“Buenos Dias, clase!”
It’s 6:00 A.M. on a rainy Wednesday morning, and seminary in the Dominican Republic is in session. You know from the very beginning that there is something special about this seminary class. Even though the hour is early, it’s pitch black outside, and a warm rain is pouring down, the students are alert and eager to learn.
Everyone is fully dressed and ready for school, some in uniforms, others in shirts and skirts or jeans. Some class members, including the teacher, had to walk over Santo Domingo’s muddy, rocky roads for half an hour to get here in time. No one comes in cars.
A long, very sincere opening prayer is given, in Spanish of course, because that’s the national language. The class sings “Te damos Señor Nuestras Gracias” (“We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet”), and the lesson begins. There are no fancy visual aids, no jokes, films, or cassette tapes. There is only a manual, the scriptures, and the Spirit. That’s enough.
Suddenly, a large clap of thunder is heard, and the lights go out. This is not an unusual event in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. You might expect havoc to break loose, with people making ghost calls and paper wads flying through the air, but no such thing occurs. A member of the class is dispatched to get a candle from the kitchen, and the lesson continues on, almost uninterrupted. An animated discussion of the scriptures is taking place, and you can hear the students reading the verses loud and clear.
But wait a minute. It’s pitch black in the room. You can’t even see your hand in front of your face. There’s no way they can see their books. They aren’t reading at all. They’ve got the scriptures for the lesson memorized, and they’re reciting them. They memorize about ten scriptures a day.
This kind of diligence and devotion marks the LDS youth of the Dominican Republic. Church for them is more than a Sunday thing. Seminary for them is more than a morning thing. The gospel is the driving force in their lives, and they go to incredible lengths for it.
One teenager, for example, longed to go to seminary, but her parents thought it would be a bother, so they told her she had to do all her chores before she left. They then proceeded to give her an incredibly long list of jobs to do. Much to their surprise, she began rising at 4 A.M. to complete everything before seminary started.
And they’ll tell you it’s well worth the time and effort. “We love the Church,” says Wally Ventura, of the Orzama Ward. “We’re so very grateful for it, and we can never do enough.”
They don’t think they ever do. When school is out in the afternoon, many of the youth in the ward gather at the local church to practice hymns, play volleyball or basketball, or study. In the evenings after dinner, they team up with the missionaries, attend Mutual activities or help put on “Noches de Amistad,” or “Friendship Nights.” That’s a program sponsored by ward members for investigators. They usually combine films, talks, testimonies, games, and refreshments, so the investigators can get a feel for the ambiance at church. Often it’s left to the youth to plan the whole activity.
Most of the teens live within walking distance of their chapels, although sometimes it’s a very long walk. The chapels in the Dominican Republic are new and clean—members are proud to take care of them. Some of the buildings may be small, but they have room for additions, and more are springing up all over. Although the Church was organized in the country about eight years ago, there are now more than 11,000 members there, and a month with over 300 baptisms in the country is not uncommon.
So where and what exactly is this place where missionary work is burgeoning and the youth are so strong? The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with the country of Haiti. It’s a tropical island in the West Indies, about 575 miles southeast of Miami, Florida.
The temperature hardly ever goes above 90 degrees or below 60, so it’s almost always pleasant outside, even when it’s raining, if you have an umbrella. Because of the mild weather, you’ll find people outdoors in the street constantly. There are vendors selling brightly colored vegetables in an outdoor market here, a barber working on a customer seated on a stool on the sidewalk there. The chapels in the Dominican Republic don’t need gyms, because you can almost always play outside in the parking lot, which becomes a basketball or volleyball court.
The Dominicans themselves are very friendly. “The people in this country are very helpful,” says Sandra Calderon, another seminary student in the Orzama Ward. “When people are in need, we do whatever we can.” Neighborhoods are quite close, socially and physically. Many houses are made of concrete and painted with bright, friendly colors. They’re built with open spaces to let cooling breezes, neighbors, and relatives in.
This feature does wonders for the missionary work. When the missionaries begin tracting a neighborhood, everyone knows about it. Neighbors become curious when one family begins taking the discussions. One teen says she became interested in the Church after passing by her neighbors’ window a number of times and seeing them study the Book of Mormon. She just had to find out what they were reading.
The closeness of the neighborhood sometimes helps start rumors about the Church, but it can also help squelch them. “When the missionaries first show up in a neighborhood, the people usually think they’re spies from the CIA,” says Esperanza de la Cruz, seminary president in the Mendoza Branch. “Or they think that it’s a North American church. But if we have the opportunity to explain the gospel to them, they realize that it’s for everybody.”
Dominican teens are getting more opportunities to talk about the Church every day. Because LDS membership is rising so fast (in some high schools there are up to 30 members), teachers are taking notice and asking “los Mormones” questions about their religion in class. They aren’t always nice questions, and they aren’t always easy, but with prayer and inspiration, the youth are able to field the inquiries. Because of this, some of their classmates approach them after school with further questions.
Most Dominicans are rather open and easygoing, and they’re justly proud of their illustrious heritage too. Christopher Columbus landed on their island on one of his journeys to the New World, and he eventually built a large house there. Santo Domingo, the capital city, is the oldest city in the New World, and the country boasts the New World’s first university.
When the Spaniards first settled in the area, many of the native Indians died out, but those who survived passed on their Lamanite heritage to some Dominicans today. The French ruled the island for a time, mostly from Haiti, and brought slaves over to work their plantations. It is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, French, and African blood that marks the Dominican culture.
A wonderful by-product of that mixture is the graceful yet lively national dance called the “merengue.” When you talk about the merengue with youth in any seminary in the Dominican Republic, their eyes will light up and their feet will start to move. Someone will invariably start singing, others will join in, and soon the whole room will be swaying with the Caribbean beat. It’s not a dance that has to be danced with partners, but it’s one you’ll see at a lot of Church activities. The merengue comes as natural to most Dominicans as laughter.
Interestingly enough, though, it’s the merengue music and dance that present the Dominican teens with a real challenge. It seems all the best merengue bands have concerts on Sundays, and it’s not easy for the teens to miss out, but they do it willingly. And while they often listen to merengue music most days of the week, their radios sit silent on Sundays.
Just as the merengue seems exotic to many teens outside the Dominican Republic, the food they eat there probably seems exotic as well. The Dominican Republic is basically an agricultural nation, and they grow some fruits most people have never heard of, let alone tasted. The fruits have intriguing names like zapote, guanabana, lechosa, chinola, and granadillo. The banana (about three different varieties) is a staple in the Dominican diet. But it’s “salcocho,” a soup with vegetables, rice, beans, meat, a type of banana, and a variety of spices that the youth say is the most typical food they eat—and the best.
Even though the food and the dancing might seem unique to the Dominican Republic, there are some things the youth there share with LDS teens all over the world. Wherever you go, you’ll find they have certain dreams in common. Missions, temple marriage, and eternal families are on every LDS teenager’s mind. “I want to go on a mission,” says Johnny Ubiera, 17, of the Mendoza Branch. He spends a lot of time preparing for it by going to seminary, reading the scriptures, and going out teaching with the missionaries. Nearly half of the missionary force in his country is native Dominican, and that percentage is still growing.
After their missions, Johnny’s classmates will tell you, “I want to be a lawyer … a doctor … an anthropologist … a stewardess … an interior decorator.” Some, like Yulie Ramirez, an 18-year-old from Santiago, are already making their career dreams come true. Yulie hadn’t quite finished high school when she saw an ad that reporters were needed for the local television station. She applied, and a few screen tests later Yulie was hired. You can now watch her on Channel Seven, doing on-the-spot reports when she’s not in school.
Yulie’s story is unique for another reason. The very first time she ever attended the LDS chapel in her neighborhood, she knew the Church was true, and she bore her testimony. She went home and told her family about the feeling she had there, and soon they were all taking the discussions, going to church, holding family home evening, and finally, being baptized.
Each Dominican youth has a cherished conversion story to tell. “I was invited to a church activity with some friends,” says Pedro Rodriguez, “and was really impressed. I began reading the scriptures on my own, and I knew I wanted to be a missionary and share what those books contained with everyone else. I was baptized soon after that, and I’m waiting my year before I can serve. I never knew I could feel so much.”
“I thought the church I used to belong to was the only church around,” says David Falentino Benod. “But I wasn’t really satisfied with it. At school, when the rest of the class went to chapel, I used to hide in the bathroom. I’d seen the missionaries in the streets before, and one day my father invited them in to teach us. On Sunday we went to church and then to a baptism, and we felt wonderful. We set a date right there for the baptism of our family of nine.
Of course, joining the Church is not always an easy step. Many times it means leaving old friends behind, and often parents and brothers and sisters don’t understand. “The hardest thing to do,” says Llissel Ventura, “is to explain to our friends why we follow the Word of Wisdom. Many here smoke and drink and take drugs. They often tease us. But I just drink my jugo de china (orange juice), and I’m fine.”
Luis Espinal has found an interesting solution to this kind of peer pressure. “I know people who have vices and they would really like to get over them, but they don’t think they have anyone to help them. I try to be a good friend to them, and I bring them all to church. Some leave, but some continue coming, and some become members.”
All over the Dominican Republic you’ll find teens with this longing to reach out to others. In fact, when asked what they wanted the rest of the world’s youth to know about them, the Dominican teens replied:
“Tell them we love them. We want to meet them someday. We may not be very elegant, but we’re very nice and always happy.”
“Tell them we’re all a team.”
“Tell them we think it’s “bien chevere” (really cool) to be members of this church.”
“Tell them that the Church is very important in our lives. We may be different from them in some ways, but we all have the same goals and dreams.”
“Tell them we know the Church is true and that God loves us all. Christ did a very marvelous thing for us—he paid for our sins. He has given us light, and we’re trying to let our lights shine so those around us can see too.”
The light of the gospel. That’s it. That’s what enables the Dominican seminary students to “see” even when the electricity goes out. That’s what enables them to recognize the truth when it comes knocking on their doors. That’s what makes them so eager to serve missions and help their friends. It’s the light of the gospel that fuels their fires and helps them forge a republic of faith.