ethnically mixed, highly fluid population in the port and resort area overlooking Gibraltar, really grow very much? “Of course,” Manolo says enthusiastically.
While the new temple in Madrid is a highly visible symbol of the Church’s presence in Spain, it is also a spiritual anchor to Latter-day Saints. There has been an increase in individual preparation and in family history work as members have prepared to perform temple ordinances for their ancestors and for themselves. Looking to the temple as a spiritual portal to eternity, many undoubtedly feel what Rocío Yagüe of the Madrid First Ward, Madrid West stake, expresses: “The temple is the house of the Lord. When I go, I go to feel His Spirit.”
Arturo Torres of Madrid, a member since 1971, says he has seen Spain go from being a religious country to a country of skeptics. But this skepticism can be overcome as Latter-day Saints reach out to family and friends. The Church is taking on a new, more Spanish image because of the temple, he comments.
“With more faith on all our parts and more work, the situation will change.” This prediction would not be the logical view, he says, because of the widespread skepticism about religion. But, “I see it with the eye of faith—and the eye of faith tells me there will be many more members.”
Stakes: Barcelona, Cádiz, Elche, Hospitalet, Madrid East, Madrid West, Seville
Missions: Barcelona, Bilbao, Las Palmas (Canary Islands), Madrid, Málaga
Temple: Located in Moratalaz, a suburban neighborhood of Madrid, and dedicated 19–21 March 1999. It serves members in Spain, Portugal, and southern France.