SAN JOSE, Costa Rica Costa Ricans live in a special land and they know it. Their country boasts decades of peace, a tourist-rich economy and despite being smaller than West Virginia a good chunk of the world's bio-diversity.
And, of course, Costa Rica's fertile lands are candy to the senses. Her soil yields acres of orchids, bananas and buttery avocados the size of boxing gloves. Mango trees are so heavy in city parks that their fruit simply falls to the ground, gifts to anyone seeking siesta-hour shade.
Just ask Costa Ricans how they are and you will likely get the same happy answer: "Pura Vida." Pure life.
Pura vida takes on richer meaning for Costa Rican members. In a country where the gospel is still fairly young, the saints are enjoying historic growth. The catchy spark of missionary work is being felt, coupled with the spirit of Elijah in a newly-dedicated temple. Their three-fold charge to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints and redeem the dead is being fulfilled each day from cosmopolitan San Jose to rural San Carlos and other fledgling districts.
Jose Luis Quesada is emblematic of the Church in this Central American country.
He learned of the Church from his brother in their hometown of San Ramon more than a decade ago. He spurned his brother's baptismal invitation and distanced himself from the faith. He gave the gospel little thought until another family member began saying ugly things about the Church.
"I became curious because of my relative's comments and I started to read the Book of Mormon," Brother Quesada said. "I was fascinated by the story of Joseph Smith. At night, my father forbade me from turning on the light to read my Book of Mormon, so I read it with a lantern. The book possessed me completely."
He joined the Church and was later called to preside over the Alvarado Branch in San Ramon. Last year President Quesada traveled to Guatemala City, Guatemala, to claim his temple blessings.
"I attended seven sessions in the Guatemala City temple and acquired a strong testimony of the temple," he said. "Now, I want to help the members here in San Ramon prepare to go to the temple in our own country."
Like President Quesada, the Church in Costa Rica has developed slowly perhaps even reluctantly. But once converted, the faithful often become stalwarts. Recent years have witnessed a surge in membership, devotion and commitment.
Watching the gospel grow in Costa Rica has been a joy for Arthur Kocherhans. In 1949, 20-year-old Elder Kocherhans was sent to San Jose to join a few other elders from the Mexican Mission establishing missionary work in Costa Rica.
"There was a lot of door to door work in those days," remembered Brother Kocherhans, who lived with his fellow missionaries in a building that doubled as a small chapel. On November 26, 1949, Victor Lopez became the first native Costa Rican to be baptized in his country. The ordinance was performed by Brother Kocherhans in a river outside of San Jose.
Brother Kocherhans also remembers he and a trio of other missionaries serving in Costa Rica, including emeritus Seventy Joe J. Christensen, organizing a basketball team "as a chance to give the Church exposure and a way to make contacts besides door to door preaching."
"Los Mormones" took on all comers, even the Costa Rican Olympic basketball team.
"We couldn't beat them, but we could give them a good scrimmage," said Brother Kocherhans, who now lives in Murray, Utah.
The first conference of the Church in Costa Rica was held on June 7, 1950. About 70 people attended. A branch was organized a few weeks later and property for the first meetinghouse was purchased the following year. Costa Rica's first district conference was held in the summer of 1968, with 296 members attending. The Church took an important step six years later with the organization of the Costa Rica Mission. When the San Jose Costa Rica Stake was organized in 1977 there were 3,800 members.
"Now we have about 35,000 members; it is amazing to see how the Church has developed," said Henry Obando, a 1981 convert and president of the La Sabana Costa Rica Stake. Presently, there are five stakes in metropolitan areas and several districts in outlying communities.
Much of that growth, President Obando said, can be attributed to Panamanian and Nicaraguan nationals who have been drawn to Costa Rica by its hearty economy.
"These immigrants embrace the Church easily, they are often more humble than we are and they can feel the Lord's Spirit. Their immigration has been a blessing for the Church in Costa Rica," he said.
New members of all nationalities are typically enlisted immediately to fortify and spread the gospel, added President Obando, who remembers being called as the secretary of his branch a week after his baptism.
While appreciative of the Church's local history, LDS Costa Ricans, or "Ticos," anticipate a monumental future. Dedicated June 4, 2000, the San Jose Costa Rica Temple, they say, is already prompting dramatic ripples throughout southern Central America.
"The temple is helping us become better examples and better members, so the image of the Church is improving in Costa Rica," said Oscar Murillo, a member of the Villahermosa Alajuela Ward. "The missionaries will no longer tell our friends that families can be sealed in the Guatemala temple. Now the missionaries can say, 'Your family can go to the temple right here in San Jose and be eternal.' "
Spiritual history will divide Costa Rica this land of volcanoes, mild climes and rabid soccer fans into two periods: "Before the temple and after the temple," said Elder Jose Luis Gonzalez, president of the San Jose Costa Rica Mission and Area Authority Seventy. Since the Church announced plans to build a temple near San Jose, Church activity and retention rates have increased and members and non-members alike have taken advantage of the country's many family history centers to discover their ancestry.
"There has been a change in the Costa Rican members over the past year; their attitudes toward God have changed because of the temple," Elder Gonzalez said.
Henry Obando remembers a Church leader once telling him that pioneer Tico members were like children cutting their teeth on the gospel feast.
"Now we are ready to eat meat."