Elder Parada and Elder Saavedra turn the corner and start up the next street in one of the poor neighborhoods of San Salvador. Children are chasing each other. A dog is barking. Women and girls pass by with loads of food or laundry on their heads. Radios tuned to various stations are blaring from open windows, each playing music with energetic Latin rhythms.
Just as the elders reach the red house, the novios (an engaged couple) arrive from the other direction for their appointment. They invite the missionaries into her house and arrange the chairs into a circle. After prayer, the girl disappears into another room and comes back with her copy of the Book of Mormon.
“Have you been praying?” Elder Parada asks. The girl nods. “Have you been reading the Book of Mormon?” Yes, they read their assignment in 3 Nephi 11. [3 Ne. 11] “Wonderful! Keep reading and praying about it, and you’ll know by the power of the Holy Ghost that it is true.”
The lesson is on the plan of salvation, and the missionaries teach it in simple terms. Elder Parada takes his ball-point pen apart. “Our bodies are like this pen’s outer shell,” he says, “and our spirits are like this inner part with the ink.” Using this simple visual aid, he explains death and resurrection. When the girl asks a question, Elder Parada answers with verses from his well-marked scriptures.
Then Elder Saavedra takes his turn teaching. Both missionaries seem completely at home here; neither is hampered by language or cultural distractions. The girl’s mother, who has been washing clothes out back, comes in and overhears while she putters. A rooster outside starts crowing, and a couple of chickens walk into the room, searching for crumbs. A breeze blows lightly through the open window and rustles the curtain that serves as a door into the back room. The discussion proceeds smoothly. As the missionaries prepare to leave, the mother smiles and comes over to shake their hands. She says she might come to church with the novios tomorrow.
Elder David Antonio Parada (from El Salvador) and Elder Sergio Saavedra (from Mexico) are two of thousands of missionaries who are fulfilling a call President Spencer W. Kimball made in 1974 for countries to “furnish [their] own missionaries” and even to provide “far more missionaries than they [need] themselves” so they can help in other parts of the world. (See Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 12.)
Since then, much has happened in Mexico and Central America to bring that vision to pass. When President Kimball extended the challenge in 1974, only 25 percent of the missionaries in Mexico were Mexicans; in 1988, 95 percent are native. In El Salvador, 100 percent of the missionaries are from Central America; all are Salvadoreños except six from neighboring countries.
The percentages aren’t as high in all areas. For example, the Costa Rica San José Mission still has a ratio of 50–50. “I wish it were 100 percent Latin,” says mission president Mervyn Arnold. And it may be, someday. “I love these people, and I’m sorry North Americans may not always have the opportunity to serve here as missionaries.”
The pattern has been established, and the trend is taking hold. In 1987, more than 1,300 men and women from Mexico and Central America entered the mission field. With the increase of local missionaries, the number of missions has also increased. In 1974, Mexico had only five missions; now it has fourteen. And the number of baptisms continues to rise. In the Mexico Monterrey Mission alone, baptisms reached 475 one month in 1987. Convert baptisms for Mexico and Central America topped 40,000 last year.
The mission presidents are hesitant to make any distinctions at all between U.S. and Latin American missionaries. Both groups usually come well prepared. Both can become powerful teachers; both serve equally well in mission leadership positions.
But local missionaries do have some obvious advantages. They usually understand the people better because there are no language or cultural barriers. In some cases, legal or political restrictions limit the number of U.S. missionaries who may enter a country. In other instances, Latin missionaries can serve in places where it would be unwise or impossible to send North Americans.
El Salvador is a good example. In 1980 the mission was closed because of the country’s political problems; the missionaries, many from the United States, were reassigned elsewhere. The mission reopened in 1984, but because of continued unrest in the country, no U.S. missionaries have returned. Local elders and sisters serve there without incident.
“We’re seeing that we can be self-sufficient,” says mission president Franklin Henríquez, himself a Salvadoreño. “The local stakes here are sending us all we need at the moment. And we also have Salvadoreños serving in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica.”
His suit is brand new. So is his white shirt. Elder Enrique Hernández is on his way to the airport to fly from San José, Costa Rica, to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Guatemala City. After thirteen days, he’ll return to Costa Rica to serve his mission.
Why are missionaries—rather than the elder’s family—taking him to the airport? “My parents aren’t members of the Church,” he says. “And they are too poor to take me clear out to the airport. I awoke each family member this morning and said good-bye before I left.”
He explains that his father—sixty-four years old and unemployed—didn’t want him to go. Only Enrique and his sister have had jobs to support the family of seven. Now he will be gone, and his income will be missed.
“It was hard to leave them this morning,” he says. “I wonder how they will get along without me. I hope the Lord will bless them.”
He sits pensively as the van speeds toward the airport. “I’m strengthened by the example of the pioneer brethren,” he says. “They left their families, often in poor conditions, to serve the Lord as missionaries. If they could do it, I can too!”
New missionaries like Elder Hernández arrive at the MTCs in Mexico and Guatemala every two weeks. Most are interrupting their schooling and work; some give up scholarships or professional positions. Some come with their family’s blessings; others receive no support or encouragement from home. Most come from humble economic circumstances; even though mission costs are decreasing because members are providing some meals, it’s still a struggle for most missionaries to pay even one-third of the monthly expenses. And it’s common for families to have more than one child serving a mission at the same time.
In a recent group, the average new missionary has been a member of the Church for only five years. Only 15 percent were born in the Church; 25 percent have been members less than two years. About 40 percent have nonmember parents.
“Thanks for helping me get that broken water pipe fixed.”
Elder José Arcia laughs, “Oh, Hermana, we didn’t help much.” During their last visit, the woman’s eight-year-old boy had broken a pipe in the front yard, sending water gushing onto the sidewalk. After an hour, with a Church member’s help, they fixed it. Today, every time the boy starts to wander away from the discussion, Elder Arcia asks him simple questions and playfully draws him back.
The mother is impressed by the lesson. Elder Arcia and his companion teach sensitively, urging her to love God and neighbor and obey the law of chastity and the Word of Wisdom. “In twenty years, after the missionaries are gone, will you still be obeying these laws?” he asks.
“Of course I will,” she answers. She’ll be baptized in two weeks.
Watching Elder Arcia teach, you’d assume he’s had years of Church experience. Actually, this twenty-four-year-old Panamanian entered the MTC thirteen days before completing even one year as a member.
Later an assistant to the mission president comments on Elder Arcia’s work in the Costa Rica Mission: “The president sends him to areas where the work isn’t going well. Wherever he goes, Elder Arcia sparks excitement, teaches a lot of discussions, and has baptisms. There’s something about him that we norteamericanos don’t have. He can get into doors we can’t enter!”
There was a hailstorm in Monterrey, Mexico, last night, and this morning the unpaved roads are rivers of mud. Sister Míriam Sosa and Sister Laura Alcalá bundle up in sweaters and coats. (It’s not always sunny here!) The sturdy shoes they’re wearing have seen muddy streets before. As the sisters leave their little house, they laugh and wave good-bye to the pig living on the rooftop next door.
You’d think these two had known each other their whole lives. They’re certainly best friends now. Both have a bright excitement in their eyes and a spirit of enthusiasm as they speak. Both are third-generation Latter-day Saints. Both have fathers who have been stake presidents and brothers who are currently serving missions.
Most important, both are filled with the spirit of missionary work. Although some may say it is hard to give fifteen discussions here in a week, they’ve given more than sixty-five more than once.
“Consecration is the only way,” says Sister Sosa. Her humility is genuine. “We have put absolutely all our confidence in the Lord.”
“And we truly love the people we’re teaching,” adds Sister Alcalá. “We want to share what we have with everybody.”
During Sister Sosa’s eight months in the field, she has had fifty-five baptisms. Most are complete families and are preparing for the temple. They’ll have ten more baptisms this weekend.
As they “skate” through the slippery muddy streets this morning, they joke about getting stuck or slipping and falling. But they’ll do neither; their pace is quick and sure. They knock on the door of a tiny house: the parents aren’t home, but the grandpa and three granddaughters are. A single bulb lights the room. The toothless grandpa, blind in one eye and complaining of a sore arm, has a lot to say—but he listens, too. The oldest granddaughter holds the youngest on her lap; she and the middle sister listen attentively, read scriptures, and answer questions correctly. At the end, one of the girls offers a prayer and the missionaries leave, promising to return when the parents are home.
More mud. Now they cross a field, singing “I Am a Child of God.” At their next stop, they teach another discussion. Afterward, the mother says she felt good during the lesson. “That’s the Spirit of God bearing witness to your heart that these things are true,” says Sister Alcalá. The family promises to come to church on Sunday.
Back out in the street, the sister missionaries squeal their delight. As they round another muddy corner, Sister Sosa exclaims, “This is such a beautiful place to work!”
Juanita Peñaloza wanted to serve a mission. Year after year she expressed this desire to her bishop but never received a call. Finally she cornered the mission president’s assistants and told them her plight. They called the president on the phone.
“This sister wants to serve a mission, but she has one problem.”
“What is it?”
“Her age. She’s 103!”
President Enrique Moreno interviewed her and called her to a two-month “summer mission” in Puebla, about two hours from her home, with a companionship of strong, capable sisters. Ward members there loved her and were eager for her to teach their friends. “What a blessing she was for the work,” says President Moreno. “What a great motivation she was for both members and missionaries!”
Elder Eduardo López and his companion knocked on the wrong door in this Monterrey neighborhood a month ago. They were looking for someone else but stayed when the Mendozas expressed interest. Sister Mendoza admitted she had been baptized ten years earlier but had never been active because she lacked her husband’s support. Now her husband was ready to listen; he and their two children were baptized.
A neighbor, Señora Hernández, happened in during a discussion; she, her husband, and two children were baptized. Another neighbor, Señora López, heard what was going on; she, her five children, and a niece were baptized, and her husband is getting close. From knocking on that wrong door, Elder López and his companion have baptized fourteen people so far—all within one month—and more will follow.
This morning, less than a week after the most recent baptisms, the elders are visiting the Hernández family. Brother Hernández sits on the couch with his arm around Elder López’s shoulder. “We love these missionaries as if they were our sons,” he says. He was unemployed when he met the elders, but they fasted and prayed together, and the very next week he got a job with an oil company.
As they talk, members of the other families stream in, filling the small living room. As they greet each other with abrazos (hugs) and laughter, someone begins counting how many have been baptized. Each time another person comes into the room, a cheer goes up: “He was baptized, too!” They joke about baptizing the rest of their neighbors and talk about traveling to the temple together in a year.
Elder López and his companion rarely have to tract. They greet people in the street and end up giving them a discussion; they see a man reading a newspaper in front of his house and are soon teaching him the gospel; they notice a man washing his car and introduce him to the Church; they meet a family in the home of less-active members and teach them on the spot. “Last week we baptized a family of seven because we had been friendly to their kids in the street. It’s a lot easier to reach the parents when the children greet you at the door with ‘Hola, Elder!’
“When I arrive home at night I’m exhausted, and many of my journal entries have been short. I’ll write something like this: ‘I’m very tired. Today was an excellent day. We found a golden family. We gave twelve discussions. I’m happy. Hasta mañana!’”
It’s late. The rest of the meetinghouse is empty, dark. But the light in the stake presidency’s office is still on. President Adolfo Ibarra of the Monterrey Morelos Stake is only twenty-three years old. One counselor is thirty-one; the other is twenty-five. All are returned missionaries.
What are some things they learned on their missions? “To know Jesus Christ better,” President Ibarra replies, “to serve, to love, to reach people’s hearts.” He also learned leadership skills. “When I was called as district leader, I had never given an interview before; the first one I gave lasted about three hours!” he smiles. “But I learned quickly.”
Adolfo Reyes, first counselor, was baptized when he was twenty; a year later he was a missionary and served as zone leader for eighteen months. “In our stake callings, we’re serving our fellowmen just like we did in the mission,” he says. “Our assignments are a little different now, but our time is still dedicated to the Lord.”
“I’m a convert,” says second counselor Pablo Moreno. “Everything I know about the Lord and the Church, I learned on my mission.”
Twenty-nine missionaries are currently serving from this stake. President Ibarra has seen great blessings come to families of missionaries: nonmember parents have been baptized; less-active parents have returned to the Church and have gone to the temple; younger brothers and sisters have been encouraged to serve missions; families have been blessed with more unity and with better health. And most returned missionaries marry in the temple.
“When missionaries are released, we immediately give them a calling,” says President Ibarra. “A month before one sister came home, we cleared her name to serve as counselor in the stake Young Women presidency. When I was coming home from the airport after my mission, I found out I was the new stake executive secretary!”
“And I was called to the high council during my mission-release interview!” says President Moreno. “There wasn’t any time to rest,” he laughs. “There never is.”
Elder Parada and Elder Saavedra say good-bye to the novios and walk back down the street. “It’s beautiful to see that pair of elders working together,” their mission president later comments. Elder Parada comes from an extremely humble background, the son of a field worker; his junior companion, Elder Saavedra, is the son of the Mexican consul to El Salvador. One worked for years in the fields to save money for his mission; the other left cars and stereos behind. Now they’re a team—humble, confident, articulate.
They cross a ravine on a swinging footbridge. Then, turning the corner, they start up the next street in another neighborhood of San Salvador.
The rise in the number of local missionaries in Mexico and Central America is reflected in other areas around the world. In the past ten years, the number has almost tripled—from 3,850 to 10,608. Almost one-third of the 35,000 full-time missionaries currently serving are from outside the United States—from seventy-one countries and six territories.
In addition, the number of Missionary Training Centers has risen. In the past ten years, the number has increased from one (in Provo, Utah) to fourteen. They are now also found in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, England, Guatemala, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, The Philippines, Samoa, and Tonga. All of these centers are located near temples, making it possible for missionaries in far-flung areas to receive both missionary training and temple blessings locally before beginning their proselyting work.