93984_000_012Ecuadoran Saints show there is a core of faith at “the middle of the earth.”
If you pick up a newspaper in Quito or Guayaquil, you’ll probably read about some proposal or program to develop Ecuador’s untapped wealth in order to strengthen the nation’s economy. This is a country rich in underdeveloped natural resources.
But it is even richer in spiritual resources. And while Ecuador is struggling to develop all of its natural wealth, its spiritual resources are quietly blossoming as the gospel spreads.
These spiritual resources are seen in the lives of individual Latter-day Saints throughout the country.
• Walk into the home of José Trujillo in Quito, and you’ll find that the large front room—what would be the living room in most homes—is an office dedicated to Church work. Here Brother Trujillo, patriarch of the Quito Ecuador Colón Stake, gives patriarchal blessings.
The Trujillo family was baptized in 1966, the year after missionaries came to Ecuador. It has not always been easy to be a Latter-day Saint in his country, Brother Trujillo says, but tests and trials have been nothing compared to the joy the gospel brings.
Brother and Sister Trujillo have taught their family to partake fully of the gospel. Five of the ten Trujillo children served missions, and now grandchildren are beginning to serve.
Brother Trujillo is confident that current progress in Ecuador is only a beginning for the restored gospel: “The prophecy has to come true. It says the earth will be filled.” (See D&C 65:2.)
• In Otavalo, you step off a dirt road at the edge of town and walk through a patch of corn to a tiny, two-room home. Juan José Muñoz, second counselor in the presidency of the Otavalo Ecuador Stake, lives here with his wife, Laura, and their four children. Sister Muñoz is Relief Society president in their ward.
In 1986, the Muñoz family traveled to the Lima Peru Temple to be sealed. They could not have made it without the Lord’s help, President Muñoz says. For more than a year, they had put aside half of his earnings to help pay the cost; they sold some of their meager possessions and borrowed twenty dollars to scrape together the last of the money. In 1988, they repeated the trip, after the same kind of struggle.
Latter-day Saints must go to the temple to understand the full blessings of the gospel, President Muñoz says: “That’s why we are looking forward so much to having a temple in Ecuador.”
• When Laura Guerrero of Guayaquil invites you to sit down, watch out for her seminary manuals. She has not been able to have her broken table fixed, so she uses one of the chairs as a desk.
Except for the wooden chairs, there is little else in the living room of this adobe house where Sister Guerrero lives with six of her children. (Her nineteen-year-old son is away in Bolivia, working to save money for a mission.) There is no running water or plumbing in this section of Guayaquil, and the sleeping quarters are partitioned off by a curtain. But the large front room is ample for Sister Guerrero’s seminary classes.
Sister Guerrero works in a government job to support her family, and she is studying law so she will be able to better her income and living conditions. She also serves as second counselor in the presidency of the Relief Society for the Guayaquil Ecuador South Stake. But despite her workload, she still loves teaching seminary, once in the morning and again in the evening for those who cannot come earlier. “The happiest I’ve ever felt is in having the opportunity to help young people,” she says.
Tapping the Wealth
The restored gospel first came to Ecuador in 1965. On October 9 of that year, Elder Spencer W. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve stood on a hilltop in Quito and dedicated the land, praying that its people might “transform their lives and be organized to carry forth the great program” the Lord had established. He pleaded with the Lord to bless the Indians native to Ecuador “that they may be filled with the glorious truths of the gospel” for which “they have waited so long” (History of the Andes Mission, 9 October 1965).
The Church grew slowly at first. But growth accelerated as spiritual resources were tapped in widening areas—on the coast, and in Ecuador’s Otavalo Indian stronghold. Today, members can be heard to say over and over, “The gospel changed my life.” It is an echo, almost, of Elder Kimball’s prayer.
The Church in Ecuador now has ninety thousand members, in eleven stakes and three missions (Guayaquil North, Guayaquil South, and Quito); and a temple is to be built there. Membership has been growing at about 9 percent per year, with several hundred—sometimes more than a thousand—new members coming into the Church each month. Economic conditions make it difficult for some of them to maintain contact with the Church. Many do not have cars or telephones, and transporting a family to meetings can be costly. In addition, finding or keeping a job often means moving away from home for a time, working extra hours and days, including weekends. Still, Ecuadorans attend as faithfully as members in other areas of the Church.
While the gospel and its blessings are the same everywhere, life can be very different for members in Quito, Otavalo, and Guayaquil.
There is a colonial air about the old section of Quito, with its architecture typical of the Spanish era. A few miles away, however, banks, fashionable shops, and high-rise office buildings give modern Quito a cosmopolitan feel. The temperature here is moderate, even though the equator—from which Ecuador takes its name—is only a few miles north of the city. A sign on a Quito freeway points the way to “the middle of the earth.”
Both Quito and the sierra area of the Andes in which it is located are known for traditionalism. Much of the country’s history centers here. And some Church members here have watched the gospel spread almost from its beginnings in Ecuador.
“The progress we’re making now gives us hope for even greater growth,” says César Cacuango, who was baptized in 1968. His Church callings have ranged from Sunday School teacher to mission president. He is currently a Regional Representative for the Guayaquil Ecuador Region, but as one of the managers in the South America North Area office, he lives and works in Quito.
Church growth has brought challenges. One of these is teaching leadership and service to members who may feel inadequate because they lack education, or who never expected that they could serve as leaders. Some members, assigned as visiting teachers or as home teachers to people who are more educated or more affluent, do not make the visits, feeling that they have nothing to offer.
Brother Cacuango is among leaders who say that Church members overcome this difficulty by living the gospel fully. When people join the Church, the change in their lives is not only spiritual, but also physical, he explains. They get rid of bad habits and keep themselves and their homes cleaner. Then, gospel study increases their desire and capacity for education, and as they serve willingly, they develop into leaders more capable of helping their family, Church, and community.
It would be difficult not to feel a certain vibrancy among members in Quito today. Their faith comes through strongly as well. The attitude of many is expressed by a sign on a desk in the Church’s area offices: “Is it the way He would do it?”
This kind of dedication is seen in such families as that of Marco and Piedad Cañar. Brother Cañar serves as patriarch of the Quito Ecuador Santa Ana Stake, and Sister Cañar serves as stake Relief Society president. The Cañars’ oldest son, Luís, and their daughter Ruth have served missions; younger sons Vladimir, Javier, David, and Michael look forward to the day when they, too, will serve. The younger boys say friends at school know about their Mormon beliefs and accept their commitment to them.
These are spiritual, but not necessarily somber, people. During a game after family home evening, Vladimir stands in front of Michael, holding a small cup of water. When Michael can’t answer a question fast enough, he gets the water in the face. No one is safe in this game, including Mom and Dad.
Grace Torres is another member whose life has been shaped by dedication to the gospel. A returned missionary, she is a consultant for a cosmetics company and is planning to start her own handicraft export business. She is enthusiastic about Church young adult activities, which include music, dances, and a variety of sports. The activities are designed to strengthen individuals, but they have also resulted in a number of marriages. This indicates that it is no longer difficult for a young member who participates in Church activities to find a Latter-day Saint spouse, Sister Torres explains.
The young adults in Quito are very supportive of each other, though some drift away because they do not live the gospel, she says.
Her point applies more broadly: in Quito as elsewhere, some members fall by the wayside, and others deny themselves full blessings. But in an area that has known the gospel for less than thirty years, there is now a broad base of faith and fellowship to support committed Latter-day Saints.
Located just north of the equator, Otavalo is in a different hemisphere from Quito. It seems to be in another hemisphere culturally as well.
The dominant culture here is that of the Otavalo Indians—Otavaleños. This is a center of manufacture for traditional Otavaleño woven goods. Industrial sewing machines and automated, imported electronic looms have replaced more laborious hand methods in some fábricas where colorful sweaters, ponchos, and handbags are made. Many Otavaleños are astute business people, marketing their products throughout Ecuador and in other countries.
Otavaleño Church members designate themselves “Lamanites” and refer to members of mixed European and Indian descent as “Latinos.” No one seems bothered by the distinction, though it is seldom heard in other areas of the country, where Latinos are in the majority. About 25 percent of the Otavalo stake’s members are Latinos; the stake has a Spanish-speaking Latin branch for them, since few of them speak Quechua, the language of the Otavaleños. Of the Otavaleño members in the stake’s other units, some 25 to 30 percent cannot speak Spanish.
At a stake conference, Lamanite and Latino members greet each other warmly as brother and sister. Stake president José Alberto Picuasi opens his talk in Spanish, saying, “I want to tell you that I love you—all of you.” As the conference continues, the majority of the talks are in Quechua, with a smattering of Spanish as someone quotes a scripture or bears testimony.
During the Saturday afternoon leadership session, President Muñoz, the second counselor in the stake presidency, invites leaders to listen to fifteen minutes of general conference; some may not understand the Spanish translation, he says, but “we can feel the spirit of being there.”
Feeling the influence of the Spirit is what the gospel means to many members in Otavalo—people like Lauro Yamverla and his wife, Lucila. In the beginning, he made it hard for the missionaries to teach him, Brother Yamverla recalls. But when the Spirit bore witness that their message was true, “I set a goal that if I was going to be baptized, I was going to follow the gospel’s teachings strictly.” When he began closing his grocery store on Sundays, he worried at first about losing business, but it actually got better.
Brother and Sister Yamverla have been deeply involved in service since they came into the Church. As ward Relief Society president, Sister Yamverla is concerned with helping sisters in her area learn practical things, such as cooking and other basic homemaking skills. But even more important is teaching them “to convey the love of Christ to others.”
Stake Relief Society president Josefina Cacuango says that consistent contact through visiting teachers is one way members can show this love. But it can be difficult to reach everyone, because many members are scattered outside Otavalo in el campo, the countryside, where visiting teachers and leaders usually must walk to visit them.
For example, Sister Cacuango’s husband, Luís, presides over the Pucará Branch, which stretches northward for several miles along a portion of the Pan American Highway, and some three or four miles eastward into the foothills. Most members walk to meetings. The small, basic chapel they built with materials furnished by the Church is a focus of pride among Latter-day Saints and other residents as well.
Luís Cacuango is in some ways branch president to all of Pucará. He preaches the gospel to any who will listen. His service extends to the practical level, too. When he makes a run into Otavalo in his small truck, people in Pucará know they can get a ride with him. And when he returns, he may be carrying supplies some of them have requested.
Members in the stake find a variety of ways to serve, sometimes very close to home. Miriam García is first counselor in the Relief Society presidency of the Otavalo Ward, but attends the Latin Branch. In a shop behind her house, several electric looms weave stockings that are sold in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. Her profits go in part to support her brother, who introduced her to the gospel before he was called to serve a mission in Guayaquil.
“I believed in God before I became a member, and I believed that Christ would come again. But I didn’t know how to prepare myself,” she says. She is grateful now for her knowledge of the gospel plan and for the spiritual support of her Heavenly Father. She is grateful, too, for temporal blessings that make it possible for her to send money to her brother in Guayaquil.
Ecuador’s largest city—its center of commerce and one of the country’s three major ports—has the air of a boomtown fallen on hard times. Guayaquil is a center of export for bananas and also of the fishing and shrimping industries. The latter have been badly hurt by declining production in the shrimp beds.
Guayquil is a magnet that draws people looking for work, and growth has outstripped the ability of local government to provide services. Some areas lack water or sewer lines. All day and all night long, a pumping station sucks water from a river into tanks on trucks that carry it to outlying neighborhoods.
José Gabriel Alvarez, owner of a hardware business and president of the Guayaquil Ecuador South Stake, estimates that 70 percent of the city’s people, including Church members, live below the official poverty level. Business in general is down. Unemployment and poverty contribute to a high crime rate.
Despite these problems, the friendly, open nature of people on Ecuador’s coast governs the character of this city, and most people seem optimistic about the future.
Church growth in Ecuador has been greatest in Guayaquil, where people seem receptive to new ideas. There are more than sixteen thousand Latter-day Saints among the city’s approximately two million people. Guayaquil has eighteen chapels, and more are planned.
How can the Church handle its rapid growth? Jimy Olvera, second counselor in the presidency of the Guayaquil Ecuador North Stake, smiles as he answers: “We need to prepare more leaders—and more missionaries.”
There are, of course, longtime members who have helped anchor the Church since its beginnings here. Adalberto Torres was a man ready to receive the truth when he dreamed, one night in 1969, of two books—the Bible and, side by side with it, one he had not seen before. He recognized the second book four months later when he sat in on a lesson two Latter-day Saint missionaries were giving to a friend of his. From the moment that he read the first verse of the Book of Mormon, he knew it was true.
After he was baptized, his wife wondered if he had done the right thing. But a dream convinced her, too. She saw herself studying the Bible, something she was unaccustomed to doing, and understood that she was to follow the path to truth that her husband had taken.
Brother Torres, patriarch of the Guayaquil Ecuador West Stake, comments that many local members “testify of the Church without realizing it.” They do it by the way they live. Others watch, and they want to know the source of the Latter-day Saints’ happiness and spiritual strength.
Brother and Sister Torres have made the gospel an integral part of life for their twelve children. Henry Torres recently returned from serving a mission in Colombia. Did he find missionary work difficult? That wasn’t a consideration, he answers. “The Lord never said it was easy. He just said we could do it.”
Because the Church has grown so rapidly here, many young members—some young in years, like Henry Torres, and some simply young in the gospel—are part of the growing leadership base.
Local leaders say that couples like Santiago León and his wife, Raquel Plúas de León, are setting a standard of temple marriage that more and more young people are following. Santiago and Raquel stuck with their decision to marry in the Lima Peru Temple, even though they had to overcome economic difficulties and deal with the feelings of family members of other faiths. “Just seeing the temple from outside made me happy,” he recalls. “But to be able to go inside and participate in the ordinances there—that was a real blessing.” On the wall in the front room of their small home is a photograph of the Washington Temple. Under it hangs a hand-lettered sign: “Ecuador: Prepare Yourself for Your Temple.”
Love rooted in the gospel radiates in the lives of Carlos Frías and his wife, Francisca, both returned missionaries. He is bishop of the Salado Ward, Guayaquil Central Stake, and she is a counselor in the ward Young Women presidency. They have three young sons.
Perhaps the bishop and his wife enjoy the confidence of the youth because of the way they live. “You can tell them how to live, you can teach them, but I’ve found that they won’t do it unless you set a good example,” Bishop Frías says. “If I do something I shouldn’t, that I’ve told them not to do, they will remind me.” He is grateful for the help of members who can be so honest.
Bishop Frías and his wife have been members since their youth. But for others, baptized later in life, Church service quickly becomes a concentrated course in leadership.
Ernesto Merchán, a member of the Church since 1988, is a counselor in the bishopric of his ward and previously served as elders quorum president. He tries very hard to keep his baptismal covenants because “the Lord told us, in the scriptures, to be a light to others.” (See Matt. 5:16.) Brother Merchán hopes that some of his relatives will see the light of the gospel.
His wife saw it, after two years of watching his growth in the Church and feeling the love Church members extended to her. Just one year after her own baptism, Carmen Merchán was called as ward Relief Society president. Her lack of experience and the poverty among members in her area are not daunting, she says, so long as she can feel the Lord’s help in her calling. If nothing else, she adds, “I can love them” as the Savior taught.
“Here in Ecuador, as in other countries, the Lord is the same,” Ernesto Merchán says. “The gospel is the same. We are one family.”