“I believe Nicaragua’s moment has come,” says Larry Zúniga of the San Miguel Ward, Masaya Nicaragua Stake. He is speaking of growth in the Church that increased the number of stakes in his country from two to seven in just one year.
If Brother Zúniga is right, then the arrival of this happy moment in the history of the Church in Nicaragua is the result of at least two factors: the influence of the Holy Ghost on people who are seeking truth and the influence of Preach My Gospel in helping members share the gospel. Priesthood leaders will tell you they see both of these factors at work in people’s lives.
Bishop Luís Castrillo of the Ciudad Sandino Ward, Managua Nicaragua Stake, explains that many people in Nicaragua are seeking answers to life’s questions and finding those answers in the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He compares their condition to being very thirsty on a hot day and unable to find a place to get a drink. When at last they find the way to quench their thirst, they drink freely and gratefully of the water that the gospel of Jesus Christ has to offer.
Looking at the overall picture of what is happening in Nicaragua, Elder Spencer V. Jones of the Seventy, President of the Central America Area, offers three reasons for the Church’s growth there. First, Nicaraguans seem to feel a “spiritual hunger.” After a long period of conflict in their country, “people are looking for peace in their lives, and the gospel is providing that peace.” Second, “there has also been a succession of strong mission presidents who have developed a good working relationship with the local leaders and members. Basically, the missionaries don’t have to knock on doors very often. They have tremendously large teaching pools because of this relationship.” Third, as a result, “the missionaries have developed a faith that they have the capacity to baptize. They’re not afraid to challenge investigators to prepare for baptism. They have that confidence and faith in the Lord.”
Brother Zúniga typifies the commitment to missionary work found among Latter-day Saints. “There are many members willing to help here,” he says. A returned missionary himself, he goes out to work with the full-time missionaries as often as he can. Almost all of his friends have been willing to at least listen to the gospel.
From the time he was a boy, Larry Zúniga wanted to serve a full-time mission. His father, a carpenter, made him a small box for a bank, and Larry began to save money for his mission. But when he was 18, his mother became seriously ill. He had to give up his mission savings and sell his bicycle to help pay for her treatment, but he sacrificed gladly for her. Nevertheless, through the help of other members and also of relatives, including some who are not members of the Church, he was blessed with the resources he needed to serve a full-time mission. Brother Zúniga’s commitment to missionary work helped bring five of his good friends into the Church, and two of them have also served missions. He continues to work with other friends.
Paula Merlo of the Acome Ward, Chinandega Nicaragua Stake, is another member who never passes up an opportunity for missionary work. If the missionaries ask members to help them find people to teach, she simply does it. Visitors to her home are likely to find a missionary meeting in progress. On one Saturday, for example, she arranged for missionaries to teach a total of 11 investigators in separate group meetings in her home.
Sister Merlo came into the Church 14 years ago after being introduced to the gospel by a daughter who had been baptized. She has a daughter in Panama and a son in Honduras and tries to share the gospel wherever she travels in Central America. Even she is not sure how many people she has helped bring into the Church. If people decline her invitation to hear the missionaries, she invites them to family home evening in her home so they can feel something of the spirit of the gospel.
What motivates her in missionary work? “First, it is a commandment the Lord has given us. And then, after going to the temple, I realized that if we’re not doing anything for our dead or for the living, we’re not doing anything for the Lord.”
Sister Merlo’s stake president, Ernesto Maravilla, holds her up as an example of what he wishes every member would do. President Maravilla works constantly with members and missionaries to help them remember that they have both the commandment and the precious opportunity to share the gospel. He leads by example, also inviting friends and acquaintances to family home evenings in his own home to introduce them to the gospel.
“I have two roles in missionary work,” he says, “one to supervise and one to motivate members to work at the level of the missionaries.”
Because of the meaning of his surname (maravilla means “marvel” in Spanish), friends joke that he is a marvel in missionary work. A man of good humor, President Maravilla laughs with the joke, but he is serious about missionary work. He meets regularly with missionary zone leaders to coordinate efforts in the stake. He strongly encourages bishops to actively direct missionary work in their wards through ward council meetings and to follow up on assignments. Those councils are “the heart of missionary work in the ward,” the president says. When the meetings are not held, the work slows down. “We have learned this in practice.”
The Chinandega stake averages 45 baptisms per month.
“Everything starts with the planning meeting we have with members,” commented Elder William J. Reano of Waverly, Tennessee, USA, a missionary in the Nicaragua Managua Mission. Elder Reano, who has since finished his mission, and his companion met weekly with members in their area of Managua. Members supplied new missionary referrals or directed the missionaries to someone who could. “We formed a chain of referrals,” Elder Reano said. “I’ve learned that the basis of success in missionary work is this planning.”
His companion, Elder Rodrigo León of Costa Rica, attributes their success in teaching both to the experience of his companion and to Preach My Gospel, the approach to teaching that missionaries are now using. “That approach is 100 percent effective when it is used correctly,” Elder León says. Success breeds success, Elder Reano adds; members who see regular baptisms want their friends to have the opportunity to learn about the gospel too. Elder León notes that many members bring investigators to Church meetings each week.
Elder Joshua Kasteler of Murray, Utah, says missionaries find it is important to help members know they are necessary to missionary work. He and his companion, Elder Jonathan Estrada of Santa Ana, El Salvador, try to help leaders and members know that the missionaries care about what is happening in the ward. They work with the ward after a baptism to help the new members become assimilated and receive callings. This is important for both the new members and the ward, Elder Estrada points out, because in serving, people are nourished by the word of God.
The enthusiasm and love of the missionaries for the people they teach comes through strongly at a mission-wide meeting in Managua with their president, Ricardo Valladares. There is a spirit of gladness among the missionaries as they receive instruction and hear of successes in the work. When transfers are announced, no one says, “Oh, Elder, too bad you are going to that place.” They offer each other congratulations and speak of new opportunities.
The enthusiasm of the missionaries is infectious.
Victor Vallecillo is a co-worker of Pedro Aviles, president of the Managua Nicaragua Stake. When Victor was seeking religious truth, President Aviles gave him a Book of Mormon. Brother Vallecillo feels so joyful about the gospel that since his baptism in November 2004 he has adopted the habit of inviting friends to hear the gospel, and he often goes out with missionaries to teach. His wife and two children have the spirit of missionary work too. One night, Brother Vallecillo recalls, his teenage son was studying a map of Nicaragua, looking at the northern part of the country where Brother Vallecillo grew up. “Papa,” his son said, pointing to places on the map, “the gospel is not here, and it is not here, and it is not here.” How soon, he wondered, would missionaries be able to go to those places so that others could share in the blessings of the gospel?
Silvia Zamuria Vanegas of the Granada Branch, Granada Nicaragua District, recalls, “When I was baptized, I made a promise to the Lord that one day I would teach other people because what I had found brought me so much joy.” In May 2005, four years after her baptism, she left to serve a mission in Guatemala. But she had been sharing the gospel with friends and working with the sister missionaries long before her call. Sister Zamuria quotes a favorite saying that calls on those who can light a candle to share the light with people around them.
Raúl Díaz Hernández of El Coyolar Branch, Leon Nicaragua District, grew up in the Church and has been preparing to serve a mission since his childhood. He has worked with the missionaries and begun to study Preach My Gospel. It is a privilege to share his testimony with anyone, he says, but he has a more personal reason for helping the missionaries teach his brother-in-law. He would like his sister to be able to enjoy the blessings of the temple with her family.
José Contreras, president of the Masaya Nicaragua Stake, estimates that more than three-quarters of convert baptisms in his stake come about through the assistance of members who want to share the joy they found in the gospel. But even with recent growth, President Contreras says, “we need to do more to take the missionaries out to people we may not have thought of yet.” The president and his counselors are not only helping members develop their own ability to share the gospel, but they are also accompanying some of them as they go out with the missionaries to teach.
President Contreras keeps track of the rate of activity for members in the stake, and he is concerned about those who are not enjoying the blessings of the gospel right now. How to reach those members? He favors a basic approach: teach them again the simple doctrines they learned from the missionaries—the pure doctrines of Christ. When they remember these, he says, they will want the promised blessings. Efforts to retain them are efforts to bless them.
Jeannethe Campos de Espinoza, former president of the Relief Society in the Managua stake, admires the creativity of one visiting teacher who helped activate a woman she visited. The visiting teacher asked the sister to prepare a message from the Book of Mormon to share with her visiting teachers; this helped the woman discover what she was missing spiritually. The same approach has been used to activate others as well. Sometimes Relief Society leaders also ask to hold small group meetings in the homes of less-active members to remind them of gospel blessings.
Sister Espinoza, baptized in 2001, has a strong desire to share the gospel with others “so they can taste this beautiful fruit.” It gives her pain, she says, to see people wandering in paths that lead them away from happiness.
Sharing the gospel so others can taste the “beautiful fruit” seems to be a theme in most Church meetings in Nicaragua.
President Aviles of the Managua stake was one of the first stake presidents in the country, and he has been an eyewitness to the Church’s growth over the past several years. His is a country burdened by great poverty, a country where the pull of old traditions and temptations is very strong. But it is a country where Church facilities are often unable to keep up with growth because of missionary work and because retention has improved. President Aviles knows how the Holy Ghost and loving members can touch people’s lives.
Speaking at a ward conference in Managua, he takes up the theme of reaching out to others so they may taste that sweet fruit of the gospel. With faith, he says, members can overcome the challenges the adversary puts in our paths. “We ought to move forward so that we can be perfected.”
“We need to be strengthened in righteousness,” he adds. “We want to be blessed for doing good.” Let the Saints be drawn together in unity, he pleads; let unity be our strength. This is the way for the spiritual growth in Nicaragua to continue.
National population: approximately 5,500,000
Managua area: approximately 1,400,000
Members in Nicaragua: more than 52,000