Trail of Faith
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“Trail of Faith,” New Era, June 1997, 20

Trail of Faith

Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, these teens in Mexico know which paths lead in the right direction.

What would you do in the following situations?

  1. It’s Christmas eve, but instead of singing carols and reading the Christmas story from the Bible, you’re huddled in an upstairs room while armed men search the lower portion of the house for goods they need. As the men leave, one of them shoots his gun toward the upstairs room where you are hiding.

  2. A rebel group is on its way to the town where you live. It quickly becomes clear that your life and the lives of all your friends and family are in danger. Quickly you dress in warm clothes and shoes. With a small blanket strapped to your back, you and your family wait breathlessly for instructions on what to do next.

  3. A nonmember friend reads some literature she was given at her church. At school she confronts you by saying, “I’m afraid that if you keep going to your church, you’re going to go to hell.” She says some other things that make you feel uneasy about your beliefs and about your friendship with her. What she thinks about the Church will depend a great deal on what you say to answer her questions.

Apples and Oranges?

Obviously the first two situations are somewhat different from the last. But is the last scenario any less perilous?

“I think that today our challenges are more spiritual than physical,” says Candace Wagner, a Laurel from Dublan, Mexico. “We have to face difficult temptations and problems our ancestors never dreamed of.”

Candace’s ancestors were among the first to join the Church. Her forebearers crossed the plains to Utah and then immigrated to Mexico. Many of them faced persecution for their beliefs. She also knows something about what it feels like to be on the defensive about the Church. She was the one being confronted by a nonmember friend at her school in McAllen, Texas, where her family lived until recently.

“A friend of mine had read some things about Joseph Smith that weren’t very favorable,” says Candace. “She came to me and asked me about them. My mom and I looked up the scriptures they had quoted in the article to see what they really said.”

After much study and prayer, Candace had her answer. She knew for herself that the Church was true. She was ready to speak calmly to her friend about the gospel.

“Opposition can make you stronger,” she says. “But so can this environment.”

Great Surroundings

When Candace refers to “this environment,” she is referring to the “Mormon Colonies” in Mexico where she now lives with her family. The colonies were established in the late 1800s by Latter-day Saint settlers from Utah, and they have been home to Candace’s friends and various family members almost continuously since that time.

The LDS community is well known in the area, and the youth are busy from morning to night with school, seminary, and Church programs. Both colony towns, Juarez and Dublan, are quiet and peaceful most of the time. Many of the temptations and challenges youth face in other places simply don’t exist here.

“It’s fun not to have to worry about things like peer pressure, since there’s not as much of that here,” says Brandon Hatch, a priest from Dublan. “It’s a lot easier to do what’s right because most of your friends are doing it too.”

And even though living in a small community can sometimes make you feel that you don’t have enough privacy, most of the youth agree that it’s nice to live in a place where everyone is concerned enough about you to want you to do the right things. It really is an ideal place to live the gospel.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

High Adventure

During the Mexican Revolution, it was Candace’s great-great-uncle, Anson Bowen Call, who hid in that upstairs room while Mexican revolutionaries searched the house. When they didn’t find all they wanted, one shot his gun in the direction of the room in anger and frustration.

“One of the guards shot into the room where we were,” wrote Anson, who was 15 years old at the time, in his journal. “A piece of flying glass cut my head over my right eyebrow. When I saw the blood running down over my eye, I thought I had been shot and felt the back of my head to feel the hole where the bullet had come out. But there was none, much to my relief. … It is a Christmas Eve I won’t ever forget.”

Miracles Never Cease

A little while later, another of Candace’s relatives, her great-great-aunt, Lorna Call Alder, was lying in the darkness of her family’s home, not sure what would happen next. Angered at the U.S. government, Pancho Villa was headed straight for the town of Dublan, threatening to kill any and all Americans he found. And although the colonists had been living in Mexico for many years, they had remained loyal to the United States. The entire town was in grave danger. The people of Dublan made preparations to flee, should it be necessary, and then waited for the bishop, who happened to be Lorna’s father, to instruct them.

Lorna remembered and recorded exactly what her father told the people. “Calmly and without wavering he said, ‘Go to your homes, pray to your Heavenly Father for protection, turn out your lights, and go to sleep. The Lord will be with you this night.’”

With a great deal of faith, the Saints did exactly as they were told. At about three in the morning Villa’s army reached the north end of town. Villa stopped his army and looked out over Dublan. Much to his astonishment, he saw what appeared to be the campfires of a large army. Frightened, Villa led his men in another direction, avoiding the town completely.

No one knows for sure what Villa saw that night. Some people think that it might have been a prairie brush fire reflected in the windows of the homes in town, which could have looked like the campfires of an army. Others believe that heavenly beings protected the town that night. But no matter what he saw, the people in the town then and now believe it was a miracle.

Roots and Branches

Not long after that, most Americans in the colonies packed up and left for a few years to wait for unrest, marauding, and threats caused by the war to calm down. Many families never returned. Of the original eight colonies, only two are inhabited today. Even now, most of the young people that are raised in the colonies will eventually return to the United States to marry and raise families of their own. Others will travel to other parts of Mexico to work and begin careers and families there. Just a handful will return to take over family farms and businesses in the colonies.

But all of the youth talk about their “strong colony roots” and how they will be influenced by them for the rest of their lives. And while most of them know at least a little about their pioneer ancestry, the people who influence them the most are the people they see every day: parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends.

“My mom is always reading the scriptures,” says Candace. “It’s a good reminder for me to do the same.”

Raelynn Brown, a Mia Maid from Juarez, says, “My mom and dad are always careful to make the right decisions for our family.”

Sometimes opportunities to learn come to the youth in the colonies during Church programs, like the pageant on the history of the colonies that Candace’s grandmother wrote. Sometimes they have special problems they need help with, like when Candace needed answers for her friend’s tough questions. But other times, learning about their families is as simple as doing their chores.

“I really like spending time with my dad working in the orchard,” says Brandon. “It’s neat to find out what he thinks about and how he feels about things. I’ve learned a lot from working with him.”

Fearless and Faithful

So what would you do? The youth in the colonies know it is unlikely they will ever be told to leave their homes and possessions behind to flee dangerous mobs as their colonist ancestors did. They may never spend Christmas Eve hiding from armed banditos.

But they, like youth all over the world, will be asked to do other things that might seem hard. They may have to forgive someone, or admit they’ve made a mistake. Maybe they will suffer the loss of a loved one. Many of them will serve missions, leaving behind for a time everything they know and love. They have decisions to make about what’s important.

But they don’t have to make their choices blindly. Numerous family members have blazed a trail of faith and courage that they can follow.

“I’m grateful that my ancestors came here,” says 17-year-old Kimberly Whetten. “It’s a good place to be.”

Photography by Janet Thomas and courtesy of the Church Historical Department

On the lookout: At one time men like these Mormon scouts for General Pershing (above left) patrolled the colonies on horseback to protect them from rebel armies. Now Colonia Juarez (below left, and background) is a peaceful place to learn how to be ready to avoid temptation.

All shook up: Water in Colonia Juarez comes from this river, the Piedras Verdes. Early Mormon settlers rationed carefully, since water was scarce, to make sure that all the fruit trees and other crops could be raised successfully. Then in 1886 an earthquake hit Colonia Juarez, opening up an underground water supply that has increased the flow of the Piedras Verdes—literally an outpouring of blessings for the colonists. The Piedras Verdes still provides water to the colonists, but the youth also drink deeply from long-established wells of friendship and support from those who encourage them to do what is right.

New and old: Just as the first settlers began to feel comfortable in their new homes on the banks of the Piedras Verdes, they got bad news. They were living on the wrong plots of land and would have to move two miles up river to land that was much less hospitable. The colonists had built a dam, dug a canal, and planted crops—all of which had to be left behind.
Although the move was difficult to accept, the settlers got to work making yet another new home. They set to work building a new canal and creating a small town. The tithing building was one of the first buildings in the “New” Colonia Juarez. Young Women in the colonies, like Kimberly Whetten (center left) and Candace Wagner (center right) will likely have difficult moves away from their families and the comfort of the colonies when they get older. But, like a building with a strong foundation, their testimonies will help them remain firm no matter where they go.

Fruits of their labors: Whether they’re working in the apple orchards or working hard to achieve academic excellence, like this graduating class from the early 1900s, youth in the colonies have always known the value of hard work.
The principle of work isn’t drudgery, though. In fact, most youth in the colonies say they enjoy being in the fields or helping out at home.
And the orchards aren’t the only place where hard work comes in handy. Youth from the colonies are regularly called on Spanish-speaking missions—where they labor in an entirely different field.