Belize: `Great manifestations of faith'
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As they learn to live the commandments, Church members in this Central American nation are becoming a blessed people, said P. Joel Munoz, Belize District president.
"It is a marvelous thing, that amid all the shadows of civilization, there is a ray of light, of hope, and that is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it can bring blessings. The gospel is not some sort of Utopian concept, but one that is real."The Lord's way of life can work and it is working everywhere, and it is working in Belize among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have seen great manifestations of faith among the membership of the people here in Belize," said Pres. Munoz.
About 2,000 Belizians are now Church members, comprising three districts and 15 branches. Additional branches are expected to be created soon.
Belize is a land also blessed with tropical beauty, lush in a carpet of tropical forests rich with hardwoods. Its beaches tempt windsurfers and scuba divers and its waters provide a living for fishermen.
It is a nation described by its citizens as "a bit of the Caribbean on the mainland." Tucked as it is beneath the Yucatan Peninsula, Belize surprises visitors as they encounter villages where the British, not Spanish, culture dominates. Once known as British Honduras, it is part of the British commonwealth and has about a quarter of a million inhabitants.
Crossing its borders, visitors see frame houses high on stilts, and wide aprons of green separating the forest from the highway and signs in English, some of the traits that distinguish it from its Latin American neighbors. It is a low-lying country about the size of New Hampshire.
British timber interests founded a colony here in the 17th century, bringing the first inhabitants since the Mayans left many hundreds of years earlier.
The first LDS missionaries came in May of 1980, and the first branch was established soon after. Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy visited in August of that year, and the district was organized in 1983.
As in other Caribbean countries, the Church is established upon the faith of the members who withstand considerable opposition. Pres. Munoz explained that the greatest challenge is teaching members to accept the culture comprised of living the gospel standards, "something that has to come from within."
The Munoz family joined the Church in 1983. The teachings of the Church about the family appealed to them.
"Many religions talk about personal salvation, but they they don't really address the issue of family salvation, and that is quite a different concept with the Church that makes it unique."
Pres. Munoz observed that the "family is rapidly becoming more and more a target of the enemy; we can see that in all cultures. The family is a very attractive target for the enemy. Once the roots of the family go, the members will eventually lose the protection of the unity of the home.
"Belize has been no exception to social problems. We have seen many social problems connected with the economic structure and social background of the people. Some people have the idea that marriage is not necessarily something workable, but the gospel teaches otherwise."
He said the most difficult challenge is to teach the people to take on the nature of the Savior, "to not only speak as He speaks, but to act and do the things that He did. We see that the Savior's life was rich with action.
"I believe that this is the heart and nature of the Savior - compassion and the pure love of Christ, which in its purest form translates to going, walking visiting, and helping those in need. Those are the actions that cannot be accomplished by mere words. That is one of the greatest challenges that we face here - translating those concepts into real action and seeing those blessings come into the lives of others."
He said economic challenges continue to face Belize, a third world country.
"As we can see, there are many poor living in the country of Belize who are faithful members of the Church, who pay a faithful tithe, and who have received a testimony of that law, and know of a surety that it is a commandment of the Lord, because they have seen the blessings in their lives.
"For one, I have a wonderful testimony of tithing. We have paid our tithing for years and one would walk into our home and think we are rich people. Our neighbors look upon us as if we were the elite of the neighborhood.
"For us, tithing is a living testimony because we live it day to day. That's the way it is with people everywhere who live this law, especially the people in our country of Belize. The testimony grows to be a tremendous testimony, an unshaken testimony."
Among the faithful members is Helen Reynolds of Belize City, one of the early members. Sister Reynolds, who was baptized Nov. 22, 1980, recalls the Belize City Branch when only 15 to 20 people met in an army barracks.
Before her baptism, she suffered from severe asthma and bundled herself up every time she went outdoors.
"I could never forget the day of my baptism in the sea," she said. "It was so beautiful." She explained that as she was being baptized, a rain shower began. "As I finished, the sun came out again. The blessing from heaven was so beautiful I could never forget that day.
"I decided that the promises of the Lord would give me courage to want to do more," she said.
Her asthma left her that day, and so remarkable was her recovery that her son, George, became interested in the Church and was baptized.
"That really put me to get baptized," said George. "I felt this must be a good church for her to survive that way."
He recalled that in those years, the Church was smaller and "we were like a family." When approval was given to have a meetinghouse built, "The Relief Society baked cakes and prepared food for us, and we cleared the whole land for the Church building."
Another early member was Wilfred E. L. Nicholas of Belize City, who was baptized about 1981. He said missionaries knocking on his door was the first contact his family had with the Church.
"My wife told me some white men were here to talk to the head of the house," he said. "The following day they talked to me and said they were missionaries and that they would like to come back to talk to me concerning the gospel. I said `Sure.' "
He said he and his wife were taught the missionary lessons.
"I developed a strong faith in the Church because I used to pray a lot because I really wanted to find the truth. I felt a voice speak to me that told me to be baptized."
He explained that after his baptism, home teachers visited him and read scriptures and "from then on, I didn't have the mind to turn back" even though he was presented literature against the Church. "If I was a weak person, and I read this, I would fall way, too," he said.
"The Church is persecuted a lot, but. . . . I believe that if I am really serving the Lord in truth, that He knows my heart and if I do something wrong, He will move me away from it.
"The Church is growing and its people have to be strong to make sacrifices."
One of the sacrifices he made was in giving up his membership in a fraternal lodge that took several nights a week. After praying, he felt impressed that he should "depart from it," so he did and has no regrets.
Hilberto Casanova, a fisherman, is president of the Belize City Branch. He was baptized in 1984, and was introduced to the Church by his brother, whose wife was a member from El Salvador.
"I was the first missionary from Belize City," he said. "I served in the Honduras Tegucigalpa Mission from 1987-89."
His wife, Teresita, is also a returned missionary and they have one child.
"Being a member of the Church is the greatest blessing of my life. It has really made me what I am today," he said. He explained that he has been involved "in the fishing industry of Belize since I was 14 years old. At this moment I am trying to better myself. I am going back to school, so I will have a better position for myself in life and also for my family.
"The Church really taught me this. I am so grateful for the teachings the Church has."
He said that "being a branch president is a great responsibility. It has many challenges, but with the Lord's help, there is no challenge that is impossible to face."
He said the Church is growing slowly, with about 40 or 50 new members a year, but retaining them in activity is difficult. "If we could keep up our home teaching and our visiting teaching, then we would always have contact with our members and bring them back to Church."
The English-speaking branch in Belize City is flourishing and has an average attendance of about 115-125 people, he said, and expects it to be divided soon.