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Yucatan: Promising future amid ancient ruins

Elder Carlos Amado of the Seventy just finished organizing the third stake in this northern Yucatan Peninsula city in 1989 when he asked local priesthood leaders, "Do you like these conferences to divide stakes?"

"We answered, `Of course we do,' " said Pres. Joaquin Eduardo Carrillo of the newly created Merida Mexico Centro Stake.Elder Amado responded, "Good. Let's have the next one by one year from now."

Even in Mexico, well-known for its astonishing rate of membership growth, forming another new stake in a city of 600,000 people within a year would be an arduous task. But several thousand people had attended that stake conference, held June 11, 1989, and their excitement was high.

"We took this as a challenge," said Pres. Carrillo. "The stake presidents and mission president began working very hard on this."

The result? On June 10, 1990, - one day short of one year - another of those special conferences was held and a fourth stake in Merida was created.

Such stories, and there are many here, almost seem to belong in the Book of Mormon alongside Nephi's willingness to return to Jerusalem for the brass plates, or to build a ship in the desert - always with faith and against great odds.

But then again, this is the heart of Mesoamerica and members here know it. They live amidst some of the world's most renowned archaeological ruins, some whose unearthed roots may reach squarely into Book of Mormon times.

Today there are more than 25,000 members in six stakes and seven districts in the Yucatan Peninsula states of Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Nearly three dozen meetinghouses dot the peninsula.

The Yucatan is the tropical tail of Mexico's "horn of plenty" shape, a tail that juts into the Gulf of Mexico.

Its principal cities lie on the peninsula's rim, on or near the ocean that envelops it on three sides. To the west is Campeche, a gulf port and headquarters of a stake. On the north, a few miles inland from the gulf, is the peninsula's largest city, Merida, with its four stakes. On the eastern Caribbean coast are tourist havens Chetumal, with one stake, and Cancun, with a fast-growing district.

The uniqueness of this area is not in its modern coastal cities, but inland where stand great ancient cities built many centuries ago by remarkable peoples.

Yucatan's Latter-day Saints tend to be knowledgeable about current events in archaeology - visitors to one meetinghouse are often directed to an article posted on the bulletin board citing recent research where non-LDS scholars found strong similarities in Mexico with ancient Middle Eastern/Judaic civilizations.

And this surely must be one of the few places in the world where a gospel doctrine teacher could prepare Sunday's lesson while sitting in the middle of a largely unknown and unexploited ancient site within walking distance of his home, as is the case in Ticul, a town about 60 miles south of Merida.

"We love the Book of Mormon; we can feel the Book of Mormon," said Miguel Tun, branch president of one of three Church units in Ticul. Much of rural Yucatan is still predominantly Mayan; there isn't much purer Lamanite blood coursing through veins anywhere.

Pres. Tun, whose 21 years in the Church make him a respected pioneer among Ticul's 1,000 or so members, speaks both Mayan and Spanish. Sometimes, he reports, testimonies and talks are delivered in both languages in the course of a single meeting. Frequently Sunday School lessons are given in Spanish with a few minutes reserved at the end for a synopsis in Mayan. Most members in Ticul are farmers or are involved in the town's dominant shoemaking trade.

"The people of Yucatan are noble, sincere, ready to serve and obedient," said Bishop Abraham Rueda of the Ticul Central Ward, who was born and raised in another part of Mexico. Bishop Rueda wants so much to rear a family in this area that he is willing to commute 60 miles one way daily to his job in Merida.

"The people here have a real feeling for the land," he added. "For good reason - it's a very special place."

This "special place" was one of the last major regions of Mexico to see consistent missionary work and Church organization. Yucatan's modern Church history really only reaches back into the late 1950s. The first branch was organized in Merida in 1959, the first meetinghouse constructed here almost 10 years later. Just 15 years ago the first stake in Yucatan was organized.

The nearest temple for Yucatecans, as they call themselves, is in Guatemala City, Guatemala. But between them lies an international border, an impassible jungle and a few mountain ranges. So they find it easier to travel to the Mexico City Temple.

"Easier" is a relative word, for Mexico City is about 1,000 adventurous miles from Merida. A temple trip can cost 400,000 pesos (U.S. $120) a person for transportation, a tremendous sacrifice for most Mexicans.

Still, sacrifice they do. Stories abound of saints selling even basic household items to be able to travel to the temple, and of group temple trips overcoming crises with divine help, often in miraculous ways.

It's apparent that these humble, faith-filled people are blessed with an unusual measure of spiritual blessings, gifts and insights for their efforts. But they still face unique and trying challenges. Priesthood leaders must constantly work on activation. Conversion of entire families to the Church is still the exception. The number of active priesthood leaders is often small compared with the number of total members in a ward or stake.

More than 80 percent of the missionaries serving in the region are native Mexicans, and local leaders are responsibile for a bigger share of the missionary effort. Several Merida-area teenagers contribute time each week welcoming visitors who come by the Merida stake center. They present videos and tours for six hours every Saturday, and are well trained to host visitors and answer questions.

Ironically, in this "old" land, youth are still plentiful, both in the population of the Yucatan, and in Church congregations and leadership. Over the years young people in Mexico have generally been more accepting of the gospel message. Now many of these youth are growing up and the Church is maturing with them. They serve missions, marry in the temple, fill leadership positions in their wards and stakes, and rear second-generation Church members.

An example of these are the members of the presidency of the Merida Itzimna stake. Pres. Mauro Jose Luis Gil and his counselors, Ernesto de la Cruz and Domingo Perez, are all in their early 30s. Each was baptized as a child or in early youth. Each served a full-time mission to Mexico. And each filled many other ward or stake leadership positions before their present callings, beginning right after they returned from their missions.

Pres. de la Cruz, an engineer by day, conducts evening institute classes for Merida's college-aged young adults. He is an inspiring and entertaining teacher, and judging from his students' response and participation, is effectively preparing Yucatan's future missionaries, parents and leaders.

Though most of the people who visit the Yucatan are rummaging through its past, the Church has much to expect in the emergence of a new civilization here. Its numbers are swelling every day. Its people are humble, teachable and full of faith. Its families are ripening with the gospel, utilizing the full range of Church programs and activities. Its wards and stakes are maturing by the month.

The story of the Church in the Yucatan is a modern-day Book of Mormon story, enriched daily among people who know, live and feel this sacred book.

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