Some of the happiest conversations of Elder Ryan Allred's young life were spoken in an indigenous Guatemalan tongue, often while sitting on sacks of corn stacked inside tiny shacks made of sticks.
He had grown up in Bountiful, Utah, and accepted a missionary call to Guatemala in 2001. Yet six months into his mission, Elder Allred learned his burgeoning Spanish would be of little use. He was asked to leave the country's urban centers to join other missionaries teaching the gospel to the K'ekchi', an indigenous population living in the nation's remote interior.
For six months he endured a daily jolt of culture shock. Few of the K'ekchi' speak Spanish. Few can read their own language. And Elder Allred was ill prepared for the pervasive poverty. There is not a single paved road in the region. But he studied, worked hard and did the best he could to teach the discussions.
"Then something clicked," he said. "You start to understand how the (K'ekchi' people) speak and think."
Now home from his mission, Elder Allred's language skills will likely fade over the next few years there are few chances to speak a native, Central American language in northern Utah. Yet his connection to the K'ekchi' people is eternal.
"They are some of the humblest, happiest people I've ever known," he said.
For more than two decades missionaries such as Elder Allred have left the relative comforts of Guatemala City and other neighboring cities to labor among the K'ekchi'. It's typically a long-term, until-mission's-end assignment.
"We have to put the best of the best out there," said President Randy Harris of the Guatemala Guatemala City North Mission.
Communication is limited between the mission office and the elders. Only a few phone lines exist in the region, "so we have to be able to trust these elders," President Harris said. (There are no sister missionaries serving in the K'ekchi' region.)
For their efforts, the elders are rewarded service among a people who are sensitive to the spirit and eager to hear the gospel. "The (K'ekchi') listen, learn and join the Church," President Harris said. "They are faithful people. . . very receptive to the gospel and willing to adhere to it."
The Church in the K'ekchi' region is administered by three districts. The 35 LDS chapels used by the K'ekchi'-speaking members symbolize the Church's ongoing growth and success. Each of the meetinghouses is fueled by a diesel generator, providing electrical power during Church meetings.
Generating leaders among the LDS K'ekchi' takes more time. Few have access to formal education. Many cannot read translated passages of the Book of Mormon or other Church-produced materials. And while the temple in Guatemala City can be reached in a day's drive, "it's very far in terms of cost," said President Harris.
Yet the future is stable, said President Harris. More and more LDS K'ekchi' are accepting mission calls to other regions of Guatemala. There they are learning Spanish and the nuances of Church leadership. They will return home, accept priesthood and auxiliary callings and help their people develop in the gospel.
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