Ten years ago in the Dominican Republic, if you had asked someone on the street about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the response would probably have consisted of a blank stare. The small country sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti lies only six hundred miles southeast of Florida. But until 1978, the only contact Dominicans had had with the Church consisted of “the commercials,” as locals called them—family messages advertised on television, sponsored by a church no one had heard of.
Now, three stakes, two missions, six districts, and more than seventy wards and branches later, practically everyone knows about the Latter-day Saints. Church membership has grown from six members in 1978 to more than twenty-five thousand in 1990. In areas ranging from the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo to rural towns dotting the beaches of the Caribbean Sea, Latter-day Saints can be found among every social class and within every occupation.
That impressive growth began in the summer of 1978 when two LDS families, one American and one Dominican, moved to Santo Domingo from the United States. The families began talking about the Church no one had heard of, and soon several families were baptized.
In November, missionaries arrived. And on December 7, Elder M. Russell Ballard dedicated the country for missionary work—all in 1978, the same year that President Spencer W. Kimball announced a revelation that all worthy male members of the Church could hold the priesthood. In a country where a rapidly growing membership of Spanish, African, and other racial backgrounds requires rapid growth of priesthood holders, it’s easy to agree with the Dominican feeling that “our time has come.”
Like members around the world, Dominicans enjoy the blessings of Church programs for families and the youth. But also like their fellow members, they struggle with challenges. They want to maintain unity as Church members and bridge gaps between social classes. They want to prepare their youth for leadership roles in a young church growing rapidly. They want to sustain their families economically. And they want to help women meet the challenges confronting women everywhere in the modern world.
Some challenges are more difficult to resolve than others. Some—like daily electrical shortages that can bring sudden halts to evening meetings and activities—seem beyond their control. But by working together, everyone remains hopeful about a future that began with such a promising past.
Upon his first visit to the Church, Ramon Abreu of Santo Domingo noticed that “it was not a church with the rich on one side and the poor on the other, like I had noticed in other religions. Everyone was together, just how I always imagined the Lord’s church.”
The unity and warmth among members attest to how they have worked to have “their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” (Mosiah 18:21.) You see it in meetings concluding with warm embraces, in district dances in which everyone joins hands and genuinely relishes being together, and in enthusiastic home and visiting teaching appointments between friends.
But unity among members cannot simply be attributed to Dominican warmth and hospitality. Leaders and members alike work hard to maintain closeness and cooperation, a sometimes difficult accomplishment when people of every social class come together as they do in the Church. People who have otherwise remained distant from each other socially, geographically, even religiously need inspired leadership, and Dominican Church leaders such as Santiago district president Ramon Lantigua and his wife, Victoria, have provided just that.
“The problem of class differences is something I’ve prayed about a great deal,” Ramon comments. He noticed that sometimes at Church gatherings, the women of high social standing would embrace each other upon meeting, while only giving obligatory greetings to the other sisters. “Would the Lord do that if he were here—smile only to the high society?” Ramon questioned. Victoria was bothered by activities such as gift exchanges that “for the wealthy are no problem. But the poorer members have to save and save just to buy one small gift.”
Now serving as a branch Relief Society president, Victoria plans activities that avoid bringing out class differences and that value everyone’s talents. President Lantigua encourages leaders to set good examples by treating everyone “equally and as a child of God. After all, members follow their leaders’ examples.”
The result? A togetherness that serves to make new, old, and nonmembers feel completely welcome. When Cesar and Lillian Lozano were baptized in 1989 after having lived in the United States, Spain, and Puerto Rico, they received such a warm reception from members that “We knew this had to be God’s church. People were so good to each other.”
At any given activity for the Young Men and Young Women of the Dominican Republic, the leaders are there—not just youth leaders, but bishops, stake presidents, counselors, and Relief Society leaders. While Santiago youth dance the merengue at a district activity, the district presidency can be seen coordinating the sound, even dancing on occasion. After seminary classes on Friday, a branch president cooks the students a Dominican breakfast sandwich of ham and melted cheese.
“Our kids face the same temptations kids everywhere face,” says Maria Pena de Diaz, a stake Young Women president in Santo Domingo. “Radio, TV, movies—everything encourages them not to stay chaste.” Leaders also struggle against customs of common-law marriage and the popularity of social drinking among Dominican youth. “It’s a challenge to teach young people about temple marriage,” comments Maria’s first counselor, Martha Polanco, “when they haven’t considered marriage itself that important.”
The solution, leaders agree, lies in spending time with the youth and helping them to grow spiritually. “We try to let the Young Women have spiritual experiences,” says Maria Diaz. She recalls an occasion in which all of the Young Women of her stake fasted for a girl who had cancer. When the girl recovered, “we honored her at the Young Women birthday celebration,” says Maria. “It was a moving experience for the girls, one that brought them closer to Heavenly Father.”
As a Young Men president, Agustin Flete takes the same approach. “The only way that kids can avoid the things of the world,” he says, “is if they have the Spirit with them.” Consequently, he stresses the importance of honoring the priesthood, and plans service projects for the Young Men. Ana Mercedes Torres, Santiago District Young Women President, talks openly with the Young Women about the temptations they face and prays often for her youth.
Dominican youth have responded well to such dedicated guidance. They make up 30 to 40 percent of the missionary force in both of the country’s missions. They hold responsible stake and ward leadership positions at age eighteen or nineteen. And they have shifted their goals to a gospel perspective. Ricardo Beato, nineteen, is typical. A first counselor in the La Vega Branch in the Santiago mission, he teaches an investigator class, heads the ward theater committee, and has changed his goals since converting to the Church.
“Before I was a member of the Church,” he says, “my goals were like those of a lot of other kids’ goals here: I wanted material things. I wanted to go to New York and become rich.” Now he wants to serve a mission, attend a university, and raise a happy family.
Jorge Dominguez serves as Santiago’s district mission president at age twenty-three. After joining the Church at fourteen, he graduated from seminary and served a mission. Now he attends college at the Pontificia Universidad Madre y Maestra, where he once answered his anthropology professor’s question, “Why are you Mormon?” in front of three hundred students. One student was baptized as a result.
“These are special, enthusiastic, willing kids,” says Martha Polanco. “Many don’t have families in the Church, and yet they do everything possible to attend their meetings and be responsible in Church positions.” Dominican leaders, in turn, respond with Agustin Flete’s approach: “You spend time with the kids, and they know you love them.”
Church leaders in the Dominican Republic work hard to meet the needs of the poor and the needy. Members cooperate by assessing the needs of struggling brothers and sisters. For example, when one member’s child became ill, he was able to pay for the medical bills, but couldn’t afford medicine. Several ward members bought pills the child needed.
On the night Ana Mercedes Torres returned from a trip to the Guatemala City Temple, her house burned down. “The members helped me with clothes, with everything,” she says. “They were there that very night and still continue to help.”
For some members, tithing is a test of faith. Yet those who have overcome that test offer encouragement and hope to others. “When I joined the Church,” says a Santo Domingo leader, “I lived all the commandments except for tithing, but one day realized that I obey commandments because I want to obey and because I know the Lord will help us.” Since that realization, he has paid a full tithe. “I’ve received so many blessings I hadn’t planned on. Now I’m the one telling tithing stories!”
Financial struggles also make it difficult for some families to go to the temple. While several Dominican families have gone to a temple in the United States, the easiest route is to go to the Guatemala City Temple. Still, the trip to Guatemala requires months and sometimes years of saving.
“Inflation in this country breaks all the parameters, making it extremely difficult to save,” says Fausto Ventura, first counselor in the Santo Domingo Mission. “I could afford to take my family to the temple in the United States, but for the average Dominican family, that’s impossible.”
Although only 5 percent of families in the Church have been able to go to the temple, they still prepare themselves to be sealed. Parents maintain a vision of eternity, participate in temple seminars, and hope for a temple of their own someday.
“Fortunately for the women of this country,” says Aida Munoz of Santiago, “the Church helps every kind.” She refers to women who help provide for their families, women who can choose to stay home, women who are married, women who are single, and women who depend upon sisters in the Relief Society for moral support.
For the poor, Relief Society educational support has been invaluable. Homemaking meetings that discuss cooking healthy meals on small budgets, managing money wisely, and rearing responsible children are often the main resources women can draw from for help and advice. “Through homemaking meetings,” says Miledy Dilone, “I’ve even been able to earn extra money from the crafts we learn to create.”
More important, however, Relief Society offers friendship and spiritual support to women like Leonarda Perez de Belvis, who works as a maid during the day, cares for her children at night, and sometimes finds herself discouraged. “It’s hard not to let yourself fall spiritually,” she says, “But I feel a lot of love from the sisters in the ward. When someone is feeling bad, we pray for her. Where else can you find that love and support?”
Many single sisters in the Dominican Republic hold responsible positions in their wards and branches. For Ana Mercedes Torres, her calling as Santiago District Young Women president has “fulfilled my life. The youth of the district have become my family. They also give me hope that one day my own children will come to church.”
Rita Viviana de Cruz represents another segment of Dominican women. Her husband, Domingo, a medical technologist and president of the Villa Olga Branch, is able to provide for their family of six. Rita works full-time as a legal secretary, but she and Domingo have decided that she will stay at home soon. “It was something I hadn’t really thought about before joining the Church,” she says. “It’s not an easy decision, but we have faith in what the Church has taught us.” Rita has found that domestic skills learned in Relief Society “help to save a lot of time. I don’t know what I did before!”
When Hector Antonio and Benita Liberato joined the Church in 1983, their friends told them they were crazy to join an unheard-of religion. Now, says Hector, “Many of them are members, and one is on the high council with me!” Benita looks back at the Church growth she has seen in the Dominican Republic and realizes that, in her calling as stake Primary president, “I am leading a second generation of members who will have spent most of their lives in the Church—an amazing responsibility.”
Members like Felix and Lubian Sequi contribute to a positive Church image by serving both community and Church members. Lubian runs an orphanage for handicapped children in Santo Domingo and also runs a small school for children who otherwise couldn’t get an education. Felix, Church Educational System coordinator for Santo Domingo, has seen seminary and institute enrollment nationwide go from sixty students to two thousand—growth he has worked hard for. After all, he says, “Our future leaders consist of these students.”
But the most important change for the future, agree Dominican members, has taken place in the home. After Rafael and Miledy Dilone’s family of five joined the Church, “Even the neighbors congratulated us because of the new closeness they saw in our family,” says Rafael, a high councilor who works as a shoemaker at home. For Miledy, her family’s baptism and a noticeable improvement in her marriage strengthened their family life: “We were such a crazy family before. Now we know how to love each other.”
Dominican leaders deal optimistically with their growing pains, deriving hope from Elder Ballard’s dedicatory prayer. “He asked Heavenly Father for some unique blessings,” remembers Rodolfo N. Bodden, whose family of six were the first members of the Church in the Dominican Republic. “Specifically, he prayed that we would be able to lead ourselves, that our races and nationalities could bless the Church. President Kimball, of course, prepared the way. And look, it’s all happening!”
“It’s impossible!” cried Faustino Tineo’s mechanic when Faustino told him he had thrown away all his cigarettes. “You’ve been smoking forever!” But whenever Faustino was tempted to resume his lifelong habit, he says, “I just said a quiet prayer, ‘Please Lord, help me.’” After Faustino had overcome smoking, he asked his wife, Emma, to give up coffee, their family’s last obstacle to baptism.
The year was 1979. They had heard all of the missionary discussions and had been attending Santiago’s thirteen-member branch. Emma told Faustino, “I’m prepared!” and gave all of her coffee-making equipment away to the neighbors. On 8 January 1980, the Tineos and their two children were baptized.
“It’s amazing that we would have the strength to join such a small church,” recalls Emma, “and to suddenly quit lifelong habits. The only thing I can attribute it to is the Spirit.” Indeed, the Spirit, observes Faustino, is the reason Church membership in his country has grown from the tens to the thousands.
“People don’t have the strength to change because of Church programs alone,” he says. “I personally never had the slightest interest in religion until these strange missionaries—who I initially thought were encyclopedia salesmen—started teaching us. Then I felt the Spirit. It allowed us to change, and that’s what’s changing the country.”
Although independent and self-reliant, Austria de Rubeira depends on Relief Society to “complete my life.” Widowed before she met the missionaries in 1985, Austria works as a personnel manager to support her three daughters. She also serves as president of the Santo Domingo East stake Relief Society—a calling she refers to as “my great blessing, one that allows me to show love to my sisters.”
Austria uses her training in personnel management to work with ward Relief Society leaders. She offers mini-courses on effective ways to visit-teach, communicate as leaders, and set realistic goals. “I try to put into Relief Society all the things I’ve learned about working with people through my job,” she says.
“In my country,” she adds, “it’s important for women to use their resources wisely.” For this reason, “we try to hold classes that will help women with all aspects of their lives—practically and spiritually.” Dependence on prayer in her calling has given Austria ideas about ways to help sisters and “much more love for them.”
She transmits this love with determination and enthusiasm. “Our motto is that charity never fails. With this in mind, sisters in our stake try to serve anyone in need.”