By Shane Bevell
Latter-day Saint youth in Mexico, Western Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand are gaining knowledge and strengthening testimonies through schools sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Teaching programs started when missionaries went to those countries and started an educational program, but really got going in the early 1950s with actual buildings, said Tim Gurr, special projects supervisor of the Church Educational System.
The Liahona High School in Tongatapu, Tonga was established in 1953 and the school in New Zealand was established in 1958. Benem?rito de las Am?ricas High School in Mexico City was established in 1963.
In 1971, President Howard W. Hunter said the church established schools in the areas where church growth had been the highest, said Gurr.
According to BYU religion professor Richard Cowan, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, while serving as commissioner of church education, gave various reasons for the construction of these church-owned schools in foreign countries.
Elder Maxwell said the schools were intended to meet the needs of members in areas where public education was not available, provide religious education to supplement secular education, and provide basic literacy for those who need it, Cowan said.
Gurr said that in the 1953 dedicatory prayer of the high school in Western Samoa, Elder LeGrand Richards said the school was dedicated for the benefit, blessing, uplift and education of the youth of the great land of Samoa.
According to Gurr, Elder Maxwell explained the objectives of these schools, saying literacy is a gospel need and without basic education an individual is handicapped in his gospel progression.
Julio Sandoval, 21, a BYU sophomore from Mexico City majoring in food science, attended Benem?rito de las Am?ricas High School in Mexico City from 1993-1996.
“Those were the best years of my life because I gained my own testimony,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval said the school gave him an opportunity to develop faith, talents and virtues.
“The gospel is what separates this school from other public schools,” Sandoval said.
Taking a seminary class every day is required, Sandoval said.
“You’re in a school where you learn about the gospel and can apply what you learn,” Sandoval said.
Eder Rivera, a 17-year-old student currently attending Benem?rito, said class is started with a prayer and scripture every Monday morning.
“The purpose of Benem?rito is to help students gain a testimony of the gospel, and that was accomplished with me,” Sandoval said.
Rivera said the school gives students opportunities to make a good impression on other non-member students.
“Some students who were non-members were baptized because the spirit can be felt in class,” Rivera said.
Sandoval said that just like at BYU, some students do not always set a good example.
“Non-members see kids who are acting inappropriately and wonder why they (the members) don’t act the way they should,” Sandoval said.