GUATEMALA CITY— Some 22,000 people waving white handkerchiefs silently bid farewell to President Russell M. Nelson as he completed the first leg of his five-country, nine-day Latin America Ministry Tour here on Saturday night.
In response, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took out his own white handkerchief and waved back.
The gesture thrilled the crowd, many who had been waiting all day at the Estadio Cementos Progreso stadium in the hot, humid temperatures.
Saturday morning, as the community crowded morning markets filled with brightly colored fruit and the aroma of cooking meat, rice and beans, Guatemalan Latter-day Saints gathered for the meeting. Lines formed outside the stadium at 10 a.m. for the 7 p.m. devotional.
Delivering an address in Spanish, President Nelson urged the capacity congregation to “keep the commandments of God.”
“My advice today is very simple,” he said. “Please keep the commandments of God. Remember to pray to him every morning and night. Pray with your families. Pray in private. Pray to our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he will direct you for good in everything you do.”
He also urged Guatemalan Latter-day Saints to sanctify the Sabbath, pay their tithing and attend the temple.
‘Land of Eternal Spring’
As he arrived here in “The Land of Eternal Spring,” President Nelson said his thoughts were with the ancient civilizations whose ruins still define this nation.
“The lands of Central America and South America are studded with ruins — remnants — of ancient civilizations,” he said. “One wonders what life must have been like among those people.
“Add to that the message on the title page of the Book of Mormon, that it is ‘written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel,’ we not only learn more about those ancient inhabitants, but we learn that the Lord cares for His children in this hemisphere, both in ancient times, and in modern times.”
Simply stated, he added, the Lord “loves these people, and they love their Savior, their Redeemer and their Lord. The Church is growing in all of Latin America, and we are honored and blessed to serve along with them.”
Traveling with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Mary Cook, President Nelson will visit Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil after leaving Guatemala. Elder Juan A. Uceda, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Central America Area, and his wife, Sister Maria Isabel Bendezú, also participated in the devotional.
Since becoming President of the Church, President Nelson has visited 23 nations/territories and 37 cities, flying 83,000 miles on six continents.
Guatemala is a country of great contrast — a land of lush, green foliage and powerful history that is also defined by poverty and crime.
“For many people across the world these are difficult times,” said Elder Cook.
He asked Church members to “build Zion in your hearts and in your homes,” to be an example to the community, and to focus “your vision and goals on the temple, including family history.”
Sister Nelson said, like Elder Cook, she has been thinking “about the times in which we live.”
The “forces of the adversary” are increasing in intensity all over the world, causing “uncertainty and instability,” she said.
“Your faith has brought a most remarkable feeling of peace, of love, of joy to our hearts tonight,” she said.
Sister Cook shared her testimony of Jesus Christ and his love. Quoting the words from the Primary song, “I Know That My Savior Loves Me,” Sister Cook said, “Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ love us and want us to return and live with them again. We can do this.”
Before the meeting, President Nelson met with dignitaries and a small group of young single adults.
As he arrived at the meeting with young single adults, President Nelson embraced Yury Velasquez. Earlier in the day, Velasquez learned that his cousin, Kenneth Velasquez, had been murdered.
Velasquez said that at the prophet’s touch, he was filled with peace. President Nelson promised him “when one door closes, another door opens.”
President Nelson told the young adults that for every one person in their country who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there are 60 who are not. “What has helped you to stay strong when you are such a minority?” he asked them.
President Nelson reminded the group that when the Savior walked the earth, His teachings were embraced by a minority.
Nora Falabella joined the church at age 11 in 1962 — just 15 years after missionaries first arrived in Guatemala. At the time, the Church had six branches and one meetinghouse.
Looking at a crowd of almost 22,000 in the soccer arena on Saturday night, Falabella reflected on the growth. There are now nearly 278,000 Latter-day Saints in more than 440 congregations in Guatemala, where decades earlier Udine Falabella, Nora’s father, served as the first stake president in the country.
“Look at how many people we have,” she said, motioning around the stadium. “You can see how many people are in the church here in Guatemala,” she said.
Sandra Sierra drove five hours from San Juan Chamelco to attend the meeting.
Placing her hand on her heart, she said, “it means everything” that President Nelson would travel to Guatemala.
Olga Paredes agreed.
Newly divorced at age 32, with four small children, Paredes found the Church. “I felt something special when I got to know the Church better,” she said.
Today she has 15 grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild who are all active in the Church.
Sister Diana Mendizabal, who is studying at the Church’s Guatemalan Missionary Training Center, joined the Church when she was 12 and began attending weekly meetings in the building located adjacent to the venue for President Nelson’s devotional address. Returning to the area for the broadcast had great meaning, she said. “I am excited for him to be in Guatemala.”
Church leaders reserved the ground level seats in the arena for youth.
Becky Ruiz, 17, said being at the meeting was exciting. “I feel kind of special,” she said. “We are the select people here in Guatemala, because all Guatemalans could not be here.”
Due to space limitations, only members of the 21 stakes in or around Guatemala City were able to participate in the devotional, which was broadcast across the country.
The devotional marked President Nelson’s second visit to the stadium. President Nelson accompanied President Gordon B. Hinckley during a Jan. 26, 1997, devotional held in the arena. President Nelson was also with Marvin J. Ashton on Oct. 19, 1991, when Elder Ashton offered a prayer on Guatemala and its people.
“Many happy memories come to my mind here in Guatemala,” he said.