VERACRUZ, Mexico — Meliton Lagunes had no idea the two young men he drove past one evening more than 20 years ago were full-time missionaries. He knew nothing of their Church. He knew nothing of their message. He only knew it was late, the young men were walking alone and they were all in a bad section of Veracruz.
Meliton Lagunes pulled his little green car off the road and told the elders to jump in.
Stopping was one of the finest decisions he ever made. He offered the missionaries a ride and, later, accepted their invitation to join Christ's flock. Today he presides over the Veracruz Mexico Temple — a magnificent new building that reflects the generous, inviting nature of President Lagunes and his fellow Veracruz saints.
The white marble temple was dedicated July 9 in four sessions. President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, presided over the meetings. President Monson, along with Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve, have been frequent visitors to Mexico in recent months during temple dedication trips.
President Monson seems to have a spot in his heart reserved for the Mexican people. Often during recent trips to Mexican cities like Tampico or Villahermosa, President Monson has taken a few moments to recall growing up among Mexican people in Salt Lake City's west side. He speaks often about his love for the Spanish language. He passes on President Gordon B. Hinckley's affection.
While hundreds of Veracruz members filled the temple for the first morning dedicatory session, hundreds more braved a deluge of rain outside while President Monson conducted the cornerstone ceremony.
Some men donned ponchos. Umbrellas sprouted like flowers from the crowd and the cornerstone choir.
"Today, I have such a strong desire to obey the Lord so I can always enjoy the blessings of the temple," choir member Minerva Salazar de Alvarez said afterward. "I felt the spirit so strong when we were singing that it felt like our voices were cascading without effort."
Words came harder for Walter Butler. Brother Butler and his companion, the late BYU president Rex E. Lee, opened Veracruz for missionary work in 1955. Now he grappled with emotions trying to talk about a temple dedicated in the port city where he once harvested souls.
"I remember the work being so easy in Veracruz," said Brother Butler. "The area was beautiful, there were people with good hearts . . . making friends with the Lamanite people is a wonderful feeling."
The Arizona native traveled to Mexico with his daughter and another former Veracruz missionary, Lynn Kimball. His daughter was so excited when she learned a temple would be opened in Veracruz that she bought her father's plane ticket and made arrangements for their trip.
"This temple dedication is truly a fulfillment of promise to the people," added Brother Kimball.
Scores of Veracruz members spoke of their thankfulness to the Lord and President Gordon B. Hinckley as they filed into one of the four dedicatory sessions — yet few said it was a dream to have a temple in their own town.
"A temple in Veracruz has not been a dream, we just knew it would happen," said Susan Dozal de Noriega, who joined the Church 21 years ago after learning about the gospel from friends. "Today we feel so happy, so emotional."
Mark Ray admits he had no clue the kind-hearted man who offered him and his companion a ride that night along a dangerous street would one day be called to serve as the first president of the Veracruz temple.
"No, when I met President Lagunes I did not think it was going to be a golden opportunity," said Brother Ray.
In fact, after meeting the Lagunes family for the first time, young Elder Ray was surprised they even wanted to continue with the discussions.
"Everyone seemed so bored during our first appointment, the family just wasn't responding — it wasn't until many years later that I learned the whole family was just sleepy from working all night in the family bread store," Brother Ray recalled.
But subsequent discussions were rich with the spirit. Soon the Lagunes' were attending local meetings and feeling the love of the members.
"I remember being introduced to everyone," President Lagunes said. "It made us feel important, like we counted."
He, his wife Juana, and their five children were baptized and President and Sister Lagunes enlisted in a lifelong effort of Church service. Their bread baking business took a dip in the weeks after the family joined the Church because President Lagunes insisted on telling all his customers about the gospel.
"But soon their hunger for the Lagunes bread was so strong that they all returned their business," Brother Ray said.
"Since that time our family has progressed spiritually and financially," said President Lagunes, who went on to serve as a bishop, temple sealer and patriarch. "The best business decision I made in my life was to associate myself with the Lord."
Taking young people through the halls of the sacred building during the temple open house has been the highlight of President Lagunes's young tenure.
"Many youth have walked through the celestial room and said of the temple, 'This is where I'm going to marry.' That's wonderful," he said.
President Lagunes was recently reminded to serve diligently while in his "youth." When President Hinckley called him to preside over the temple in his native Veracruz, the prophet asked about his age.
"I told President Hinckley I was 67 — he told me, 'Why you're young; I'm 90!' "