Missionary Adventure in Guatemala

by Lynn Tilton

Print Share

    The four-wheel-drive pickup bumped carefully along the twisted mountain road leading into Chulac, a plantation built among the mountains of the Central Highlands in Guatemala. Rain suddenly spilled from the dark clouds and lashed the windshield as the truck arrived at the central house of the 23,000-acre plantation.

    At the wheel was Cordell Andersen, president of the Guatemala Cobàn District. Seated next to him were two missionaries to the Kekchi Indians, Elder Bringhurst of California and Elder Rios-Lazo of Costa Rica. Riding under the canopy were President Andersen’s oldest daughter, Julie, 17, and her two Provo (Utah) High School friends, Leslie Ann Knight and Ann Gardner. The fourth occupant was Gustavo Ramirez, a 73-year-old convert to the Church. Brother Gustavo was an itinerant dentist.

    The full-time and member missionaries had come because the cooperative manager, who lived five hours away in San Cristobal, had met the missionaries and become interested in their message about the book of his ancestors and the religion of his forefathers.

    The missionaries in San Cristobal then met with the plantation’s board of directors, each of whom purchased a copy of the Book of Mormon, and invited the missionaries to visit the plantation. President Andersen arranged to take a set of missionaries on an overnight visit to Chulac.

    It was at the end of a workday on Friday when they finally pulled into the large courtyard of the central house and sought shelter from the drenching rain. Several workers, holding torn pieces of plastic over their heads, raced across the courtyard to meet the visitors. They took President Andersen and the two missionaries to the plantation office where arrangements were made for meals and lodging.

    Meanwhile Brother Gustavo, who’d been let off under an overhang by the plantation store, was telling a number of workers that he would be willing to pull any infected teeth. He also gave an introduction to the Book of Mormon and said there would be a meeting after dark for those interested.

    By the time arrangements for lodging were made, the rain had let up. Two workers brought over a box and set it on edge for Brother Gustavo. The itinerant dentist pulled out his bag and arranged his tools along the hood of the truck as his first patient took a seat on the box. He took out a bottle of novocaine and filled a syringe.

    After the tooth had been pulled, the visitors unloaded a portable generator and a slide projector. They carried the equipment and an extension cord with a light bulb into the warehouse where the meeting was to be held. Later, along with President Andersen, they visited several families nearby.

    President Andersen explained that wages at the cooperative averaged $1.25 a day, with a two-week bonus at Christmas. From surplus profits the workers had purchased a marimba and several other musical instruments the previous year.

    Many of the Indians lived in improved dwellings. Although these homes had no floors, they were larger than the unimproved dwelling and were usually sheeted with galvanized roofing rather than thatched.

    “Under the cooperative rules no one who drinks can be a member,” President Andersen explained. “This was their own decision.”

    That night 175 people assembled for the meeting. One of the cooperative leaders, who was also a lay leader in his own church, apologized for the lack of a crowd. “It is too bad you can’t stay tomorrow night,” he said. “There would be a much larger crowd.”

    President Andersen started the generator. By the light of the single light bulb Julie, Leslie, Ann, and the other visitors sang an opening song.

    Brother Gustavo followed the song with a prayer in the Indian dialect, and President Andersen, speaking in Spanish, explained the origin of the Book of Mormon. Brother Gustavo translated. Elder Bringhurst then talked in Kekchi to the 175 people. After he concluded, he and Elder Rios-Lazo sang “I Am a Child of God” in Kekchi.

    When the meeting was concluded, few got up to go. Instead, they gathered into small groups. Those who spoke only Kekchi talked with Elder Bringhurst and Brother Ramirez. Those who understood Spanish asked Elder Rios-Lazo and President Andersen several questions.

    The district president then explained that although they had to leave in the morning, Brother Gustavo was remaining for the rest of the day to extract teeth and to answer gospel questions. This member-missionary had only a one quetzal note (equivalent to $1) in his pocket from pulling the tooth earlier, but he was not worried about getting back home.

    “Perhaps I’ll pull enough infected teeth to get a bus ticket and to buy some food,” he said with the confidence of the recently converted.

    After breakfast the next morning, the visitors said good-bye and started home. As they drove along ridges and cliffs, past cattle, scattered Indian homes, and a mine, President Andersen explained that the secret in the Central Highlands, as in the rest of the world, is member-missionary work.

    “It’s people like Brother Gustavo who really help the work go forth. There just aren’t enough full-time missionaries to go around,” he said, “especially here where the people live in a scattered condition.”

    Although it was the middle of Guatemala’s rainy season, the sun was out in full force at noon when they arrived in Cahabón, about halfway home.

    “We’ll stop for soft drinks here,” President Andersen said as he pulled over next to the town square. “This town is tradition-oriented and wouldn’t let the protestant missionaries construct a chapel. I want you to meet the lady who owns the cafe; she has a special spirit. She will join the Church someday.”

    The elders wanted to look around awhile before going into the cafe. The rest went inside and talked with the owner while they enjoyed their soft drinks. Several minutes passed, but the missionaries did not come in. “I wonder where they are,” President Andersen said.

    They finished their drinks, paid the owner, and walked outside. There the mystery of the missing missionaries was solved.

    Seated on a step, Elder Bringhurst was addressing about 50 Indians in their tongue, telling them about their ancestors. He held a copy of the Book of Mormon as he spoke.

    In the following 20 minutes the missionaries explained the origin of the book, and bore their testimonies. The Indians seemed impressed, and several invited the missionaries to return another time to tell them more. Elder Bringhurst assured them that someone would return with the book and tell them many important things about themselves and about God.

    Later, as they drove homeward, President Andersen said, “The Indians want to know about the book of their ancestors. We have something no one else can give them, the gospel. We have the religion of their forefathers and we tell them so.”

    During the following weeks and months the missionaries and President Andersen continued visiting the people at the Chulac Plantation, telling them more about the book of their ancestors. This missionary work bore fruit when one Saturday 20 people entered the waters of baptism. Among them were seven couples, the ten-year-old daughter of one of the couples, and five teenage boys. One hundred and fifteen of their neighbors were on hand to witness the sacred event.

    The next day the converts and 12 other adults bore testimony in their native Kekchi dialect to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and the benefits of living gospel principles.

    President Andersen later wrote, “Add to the adults their children who have been blessed and it comes to 37 new members of the Church.”

    Less than a year after the people of Chulac first heard the gospel, serious plans were being made to organize a branch in that remote area of the Central Highlands of Guatemala.

    For those people, the missionary adventure has just begun.

    Photos by Lynn Tilton

    Brother Gustavo pulls a tooth

    Brother Gustavo tells plantation workers about the Book of Mormon