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Center Stage: Burst of zeal opens work in Ecuador

GUAYAQUIL, Ecuador — Missionary work in Ecuador began in a burst of zeal that continues to reverberate throughout this country 34 years later.

In September of 1965, Andes Mission Pres. James Averil Jesperson answered a telephone call that changed the course of a nation.

"I want you to open up Ecuador to missionary work," said the caller, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then of the Quorum of the Twelve. "Will you send some missionaries up there and get it open so when I come in three weeks, I can dedicate the country for missionary work."

Pres. Jesperson, who was later to preside over two other missions, did exactly that.

"I sent some fine elders, some leaders," said Brother Jesperson in a recent interview. "I went with them."

The missionaries, Elders Craig Carpenter and Paul O. Allen, arrived in Quito on Oct. 4, followed by Pres. Jesperson and Elders Bryant A. Gold and Lindon Robinson.

Elder Kimball, accompanied by Elder Franklin D. Richards, then Assistant to the Twelve, arrived Oct. 8. While in Quito, Elder Kimball introduced the gospel to his taxi driver, whose family was baptized; to a government official, whose family was baptized; and to a group of people who were near when the dedication of Ecuador took place. One of the group and his family were also baptized.

The latter introduction occurred Oct. 9 when the apostle and assistant, mission president and missionaries traveled to a hill known as Panacillo in Quito. As they prepared for the dedication, two carloads of people pulled up, and Elder Kimball asked the elders to invite them to stay for the service.

"He was always a missionary," said Brother Jesperson. "He never missed an opportunity."

Elder Bryant A. Gold recorded in his journal of Elder Kimball: "He couldn't speak Spanish, but he would go right up and look people straight in the eye and tell them in English what we would translate into Spanish afterwards."

Elder Kimball stayed only two days, but within the month of his visit the first missionary baptismal service was held. The first missionary converts in Ecuador were baptized Oct. 31, 1965, in a small swimming pool made available to the missionaries by the Baptist Church in Alangasi de la Merced, located about 50 miles southeast of Quito. The first was Henry Eduardo Cruz, 8, baptized by Elder Allen, followed by Henry's parents and two other families, a total of nine people.

The zeal with which the work was begun continued as missionaries expanded it to other cities. Elder Robinson opened work in Guayaquil on Jan. 28, 1966, and among the early converts there were Elisa Salazar, and her daughter, Martha Ruilova Skillion, now residents of Orange, Calif., who were baptized July 30, 1966.

They remember the original tiny branch in Guayaquil where the president and leaders were all missionaries.

"There was no Primary then, because all the youth were in their teens," said Sister Skillion. "Progress came slowly, little by little. It was hard in the beginning because no one knew what they were doing."

She recalled an exhibit downtown that the missionaries sponsored with the members' help. "A man came to antagonize and he started to argue," she said. "I got so mad I was going to throw him out, but the missionaries came and calmed me down."

Members were encouraged to be missionary-minded at home as well. Sister Salazar invited a family living one floor below them, whose husband was a heavy smoker, to attend Church. The wife attended and was baptized, and later the husband joined as well.

This family, Jose and Caridad Valdevieso, became staunch leaders in Guayaquil.

"It was music that brought me to the Church," said Brother Valdevieso. "And I always say that it was through music that the Church became known in Ecuador."

A lifelong musician who could play the piano, oboe and violin, the investigator suggested to the missionaries that they start a choir and that he would direct it. Soon a 30-voice choir was prepared to perform for Christmas, a choir that won attention in the local press and started a local tradition of Church choirs performing.

It also changed the life of the director, who was baptized the following January and who eventually was invited to be the director of the Guayaquil Symphonic Choir, a position he retained 20 years.

Brother Valdivieso served as branch and district president and now, with his wife, is a temple worker. They are believed to be among the first couples from Ecuador to go to the temple, and were sealed in 1973 in Salt Lake City.

"I am deeply emotional about the Guayaquil temple," said Sister Valdivieso. "It seemed impossible for so many years. Each day I give thanks for the blessings I have."

Early missionaries were constantly passing out pamphlets and holding displays. One of these pamphlets found its way to the Humberto and Maria Carmen Rivera family.

Their daughter, Marlene Rivera de Mancero of the Urdesa Ward, was baptized at age 9 on Jan. 11, 1969. She remembers the missionaries "taught the family using a flannel board. Really, my father accepted for his children. I gained my testimony later in seminary." She and her husband, J. Humberto, manager of operations for Banco International, were sealed in the Mexico City Mexico Temple in 1984, which was "a great blessing to us."

Early members were very stalwart, said Maria Esperanza Andrade de Salazar, Relief Society president of the Guayaquil Ecuador Alborada Stake. Baptized in 1969, she heard about the Church from her sister-in-law.

She was called as branch Relief Society president soon after being baptized. One of the Relief Society instructors became very ill and was hospitalized. As Sister Andrade visited this sister in the hospital, the sister bore testimony of Heavenly Father, was fearless in the face of death and urged Sister Andrade to "please be faithful."

It was a powerful experience for Sister Andrade, "as though we were sisters in the pre-mortal life," she said. "She died shortly afterwards, but she left a vivid impression.

"All the members speak the same language — the language of love. There is one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, and it is the same all over the world."

Courage was required to join the Church, according to Delia Reinberg. Sister Reinberg, the mother of four small children and a convert of 1973, wanted to learn more about the Church.

"I felt I was losing my family," said Sister Reinberg. "I, alone, received the lessons. I prayed for help, saying that I was not sure what to do. I felt a great warmth; I can't express how I felt. When the elders came, I told them I wanted to be baptized on that same day."

Gustavo Maruri, a talented musician, began attending services in 1969 and was baptized four years later.

"It was a strange feeling going to a Church that was new, one that nobody knew," he said. "People would ask where I was going. I would say 'To the Mormons.' They would ask, 'What is that?' It is different now. The Mormons are well-known."

He became the first bishop in Ecuador in 1978, and now, 21 years later, members still call him "Bishop."

"We had to raise money to dedicate our meetinghouse," he said. "It was only 4 percent of the total cost, but that was a lot of money. We held auctions and dances. Sisters prepared food and we sold it on Saturday mornings."

Dr. Lorenzo A. Garacoya, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Guayaquil and a convert of 1972, was helping renovate a meetinghouse in 1978 when Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve arrived to create the first stake.

"I didn't attend his interviews [of local leaders to select the new stake president] because I was painting the chapel," he said.

But he was called in anyway. "I don't think I made a good impression," he said. "I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I was dirty. But Elder Petersen said to me, 'You are the man.'

"I understood then that the Lord wanted me."

Brother Garacoya said that the rapid growth of the Church in Ecuador, which is approaching 150,000 members, has not come as a surprise to him.

"I believe someday the gospel will fill the earth, and that is being accomplished right now in Guayaquil, in Ecuador and in all of South America.

"The Church was once just a child among the other religions, but now it is very well-known and has reached adulthood."