SAN JUAN — In a little over two weeks, Puerto Ricans will mark a historic first anniversary — but don’t expect cake, parties or dancing on this Caribbean island renowned for its festive spirit.
Last Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria slammed into this U.S. territory, bringing with it death and devastation. Life will never be the same following that historic catastrophe — but it can be better.
That was the hopeful message delivered by President Russell M. Nelson at Sunday’s devotional for Puerto Rican members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their guests at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico.
“As you individually grow to become more of the person God wants you to be, you can know for yourself that better days are ahead for the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “You can face your tomorrows with great optimism, knowing that the best days of your life are ahead for you and for your loved ones.”
The 93-year-old church president then shifted into Spanish, testifying of Christ and bestowing an apostolic blessing in the native tongue of his vast audience who traveled to San Juan from all parts of the island.
Sunday marked the second time in as many days that President Nelson shared remarks in Spanish. He offered his entire talk “en español” at a member devotional Saturday afternoon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It’s believed to be the first time a president of the church has delivered an extended message in a formal meeting in a language other than English.
For many members in the Caribbean lands, listening to the man they consider a prophet testify in Spanish was a thrilling surprise. People responded at each gathering with audible delight.
Accompanying President Nelson on Sunday was Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Ruth Renlund.
President Nelson began his remarks by reminding the Puerto Rican members of his admiration for their charitable actions and spiritual grit in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Maria came,” he said. “You have not given up. We are proud of you. You faithful Saints have lost much, but through it all, you have fostered your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. You have learned that he is aware of you and that He loves you. And he will continue to help you as you keep his commandments.”
Members of the Church worldwide have prayed for the Puerto Rican people, he said. Many have volunteered in relief efforts. The leaders of the Church at all levels remain mindful of the Puerto Rican members and are committed to their care.
“Most important, the Lord knows you,” he said. “Puerto Rico and other islands of the sea are very important to the Lord. These islands are rich with the blood of Israel. You are a vital part of God’s promises. Those promises are to be fulfilled by people from the islands of the sea. Those prophecies pertain to the gathering of Israel.”
That “gathering” is spiritual, he added. People of the world are being gathered “into the fold of Jesus Christ” in each of their respective lands. And in their native lands, they take upon Christ’s name, are baptized and faithfully keep God’s commandments.
“Even with those blessings, all of God’s children have difficulties. That is part of life. It’s why we’re here. We are here to have a body and to be tried and tested. Some of those tests are physical, some are spiritual, and your trials here have been both physical and spiritual.”
President Nelson then testified of Christ’s anointed role in making immortality a reality — and eternal life in God’s presence a possibility. His blessings are available to all who seek him. “By keeping God’s commandments, we can find joy even in the midst of our worst circumstances.”
The church president counseled Puerto Rican members to keep their families united and strong in faith. Husbands should be kind and considerate of the wives. “The best thing you can do for your children is to love their mother. Your highest priesthood duty is to care for your wife.”
And to the wives: “Love your husbands. You are partners.”
Personal revelation is essential in times of difficulty and trial, said Elder Renlund during his remarks on Sunday. “I don’t need to tell you that life doesn’t always turn out the way we expected.”
Still, even people who are dealing with harsh difficulties can find strength in Christ. Joy and hope, he said, reside in Christ, who gives life direction and purpose.
“Christ being the center of our lives changes everything,” he said. “It gives us power, stability and direction. And no matter what’s going on in our lives, if we focus on [Christ], we’re safe.”
Life also offers many choices, he added. Seek and follow the direction of the Holy Ghost. Do what God “would have you do.”
“That is the course to follow,” said Elder Renlund.
Other speakers Sunday included Sister Renlund, along with Elder Walter F. Gonzalez, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Zulma Gonzalez. Each encouraged the Puerto Rican members and their friends to follow the example and counsel of President Nelson and their other prophets.
Esteban Ojeda lives on the south end of the island and traveled Sunday morning to be in the capital city. The terrifying memories of Maria remain fresh for Ojeda. Spending a sunny Sunday morning with President Nelson, he said, was a singular, healing experience.
“I could not stop crying,” he said. “His testimony of Christ touched me on a personal level.”