From Reid Mitton: My family is used to my periodic fits of nostalgia. As the fifty year milestones of the Second World War were reached, I would write and tell them of my memories of that day many years before. Since today is Easter, I will take you back forty years and share with you one of my most indelible and precious experiences. So, forty years ago today.....
I began my period of missionary service in Guatemala in June, 1957. I first lived in the highlands in the town of Totonicapan. At an elevation of around 10,000 feet, the days were pleasant and the nights were very cold. In the spring of 1958 I was transferred to the coastal plains of the western side of the country. This presented a real contrast in climate. It was hot and steamy, and we sweltered in our dark wool suits and hats. Any relief from the heat was welcome. The people were wonderful there and I enjoyed being with them and sharing their lives.
In April of 1958 I was living in the town of Mazatenango. As was the case in all of Guatemala, the Catholic Church was the predominant religion. I was about to experience my first exposure to Holy Week. Missionary work was really difficult for us during this seven day period. Literally the whole town is involved in the Catholic celebration. Each day there would be a huge procession. Weeks had been spent in intense preparation for these processions. All of the idols are taken out of the church and placed on platforms. These heavy platforms are carried through the streets and each day the agony of the crucifixion is relived by the attendant multitudes. The last procession of the week is held on Good Friday. Saturday is a day of attending mass and, for many, heavy drinking at parties.
Our District President (also another missionary) informed us that it would be best if we were not on the streets on that Saturday. He invited us and the rest of the missionaries under his jurisdiction to come to the town where he resided on Saturday morning. We were to spend the night there and then return to our assigned towns the next day. We looked forward to a day of being together with other missionaries, especially at a time when it was so difficult for us to accomplish any missionary work in our assigned towns.
Our District President lived in the city of Retalhuleu. I always enjoyed going to this city of about 30,000 people. It was a very clean city with white cement streets rather than the usual ancient cobblestones that were found elsewhere in the country. As is the custom in all Latin American towns, it had a large central park and the Catholic church was located across the street from this park. In this town the church was an extremely impressive structure. It was really beautiful and had one very interesting feature: a public address system. Usually the bells of the churches in this country are used to call the parishioners to mass and also to mark the time of day. This church had a set of bells, but they were not used at that time. Instead, they used this public address system to play recordings of bells which could be heard clearly throughout the entire city.
The building that our church had converted into a chapel in Retalhuleu was located just a few blocks from the Catholic church. The two missionaries that were working in the town lived in the chapel. When other missionaries came to visit and to spend the night, they would take cots up onto the roof of the building. Sleeping out under the stars with the clarity of the tropical sky was a truly magnificent experience.
On Saturday morning, the day before Easter, my companion and I took the narrow gauge steam train and went from Mazatenango to Retalhuleu. In the quiet of the chapel our District President gave us instruction and then, later in the day, we ate and reminisced about Easters of the past and how we would celebrate the occasion with our families. It was an inspiring and a relaxing day. That night, as usual, we took our cots up on the roof, and under the brilliant stars we each fell asleep.
This night, however, was not to be like any other night of my life. We were awakened at three in the morning by music coming from the Catholic Church. The Messiah! This great work by Handel was one of my great loves. There, under those brightly shining stars, for over two hours I relived the life of the Savior. The oratorio is divided into three parts. The first deals with the events preceding His birth and his early ministry (Comfort ye my people ... Behold a virgin shall conceive ... For unto us a Child is born ... He shall feed his flock like a shepherd ... His yoke is easy). Part two covers the crucifixion (Behold the Lamb of God ... Hallelujah). The last part covers the resurrection and ascension, and serves as a testimony to all of the divine mission of the Savior (I know that my Redeemer liveth).
As the music progressed, the stars faded and we had a beautiful dawn. I was in tears most of the time. I cannot conceive of a more beautiful setting for this magnificent musical work. Handel stated that he was inspired by God when he wrote The Messiah. I do not question this. My heart has been touched by it many times, but never so deeply as on Easter morning, 1958, in a city on the coastal plains of Guatemala.
My allegiance and devotion to my church is secure. I do not have any leanings toward any other. But this does not mean that I am not able to appreciate the contributions of other groups. I hold a warm place in my heart for the Catholic Church and the experience that I had in Retalhuleu on that precious Easter morning. Even today I have tears in my eyes as I remember this event. As I reflect on the words of the oratorio, I, too, know that my Redeemer lives, and that one day in my flesh (if I am worthy) I will see God. It is assuring to know that this promise is made to all men, and it should serve as a guide to each of us every day of our lives.