Day of Service in Central America
By Don Searle, Church Magazines
Members of the Church throughout Central America spent Saturday, April 9, working to improve their communities. Before the day was over, they and some of their neighbors who worked with them had donated more than 166,000 hours of service the equivalent of one person working 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, for just under 19 years.
More than 22,000 Church members, along with some 1,800 friends of other faiths, carried out service projects in 258 locations spread through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
The projects not only contributed to improving communities, they also helped make friends for the Church and its members, commented Elder W. Douglas Shumway of the Seventy, First Counselor in the Central America Area Presidency. "It was most gratifying to see so many members of the Church as well as others participating hand in hand cleaning, painting, and repairing as they enjoyed each other's company throughout the day."
Elder Shumway noted that the diligence and the spirit felt among members made an impact on leaders in the communities. He cited as an example a visit by the mayor of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, to Latter-day Saint Church services on Sunday, April 10, the day following the service projects. The mayor had been so impressed by the LDS young people involved in the projects that he said in a Sunday School class, "I congratulate your youth for having principles that help them maintain their moral cleanliness and purity. As you continue to uphold these standards, you will continue to build our community."
In other areas, some residents who saw what the Latter-day Saints were doing joined in the work spontaneously or helped by bringing water or refreshment. In Nicaragua, there were reports that some citizens who joined in the projects were so impressed by the Latter-day Saints that they asked to have missionaries visit them at home. But most simply expressed gratitude for what the Church members had contributed. One man, a member of a community improvement committee in Chalchuapa, El Salvador, explained that a local public park had been allowed to run down badly and that the municipal government had not had funds or manpower to save it. "But now, thanks to the help that the Latter-day Saints have given on this day of service, we've been able to improve it, to make it beautiful again."
It was easy to identify the workers involved in the projects. Throughout Central America they wore white vests with the words "Hands that Help" on the front, along with the letters "SUD," which stand for Latter-day Saint in Spanish. On the back, the vests identified the wearers as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormons. The identifying vests were an idea that has worked well during similar service projects in other areas, notably Brazil.
Local residents were not the only ones who noticed the work going on in their communities. The news media, alerted by LDS public affairs representatives, paid attention too. News stories appeared afterward in papers in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Six television channels in El Salvador produced stories about the day of service, as well as one channel each in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In San Salvador, El Salvador, one local radio station, alerted while the work was being done, had a news story on the air within an hour.
Undoubtedly one of the more lasting effects of the day of service will be the strengthening of ties between Latter-day Saints and community leaders. For many of the projects, local governments furnished materials and supervision while Church members and others offered their labor. Projects were planned in cooperation with local government leaders. In one municipality of San Salvador, for example, a member who has quietly worked with local government over a period of years arranged, at the mayor's request, for a group of volunteers to clean up and paint in and around a community theater. In Santa Ana, El Salvador, the stake Relief Society president is employed at an elder care center operated by an order of Catholic nuns. At the request of the nuns, she arranged for volunteers not only to perform physical labor outside, but also to offer personal grooming and care to the residents of the home.
Many members spoke afterward of the joy they felt in serving. Many said also that they felt the service would help change perceptions of the Church. One commented, "It is said that words convince people, but actions pull them in."