Just one statistic will tell the story in Colombia. Ensign readers in October learned that thirty local missionaries were preaching the gospel beside elders and sisters from the United States. (“The Saints in Colombia,” p. 68.) As this article was being prepared, the figure had skyrocketed to 150, a dramatic quintupling.
Behind that statistic is a less dramatic but even more powerful commitment to the gospel that pervades the members of the two missions in that country. They are alive with appreciation for the gospel and eager to share it with others.
Two of those Latin missionaries are Sisters Alicia Ordónez and Ana Lucia Zurita, companions in the Colombia Bogota Mission. Sister Ordónez had been a nun for five years when she left her church, convinced that the truth did not exist in the world. After a year of total disillusionment, she was deeply touched by the testimony of living prophets borne by a Mormon friend. Sister Ordónez pondered what he had said for several days, then asked to join the Church. Three weeks later she was baptized. Within a month she felt a burning desire to serve a mission. While waiting for her call she worked in her branch as Primary secretary and as seminary teacher. “Teaching seminary made me want more than ever to be a missionary,” she says. “I know that it is inspiration from God to have members preach the gospel in their own country.”
Willingly she tells investigators of her own conversion and shows them a photo of herself in her full habit.
Sister Zurita, an Ecuadorian, was baptized when her family of eight joined the Church in 1973. At the age of twenty, she had the chance to do missionary work with sister missionaries in Riobamba and was so electrified by the experience that she immediately began saving her money for a mission. She waited seven months to get leave from her teaching position, only to learn that it would be denied and she would lose her job if she accepted her mission call. Unflinchingly, she decided to serve, and was set apart as a missionary in October 1975.
This kind of devotion typifies Colombian Saints. One of their ancient legends concerns Bochica, a tall white god who walked through the countryside healing the sick and raising the dead. He taught them to treat others as they would wish to be treated, showing love and charity for all. According to their legends, he came from the sky and returned there. Possibly this heritage of belief is one of the reasons why Colombians, deeply committed to Christianity since the country was first colonized by Spain, have been receptive to the restored gospel.
The history of Colombia follows a pattern common to many New World countries: colonization, independence (in this case under the leadership of the great patriot Simon Bolivar in 1819), stabilization of national boundaries (parts of Colombia became Equador, Venezuela, and Panama), and the gradual progress toward religious liberty, political stability, and economic opportunity. Colombia’s three major cities of over a million inhabitants each are bustling twentieth-century centers that contrast with the unchanging fastnesses of three great Andean ranges. The fourth largest country in South America (after Brazil, Argentina, and Peru), Colombia is the third most populous. Over 23 million people live in an area larger than Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona combined. Over 97 percent of the world’s emeralds are mined in Colombia.
Intriguing archaeological ruins have revealed five different civilizations in northern Colombia. In contrast to this is the comparatively short history of the Church in Colombia. The first missionaries came from the Andes Mission (headquarters in Lima, Peru) in 1965. In 1966, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then an apostle, dedicated the land “solely for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and for the building of the Kingdom here, because this is the land of Zion, southern Zion.” Two years later, in 1968, Colombia was ready for a step toward more local leadership: the Colombia-Venezuela Mission was established with headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela. By 1971, Some twenty-seven branches had been established in ten different cities, and Colombia became a separate mission. Four years later, in 1975, the mission was divided with headquarters in Bogota and Cali.
Seeds planted during those earlier periods are bearing fruit now. The seminary and institute program was established in mid-1972. Some 200 youth began the home-study program in January 1973; participation had reached 900 students by 1976 and the great growth in numbers of local full-time missionaries in 1977 owes much of its impetus to the 1976 graduating class, the first with four full years of instruction.
Youth conferences every six months also give the young people a sense of identity and common mission. Brother Julio E. Davila, who has been involved in the seminary program, claims that even more important than the growth-reflecting statistics is “the attitude of the youth to consecrate their time to study.” This attitude carries over into the mission field, where local missionaries have accepted Elder A. Theodore Tuttle’s challenge (he is area supervisor) to speak English every other day to prepare themselves for Church and professional leadership positions.
These missionaries are finding a fruitful field for their labors. The Church’s emphasis on family life is good news to Colombians, whose understanding of “family” includes grandparents, cousins, and in-laws. For Brother Jorge Luis Bonilla, currently serving as executive secretary in the Colombia Cali Mission, those teachings changed his life.
“I have always believed and taught that the family is the most important thing in life, but I didn’t practice what I preached. In fact, my wife and I were having problems in our marriage because I spent more time with my work and with my friends than I did with my family. But the Church has helped us unite our family. Family home evening is, I’m convinced, the answer to a lot of family problems in the world.”
Brother César A. Pérez, a high councilor in the Bogota District, first heard about the Mormons when a returned missionary asked him to play with the district football team. Impressed with the men there, he asked to know more. After he and his family had been taught the gospel, they wanted to wait “three months to purify ourselves and to be completely free from sin.” However, after earnest prayer they decided to be baptized the next Saturday. The Pérez family set their goal to go to the temple when they attended a class on temple marriage. Although the family business is a candy stand on a street, they found that “doors opened as soon as we started saving. We had the money in a very short time.”
Then there were other problems. Visas were difficult to obtain. Brother Pérez broke his foot and needed an operation the very month they planned to go to the temple. But after fasting, prayer, and a priesthood blessing, the foot was healed and the x-rays showed no sign of a break. The family went to the Washington Temple, where the three children were sealed to their parents. “For the first time in our lives, we feel really married,” they say.
“Since we have been through the temple we have gone through even more difficulties and temptations than before, but we know it is a test to prove our worthiness,” they say. “We will go back to the temple as soon as we can.”
This spirit upholds members even during difficult times. Sister Maria Elena Rivera, Primary president in the Bogota District, encountered the Church when her husband, a drug company representative, gave a stranger a ride. They lunched together at the next town, and Brother Rivera was surprised when Camilo Toledo refused both cigarettes and coffee. When he asked questions, Brother Toledo answered them and gave him missionary tracts that he “happened” to have with him.
Back in Bogota, Brother Toledo contacted the Riveras, invited them for dinner, and gave them the Book of Mormon. Sister Rivera remembers that they didn’t even pick it up for a month; they also avoided the missionaries. However, a magazine article and a movie documentary aroused her interest, and she read the Book of Mormon, called the missionaries, and began attending church with her children. Their eight-year-old son Miguel was the first in the family to request baptism. Brother Rivera, who had stopped smoking, was waiting for his wife, who gradually gained a testimony through study, prayer, and fasting. She was horrified to be called as branch Primary president one month after her baptism—but she grew greatly from the calling.
Sister Rivera also finds time to be Junior Sunday School coordinator and a Relief Society visiting teacher in her branch. “It is not duty,” she explains. “It is love.”
The Church is a vital element in the lives of members in Colombia. As the temple in Brazil moves toward completion, sealings and temple work become a goal for more and more members. The Relief Society’s lessons on nutrition help stretch budgets and improve the diets in families. A generation of committed young people will make stronger marriages, stronger wards and branches. The ideal of stakehood is a concrete goal, not an abstract dream. And they remember President Kimball’s promise just a decade ago in his dedicatory prayer—that people will become converted and baptized “in such great numbers that there will be temples built in this land.”
Material for this article was graciously provided by Colleen J. Heninger, Julio Davila, and Sandra Barrow.