The Saints of Colombia: An Example of Strength

Wars. Rumors of wars. Violence. Corruption. Fear. These words describe worldwide conditions affecting all of us to some degree.

Peace. Safety. Freedom. Goodwill. These words describe conditions that are possible even in the most chaotic and troublesome times.

Church members in Colombia are well acquainted with both scenarios—and show by their example that the gospel of Jesus Christ can help us find peace wherever we live, whatever our circumstances may be. Members are becoming temporally and spiritually self-reliant and are contributing to the healing of their nation.

The “War” Is No Excuse

For decades worldwide news reports have screamed sensational stories about Colombian drug cartels, guerrilla warfare, kidnappings, and other violent crimes.

But many Colombians see it differently. “What war?” they ask when questioned how they endure the battles. They are saddened that their beautiful country is judged by the actions of a few. Some feel no more vulnerable to violence than people living anywhere else.

Reality lies somewhere in the middle. Because rural areas are especially dangerous, many people are moving to the cities, creating urban crowding and unemployment. It is common to see armed soldiers in city streets and to be subjected to intense security searches. There have been scattered threats and incidents of violence directed toward the Church. But most of those incidents happened years ago. In most cases there were no injuries and only minor damage. Members clean up the mess, repair their chapels, and continue living the gospel. And they do so with a great spirit of optimism.

“We have some challenges here,” says Elder Claudio R. M. Costa of the Seventy, President of the South America North Area. “But Church members in Colombia do not use the war as an excuse not to do something they should do. They take responsibility for their own actions.”

Developing Temporal Self-Reliance

“One of our challenges is the great poverty of many members,” says Fabián Saavedra, president of the Bogotá Colombia Kénnedy Stake. The Church in Colombia is making major efforts to help members become temporally self-reliant.

Encouraging education. “We’re seeing a great miracle,” says Elder Costa. “Many people are poor when they join the Church. But the prophet tells them to see that their children get an education, and they make great sacrifices to do so. Their children are the first in their families to attend the university. Many get good employment—and they aren’t poor anymore.” One example is Luis Prieto, who grew up in a humble home in Bogotá. He was baptized in 1972, along with his parents and siblings. His parents made many sacrifices for their children to get an education. Now Luis is a successful attorney.

Nearly 400 young Colombian men and women are benefiting from the Perpetual Education Fund (PEF). One young man was married in the temple soon after his mission. “He wasn’t prepared to support a family,” says his father. “And we didn’t have the means to help him with his studies. He applied to PEF and is now in his second semester of technical training.” At the same time he works as a teacher at the Missionary Training Center and is applying for work in his field. “The Perpetual Education Fund has brought hope to our youth,” says Elder Walter F. González of the Seventy, First Counselor in the Area Presidency.

Helping the unemployed. Church leaders teach members to get out of debt, pay tithing, and share ideas to help one another succeed. They encourage members not to immigrate to other nations but to stay in Colombia and help the Church grow.

“When a priesthood leader becomes unemployed, we counsel with him immediately,” says Elder Costa. “We try never to let more than a week pass before local employment specialists and others sit down with him and share ideas. He comes away with hope and motivation to go out and accomplish something.” Then these leaders do the same for other members who become unemployed.

Growing a garden. Behind the Bogotá Kénnedy stake center are two small vegetable gardens, each measuring one square meter—an unusual sight in this urban setting. President Fabián Saavedra and his wife, Rosa, proudly show off the small crop. “We have grown radishes, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbages, peas, lettuce, and herbs in these tiny plots,” says Sister Saavedra as she pulls a radish out of the soil. “Some people have only a tiny spot to plant a few things. But they are learning the principle and obeying it.”

“The purpose of these meetinghouse gardens,” says President Saavedra, “is to show how much can be harvested in a small space. Many members plant gardens and testify of the blessings of their harvest. In our own apartment, we have no yard or patio, so our garden is a pot in which we’ve planted tomatoes. We put it by the window, and our tomato plants are growing beautifully!”

In Popayán, Alfonso Tenorio is a doctor who also publishes a scholarly medical journal. In addition he works with his wife, Lucía, in their spacious garden behind his father’s house. They help in his aunts’ gardens. They check the work LDS young men are doing in gardens they’ve planted at a Catholic school. They speak to city groups and service clubs, promoting home gardens. Largely through the Tenorios’ efforts, gardens have become fashionable in many Popayán households. “We see our efforts as a way to help friends and neighbors become self-reliant so we will all be able to eat in times of trouble,” says Alfonso.

Storing food and water. No matter how small the home, members find space for food storage. In Carmen Merisalde’s home in Bogotá, the telephone table covered by a lovely floor-length cloth is really a barrel filled with bags of dry-packed food.

Members are encouraged to save a little bit—even just a handful—of rice or other basic foods every time they prepare a meal. That way, even when money is scarce, they are storing little by little. When they have collected enough, they dry pack it for storage. The stake owns a dry-pack machine that rotates from ward to ward so everyone has a chance to use it. “You should see the tears in the eyes of many as they dry pack the first bag of rice they have collected handful by handful,” says President Saavedra.

Sharing with others. Some of the food in Ivonne Palacio’s kitchen cupboards in Bogotá will never appear on her table. It is reserved for others. The Area Presidency encourages members to store food to share in cases of emergency. “We call it ‘the Lord’s storehouse in the homes of the members,’” says Elder Costa. “The bishop asks families to always have on hand a certain amount of rice or other basic food items that they can donate. Then when he asks for it for a needy family, they donate it and buy more to replace it.”

This method has several benefits. “First, it encourages members to have their own food storage,” says Elder Costa. “Second, we are taking care of emergencies quickly. Third, we can save fast-offering funds for situations in which cash is needed, such as for medicine or rent. Although the Kénnedy stake is one of the poorest economically, almost all families have some food storage—and many have some to share. And the stake is self-reliant in fast-offering funds.”

“We are not storing just food and water, we’re also storing blessings!” says Sister Palacio. “Heavenly Father is teaching us to have the pure love of Christ.”

Irma Piñeros of the Banderas Ward, Kénnedy stake, teaches sewing in Relief Society. “One sister needed a way to earn money working at home,” she says. “So I gave her a sewing machine. Now she can support herself and her family.”

“In the midst of profound economic problems,” says Roberto Rubio, president of the Bogotá Colombia Temple, “members of the Church have what they need—food to eat and clothes to wear. It is still a fight to survive, but their needs are satisfied according to the economic standards of our nation.”

“In stake conferences,” says Elder Costa, “I ask members who have been in the Church for a certain number of years to look back and see if they were better off before joining the Church. I have never found a person who can say that he or she was. They always have more, not less, because of the Church.”

Developing Spiritual Self-Reliance

Saints in Colombia are following the Lord’s counsel to “stand … in holy places” (D&C 87:8). “We are teaching members to be spiritually self-reliant,” says Elder Costa. “If something happens and members are unable to meet with the body of the Saints, they can continue active in the gospel in their own homes.”

Strengthening homes and families. How do Colombian members walk out the door—and let their children do so—when risks are so great? Their answers are strikingly similar to those of members around the world: “Dora and I have family prayer with our children every morning before leaving home,” says Sergio Correa, president of the Medellín Colombia Stake. “We ask the Lord to help us avoid dangerous situations. We take the Holy Ghost as our guide and try to use good judgment. Then we do what we need to do. In family prayer at night, we thank the Lord for watching over us.” The formula isn’t new. But it brings peace.

“Bombs don’t really destroy,” adds President Correa. “Sins destroy. That’s why we encourage stake members to have family prayer, study the scriptures and the words of modern prophets, hold family home evening, attend church, and go to the temple as often as possible.”

Elder Roberto García, an Area Authority Seventy and Second Counselor in the Area Presidency, serves as an administrator for the Church Educational System and knows Latter-day Saint youth well. “Drugs are not much of a problem among the youth of the Church in Colombia,” he says. “The greater problem in our society is parents who don’t teach their children the gospel. We are changing old attitudes and cycles by teaching families correct doctrine.”

Preparing for the temple. President Spencer W. Kimball announced the Bogotá Colombia Temple in April 1984. But 15 years passed before the temple became reality. Those years were filled with opposition, legal struggles, and discouragement. They were also filled with fasting, prayer, and hard work. Many were unwilling to wait, so they took long journeys to temples in other lands. Others used the extra time to overcome personal obstacles. When temple doors opened in April 1999, the Saints were richly blessed for their patience and preparation.

“The difficulties and delays helped purify the people,” says César A. Dávila, a temple architect who serves as an Area Authority Seventy. “That difficult period helped us learn to value the most important things—our families and testimonies.”

Elder Dávila speaks of the solid foundation upon which the temple is built, which includes more than 200 reinforced columns driven 50 meters into the ground. “With the Lord’s help, this temple will stand for centuries,” he says. He sees symbolism in the temple’s strong foundation. “Are we built upon ‘the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God’? (Hel. 5:12),” he asks. “Are we built upon strong pillars, such as faith, testimony, scripture study, prayer, and obedience to living prophets?”

Being blessed by the temple. “Those who attend the temple are improving the spiritual quality of their lives,” says Carlos Vega, president of the Bogotá Colombia El Dorado Stake. “Now we have stronger leaders, and more members are obeying the law of chastity and holding their marriages sacred.”

“The focus of our work is strengthening families,” says Edgar J. Gómez, president of the Bogotá Colombia Granada Stake. “We are encouraging husbands and wives to love one another and parents to love their children. We often use the family proclamation as our text.”

Javier Tobón, manager of Latin America Family History Support Services, has compiled many generations of his own family history and is teaching others how to do the same. “We’re doing exactly the opposite of what the guerrillas are doing,” he says. “They are destroying families—we are uniting them.”

Retaining and activating members. Even though Colombia has a high baptism rate, Church attendance is increasing faster than the number of baptisms. “This signifies activation and retention,” says Elder Costa. One reason for this success is the nurturing new members receive. Immediately after being baptized and confirmed, they receive a free copy of the Liahona magazine. New families also receive a personalized welcome letter and a box of basic materials, including the proclamation on the family, “The Living Christ,” and For the Strength of Youth. The box also includes selected manuals and information on temple and family history work. Home teachers, visiting teachers, and ward and branch leaders help new members know how to use the materials. They track the progress of new converts and help them prepare for the temple.

To ensure that members are being nourished, stakes hold teacher improvement classes. “We encourage teachers to use the Lord’s curriculum, instead of their own ideas,” says Elder Costa. “And we are developing great leaders who follow the Brethren. As we show stake presidencies greater trust, we don’t receive as many phone calls from them because they are learning that they have keys, power, authority, and the right to receive inspiration.”

Enjoying the fruits of faithfulness. Members reflect upon President Spencer W. Kimball’s visit in 1977 and the visits of President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996 and again in 1999 for the temple dedication. They remember the promises given and see Church growth as fulfillment of prophecy. From humble beginnings in the mid-1960s, there are now nearly 145,000 members in Colombia. Four missions include nearly 800 full-time missionaries, all from Colombia and other Latin American nations. Dotting the land are LDS meetinghouses, family history centers, institutes of religion, a Missionary Training Center, and the temple.

Historians such as Ernesto Hernández of Cali are documenting major events with records, journals, and photographs. The stories are also recorded in the lives and hearts of members. When Fabio and Luisa Fernanda Bohórquez of Bogotá attended a recent temple session, they were humbled to see that the officiators were Héctor and Marina Cano, a couple Fabio had baptized years earlier as a missionary in Pereira. The Canos are serving a temple mission and plan to serve future missions.

In Barranquilla, Roberto and Fabiola Juliao gather their family in their home. Grandchildren settle on parents’ and grandparents’ laps as Brother and Sister Juliao reminisce about their baptisms in 1975, their temple sealing in 1986, and other experiences. She has served in all of the auxiliaries and is currently the ward Primary president. He tells of serving in many priesthood callings and shows his grandchildren a precious memento—the shovel he used to help break ground for the Bogotá temple.

One son, Cristian, did not accept baptism until he and his wife were expecting their first child. Suddenly they were motivated to learn about the gospel. They were baptized and later sealed in the temple. At one time, Cristian and his father served together as counselors to the mission president. “I found myself wanting to become just like my father,” he says. “I realized he has taught me the most important principles in life. I hope to pass this inheritance on to my own children.”

Being Good Citizens

As members become more self-reliant, they are making a difference in their communities. The Church is becoming increasingly appreciated for its role as a good neighbor, for its humanitarian efforts, and for the patriotism of its members.

Becoming part of the community. Relief Societies in the Medellín Colombia Belén Stake offer classes in cooking, handwork, and arts and crafts. Many who are not members of the Church come and learn marketable skills. They appreciate the Church’s generosity and neighborliness.

Dr. Eduardo Pastrana, president of the Medellín Belén stake, has clarified Latter-day Saint values in televised interviews. “I have read that Medellín is classified as the most violent city in the world,” he says. “In my medical practice, I see many who are fearful and desperate because of our nation’s social and economic situation. But my wife, children, and I feel peace in our home because of the light of the gospel, and I try to share that peace with my patients.”

Other Colombian members are also contributing to society in a host of professions. In Bucaramanga, Héctor Elías Ariza, an attorney, served as general secretary to the governor of Santander. He and his brother, Sergio, direct and accompany a stake choir that presents Christmas concerts for the community. Their sister, Patricia, is a judge. Their mother, Olga, a retired teacher, regularly hosts lively family home evenings for her children’s professional colleagues and other friends.

Joining efforts with the president and the first lady. Church members have participated in several humanitarian projects with Lina María Moreno de Uribe, first lady of the republic—donating wheelchairs, hearing aids, eye surgeries, and school desks. The first lady has attended events in LDS chapels to assist in distributing donated items. On these occasions prayers are offered and stake choirs sing Church hymns. Many people have attended, including government leaders, diplomats, and media representatives.

Most recipients of the donated items are not members of the Church. “One student representing a school receiving new desks asked, ‘How can I repay you?’” says Elder Costa. “I answered, ‘By being a good citizen, being honest, and being a good leader among the students.’ He said, ‘I will do it.’”

The first lady arranged for the Area Presidency and others to meet with her husband, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, president of Colombia. The visit took place on November 7, 2003, in the presidential palace. President Uribe said: “I am very grateful for all you do and for the kind of citizens you make. On behalf of the government, please accept my support, endorsement, and gratitude.”

“President Uribe is a good man, an honest man, a family man,” says Elder Costa.

The Church’s position of political neutrality makes it clear that “our purposes are religious and humanitarian, not political,” Elder Costa continues. “When somebody needs a wheelchair, we don’t ask his or her political or religious preference. And we teach members to be good citizens of this nation, to respect the laws, to vote, and to contribute in positive ways.”

“A living prophet has promised us that if we do our part, Colombia will change,” says Elder Roberto García. “We are working and praying for this. And we are praying for the leaders of our nation.”

Members of the Church in Colombia are standing in holy places—their homes, their temple, their chapels, their places of employment, their schools, their community. As they follow a living prophet, strengthen their families, and share the necessities of life with others, they are helping to heal and bless a wounded nation.

May Peace Reign

President Gordon B. Hinckley said during the temple dedicatory prayer: “We invoke Thy divine favor upon this nation of Colombia. Bless its people and its government for their kindness to Thy servants. May peace reign in the land and the noise of conflict be silenced. May Thy work roll on without hindrance and may Thy servants, whose message is one of peace, be protected and guided in their ministry” (“Thy People Will Enter into Covenants with Thee,” Church News, May 1, 1999, 10).

A Lighthouse Spreading Hope

People of many religions recognize the great influence of the temple, which flies the Colombian flag. Álvaro Uribe Vélez, president of Colombia, calls the temple “a magnificent treasure in our city and our nation.” Neighbors say they are happy to live nearby; most try to keep their homes beautiful to fit in with the temple.

“The whole city has improved,” says Carlos Vega, president of the Bogotá Colombia El Dorado Stake. “The feeling of peace in our city and homes has increased. There is still violence, but we don’t feel it as much. It’s as if the cries of violence are being stilled. A prophet said it would be that way, and it is.”

“The temple elevates our feelings of what it means to be members of the Church,” says Carlos Ospina, president of the Bogotá Colombia Ciudad Jardín Stake. “Because people know about the temple, it’s easier to talk about the gospel.”

“The temple is like a lighthouse,” says Roberto Rubio, temple president. He, both counselors, and nearly all of the temple workers are native Colombians. “As members fix their gaze on the temple, they have hope. Of course, there are tribulations and challenges, but the Lord lightens their load. There can be war and iniquity all around us, but because of the temple, we can have peace and enjoy the love of our families and of the Lord. What more could we want?”

Traveling to the Temple

Because traveling through rural areas is risky, some travel to the temple by air. But most have no option other than to go by land. Some use public transportation; others travel in bus convoys chartered by the stakes.

“Many who come are poor economically,” says temple president Roberto Rubio, “but they have a millionaire spirit. A woman who recently came on the bus from Pereira is more than 80 years old and is extremely poor. She sells newspapers and collects and sells old bottles to come to the temple. There are many like her.”

Álvaro Emiro and Maritza Ariza recently took their five children, ages one through ten, to the temple. They first walked 40 minutes to catch a bus. Then after a two-hour bus ride, they arrived in Barbosa, where they joined a busload of members led by Ismael Carreño, president of the Barbosa Branch, Duitama Colombia District. After another bus ride of nearly five hours, they reached the temple and were sealed as a family.

Members from Cartagena (above) recently went to the temple in two busloads, a journey of 20 hours each way. Among the travelers were Johny San Juan, elders quorum president; his wife, Everlides, Young Women president; and their three children. Because they had spent time completing four generations of family history, their daughter, Estefanía, age 12, was baptized for some of her ancestors, and Johny and Everlides were endowed and sealed in their behalf.

Photograph of dove © Comstock; photograph of palm tree © PhotoDisc

Photography by Marvin K. Gardner, except as noted

Temple president Roberto Rubio and his wife, Leonor, are native Colombians. “There can be war and iniquity all around us,” he says, “but because of the temple, we can have peace.”

Photograph by John L. Hart, Church News

Photograph of vegetables © PhotoSpin; photograph of thread © PhotoDisc

Stake presidents or counselors from eight stakes in Bogotá

Carmen Merisalde

Rosa and Fabián Saavedra

Lucía and Alfonso Tenorio

The Tobón family

The Correa family

The Hernández family

The Juliao family

Illustrated by Phyllis Luch

Photograph of Spanish Book of Mormon by Lana Leishman

The first lady of Colombia (center) greets a girl receiving hearing aids. (Courtesy of Colombia Public Affairs.)

The Pastrana family

The president of Colombia (center) meets with Elder Costa and Elder García.