Republic of Faith

Teenagers enjoy the ever-growing gospel light in the Dominican Republic

With a clap of thunder, the lights flicker out on an early morning seminary class in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. Someone goes to get a candle. The lively scripture discussion continues almost uninterrupted, and you can still hear the students reading the verses over the sound of the rain beating on the roof.

But wait a minute! The room is totally dark, and there is no way the students can see their books. They aren’t reading at all. They have memorized the scriptures for the day and are reciting them. They memorize about ten scriptures a day.

This kind of diligence and devotion is not unusual for many of the youthful Church members in the Dominican Republic. Church is more than something to think about on Sunday. Seminary is more than something they do in the morning. The gospel is a driving force in their lives, and they are diligent in using it in their daily lives.

One teenage girl, for example, longed to go to seminary, but her parents thought it would be too much trouble, so they told her she had to do all her household tasks before she left. They then gave her a very long list of tasks. Much to their surprise, she began getting up at four o’clock in the morning to complete all her tasks before seminary started.

Some of the students have a thirty minute walk along muddy roads to get to seminary every morning, but they are never late. They will tell you all the time and effort is worthwhile. “We love the Church,” says Wally Ventura, of the Orzama Ward. “We’re so very grateful for it, and we can never do enough.”

Most of them don’t think they ever do. When school is out in the afternoon, many of the youth in the ward gather at the local church to practice hymns, play volleyball or basketball, or study. In the evenings after dinner, they team up with the full-time missionaries, or help put on a Noche de Amistad, or “Friendship Night.” These fellowshipping programs are sponsored by ward members for investigators. They usually combine films, testimonies, talks, games, and refreshments to familiarize investigators with the Church and to make them feel at home. Often the youth plan the whole activity themselves.

Although the Church was organized in the Dominican Republic about nine years ago, today there are more than 11,000 members. It is not uncommon for more than 300 baptisms to be held in any one month.

So where and what exactly is this place where missionary work is so successful and where the youth are so strong? The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the country of Haiti. It’s a tropical island in the West Indies, west of the southern tip of Mexico and north of Venezuela.

As in many countries with mild climates, people enjoy shopping in open markets for fruits and vegetable with such names as zapote, guanabana, lechosa, and granadillo.

Brightly colored houses are built with open spaces to let cooling breezes, neighbors, and relatives in. Neighborhoods are quite close, socially and physically.

This feature is very helpful for the missionary work. When the missionaries begin tracting a neighborhood, everyone knows they are there. When one family begins taking the discussions, the neighbors become curious. One girl said she became interested in the Church after passing by her neighbor’s window a number of times and seeing them study the Book of Mormon. She just had to find out what they were reading.

Dominican teenagers are getting more opportunities to talk about the Church every day. Because Church membership is rising so quickly (there are up to thirty Latter-day Saints in some high schools), teachers are taking notice and asking “los Mormones” questions about their religion during classtime. They aren’t always polite questions, nor are they always easy, yet with prayer and inspiration, the youth are able to answer most questions. Because of this, some of their classmates approach them after school with more questions.

Most Dominicans are open and easygoing, and very proud of their heritage. Christopher Columbus landed on their island during one of his journeys to the New World. Santo Domingo, the capital city, is the oldest city in the New World, and the Dominican Republic can claim to have the New World’s first university.

When the Spaniards first settled in the area, many of the native Indians died out, but those who survived passed on their Lamanite heritage to some Dominicans today. The French ruled the island for a time and brought slaves to work their plantations. Dominican culture today is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, French, and African influences.

A wonderful by-product of that mixture is the graceful yet lively national dance called the merengue. It is not a dance that must be danced with partners, but it’s one you’ll see at many Church activities. The merengue comes as natural to most Dominicans as laughter.

Interestingly, merengue music and dancing present the Dominican teenagers with a particularly difficult trial. It seems most of the best merengue bands have concerts on Sundays. While the youth often listen to merengue music during the week, their radios are silent on Sundays.

This kind of dedication helps prepare the youth for later goals. “I want to go on a mission,” says Johnny Ubiera, seventeen, of the Mendoza Branch. He spends a lot of time preparing for his mission by going to seminary, reading the scriptures, and working with the full-time missionaries. Nearly half of the missionary force in his country is native Dominican, and that percentage is still growing.

Pedro Rodiguez knew that he wanted to serve a mission even before he was baptized. Of his conversion, he said, “I was invited to a Church activity with some friends, and was really impressed. I began reading the scriptures on my own, and I knew I wanted to be a missionary and share what those books contained with everyone else. I was baptized soon after that, and now I’m looking forward to serving a mission.”

Of course, joining the Church is not always an easy step. Many times parents, friends, brothers, and sisters don’t understand. “The hardest thing to do,” said Llissel Ventura, “is to explain to our friends why we follow the Word of Wisdom. Many here smoke and drink and take drugs. They often tease us. But I just drink my orange juice and I’m happy.”

Luis Espinal has found an interesting solution to this kind of peer pressure. “I know people who have vices they would like to eliminate,” he says, “but they don’t think they have anyone to help them. I try to be a good friend to them, and I bring them all to church. Some don’t stay, but some continue coming, and some become members.”

All over the Dominican Republic you’ll find teenagers with this longing to reach out to others. In fact, when asked what they wanted the rest of the world’s youth to know about them, the Dominican teenagers replied:

“Tell them we love them. We want to meet them someday.”

“Tell them we’re all a team.”

“Tell them that we think it’s bien chevere, really cool, to be members of this church.”

“Tell them that the Church is very important in our lives. We may be different from other Latter-day Saint teenagers in some ways, but we all have the same goals and dreams in common.”

“Tell them we know the Church is true and that God loves us all. The Savior did a very marvelous thing for us—he paid for our sins. He has given us light, and we’re trying to let our light shine so those around us can see too.”

The light of Christ. That’s what enables the Dominican seminary students to “see” even when the electrical power goes off. That’s what enables them to recognize the truth when it is introduced into their lives. That’s what makes them so eager to serve missions and help their friends. That light fuels their fires and helps them forge a Republic of Faith.

[photos] Photography by Janet Thomas