The four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser inches its way along the twisting, bumpy road. Tangled Guatemala greenery sweeps down dramatic cloud-covered peaks, over rugged cliffs, and through valleys dotted with bamboo houses and thatched roofs. In places, giant trees covered with vines create a living canopy overhead.
Crews of men with machetes hack away at the undergrowth to keep it from completely overtaking the road. Barefoot women wearing elaborately embroidered blouses and carrying babies on their backs and bundles on their heads run to the sides of the dusty road when they hear us coming.
Cornstalks. Rubber and banana and orange trees. Steep terraced fields. Tropical birds and flowers. Waterfalls.
We are heading for the Indian village of Sepamac. (The name means “in the mountain called ‘Pamac.’”) When we arrive at the tiny chapel, the meeting is already in progress. Piles of building supplies are lying here and there in the almost-finished assembly room. Two classes are going on in the room at the same time: men and boys are in one corner, and women, girls, and children are in another. (The curtains that will divide the room into three haven’t been hung yet.) The women and girls start singing “I Am a Child of God” in K’ekchi’, their Indian tongue.
A year ago, there weren’t any members of the Church at all in Sepamac. But people in Chulac, a neighboring village where a branch had been formed two years earlier, wanted to share the gospel with their friends in Sepamac, and the two full-time missionaries convinced the mission president to let them divide their time between the two villages. Groups of members from Chulac walked the eighteen kilometers to Sepamac regularly to teach their friends. (They always took the back route, preferring the steep mountainsides and rugged terrain to the roundabout road.)
Within six months, twenty-seven people had been baptized. A branch was officially formed. José Caal, one of the new members, became branch president; Pablo Cucul, another new member, became elders quorum president. Now, two months later, they hold sacrament meeting every Sunday morning at nine, and at ten they divide into the two classes. Gospel Principles and Selections from the Book of Mormon are the only LDS texts translated into K‘ekchi’ so far, and the auxiliaries haven’t been organized yet. But the people don’t feel that anything is missing. They’re very happy with what they have right now. They’ll organize further when they need to.
The important thing is that they are learning about the Lord Jesus Christ and receiving important ordinances and growing in the gospel. And they don’t have to walk the eighteen kilometers to Chulac every week to do it.
Sepamac is one of the Church’s new basic unit branches.
In Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, the planning committee for the district-wide Lamanite activity had hoped at least fifty people would show up. Three hundred came. That’s how they happened to be serving commercial fried chicken along with kalua (roast pig) at the luau.
It was Fort Qu’Appelle District’s first annual parent-youth night. Blue and white crepe paper streamers and balloons of all colors decorated the walls and ceilings of the cultural hall. Everyone was wearing Sunday best and a name tag.
Of course no one, not even the cooks, complained about the size of the gathering. It only confirmed their feelings that “a lot has happened around here lately, and a whole lot more’s yet to come.” Two and a half years earlier, only about thirty Lamanites in the whole area had been active. But now, things are different.
In 1977 President Spencer W. Kimball spoke to the Regional Representatives about the Lamanites. “We can no longer merely teach and preach to them,” he said, “but we must establish the Church among them.” (Regional Representatives’ seminar, 1 April 1977.) Soon after that seminar, local leaders accepted President Kimball’s challenge to “establish the Church among them,” and on 12 March 1978 created a Lamanite district and six new Lamanite branches. To help the branches succeed they adopted a program that seemed tailor-made for them: the Church’s new basic unit program.
The tiny branches began to flourish. In the past, the demands of Church organization had seemed too heavy for the majority of the Indian members, and many with strong testimonies had become discouraged—and inactive. But the basic unit program wasn’t so overwhelming. “It was like gearing the ninety-mile-an-hour Church down to twenty miles an hour,” says John P. Livingstone, formerly president of the new district. It was basic enough that local men and women could actually see themselves as leaders. They became convinced that with the Lord’s help they had the capacity to accomplish the work successfully.
And they are finding success. The current district president and his counselors are Lamanites, as are three of the branch presidents. After years of inactivity, many members are returning. There are also many new converts. Attendance is up. Members are learning to grow their own gardens. A handful of local youths are serving full-time missions.
But even more important are the quiet changes taking place in the lives of individuals. “The Church is really helping us a lot in our family,” says Jeffrey Eashappie, convert of one year and secretary of Carry-the-Kettle Branch. “It has brought us closer together.”
“We want to go to the temple soon to be sealed,” adds his wife, Marie, as she straightens her baby’s shirt. “That’s really something to me—to know we can live in the celestial kingdom.” They’re glad their little children are going to be raised in the Church.
The Saints in the Fort Qu‘Appelle District are learning the basic principles of the gospel. And they’re also discovering that the gospel is the way to solve family and social problems.
What is the basic unit program? It’s a simplified version of the Church—simplified organization, curriculum, reports, and meetinghouses. Adaptable to local circumstances, it can be used anywhere in the world: in developing areas where the Church is young and new members lack Church experience, or wherever members are separated from larger units by language, culture, or distance.
In a letter dated 10 October 1980, the First Presidency explained to Church leaders its purpose: “We continue to have concern about the weight of the full Church program. While it may serve well the larger wards with commodious buildings and adequate numbers, it becomes burdensome on wards and branches that have fewer members and may have some limitations in the buildings they are able to provide. … Those who may not be fully served because of language, cultural, or distance problems … have a tendency to withdraw from activity in the Church because of the complicated nature of our programs.”
The First Presidency also explained that with the basic unit program, “we have met with very encouraging success, particularly among the minority groups. Where before many were not enjoying full activity in the Church, we now have many smaller branches led by local leaders with increased participation.” The basic unit branches in Guatemala and Canada are but two examples of the encouraging successes of the simplified program.
Elder William R. Bradford of the First Quorum of the Seventy and Executive Administrator of the Mexico North Area says that the program signals a shift in philosophy: “In the developing areas of the Church,” he says, “our measuring rod for Church activity has been the auxiliaries. But that is a program-oriented, chapel-oriented system.
“With the basic unit approach, however, we start with the individual, then the family, then the priesthood. We’re using a different measuring rod now: how well is the priesthood helping parents and families have faith in Christ, repent, keep the commandments, and serve others? We’re out to save individuals, not to perfect the organization.”
The basic unit program, then, starts out by teaching individuals and families their basic responsibilities. A fifteen-page Family Guidebook (PBMP0087) encourages family-centered activities which, according to Brother Stewart A. Durrant, director of the Church Lamanite and Minority Committee, all families should be doing whether they’re involved in the basic unit program or not.
When a family is isolated from a larger Church unit, it can, under the direction of the local district or stake president, become an independent ecclesiastical unit of the Church, just like a branch or a ward. If the father is a priest or holds the Melchizedek Priesthood, he can hold sacrament meeting in his home.
If the family lives within reasonable distance to one or two other member families or individuals, they are joined to become a branch of the Church—there are no longer “dependent branches” as in the past. The stake or district president would call one of the men as branch president; the Branch Guidebook (PBMP0076) explains in simple terms his responsibilities. He would first establish home teaching then sacrament meeting.
As the branch continues to grow and more people become available, the branch president may see a need to organize a little more. He can call two Aaronic Priesthood holders as counselors. And as the need arises, an elder could be called as elders quorum president to take over the responsibility for home teaching. The Priesthood Leader’s Guidebook (PBMP0054) teaches leadership skills and gives the necessary training.
“Then after the priesthood is firmly established,” Brother Durrant says, “you start bringing the auxiliaries in as you have the ability and resources to handle them—and gradually enough that you don’t overwhelm anybody.” A Relief Society president could be called to coordinate the activities of the women, girls, and children, and to advise the branch president of their needs. Together they might see a need for classes in addition to sacrament meeting, and, like the branch in Sepamac, would probably form two classes. Later they would likely form a separate class for the children, which could be called Primary.
Little by little the basic unit branch becomes more organized—until finally it is a ward. Every branch does it at its own speed and in its own unique way.
There is a wide range of variation in branch size and structure in basic unit branches. For example, in the Fort Qu’Appelle District, a handful of members have recently started meeting in Standing Buffalo in the home of Peggy and Mary Ann LeSwiss, two Indian sisters. So far, they are holding only sacrament meeting there. During testimony meetings, everyone has a chance to bear his testimony.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Regina Branch. When it was organized, there were only about three active members, according to Christopher LaFontaine, Lamanite district president and member of the branch. Soon the attendance was up to nine, then twenty-three. “At that point we thought we were breaking all records.” But now, three years later, attendance has reached one hundred ten. They have priesthood classes, Relief Society, Primary, and Mutual. Plans are being made to divide the branch—local leaders feel that for now it would be better to have two strong small branches instead of one larger unit, so that twice as many people can have leadership and teaching opportunities.
Along with this simplified organization comes a simplified curriculum. “There’s no need for the fifty-some-odd manuals that the more developed wards use,” Brother Durrant says. “Four manuals. That’s all they need, along with the scriptures. The manuals are very simple; they teach the basic doctrines and responsibilities, without referring to anything that would cause the people to be confused by some program not yet established in their branch.”
Gospel Principles is the basic manual for adult classes and at-home study. Many use it for family home evening lessons. Duties and Blessings of the Priesthood is for men and boys; The Latter-day Saint Woman is for women and girls; Walk in His Ways is for children. The latter three manuals have two versions—a part A and a part B, each to be used every other year. The vocabulary and sentence structure are simple enough that most can easily understand the lessons. And the books serve equally well as teachers’ manuals and as personal study guides. Visual aids and hymns included in the books make them especially useful. In some of the “emerging” countries, members also use Selections from the Book of Mormon until the whole scripture can be translated into their language.
Leaders and members see these basic manuals as a great blessing. “When our members were using the regular ones,” says Richard D. Allred, president of the Guatemala Quetzaltenango Mission, “it was common for them to waste a lot of class time worrying about examples that were foreign to them. But now with the basic manuals, the emphasis is where it belongs—on learning the doctrines and principles of the gospel.”
Israel Perez, native Guatemalan and counselor in the mission presidency, agrees. “The basic manuals are much more beneficial to us because they teach general principles applicable to all cultures, instead of specifics that we can’t relate to.”
But are they missing out on any important doctrines by having so few manuals to study the gospel from?
“No,” says Brother Durrant. “The basic manuals complement the scriptures in such a way that the people have all they need.”
The branch president usually takes care of the reports. But it’s not time-consuming or confusing. He only has to fill out two lines on the Activity Record if his branch is small: sacrament meeting attendance and home teaching.
Rejoicing over the new forms, President Israel Perez says that even in branches where only one or two people know how to read, the simplified reports can be filled out accurately. “It’s easy to say ‘Juan came, Pedro came,’ and be done with it! The reports just ask for the numbers that came. No averages, no percentages. The district figures those out.”
If the branch president holds the Melchizedek Priesthood, he can also fill out the simple financial report; if not, the district or stake or a missionary in the area will do it. The Ordinance and Action Summary and the Move Report (when someone moves in or out) have also been simplified.
Like the organization, the curriculum, and the reports, the buildings that house these basic units are simple, yet appropriate. Sizes and construction vary. In the Fort Qu’Appelle District four branches are using custom-built trailer units, complete with podium and folding partitions to divide the large meeting room into several smaller rooms. The local policy is that a single-wide trailer will be available for branches with a three-month average attendance of twenty members. When membership reaches forty, they’ll build a small building and move the trailer to another location to start another branch. When active membership exceeds seventy, they’ll add on to the existing building.
Of course in some areas it’s more practical to rent or use an existing structure. One of the Lamanite branches meets in a renovated country store.
In Guatemala, buildings for branches with fifteen active members are seven-by-sixteen meters. For branches with seventy active members, the buildings are seven-by-thirty-two meters and the general assembly room can seat one hundred forty. All of the buildings use chairs instead of permanent benches so that the multipurpose room isn’t limited to serving as a chapel. Of course, the number of classrooms depends on the size of the buildings. An important feature of these buildings is the baptismal font, usually built underneath the podium platform.
Costs vary, depending on the price of the land, but in most areas these meetinghouses can be built very inexpensively. Of course, the Church shares costs with the local units. In Guatemala, the local share is much lower than in “established” wards and stakes—it’s 5 percent, paid for by the donated labor of members.
“Our goal is to provide as nice a facility as there is in the area, but inexpensive enough to build and maintain,” says Owen Allen, of the Presiding Bishopric International Offices. “This allows us to build a lot of small buildings within walking distance to members’ homes, instead of a few large ones that would require people to travel great distances.
“And it’s easier for local leaders to manage smaller units—not only because of limited leadership experience, but also because of scarcity of modern conveniences like phones and cars that make running an organization easy.”
Although the buildings are designed to be expanded, many probably won’t be, according to Brother Allen, because in most areas it would be preferable to build another small building in a nearby location rather than adding on to an existing one. And four branches could potentially use each building.
How far from a larger unit does a family or a group of families have to live to qualify as a basic unit? It depends on local circumstances and the decision of local leaders. In Guatemala, President Allred has found that a twenty-minute walk from home to Church is about right; more than that can be too much.
Brother Durrant indicates that the idea is to establish the Church where the people are. “As we do so, the Church will grow faster and members will become much stronger. This is preferable to trying to put a big bunch of scattered people into a large unit just so it can be fully organized and have all of the things a ward traditionally has. And missionary work improves when the nearest branch is in town rather than several towns away.”
Distance isn’t the only consideration. A basic unit can be established anywhere members are separated by culture or language as well. For example, in the New York-New Jersey Region, there are basic branches in four different language groups—Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Italian. All are surrounded by English-speaking wards and stakes. And in the heart of Salt Lake City, several basic unit branches have been established among minority groups, principally Asian refugees. With branches of their own, they are protected from the fast-paced, fully organized wards around them and allowed to grow at their own speed. And the new members have a chance to become leaders of their own people.
“Do not use Anglo leadership in minority units,” state the instructions accompanying the First Presidency’s letter. According to John P. Livingstone, an Anglo and the first president of the Fort Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan Lamanite district, “The people must have the priesthood authority themselves. When they are authorized as the judges in Israel, when they have the keys as well as the priesthood, and when they can turn those keys on behalf of their own people locally, that’s when you really see progress.”
When released as district president, Brother Livingstone was proud of how little he was missed: “President Christopher LaFontaine, a Lamanite and my former first counselor, took over immediately—and my absence made hardly a ripple.”
President LaFontaine, baptized only three years earlier, knows the problems of the Indians. He knows how to talk to them, how to counsel them, how to teach them. The members, strengthened by seeing one of their own become such a great leader, listen and respond readily to him. And he’s making a great effort to prepare them for leadership in such a way that they won’t become frightened or fatigued by too much responsibility too soon.
The First Presidency’s instructions accompanying the announcement of the basic unit program also indicate the importance of missionary couples. “Couples that are properly trained in leadership and in how to help implement this program build people and leave strength behind,” Brother Durrant says. “We’re asking them not to take the leadership opportunities away from the people, causing local members to become dependent on them, but to train them to become the leaders themselves.”
The missionary program has been wedded to the basic unit program in Saskatchewan from the beginning. “The couples have been a blessing,” says John Livingstone. “We couldn’t have come as far as we have without their help.”
And President Allred says that because of the illiteracy among members in Guatemala, many branches wouldn’t be able to function without the missionaries. His greatest need, he says, is more missionary couples—especially with Spanish-speaking ability—who can come and show by their example and experience how to lead and teach, how to read, how to attend to basic Church and family duties.
Other suggestions listed in the packet of materials are “keep units simple,” “be patient,” “do not move too fast too soon.” According to Brother Durrant, problems can arise when well-intentioned leaders are too impatient to wait for a branch to develop at its own pace—when new converts who need time to continue studying and learning about the gospel are overloaded with too many assignments too soon, in an effort to enlarge the organization.
“We’re not insisting on the full, complete Church organization in all the world at the expense of souls,” Elder Bradford says. “The new measuring rod is universal. It goes beyond cultures, politics, traditions, and location.
“You see,” he says, holding up his two index fingers about an inch apart, “the doors to some countries are open only this wide.” Then, stretching his arms out full length, “But we’ve been trying to force an organization into them that is this wide.”
It’s not hard to see the far-reaching possibilities of the basic unit program. With its simplified organization, curriculum, reports, and buildings, the Church has the capacity to go through any door—teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and strengthening individuals and families.
Leaders who have seen it work are enthusiastic. “I’ve had enough experience with this program,” Brother Durrant declares, “that I’m not afraid to say we can establish the Church anywhere in the world.”