Berta López points to a row of young women in a picture on the yellowed page of a Liahona (Spanish): “There I am.” She was a teenager then, one of a handful attending an activity for Latter-day Saint girls in Guatemala City that day in 1951. There were fewer than a dozen. But that was two generations ago for the Church in Guatemala.
Now Berta can look out her window at the house next door, where her daughter, Gina Ramírez, is directing an activity for a Primary Valiant class. Gina is Primary president in a branch of the Guatemala City Guatemala Stake, one of 20 stakes in the city. What Berta sees represents the kind of growth that members in Guatemala could only dream of 50 years ago.
In another part of the capital city, young Ricardo Ayala and his family go to their stake center to watch a fireside broadcast from Salt Lake City, with simultaneous translation in their own language.
Ricardo, a member of the Guatemala City Guatemala Palmita Stake, will finish secondary school this year, and he hopes to go on a mission when he turns 19. While finding a job may not be easy, he plans to work and save so he can pay the whole cost of the mission himself.
Because of Latter-day Saints like the López and Ayala families, perceptions about the Church have changed in Guatemala. Misinformation about the Church, once common here, has little credibility now. Today many Guatemalans know Latter-day Saints and know what they stand for. The proportion of Church members in this nation’s population (about 1.5 percent) is close to that of the United States (about 1.8 percent). Just as the temple has become a landmark in Guatemala City, Latter-day Saints are becoming landmarks in their society.
Latter-day Saint missionaries first came to Guatemala in 1947, after John F. O’Donnal, a North American living there, visited Church headquarters in Salt Lake City and reported that there were people in the country ready to hear the gospel. His wife, Carmen, was the first Guatemalan baptized. Brother O’Donnal later served as a mission president and temple president in Guatemala.
In 1952 the Central American Mission was created. Before it was divided in 1965, it served six countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. Now there are four missions in Guatemala alone and 40 stakes in the country. In 1989 Elder Carlos H. Amado, a native of Guatemala, was called as a member of the Seventy.
But several important challenges have faced the Church in Guatemala. One of the greatest challenges for Guatemalan members is fighting traditions, says Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy, former President of the Central America Area. The dominant religion of Guatemala does not involve its members in meetings or in teaching and leadership. So some new members find the transition to Church activity difficult. Some older members have simply slipped out of activity, so there is much work to be done in activation.
Following counsel from the Area Presidency, local priesthood leaders visit less-active members and use the same commitment pattern that missionaries use in teaching. They ask questions beginning with “Will you?” Will you visit with the bishop or branch president to resolve problems that are keeping you from full Church activity? Will you visit with him about getting a recommend and going to the temple? The questions are suited to the members’ needs.
When Milton Leonel Lima, bishop of the Minerva Ward, Jalapa Guatemala Stake, attempted this approach with 14 members, 10 accepted his invitation and began making the necessary changes in their lives. The bishop and his counselors immediately began identifying other members to visit.
The Area Presidency is also “focusing strongly on getting a greater number of our young men on missions,” Elder Robbins says. The percentage of those going on missions rose more than 50 percent in 2000.
Guatemalans also face economic challenges, with as many as 25 percent unemployed or underemployed. The Church’s area employment services office is providing training, particularly for returned missionaries, in preparing for and finding jobs or in starting businesses. The Church also assists microcredit organizations that help small businesses get started. And during school breaks, some stakes are offering classes for youth on job skills.
Life for Guatemalans has changed significantly in the years since the gospel was introduced in their country.
Notably, Guatemala’s indigenous people, including those of Mayan descent, are coming into the mainstream of the Church and of Guatemalan society. In Polochic and other centers of Mayan population, Church meetings are often conducted in members’ native languages, but most people can now speak Spanish. A generation ago, in the mid-1960s, some Spanish-speaking missionaries learned Mayan languages because in many families only the men spoke Spanish. Now this is no longer necessary.
Guatemala’s literacy rate has also improved, which means that many Mayan members can now read the scriptures that have been translated into their languages. The Book of Mormon is available in Kekchí, and selections from it are available in Quiché, Cakchiquel, and Mam, the principal Mayan languages of the country.
Timoteo and Eva Boj of Quetzaltenango are of Mayan descent; they joined the Church in the mid-1970s. Today members of the Boj family are well known in the community as successful entrepreneurs. From this family—which includes 8 children and their spouses and 18 grandchildren—have come four bishops, four Relief Society presidents, six Primary presidents, four Young Men presidents, five Young Women presidents, and seven missionaries. They are a family of hearty good humor who eagerly serenade visitors with a local favorite song, “Luna de Xelajú” (“Moon of Xelajú”; Xelajú is the traditional name for the city of Quetzaltenango). And their example and love for others have also brought many into the Church.
Faith is thriving among the Saints of Guatemala. Following are just a few examples:
Carlos Santíz, president of the Mazatenango Guatemala Stake, refers to notes made on a whiteboard during a meeting with bishops, explaining how they followed the direction of Church leaders to meet in council and plan to serve the needs of less-active members. “I’m grateful to the Lord for putting me in this stake presidency because it is a challenge—but a challenge I needed—and it has brought growth,” he says.
Nery Eduardo Marroquín, a counselor in the bishopric of a ward in the Retalhuleu Guatemala Stake, was an evangelical Christian before joining the Church five years ago through the influence of his wife, Ada. He grew up in a home where he learned the importance of personal prayer, the Bible, and worship of Jesus Christ as the Savior, but he felt there was something more. He found it in gospel ordinances that could allow him and his wife to have an eternal family. “Christ said no one will come to the Father ‘but by me’ [John 14:6],” he explains. “And the ordinances are through Him. That’s why it’s such a blessing to have a temple in Guatemala.”
Hector González of the Villa Nueva Guatemala Stake says the gospel has given him strength to face the cancer that cost him a leg and nearly took his life. At one point, he wondered why this should happen to him. His wife brought his patriarchal blessing to him in the hospital, and he found hope in its promise of a long life of service. When it became obvious that he would lose his right leg, he received a spiritual witness that all would be well. After the surgery, he recalls, “It was incredible the support I found in reading the Book of Mormon. It gave me the strength to go on.” Now back at work, he says, “I know the Lord has been watching over me. I know He has cared for me through all of this.”
Jorge Popá, a member of the Quetzaltenango Guatemala Stake, originally invited the sister missionaries to his home to help his wife understand the English instructions that came with the bread maker he had bought her. The sisters agreed—if they could also share the gospel message with the family. After the missionary lessons, Jorge and his wife, Mirna, told the missionaries they weren’t interested in baptism. But that night neither Jorge nor Mirna could sleep. At the same time, each felt moved to get out of bed and pray about what they had been taught, and each received the same manifestation of the truth. They sought out the sister missionaries at church on Sunday and asked to be baptized. After their baptism, the Popás faced the problem many converts face: how to tell their family they had broken with the traditional religion. Their four-year-old son (who is now a deacon) solved that problem at a family gathering. When someone served tea, he stood and announced, “We don’t drink that! We’re Mormons.”
Udine Falabella was president of the first stake organized in Guatemala, in 1967. In 1965, as district president in Guatemala City, he organized the first temple trip from the area, by bus across México to Mesa, Arizona, in the United States. It was a great blessing to Guatemala when the temple was dedicated in Guatemala City in 1984, he says. It was a blessing for him to serve later as its president; he was released in 2000 after more than four years in that position.
He recalls that, in dedicating the temple, President Gordon B. Hinckley pronounced a blessing of peace on the country. Not long afterward, the country’s long period of civil strife came to an end. Perhaps more important, though, was the fact that Guatemalan members could now enjoy the peace of the temple without having to travel so far from home.
Brother Falabella’s granddaughter Evelyn was married in that temple in December 2000. She says many young Guatemalans who see unhappy or failing marriages around them have lost faith in the institution of marriage and may feel it is better to put time into developing their careers, marrying later if at all. “I believe if I didn’t have the gospel in my life, I wouldn’t have dared get married right now,” she says. But through the gospel, she continues, there is peace in facing the challenges because we can know the eternal reasons for marriage and the everlasting blessings it can bring.
And that, says Brother Falabella, is indicative of the change that has come to the Church in Guatemala in his lifetime: thousands of strong Latter-day Saints now have all the means to implement full gospel programs and enjoy their blessings.
José Sazo agrees that the gospel blessings available in his country and his generation are rich—for those who strive to receive them. José, who was not yet born when that first stake was created in Guatemala, is now president of the Guatemala City Guatemala Florida Stake.
It takes constant, consistent effort to maintain strong families and marriages, President Sazo says. He and his wife, Claudia, both served missions in their country, and they agree that much of the secret to maintaining strong marriages can be found in two good habits learned by missionaries: frequent, loving companionship evaluations (conversations about how their marriage is going) and regular gospel study. “If I had a prescription for happiness,” President Sazo says, “it would be to study the scriptures together always.”
President Sazo adds that he and his wife “are agreed on this: we want to do everything we can for our children so they will become strong leaders and the Lord will be able to call them to do whatever He wants, without reservation.”
So it was with those strong Church members in this country more than half a century ago who were willing to persevere in the gospel no matter what challenges they faced. And so it is now with the heirs of this spiritual legacy: the future of the Church in Guatemala will be in the hands of those ready to answer the call of the Lord without reservation.
National population: approximately 11.5 million
Church membership: more than 179,000
Wards and branches: 453
Church-owned meetinghouses: 261
Temple: Guatemala City, dedicated in 1984
Missionary Training Center: Guatemala City