Valiant in Venezuela

These young men and young women are truly “standing as witnesses.”

Rubí’s necklace. It started out as an ordinary day. But the routine of Rubí’s daily trip to high school was shattered in an instant. Before she realized what was happening, someone in the crowd grabbed the Young Women necklace she was wearing, tore it off her neck, and disappeared into the crowd.

Rubí found herself trembling with fright. How could someone have invaded her privacy and ripped away something so precious? Although the thief had snatched her necklace, he hadn’t taken away what was even more precious—the standards and values the necklace represented. Soon after the incident, Rubí got another Young Women necklace. “I always wear it,” she says. “If someone steals it again … I’ll buy another one!”

Jimmy’s refusal. One evening when Jimmy went with friends to a party, “a girl came up and offered me alcohol,” he says. “I said no and didn’t pay any attention to her, but she kept offering it to me. And it wasn’t just alcohol—there were invitations to do other things. I didn’t agree to any of it, and I pulled away from the group. Some of the kids said I was antisocial, but I knew I couldn’t stay there. Every time I have a trial like this and overcome it, I become stronger.”

Rubí Cornejo, 17, and Jimmy Flórez, 17, both of Caracas, are two of many valiant Latter-day Saint youth in Venezuela who are finding ways in a troubled world “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places” (Mosiah 18:9).

Maintaining Standards

“We have pretty tough challenges at school,” says David Javier Franco, 17, of Caracas. “But we have been taught to be like Joseph in Egypt. Joseph stayed away from evil things. When Potiphar’s wife tempted him to do something that wasn’t right, he got out of there! He fled from her! We can have the same strength he had.”

Praying and studying the scriptures aren’t new or original ways to stay strong, but they’re effective. “I live in a part of town where I’m the only member of the Church,” says Fátima Moutinho, 15, of Barcelona, “and every Sunday there are parties and lots of drinking. There are great temptations to miss church. But the gospel has helped me be faithful and steadfast. When concerns and temptations are having an effect on me, the first thing I do is pray and read the scriptures.”

The Aaronic Priesthood Duty to God and Young Women Personal Progress programs are also essential tools in maintaining standards. “Our leaders have taught us not to just set a goal—but to reach the goal and then keep on going and never be done,” says Fátima. “So we are trying to progress each day.”

It takes courage to stand up for your standards. “Every time I do,” says Norelia Reyes, 17, of Caracas, “I discover something about myself—that I do have courage to say no and reject things that are not right. I think, ‘Wow, I have potential!’ And I feel joy.”

Being an Example

When you’re the only member of the Church in your school, it can be difficult to find friends with your values. But it’s not impossible. And others may choose to follow your lead.

“I’m with my classmates from 7:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon,” says Luciano Fernández, 16, of Caracas. “Most of them smoke, party, drink, and use vulgar language. I’m the only one they know who can set the right example for them. That’s a lot of responsibility. Many of them see me as a person they can trust.”

“One time my friends were going somewhere to smoke,” says Norelia, “and I said, ‘Remember what my religion is? I don’t do those things.’ Some of them have come to understand that smoking is a dirty habit and have tried to stop. They call me ‘the perfect one’ and always ask me for advice. I tell them I’m not perfect but I try to live the standards of my church. They respect my beliefs, and I think I have sown a few seeds that may be a source of strength to them someday.”

Once when Enrique López, 16, of Caracas, and four of his friends had a free period during school, they went to a friend’s house. “Someone took out some beer. I didn’t think they would try to get me to drink, because they all know about my religion—but they did. I said, ‘No, I don’t drink that stuff.’ They started criticizing me and saying there was nothing wrong with drinking and a little bit wouldn’t hurt. But even a little bit does hurt you in the end. I said no. After a while they said, ‘Oh, this is a waste of time.’ So they stopped, and we went back to class. I think they respected me.”

Some of the youth find that being an example is especially important in their own homes. “Although my dad is not yet a member of the Church,” says Jackelin García, 17, of Maracaibo, “I haven’t lost hope that he will be and then we can be sealed in the temple as a family. I always pray and fast for this. I hope that my faith, patience, and example can help my dad.”

Choosing Friends Wisely

These Venezuelan young men and young women are learning something about friends. “People who try to get us to do wrong things are not really friends,” says David. “Usually they try to get us to think that bad things aren’t that bad, but they really are. The scriptures say we need to be steadfast in our faith in Christ so the Lord can guide us and teach us what to do” (see 2 Ne. 31:20).

Most are finding that their best friends are active members of the Church. In many wards and branches, seminary is held three evenings each week—from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday. Mutual is sometimes on Friday and may include combined Young Men and Young Women activities, such as dances or parties. Saturdays often include recreational activities or service projects. On Sundays there are, of course, Church meetings. Some of the youth spend time each week working with the full-time missionaries or helping teach discussions to new members. And there are occasional temple trips, youth conferences, and Sunday evening devotionals.

“Church is where my friends are,” says Jimmy. “In addition to learning about doctrine, I’m with my friends, and I meet new friends. They believe the same principles I do.”

Fellowshipping Others

Some of these new friends are actually old friends who have returned to Church activity. “We often visit less-active youth,” says Anángelys Golindano, 15, of Maracaibo. “We divide into districts, three or four people to a district, and then we visit and tell less-active members that we miss them. Some have accepted our invitation to return. There used to be 14 of us in our ward’s seminary class, and now there are 20.”

Josué Díaz, 15, of Maracaibo, saw similar results in his ward. “Last year there were only 9 of us in seminary with two wards combined. We fasted and visited people, and our class had to be divided. Now one ward has 16 and the other has 15!”

Another successful project has been to take a family home evening to the home of less-active youth on Wednesday evenings. “Some of the parents aren’t members,” says Jackelin. “In fact, many of these youth are the only Church members in their families. But usually their parents let us come in. When the kids see us, they’re surprised. But they can see the interest we have in them. One of us gives the lesson, and we encourage questions and comments. You can really feel the Spirit. Usually the things of the world are what keep them from returning to church. Many of them say they’re happy we’ve come and that they still have testimonies.”

But expressions of friendship must be genuine, Jackelin says. “Sometimes when they see us, youth who are not active try to hide because they think we’re always going to talk to them about the Church. But we try to be aware of their lives and talk to them about other things too. We want them to see we’re interested in them and happy to be their friends.”

David saw a miracle in the life of a good friend. “A friend who was the most help to me when I was new in the Church became less active,” he says. “The Lord blessed me to have a chance to see and talk to him again. I told him all the things he had done to help me—and that I wanted to pay him back. I tried to be his friend. Now he’s an active member of our priests quorum.”

Attending the Temple

Many Venezuelan teens traveled long distances to attend a temple before the Caracas Venezuela Temple was built. And some still have to travel long distances to get to Caracas. For example, bus trips from Barcelona and Puerto La Cruz take about 6 hours, and trips from Maracaibo can take up to 10 hours. Sometimes the youth and their leaders leave at night and arrive at the temple early the next morning. Then after serving in the temple, they get back on the bus and arrive home late that evening.

Many of the youth have been baptized for their own ancestors. “The last time I went to the temple,” says Gustavo Medina, 14, of Maracaibo, “I was baptized for both my grandfathers, for my great-grandfather, and for other people!”

Although the family circumstances of some do not allow them to be sealed as a family, they do all they can to enjoy temple blessings. “My mom, my brothers, and I haven’t been able to be sealed in the temple,” says Anángelys, “because my mom and dad are divorced. But two years ago I was baptized for eight of the women in my family. And I’m looking forward to being sealed to my future husband.”

Ingrids Rodríguez, 15, of Puerto La Cruz, remembers how it felt to be sealed to her parents. “I cried so much,” she says. “I could not hold it in. I told myself, ‘From now on I’m going to support my parents because we’re sealed for eternity.’”

Likewise after the Moutinhos were sealed, Fátima and her family also savored the moment. “We looked at ourselves in the temple mirrors,” she says, “and promised that we would be together like this forever. Whatever happens, we support each other.”

Bearing Testimony

“I’m grateful to be a member of the Church,” says Rubí, who proudly wears her replacement Young Women necklace. “As young people, we have a lot of temptations. If I weren’t a member of the Church, maybe I would be making a lot of the mistakes we see some of our friends making. None of us is perfect, but because Jesus Christ took our sins upon Him, we can repent. That’s a gift we really have to be grateful for.”

Bringing Mom Back

Is it true that “with God nothing shall be impossible”? (Luke 1:37). José Javier Alarcón, 16, of Maracaibo, has tested this scriptural promise.

“When I was eight or nine years old, my parents divorced. Later a friend invited me to church, and eventually I wanted to be baptized. But my mother, who had been baptized but hadn’t been active for many years, wouldn’t let me. When I was 12, she finally allowed me to be baptized. As I grew in the gospel, I started to pray that my mom would come back to the Church. A couple of years later, she did!”

José Javier’s mother, Miriam, admits that she had been apart from the Church for eight years and “didn’t ever intend to come back. But when my son began praying with great faith for me … something started to happen inside me. I began to feel a strong desire to pray and read the scriptures. One night the Lord changed my heart, and from that night I changed completely. So I owe it to my son. I thank the Father for giving me such a wonderful son!”

“It’s a gift from God,” says José Javier. “I had to do part of it. But it was actually God who did all of these things.”

Now José Javier, his mother, and his younger brother, Jesús David, 10, have visited the temple. José Javier has been baptized for the dead, and their mother has received her endowment.

In Front of 500 Classmates

Gladys Guerrero, 16, was the only Latter-day Saint attending a military high school in Maracaibo. During the first week of school, she was forced to stand in front of all 500 students and explain why she wouldn’t drink coffee. Although many students ridiculed Gladys for her lifestyle, others started watching her closely. “When they saw that I didn’t do certain things, such as drink alcohol or go to some parties, some of them became interested in the gospel,” she says. “The missionaries passed by the school one day, and I called to them. I introduced them to some of the students, and they got many referrals.” Ten of Gladys’s classmates were baptized during the next several months.

[photos] Photography by Marvin K. Gardner

[photo] Photograph of parrot © PhotoDisc

[photos] Rubí Cornejo and Jimmy Flórez (far left) join youth in Parque del Este (East Park) in Caracas (below). Standing: Adriana Angulo, Mariela Ruiz, Luciano Fernández, Rubí Cornejo, Enrique López, and Norelia Reyes. Kneeling: Jimmy Flórez, David Javier Franco, and Gerald José López.

[photos] At an old fortress overlooking the Caribbean Sea, youth from Barcelona and Puerto La Cruz talk about building their testimonies on a strong foundation. From left: Ebert Sifontes, Ingrids Rodríguez, Fátima Moutinho, Daniela Macadán, Eduarw José Silva, Yosi Contreras, and Xavier Carias.

[photo] Standing as witnesses in Maracaibo. From left: Gustavo Medina, José Javier Alarcón, Gladys Guerrero, Jackelin García, Anángelys Golindano, and Josué Díaz.