In the Caribbean, people are subject to rains, winds, floods and earthquakes that can shake and destroy the very foundations of their homes and lives. In Ponce, Puerto Rico — the epicenter of some recent large and destructive earthquakes — many buildings and homes that were severely damaged felt the full impact of the earthquake. Few, if any, had “base isolators,” which dampen the shaking of the building by distributing the seismic impact more evenly throughout the structure.
Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sees a metaphor for the “seismic hits in life” that can be learned from the Saints in the Caribbean Area, because all people subject to “spiritual earthquakes, winds, rains and floods.”
Similar to the Salt Lake Temple, which sits just outside Elder Renlund’s office window and is currently undergoing the process of being fitted for base isolators, having a solid spiritual foundation to withstand the seismic hits of life can make a big difference.
Likening it to the parable of the wise man and the foolish man, he said: “If you are established on the rock of the Savior, you don’t fall.”
In the Caribbean, most people know what to do to protect themselves from the physical storms and disasters of life, and more and more, Latter-day Saints are building up the protections they need to withstand the spiritual challenges as well.
Connecting the isles of the sea
Latter-day Saints are not a large mass of people in the Caribbean, which spreads over two dozen sovereign nations and dependent territories and some 7,000 islands. Members of the Church can often feel isolated, and sometimes they can find it difficult to remember they are part of a worldwide, critical mass dedicated to following Christ. But alone or in small numbers, they can be strong islands of testimony unto themselves, explained Elder Renlund and his wife, Sister Ruth Renlund, upon returning from a late February visit to the Church’s Caribbean Area.
To think of the Caribbean Area of the Church as uniform would be ridiculous, Elder Renlund said. It’s not just that most of the islands are different; it’s that most of the islands are different countries with different languages, people, cultures and histories. Each island or archipelago is unique, and the geography separating the islands further distinguishes them.
Navigating the complexities of several countries with different languages, currencies and governments is a difficult task. Add to that the geographical spread of the islands, and the Caribbean Area might just be one of the toughest areas to manage in the Church. But although the variance from island to island is great and the size of the Church’s membership throughout the area is relatively small, the Caribbean Area has a long tradition of faith and, as Elder Renlund describes, “is a very exciting place to be.”
In talking to a small group of members gathered on a the remote island of Dominica, Sister Renlund said she was impressed by the sense of strength and connection she felt from the members, despite their isolated location.
“When I was talking to that group, I asked one sister, ‘Do you know where your “Come, Follow Me” manual is?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ and she held up her phone. And I thought, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? She can have access to the same study program as any other member of the Church, and she always knows where it is,’” Sister Renlund said. “I think it’s great when people can gather and gain strength by having people with similar beliefs gathered together to discuss these things, but even if you can’t, it’s still possible for you to personally be a center of strength, a center of testimony.”
One of the Church’s great benefits, Sister Renlund continued, is providing materials and means for people to be able follow the Savior — no matter where they are.
Elder Renlund added that for members in the Caribbean, “the distance to the temple does not influence your ability to be worthy of a temple recommend. The distance of the temple doesn’t influence your ability to do family history research.”
And although distance does influence how often a person can go to the temple, Elder Renlund said that if they remain faithful and worthy, “I think in this era, God will bring more temples to the isles of the sea.”
Mindful of his own parents coming to a knowledge of their Redeemer while living on small archipelagos in Sweden and Finland, Elder Renlund explained that no matter how remote, removed or seemingly out of touch a location may seem, any place can become like the “waters of Mormon” when individuals are building a knowledge of the Savior. By focusing on building up strength of testimony as individuals, people together can build a strong base connecting the Church and its members across the diverse and far-flung islands.
Every island in the Caribbean is unique and beautiful, Elder Renlund said, “but what will make them even more beautiful is if people come to a knowledge of their Redeemer there. Even if you’re born and raised in a small place like Dominica, you can be baptized, you can receive the Holy Ghost, and we can help you get to the temple.”
All required of the people, he added, is to “stay faithful and stay on the covenant path.”
Gathering the ‘ones’
Elder and Sister Renlund spent 10 days touring from island to island in the Caribbean as part of the annual area review with Elder Carlos A. Godoy of the Presidency of the Seventy; Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric; the three General Authority Seventies composing the Caribbean Area presidency; and the wives of the General Authorities. Stops included Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe and smaller islands where an apostle has never visited the people before, including Dominica, Martinique, and Turks and Caicos, which Elder Renlund had the opportunity to dedicate individually for the preaching of the gospel.
Although the apostle said he wishes he could have visited every island and member, Elder Renlund explained how the visiting General Authorities were able to meet with more of the people at once.
While Elder and Sister Renlund were in Kingston, Jamaica, with Elder Eduardo Gavarret of the area presidency and his wife, Sister Norma Gavarret, Elder Godoy and Sister Mônica Godoy were in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago and Bishop Waddell and Sister Carol Waddell were sent to Bridgetown, Barbados. With the visiting leaders spread out across the three islands representing three separate countries, a single leadership meeting was held with a broadcast connecting all of them so leaders and attendees could still interact and learn from one another.
“I just was praying the whole time that the technology would hold up,” Elder Renlund said. “And it was amazing, because it did.”
As a general rule, Elder Renlund said he he prefers in-person meetings rather than broadcasts. “Where the real miracles happen is usually eyeball to eyeball or knee to knee, and you can see somebody’s commitment to change or you see the Spirit touch them and their resolve improves.”
However, the three-way broadcast was a step up even from a normal broadcast, since each location had a General Authority with them and people could ask questions and learn from one another, he said, adding that it worked very well.
For remote islands, like Dominica — where maybe only as many as 25 members gather and meet each week — the challenge can be a feeling of isolation in their beliefs, particularly for the youth. When they are perhaps the only one their age who is a member or attending Church regularly, it is hard to see themselves as an important part of the whole, participating in the gathering of Israel, Elder Renlund explained.
“So the FSY programs that are now part of the Children and Youth program, I think will have a huge impact there,” he said.
Youth can be strengthened when able to see and interact with a larger group with shared beliefs. In addition to FSY conferences held every other year, the area presidency is looking at other ways to help gather the youth in the area, Elder Renlund noted.
“To know that once a year, you’re going to have at least a few days where you are part of something big, I think that sustains you and fosters commitment, fosters understanding that the gospel is something that is a ‘stone cut out of the mountain without hands that’s rolling forth and filling the earth,’” Elder Renlund said. “I think in the Caribbean we really need to use every idea and every resource to focus on the 14-year-old on a small island and say, ‘What are we going to do for her to make the Church feel like it has a critical mass and that it is the Lord’s kingdom on the earth is rolling forward.’ I think as we pose that question to ourselves, then the inspiration comes as to how to set it up.”
Elder José L. Alonso, Caribbean Area president said Elder Renlund’s island visits provided a huge blessing to the members, the leaders and the area presidency. By reaching out to address large groups as well as ministering to the one, Elder Renlund spoke loudest through his example, Elder Alonso said.
“As a special witness of Jesus Christ, he did what the Savior would do,” he said. “He focused on the needs of individuals and forgot of himself.”
Everyone can do something
The people of the Caribbean are resilient, said Bishop Waddell. After visiting the island of Grand Bahama, which was devastated by Hurricane Dorian last September, the destruction from the storm was worse than he had imagined, he said — but the people were inspiring.
“I was so impressed with the people’s resiliency in the face of real challenges and the strength of their testimonies and resolve to keep their covenants,” he said.
And that impression was repeated over and over throughout his time there as Saints in each location demonstrated how they are building foundations of faith for themselves and then reaching out to one another.
“Something that struck me wherever I went was the love the Lord has for His children, everywhere, and the love they have for Him, our Savior and the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Waddell said. “I had the distinct impression, as I was looking at such a variety of peoples and cultures, that this is what the celestial kingdom would look like, with all of the rich diversity of these faithful members of the Church.”
For Elder Renlund, the thought that occurred to him again and again was something President Russell M. Nelson has frequently shared. Any time a person does anything that helps anyone get on or stay on the covenant path, they are helping to gather scattered Israel and building the kingdom of God.
“Sometimes members, especially in small places, look at the Church and they say, ‘It’s too big, it’s too complicated, you have to be perfect,’” Elder Renlund said. “But you don’t. Nobody has to do everything. But everybody who is willing can do something that can help build the kingdom of God on the earth. You don’t have to be perfect, but we need you, because everybody who’s willing can do something.”