Quezaltenango’s Saints

By Don L. Searle

Assistant Editor

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    Tender gospel roots sent forth a generation ago are hardy and growing in the mountains of Guatemala.

    Morning sun gleams off the cream-colored facade of the Quezaltenango West Stake Center. The modern chapel sits atop a hill overlooking the central part of this second largest city of Guatemala, located in the western mountains.

    Members climb the steep cobblestone driveway, from the chill of morning shadows in the narrow street below, up to the chapel and the warmth of fast and testimony meeting in the Quezaltenango Sixth Ward.

    It is a small ward, created by a recent division. Melchizedek Priesthood bearers bless the sacrament, and members take it reverently from Aaronic priesthood youth. Everyone participates in singing the hymns, though a few cannot read the pages of the hymnbooks they hold so respectfully.

    There is no lag time between speakers today, for many are eager to bear testimony.

    “How beautiful it is to know and understand the gospel,” says one older sister who wears the bright “typical” costume of Indian women. She expresses thanks for missionaries who sacrifice two years to preach the truth—missionaries like those who taught her family the gospel years ago.

    A visitor, a former resident of Quezaltenango who is now a government official in Guatemala City, tells the congregation, “Within Guatemala or outside Guatemala, I carry with me the love I feel from you. I know you testify of God with real love.”

    One long-time member testifies of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon as a record of his ancestors and a record of Christ’s mission.

    These Saints are representative not only of the Guatemala of the eighties, but of something much more significant—the growth of the gospel in Quezaltenango and the surrounding region.

    It was a generation ago—2 January 1950—that Elders Fahy S. Robinson and Ralph Gene Brown of the Mexican Mission, which then included Central America, were assigned to open missionary work in Quezaltenango. In June of that year the first convert from Quezaltenango was baptized.

    Three decades ago, the struggling Quezaltenango Branch was part of the new Central American Mission. Two decades ago, the Church was becoming established in Quezaltenango, but members there still felt the silent disapproval of many who seemed to feel that good Guatemalans could not be members of a “North American” church.

    Just ten years ago, 19 October 1975, the first stake was organized in Quezaltenango. Since then, an additional two stakes and two districts have sprung from that original Quezaltenango Stake. Local leaders estimate that 60 percent of the members, along with a high percentage of the leaders, have been members of the Church for ten years or less. But what the people lack in experience with the Church, they make up in faith. And they soon learn that experience comes quickly to the faithful. The people of the Totonicapan Ward might serve as an example.

    A new chapel is under construction, but until it is finished the Saints meet in a small prefabricated chapel located on a hilltop. Across the paved road, the land drops off sharply down a hillside. The houses of Totonicapan fill the U-shaped valley and climb up its steep sides. Long-needled evergreen trees and fields of corn ten feet high quiver in the breeze. The valley is immaculately clean and peaceful. (The terrorism that is so often read about seems isolated and random to many Guatemalans. While it may have been a bit worse a few years ago, it rarely touches their daily lives now.)

    There is little room for parking on the street that passes the chapel, but it isn’t necessary; except for one or two on bicycles, all the members arrive on foot. This Sunday morning Quezaltenango Guatemala Stake President Israel Perez urges them to be strong in the gospel. He reminds them as citizens that they must be concerned about a proposed law requiring public schools to furnish mandatory instruction in the dominant religion of the country. He urges them also to serve their ancestors more readily, now that Guatemala has a temple, by gathering data for temple work. They listen attentively.

    The congregation is dotted with women in “typical” dress, the patterns and colors identifying their region. Some carry children on their backs, wrapped safely in their colorful shawls; one mother reaches around to hand the sacrament bread and water to her wide-awake eighteen-month-old.

    Here, as is typical in the Quezaltenango area, the leadership is young. The bishop conducting the meeting is a man recently returned from missionary service. The young woman who teaches the Gospel Doctrine class and serves as ward chorister is also a returned missionary. And Gabriel Tello, the twenty-three-year-old ward clerk, hopes to be a missionary within a few months. After his two years of service, he plans to study medicine, and calculates that he will be able to finish his studies by age thirty-one. He says he probably won’t be able to support a wife and family until after he receives his medical degree. The lone Church member in his immediate family, he feels the two years of service to the Lord must come before all the rest. “My greatest desire is to go on a mission.”

    For young men like him, serving a mission often requires significant sacrifice. Work, when it can be found, pays only forty-five quetzales a month at minimum wage (a little less than eighteen dollars in U.S. currency). From that, young people must pay living expenses and save toward a mission. No matter. Though both stakes are composed of middle-class to poor Guatemalans, with a tilt toward the poor end of the scale, nearly fifty missionaries are now serving from the Quezaltenango area. Nearly two dozen more are preparing for calls.

    Though Church assistance is often necessary, families and parents pay as much of mission costs as possible—parents like Rosario Aguilar viuda de Oroxom.

    Her house is on one of Quezaltenango’s twisting, narrow cobblestone streets. Behind the tall double doors is the customary central courtyard surrounded by the rooms of the house where family members, including Sister Oroxom’s daughter and son-in-law and their children, live. Sister Oroxom’s room has a small table, cot bed, medium-sized wardrobe, and a chair. Outside in the courtyard is the usual pila—a large concrete sink used for washing dishes and clothes.

    A diminutive Indian woman, Sister Oroxom has sent three of her six children on missions. Two of them returned just two weeks apart in March of 1985.

    Widowed when her children were young, she has provided for her family and helped three missionaries by taking in washing and by doing hand stitching on “typical” blouses.

    Sister Oroxom herself learned the gospel from missionaries in 1964. Before his death, her husband had been searching for a Christian faith that could change his life, but had never found it. Some time after his death, Sister Oroxom had a dream in which she was given to understand that her husband had now found the truth he sought, and that she would soon find it too. She investigated several sects without finding satisfaction. But when she listened to the LDS missionaries, she knew they brought the truth.

    The Oroxoms’ next-door neighbor, Teodoro Chojolán, is a member of the Quezaltenango West Stake high council. A baker, he has found business difficult in recent years because of the out-of-the-way location of his shop. Still, he has sent two of his three children on missions; daughter Ana Patricia recently returned. The oldest is married, and the youngest is studying at a university in Guatemala City.

    After the children are gone from home and he and his wife can get their affairs in order, Brother Chojolán says, it will be “time to go into the mission field.”

    The Church has grown greatly in Quezaltenango since he and his wife, Eva, were baptized in 1966, he recalls. The increasing visibility of the Church has helped.

    There are three LDS chapels in the city, and two more are under construction. “The chapel itself is a missionary. When people see there is a chapel constructed, then they know the Church is an established organization,” President Perez explains.

    Another visibility factor that helps the Church is the number of missionaries who are natives of Central America. In the 1960s, there were only a handful of them. Now, says President Juan Manuel Cedeno of the Guatemala Quezaltenango Mission, nearly half of his missionaries are natives of Central America. Many of these missionaries serve in small towns with populations of two to three thousand. The missionaries emphasize the Book of Mormon in their preaching. Explaining to people that “we have a book which talks about their ancestors” has increased success, says President Cedeno.

    The mission has five districts, with nearly four thousand members, outside the organized stakes in the area. The population is largely Indian. In the past in Guatemala, there has been a distinct demarcation between the “ladino,” whose ancestry has a strong European strain, and the “puro indio,” whose ancestry is largely Indian. But education and urbanization are breaking down that distinction. The fact that the gospel has never recognized it has made possible more rapid progress for many members of the Church. “We have many people in the process of becoming leaders,” President Cedeno says, some of them “very, very strong.”

    In a country that respects religion, and religious leaders, Guatemalan LDS leaders are often highly regarded. That has been the experience of Quezaltenango West Stake President Amilcar Robles. A cashier in a bank, he served as a bishop several years ago. Hearing visiting members call him “bishop,” co-workers wanted to know more about his calling and his church. Later, some came to him for counsel on their problems. The rise of Latter-day Saints like President Robles and President Perez to leadership positions in business and civic affairs has helped members and missionaries find increased opportunities to preach the gospel. President Perez, for example, is a full-blooded Mayan, which is a great source of pride for local Church members. Those with ancestry such as his are held in high esteem by their fellow Guatemalans, and Brother Perez is highly visible in his community as a member of the Church.

    Israel Escobar, a bank auditor and first counselor in the Quezaltenango Stake Presidency, comments that experience in priesthood leadership has helped area Saints gain strength and has contributed to Church growth. In spiritual matters, there has been strong emphasis on teaching the gospel among members. But the emphasis on learning has extended also to temporal matters such as personal welfare and health. Stake leaders have encouraged members in isolated areas, for example, to take part in a government program that provides materials for those willing to build their own small toilet building.

    With the progress of individual members and growth of the Church organization, Latter-day Saints have become a very visible minority. People in Quezaltenango “have much respect for the Church” and recognize that members have “a special character,” President Robles says.

    The quality of Latter-day Saint families helps build respect for the Church—families like that of Guillermo Cabrera Morales, a watchman in a warehouse and elders quorum president in the Quezaltenango Fourth Ward.

    A visitor dropping in unexpectedly on Monday night finds the Cabrera family gathered in their small living room. To supplement their income, they run a tienda, a neighborhood store with grocery and convenience items, in the front part of the house. (Most Guatemalans shop frequently at neighborhood tiendas. Supermarkets and drive-in convenience stores are almost unknown, except in the capital city.) Tonight the store is closed for family home evening.

    The family’s eldest daughter, Alicia, leads the opening song. Her youngest sister and two brothers sing a musical number. Then they listen to a lesson from the scriptures taught by their father. Afterward, there are games and a closing prayer, then a special treat, bocada de reina (roughly translated, “the queen’s morsel”), a tasty dessert made from stale bread.

    Like many faithful families, the Cabreras set an example in Church service. Brother Cabrera’s wife, Berta, is first counselor in the stake Relief Society presidency. Alicia, seventeen, is the stake Primary president. Adelita Noemi, fifteen, is a teacher in the ward Primary organization. Guillermo Eduardo, a deacon, is first counselor in the quorum presidency. Jaime David, soon to be a deacon, is first counselor in his Primary class presidency, and Ana Francisca is second counselor in hers. Only young Jose Antonio does not yet have a calling.

    Latter-day Saints in Quezaltenango stand out, too, because of their efforts to reach out to friends and neighbors. Erma Celeste Escobar de Guzman and her husband Victor, bishop of the Quezaltenango Fifth Ward, find it comes naturally. The Guzmans are converts of nine years.

    “I believe the most important thing in helping convert others is the love we show,” comments Sister Guzman, a vivacious, exuberant woman. Harking back to her experience as Relief Society president, she says it is important for those who preside to set the example in showing forth love for their neighbor. Doing that helped the Guzmans bring her sister’s family into the Church.

    In Quezaltenango, Bishop Guzman comments, “Members have always been examples. They have their arms open to receive others.”

    The Guzmans are very busy people. Both work to support their son, a missionary in Panama, and the three of their five children who are still at home. (The oldest recently married.) Bishop Guzman is a taxista who takes up his station at the central plaza with his taxicab six mornings a week to await passengers. His wife works in a store across the street.

    Despite the demands of their busy schedules, he would tell anyone “to live the gospel to its fullest,” Bishop Guzman says, “because it’s well worth it.”

    That spirit is common among members of the Quezaltenango Stakes. Many times people who are released from callings “feel the loss very keenly because they want to serve so much,” President Robles says.

    “If there were callings to put them in, we could have more serve,” President Perez echoes, reflecting on the willing hearts of stake members. Members in Quezaltenango “serve the Lord because they have learned He is the one they have to serve, and not any mortal leaders.”

    Do they have weaknesses as Church members? Yes, he says, and names a few that are common to most mortals.

    Do they have strengths? Yes, he affirms, thinking back to October of 1981, when he was called as president of the Quezaltenango Stake. He soon learned that the stake had raised less than one quarter of the nine thousand quetzales it had been asked to contribute to the Guatemala Temple fund before the end of the year.

    After personal pleas from him and interviews with their bishops, stake members redoubled their efforts. Before the end of October, they had raised more than the amount due. Some gave up their personal jewelry or television sets. For others, the sacrifice was more difficult; they determined to cut family meat consumption to just once a week, or gave up money they had been setting aside little by little for shoes. One woman donated her severance pay after her job was terminated unexpectedly. She struggled for weeks, but finally was blessed with much better employment.

    That kind of faithfulness, President Perez says, is typical of the members in the Quezaltenango area. Weighing their strengths, he says, “I believe I would center on their testimony of Christ. They are ready to make any sacrifice for that.”

    Photography by Don L. Searle

    (Top) The Quezaltenango Guatemala West Stake Center overlooks the city’s central plaza. (Middle) Young Indian girls in “typical” dress and modern sweaters, in town for an open air market, visit in the central plaza. (Bottom) Teodoro Chojolán, a high councilor in the Quezaltenango Guatemala West Stake, and his daughter Ana Patricia, a recently returned missionary, work in the family bakery. (Right) Rosario Oroxom and some of her grandchildren at her home.

    A view of the valley and village from the Totonicapan Ward chapel. Inset photos: (left) the Cabrera family, members of the Quezaltenango Fourth Ward, hold family home evening; (right) Nancy Perez, a young member of the Quezaltenango Stake.