On 4 February 1976 at three o’clock in the morning a severe earthquake shook Guatemala City. Countless buildings collapsed or were so damaged they could not be used. That morning thousands of families who had gone to bed the night before feeling secure about their homes and their safety found themselves without shelter.
By that evening, two trucks left San Salvador, the capital of the tiny neighboring nation of El Salvador. They were loaded with food and supplies a helping hand from the two San Salvador stakes to their fellow Saints in Guatemala.
Over the next few months, Saints in Mexico donated enough food and supplies to support volunteer workers in Guatemala City while they built 300 homes for members left homeless by the quake.
And in Guatemala City itself the stricken Saints quickly organized to best take advantage of their own resources. Church leaders there realized that shelter was the most important need: they improvised tents from rolls of plastic purchased by the mission. Fast offering funds were used to buy food, while members contributed according to their ability—a baker in one ward provided bread for the elders quorum to distribute while another member used his pickup truck to deliver water in big plastic jugs.
The leaders of the Church in Guatemala were tested severely by the emergency—and they passed the test. The Saints kept up contact with each other. They worked together to achieve common goals. And, most important, they learned to rely on each other and on the Lord.
The work has not ended yet, and the Saints’ resourcefulness is still needed. For example, the local Church leaders asked Welfare Services and the Building Department soon after the quake to design a simple, inexpensive house that could be built to meet the immediate needs of the homeless Saints. The result was a rain- and wind-tight structure of concrete blocks with a corrugated metal roof, small but adequate in the warm, rainy climate of Guatemala.
Many of these have been built, but as work progressed the leaders realized that many of the Saints had been renting before the quake—they owned no property where these houses could be built. So they came up with an idea for a prefabricated wooden structure that can be assembled in a few hours. The 6′ x 8′ panels are simply bolted together on rented property—and can be taken apart and moved away.
When the quake struck, 500 Latter-day Saint families were left homeless. Half of them soon found their own accommodations. The other half received help from the Church. But they have all been housed. Much of the cost and all of the labor were donated by the local Saints and their near neighbors.
Central America is a group of seven nations spread along the isthmus between North and South America. All except Belize, a former British colony, are Spanish-speaking republics that won their independence from Spain in the last century. In many ways they are similar to each other, but each country has its own history, heritage, and cultural differences that make it unique.
The Church has grown from the north to the south in Central America. The first missionaries worked in Guatemala, and only since the early fifties has there been a Central American Mission. In 1965 the mission was first divided, and the northern part was divided again in 1976, forming three missions: the Guatemala Guatemala City Mission, the El Salvador San Salvador Mission, and the Costa Rica San Jose Mission, which includes Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
The stakes, too, have started in the north. The Guatemala City Stake was formed in 1967, with six wards. This remained the only stake in the area for years, but today there are five stakes—two in Guatemala City, one in the city of Quezaltenango, Guatemala, and two in San Salvador, El Salvador. The Central American membership is now almost evenly divided between the stakes and the missions—about 36,000 members in all.
Guatemala. The most populous of the Central American nations. Guatemala is also the home of the most Saints—almost 14,000. It was in Guatemala that the great Maya civilization bloomed, and thousands of citizens still speak Maya dialects.
Regardless of the earthquake, the Church is still growing in Guatemala, both in number of members and in the strength of the leaders. Second-generation Latter-day Saints are beginning to have their impact on the Church: forty local missionaries, most of them former seminary students, now carry much of the missionary load in the area. A platoon of forty seminary and institute student volunteers helped in the reconstruction of members’ homes for six to eight months.
El Salvador. The name of the country means “The Savior,” which, like many other place names in Latin America, reflects the missionary work of the Catholic priests who came with the vanguard of Spanish exploration. (For example, Veracruz means “true cross,” Santiago means “Saint James,” and El Paraíso means “paradise.”) Although El Salvador is the smallest of the Central American countries, it is the most densely populated and most intensively farmed.
With one of the newest missions in the world, El Salvador is also the second smallest independent nation in the world to have a Latter-day Saint mission entirely within its borders. (Only Singapore is smaller.) Like Guatemala, most of El Salvador’s Saints are members of stakes, and the Church is growing steadily.
Honduras. The most populous of the four Central American nations that comprise the Costa Rica San José Mission, Honduras also has the most members, with two districts, one in the north at the industrial city of San Pedro Sula, and one at the capital at Tegucigalpa. Honduras, not a wealthy country, is known for the warmth and hospitality of the people.
Nicaragua. Nicaraguan Saints are in a good position to understand the disaster that struck their fellow Church members in Guatemala—the nation is still recovering from its own devastating earthquake in 1972, which nearly destroyed Managua, the capital of Nicaragua and the center of a mission district.
Nicaraguans speak a unique dialect of Spanish, and their pronunciation is markedly different—they drop almost all their Ss.
Costa Rica. This small nation has been a model of peaceful democratic government in a region often torn by civil turmoil. Only once since Costa Rica was established as a republic in 1848 has democracy been interrupted, and as a result Costa Rica’s economy is stable and its people enjoy a high standard of living.
Panama. Because of the Panama Canal, Panama is more heavily industrialized than the rest of the region, with world trade passing through its ports. The Canal has also caused some unique situations in the Church. The Panamanian Saints are joined by a fairly large group of “Canalzonian” members—U.S. military personnel and Canal Company employees from the Canal Zone. Though the Panama Canal issue has caused a great deal of resentment among many Panamanians, the Saints, both Anglo and Latin, have been able to work harmoniously, breaking down barriers because of their shared love of the gospel.
The Church is still new in Central America, particularly in the Costa Rica San José Mission, where concentrated proselyting work has only been in progress since 1965. But the people are ready for the gospel message, and the local Church is making remarkable strides. As important as the thousands of baptisms each year are the priesthood leaders, who, as they grow in testimony and leadership ability, bring the always-expanding Church to an ever deeper love for and understanding of the gospel.
For example, President Najera of the Costa Rica San Jose District, a prosperous rice farmer on the west coast of Costa Rica, resisted the Church for ten years after his wife joined. Though he never kept her from fulfilling her Church duties, he would not himself delve into the gospel.
Eventually he began to feel the need for family unity, and he saw the gospel as a good source of help. Once he began investigating the Church, it didn’t take long for him to realize that it was more than a social organization that would help his family—it is the vehicle by which the Lord teaches His truths on earth.
“I knew,” he says, “that the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants were revelations and instructions of God. Because of this knowledge, I covenanted to be baptized and to live the restored gospel.”
With a strong testimony and a burning desire to serve the Lord, Brother Najera was ordained an elder seven months after his baptism. Two months later, he was called to serve as district president—“much to my surprise,” he says.
Other people who are respected in their communities serve as Church leaders in Central America, and their example helps interest many people in the Church. It is no coincidence, either, that more people have joined the Church since local members began playing an active role in missionary work. Besides the forty Guatemalan Saints serving full-time missions, fully one-fifth of the missionaries in the Costa Rica San José Mission are citizens of nations within its boundaries.
The three stakes in Guatemala and the two in El Salvador are great milestones in the progress of the Central American Saints. Nine more districts in the area are working to prepare themselves to be organized as stakes. With the dedication and faith of the citizens of these small but important countries, it seems likely they will not have long to wait.
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