It’s a Young Church in … Mexico

By Orson Scott Card

Assistant Editor

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    Agricol Lozano, Regional Representative of the Twelve for the Tampico region, came into the chapel where an informal group of young Mexican Saints were talking, singing, and listening to the piano. He began to speak to them, and soon turned to the role these Young Adults would play in the future.

    “The norteamericanos have helped us,” he reminded them. “But we cannot lean on them forever. The Lord gave us our own feet, and we must stand on them.”

    The Saints in Mexico have learned a great lesson—the Church is as strong as the local Saints make it. No amount of outside help can do for the Saints what the Saints must do for themselves.

    The Mexican Saints are doing their part.

    Of the five Regional Representatives in Mexico—Harold Brown, Agricol Lozano, Benjamin Parra, Guillermo Vitorrez, and A. Kenyon Wagner—all are Mexican citizens.

    The first stake in Mexico was organized in 1961. Today there are 27 stakes with 173 wards and 41 branches. There are also 157 branches in the seven missions.

    Rapid as this growth may seem, it is even more startling to realize that in October 1975 there were five stakes in Mexico City. In November 1975 there were twelve!

    In the Ensign’s article on the Saints in Mexico in 1972, we felt very daring in predicting that by 1990 there might be twenty stakes and two hundred wards and branches. We only missed by fifteen years.

    Mexico has presented a unique challenge to the Church. Because of some clerical abuses by the dominant church during the first century of Mexico’s independence, the great leaders of the republic, like Benito Juarez and the drafters of the 1917 constitution, disenfranchised all religious organizations. Today these laws affect the ability of any church to hold property, and all religious societies in Mexico must be operated entirely by Mexican citizens.

    Laying the Foundation

    It seemed that these constitutional challenges would terribly damage the fledgling Church in Mexico. Yet the Church survived—and even thrived. Part of the reason is members like Brother Cruz González. Now seventy years old and a high councilor in the Puebla Mexico La Paz Stake, he was only twenty-one when the Anglo missionaries were sent home in 1926.

    Quietly he and many like him set to work. A typical assignment was in Atlixco, twenty-five miles from his home in Puebla. Brother González and his companion, Santiago Mora, took the bus to the city and after some time found the few members of the Church who lived there. They met for a while outside the city in the home of a new convert who had an unused room in her house. Later they found a place to meet right in Atlixco. The members were dedicated, and the little branch grew.

    Over the years, Brother González visited many cities and presided over several branches. When Church leaders heard that there was a member in the tiny town of Nealtican, they only had to mention the fact to Brother González. He rode the bus from Puebla as far as it went, then walked over fields and country roads until he reached the member’s house. He often left home before dawn, walking miles to preside over a mid-morning Church service.

    He sometimes thought it might be easier if he had a horse, but he did not. His feet got him there well enough. And today little Nealtican has two wards and an independent branch.

    His faith was so strong and his leadership so dependable that Brother González couldn’t have stopped serving if he had wanted to. Weakened by infectious hepatitis, he once asked to be released as elders quorum president. His request was granted. Five minutes later he was called to preside over a branch. It didn’t occur to him to say no.

    Such faithful, untiring Saints built the Church in Mexico. Without their work it would have been much harder for the Church to handle the tremendous growth of the sixties and seventies.

    Today, even though 1976 marked the hundredth year of Mormonism in It’s a Young Church in … Mexico, the Church shows many signs of being young—almost brand new:

    —Nine out of every ten Saints in Mexico have been baptized since 1960.

    —Over half of Mexico City’s stake presidents joined the Church in the last fifteen years. Over half are under forty.

    —Over two-thirds of the stakes in Mexico were organized in the last two years.

    Challenges from Growth

    There are growing pains, too. One ward may have a chapel approved for construction—and by the time it is built, it is a stake center with four wards using it. Several wards in the Mexico City area have built makeshift structures on the property where their chapel will be built.

    The president of a new branch was told he must find a meetinghouse inside the branch boundaries. He searched and searched and could find only a small barn that had been used for pigs. It was filthy. It had no roof. It looked hopeless.

    But they set to work, and soon the barn was clean, roofed, and pleasant-smelling. With their own labor the Saints had made it a fit place to worship the Lord.

    Another challenge is the time it takes for a stake to put the full program of the Church into operation. Though many stakes have special leadership training seminars, it is hard to find enough teachers and quorum leaders when so many bishoprics and high councils need to be filled. And yet the leaders are found—and they magnify their callings.

    In many ways the Church in Mexico is like the early Church in Ohio, Missouri, or Illinois. There is a feeling of exuberance, excitement with the gospel that is so new to them, eagerness to serve the Lord they have just come to know.

    New converts with great faith and ability find themselves leading congregations only a few years after their conversion. Take, for example, the case of President Filiberto Ledezma of the Mexico City Mexico Moctezuma Stake. In 1966, at age nineteen, he went with a couple of his friends to a social. They were LDS. The meeting was MIA. Filiberto was soon a Mormon.

    At the time he was a student at the Instituto Politécnico in Mexico City, no mean feat when few students can pass the rigorous entrance examinations of the government colleges and there isn’t enough room for all who pass.

    Filiberto had overcome seemingly impossible odds to get there. He was raised in poverty. His father had abandoned his large family years before. But Filiberto showed ability and ambition to improve himself, and he worked his way through school with his grandmother’s encouragement and aid.

    A few years after he joined the Church, he graduated from college with a degree in accounting. Accountants are highly respected in It’s a Young Church in … Mexico, and he soon had a good job. At the same time he was called to be a ward clerk, then assistant stake clerk, then stake clerk, and in 1972, right after his marriage to Magdalena Soto (who was later a counselor at the Church’s Benemerito School), he was made second counselor in the stake presidency.

    When the Mexico City East Stake was divided in 1973, Brother Ledezma, at age twenty-five, was called to be a president. He was probably the youngest stake president in the Church at that time.

    What happened in his stake seems almost typical of Mexico. In two years the eight wards became fourteen, with a 50 percent increase in membership. In November of 1975 his stake was divided to form two stakes and half of a third.

    When Elder J. Thomas Fyans, the area supervisor for Mexico and Central America, challenged the stake presidents to increase the proselyting work in their areas, President Ledezma, like the others, took the challenge seriously. His proposal? To divide all seven wards in his new Mexico City Moctezuma Stake. Members would be challenged to bring investigators and inactive members to every meeting until attendance for each new unit was at least as high as it had been before.

    A radical approach? In Mexico the Saints have discovered that unusual methods are sometimes needed to get unusual results.

    The Church has proved itself able to adapt to meet the needs of the Saints in Mexico. Since transportation is expensive and areas are large, some stakes are moving toward smaller wards and branches. New wards are being formed at a faster rate than the growth in membership; but because the meetinghouses are increasingly within walking distance, attendance is actually higher than it would be if the Saints had to go many miles to meetings.

    Changing Lives

    The most important story of the Church in Mexico is not told in numbers of wards and stakes. That is only an outgrowth of the real strength: the faith and devotion of the Saints.

    The Saints in Mexico find many things in the Church: It is a place where they truly belong, a place where they can serve, a place where they have found the truth about their Father and their Redeemer.

    They are children of God, the gospel tells them. The Book of Mormon tells them that they are descendants of a people who were great because they loved and served the Lord. And because they know their heritage and potential, the Mexican Saints are working to improve themselves—which will strengthen the Church and their beloved homeland.

    At a recent devotional meeting of the wards and branches in a rural area, Brother Lozano and Puebla La Paz Stake President Santiago Mejia stressed the personal welfare aspects of the welfare program. Since all the people there are farmers, almost everyone has a year’s supply.

    But Brother Lozano and President Mejia encouraged the Saints to raise themselves “to the heights where Saints of the latter days ought to be!” And if that means sacrificing to buy shoes for your children, if that means looking at your wife with new eyes and seeing her as the fine person she is, if that means eating different foods for the sake of your health, “then it is our duty as Latter-day Saints to do those things.”

    Since 1972, health missionaries have been working with local leaders, Saints, and nonmembers to provide information on nutrition, sanitation, and community health programs.

    Agricultural missionaries have just begun to help the Saints with home gardening and storage. Mexico is one of the best places in the world to try home gardening. The Mexican government provides complete tables of correct planting times for dozens of crops in every part of the nation, distributes free packages of seeds to citizens who seriously want to produce food, and dispatches experts from Mexico City to many parts of the country.

    Welfare Services missionaries help the Saints take full advantage of local and national resources. In rural areas, they may advise Saints on land use and extensive farming. And in the cities, they work with the Saints to make tiny yards as productive as possible. The Mexico City Industrial Stake’s seminar on family preparedness held in the summer of 1976 will be repeated in wards and stakes throughout the area this year.

    Other aspects of family preparedness that the Church has stressed in Mexico are literacy and career development. The Mormon community in Mexico has long been known for the high quality of the schools it supports. Thirty-four elementary schools give basic reading and arithmetic skills to thousands of students. Three secondary schools bring many students through the ninth grade, and the Benemérito preparatory school is one of the finest in Mexico: it has the record during the past five years of having placed every one of its college-bound graduates except one—in a nation where only half the applicants from the required preparatory schools even pass the difficult entrance examinations.

    The Seminary and Institute of Religion programs provide separate religious training for students of all ages. Early morning and after school seminary, the most effective system, enrolls 8,500 students. Another 3,820 young people take the home study course, meeting once a week with a volunteer teacher.

    A new institute program at the Instituto Politécnico and at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico City has already enrolled a hundred students in its first year. But religion courses are not limited to college students in Mexico. Institute courses were taught to about two thousand students in 1975–76.

    The adult literacy program that was developed for Bolivia several years ago is being adapted for Mexican needs. BYU’s Project Mexico program, which began at Puebla, near the capital, has been moved this year to the rural north. Consequently Church members have a literacy rate far higher than that of the country at large, and an unusual number of Latter-day Saints are in respected professional positions. A sampling of Mexico City area Church leaders turns up a heart surgeon (Boanerges Rubalcava), an engineer who owns a construction firm (Guillermo Torres), a medical electronics manufacturer (Enrique Moreno), an attorney (Juan Roberto Alva), and many educators and administrators.

    Sharing With Each Other

    But highly educated or not, the Saints in Mexico are striving to improve themselves in every way—and their progress and achievements are remarkable. In Veracruz, for example, the Relief Society is in full swing, with classes in cooking, handicrafts, sewing, and other useful arts. One ward Relief Society discovered that the missionaries didn’t have enough baptismal clothing to keep up with their baptisms—and a project was on.

    “Before we were members of the Church,” one sister commented, “we would waste our time watching ‘soap operas’ on television and reading magazines. We feel now that we’re using our time in something constructive.”

    In the Veracruz Fifth Ward, Relief Society President Paula Jácome de López reports, “We’re launching a program we have titled, ‘How to Wait for the Baby,’ in which we have taught the sisters how to make everything from diapers to a bassinet.”

    Young Adult and Aaronic Priesthood-Young Women groups may not always have a weekly meeting (except, of course, for priesthood quorum meetings), but there are frequent dances and cultural activities, with occasional large gatherings like the youth conference in August 1976 in the Mexico City Industrial Stake. (See “Unconventional Convention,” this issue.) The young people are enthusiastic and involved, and it is no coincidence that many of the Church leaders in Mexico today joined the Church in their late teens and early twenties.

    Enrique Páramos Reyes, who with Sister Mericia Pérez directs the Young Adult program in the Veracruz Stake, says, “I’m twenty-two years old and I’ve been a member of the Church for five years, during which I’ve gained a strong testimony of the gospel. I’ve made a lot of progress in many aspects of my life. I used to be shy and pretty unfriendly before I was a member, but activity in the Church has made me overcome those weaknesses. It makes me happy to have so many friends within the Church.”

    The Saints share with each other day by day. They also share in the large needs that come from time to time. When a Church leader called upon the Saints in the Veracruz Stake to contribute 1,000 pesos ($80.00) from every man, 300 pesos from their wives, and an amount from every child according to his age, for a building project, it seemed impossibly heavy for their limited budgets. But they made the sacrifice—and the needed funds were raised within the month.

    When hundreds of Saints in Guatemala were left homeless by the February 1976 earthquake, Mexican Saints donated 500 weeks’ worth of supplies to support sixty volunteer construction missionaries now building 300 homes. (See “Central America: Building Back from the Earthquake,” this issue.) They take very seriously the Lord’s admonition to care for their fellow Saints.

    What about Tomorrow?

    Predictions about Mexico always seem to go astray—the Saints there keep surprising us by doing better than anyone could reasonably expect. Perhaps that is the safest prediction: that despite tremendous challenges the Church in Mexico will grow remarkably fast, that the Saints will achieve beyond even their own hopes, that in the wake of growth and change the Latter-day Saint community in Mexico will contribute mightily to the Church as a whole, to the nation of It’s a Young Church in … Mexico, and to the happiness of the people whose lives they touch.

    Thanks for information in this article are due to Gordon Irving of the Historical Department; also to Ed Soper of Welfare Services, Ken Beesley of Church Schools, Bruce Lake of Seminaries and Institutes, Gerald Hess of the Building Department, and Arturo Aguilar Marquez of the Veracruz Mexico Stake.

    Example of one of the many pre-Columbian artifacts in Mexico.

    Above: Mount Popocatepetl as seen from Atlixco, southeast of Mexico City. The ancient volcano dominates the countryside for miles around.

    Below: Saints like Brother Cruz Gonzales have dedicated many years of their lives and sacrificed much to spread the gospel and strengthen the Church.

    President and Sister Juan Roberto Alva of the Mexico City Mexico Industrial Stake. President Alva is an attorney, one of Mexico’s growing and influential middle class.

    An active Veracruz Relief Society with their handicrafts display.

    Modern buildings for a new and growing Church in Mexico—this is the Mexico City Mexico Churubusco Stake center.