What’s it like living at the middle of the world, where the distance to the North Pole is the same as to the South Pole, and where you can stand with one foot in the Northern Hemisphere and the other in the Southern? It might be easy to start feeling you’re the center of everything.
But Latter-day Saint teenagers who live near the equator in the South American nation of Ecuador know that the real center of everything is Jesus Christ. And they are keeping both feet on the Lord’s side of the line.
The capital city of Quito has a little bit of everything—from traditional colonial architecture to modern high rises. Navigating busy city streets can be a challenge, as can steering through the temptations of life. For many teens, the booklet For the Strength of Youth has become a road map.
“I appreciate the part in For the Strength of Youth that says we need to dress appropriately,” says María Alejandra Cabeza de Vaca, 12. “One day at school we were allowed to dress any way we wanted. I felt really bad because some of my friends dressed immodestly. I said to one of them, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to bring you something that will help you a lot.’ I gave her a copy of For the Strength of Youth. She read it and said she felt it was true and didn’t want to dress immodestly anymore. It’s good to share what we have so the world knows the good things we’re learning.”
Alejandro Flores, 13, discovered the importance of doing as well as knowing. “Last Sunday,” he says, “my grandmother asked me to teach a family home evening lesson about dress standards, using For the Strength of Youth. Some of my cousins and I had the habit of following worldly styles, and I felt uncomfortable giving the lesson. But now my cousins and I are doing better in the way we dress.” His lesson and example helped prepare his cousins for an important event. “They’re getting baptized next week!” he says.
For Christian Lizano, 14, one of the most important topics in For the Strength of Youth is service. “Giving service should be our standard,” he says, “even something as simple as giving up a seat on a bus. Simple things can say a lot about members of the Church.”
When Ivanessa Romero, 15, found herself starting to follow the example of friends in using bad language, she knew she needed to change. One day she told them, “From now on, whenever anybody says a bad word, I’m going to charge a penny.” After a few days, she had collected four dollars! Her friends said, “Iva is going to be a millionaire!” Using For the Strength of Youth, Ivanessa encouraged her friends to clean up their language. “They’re making progress,” she says. In the meantime, she learned something about example. “I realized my friends are looking for the light. Every little thing we say or do is an influence on others.”
Saríah Moya, 15, became friends with a young woman who said she and her family were atheists. But she admired Saríah’s standards and her willingness to be true to them amid criticism. They talked about the gospel many times, Saríah gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon, they prayed together, and Saríah’s friend went to church with her. “Yesterday she came to a Young Women activity, and we sang a hymn,” Saríah says. “Afterward she told me, ‘I do believe in God.’ I realized that my example had helped someone find Heavenly Father.”
Over the past couple of years, Luis Miguel Meza, 17, has begun feeling distant from the friends he has known since his first year in school. “They began to smoke and drink and put pressure on me to do so,” he says. “I had to be strong in the face of lots of criticism.” He prayerfully studied the section in For the Strength of Youth on choosing friends wisely. “As time passed, I had opportunities to become friends with people who don’t drink or smoke and who respect me for my standards. I still see my old friends, and we say hi to each other. But because I was willing to make a sacrifice, Heavenly Father was there to give me a hand.”
“I used to do the right things out of habit,” says Raquel Alonzo, 17. “I was raised in the Church, and because I had been taught to choose the right, I did. But I didn’t really feel it in my heart. One day while talking to my mom, I truly felt the Lord’s Spirit.” Her mother told her about huge sacrifices she had made as a young woman to be faithful to the gospel and to serve a mission, even though she was going against her father’s wishes. “She said the only reason she is so happy now is that she was smart enough to cling to the Savior throughout her life. At that moment, my testimony grew more than ever. I am a child of God, and Heavenly Father loves me. Even if the world falls in on me, He is going to help me.”
Life in the mountain valley of Otavalo is not as hectic as in Quito. Many Latter-day Saints in Otavalo weave and embroider beautiful fabric for items sold throughout the world. Many do their work by hand. Most of the people here speak Quichua at home and Spanish elsewhere. Many walk an hour or more each way to church. Although the youth wear uniforms to school, they proudly wear traditional attire to church.
But even though life may be quieter here, the struggles are just as real. Young men and women find that it takes great effort to stay close to the Lord. By making that effort, they have learned the power of prayer.
“When my mom didn’t have any work,” says Jéniffer Santacruz, 12, “I prayed that she would find a job fast. The Lord heard my prayer, and within a day or two she found a good job.”
Perhaps the most fervent prayer Tamía Moreta, 13, has uttered was when her mother was having problems delivering a new baby. “I prayed,” she said, “and Heavenly Father answered my prayer. My mother had a cesarean section. My little brother is now one year old, and he and my mother are healthy.”
Before she was 10 years old, Laura Córdova, now 15, prayed for a testimony. “I heard others say that the Book of Mormon and the Church were true,” she says. “So I prayed to know for myself. And the Lord gave me my testimony.”
Zasha Maldonado, 15, remembers being frightened by a terrible rainstorm that was flooding her home. As family members were frantically trying to save their possessions, one of the children said they ought to say a prayer. “We all knelt down in the water and pleaded with Heavenly Father to help us. After a few minutes, the rain started to die down. Heavenly Father answered our prayer. With Him, nothing is impossible.”
Prayer also helps in less dramatic ways. Jesús Ruiz, 14, says he often turns to the Lord for help as he weaves fabric. “Sometimes I don’t remember the patterns,” he says, “and I ask the Lord to help me. He always does.”
The same applies to schoolwork. “When I have a test at school,” says Armando Arellano, 16, “I ask Heavenly Father to help me remember what I have learned. He opens my mind and brings back what I’ve studied.”
Yolanda Santillán, 17, says her most sincere prayers were “that someday I would be able to go to the temple with my family to be sealed. Heavenly Father answered those prayers. We did go to the temple! Now we can be together always.”
It can be a challenge to live the standards that allow you to attend the temple. But prayer has helped David Tabi, 17, deal with the pressures. “My classmates smoke, drink, and do all those things,” he says. “They always invite me to join them. I don’t pay attention to them. I try to find other friends. There’s a guy in my class who is also a member. We support each other.”
Guayaquil is a bustling seaport city. A beautiful new temple overlooks a part of the city, shining luminously at night. Another radiant light is the warm friendship you receive from teens when you come here—the same genuine friendship they give anyone needing a lift.
When Gabriela Aguirre, 17, first moved to Guayaquil, she felt alone. “I didn’t know anybody here, and I felt sad because people at school seemed distant. But I found friends at church! There are 14 young women, and we’re united. We get along well with the young men too. My true friends are my Church friends.”
“When the young men and young women in our ward get together,” says Tatiana Alarcón, 16, “it’s a good experience because we’re so united. We’re more than friends—we’re like brothers and sisters. We take care of each other.”
And then they reach out to others needing friendship. They recently visited a home for the elderly. “I could really feel the pure love of Christ,” says Tatiana. “We showed affection to the people and sang to them, and they were happy. They asked us when we were coming back.”
At a party the youth gave for underprivileged children, “the children were happy with the activity and with the gifts we gave them,” says Katherine España, 14.
“We love to get together for parties, activities, and dances,” says Estefanía Gómez, 17. “And we also get together to do the Lord’s work. The bishop has called many of us as ward missionaries. My companion is my sister, and we encourage new converts and less-active members. When the missionaries teach a family that has a teenager, they ask us to help. We visit them, fellowship them, and invite them to activities. That way the young converts already have friends when they come to church.”
In wards with fewer youth, the young men and young women still reach out. “I’m the only active young man in my ward,” says José Olivares, 14. “So I go with a brother in the elders quorum to visit the young men who aren’t coming.”
“As the deacons quorum president,” says Jared Rivera, 13, “I encourage the deacons to bring others to church because we all need the Lord’s help to fight temptations. We come to church before sacrament meeting starts and have a prayer that the sacrament will go well that day. And we visit quorum members who don’t come to church. We want to find out how they are.”
Helping at the sacrament table is an important way of serving the members of his ward, says Alex Arancibia, 17. “Every time I kneel to say the sacrament prayer, I feel good knowing that I’m helping others renew their covenants. It’s a feeling that the Lord approves of what I’m doing. Thinking about my Sunday responsibilities helps me make the right choices during the week.”
Olmedo Roldán, 18, sees missionary work as a natural result of friendship. “A few days after I was baptized,” he says, “I read in the Liahona about a young man who helped the full-time missionaries even though he had just been baptized. So the next day I helped the missionaries too! And I loved it. Now the bishop has called me to serve as a ward missionary, and I’m preparing to serve a full-time mission. It was through missionary work that we found the Church. A lot of people need the Church and are looking for it. We can help them find it.”
“I don’t have a calling,” says Olmedo’s younger sister, Grimaneza, 14, “but I try to help by fellowshipping. I was new in the Church just 14 months ago, and I know how important it is to have friends support you. When there’s a new girl at church, I sit next to her, get to know her, and encourage her to continue learning about the gospel. And I invite her to come to Young Women with me.”
“As youth, we sometimes want to change the world,” says Diana Flores, 17, of Quito. “But I think we need to look a little closer to home and start with changing ourselves.” Diana and other youth in Ecuador are grateful for the ways the gospel teaches them to put Jesus Christ and His Church at the center of their lives. “Heavenly Father loves us very much,” she says, “and He has given us all the tools we need, such as the scriptures, the gospel, the temple, our families. We know we are His children and that we are here to progress. We can be at peace, knowing that we are being prepared to face everything that comes to us.”
“For a long time,” says Jhon Tobar, 17, of Quito, “I let myself be carried along by my friends, and I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents. But I have learned that if you lose the trust of your parents and brothers and sisters, it’s like being alone. I just had an interview with my bishop this morning—my bishop is my dad. I can say now that I have no better friend than my own father. I love him a lot. He is my best example.”
“One night I had to make a choice between a party at the Church and another party where no one was a Church member,” says Estefanía Gómez, 17, of Guayaquil. “I decided I didn’t want to go to the Church party. When I got to the other party, there was a lot of cigarette smoke and everybody was drinking. I really felt bad—and I felt lonely. The One who I try to keep with me, the Holy Ghost, stayed outside because He doesn’t go into unclean places. After 10 minutes, I phoned my brother to take me to the other party.
“We need to take advantage of the parties and friends we have in the Church. A lot of our friends may be at other parties, and they may say it’s just a little get-together. But it’s not just a get-together. It usually turns into something else—and that’s not good for anything!”