In 1957 Mexico was in the midst of an unprecedented drought. People were being forced to flee their unproductive farms to seek almost non-existent jobs in the towns and cities. At the same time, membership in the LDS Church was increasing dramatically. Meetinghouses were in short supply and, in most places in Mexico, members met in rented halls—most of which were woefully inadequate with bare light bulbs hanging from ceilings, peeling paint, uncomfortable slat benches, strained sanitary facilities and non-existent heating and air conditioning.
The Church determined to construct buildings that would adequately provide for the religious and social needs of the people but a policy of local members having to come up with 20% of the cost, under the circumstances, was prohibitive. A little creativity was needed to save the day. Mexican LDS men, many still in their teens, whose families were in financial straits, were to be called as “labor missionaries” for a period of two years. Local Church members, short of cash themselves, could contribute their part of the cost of construction by feeding and housing the missionaries. The building missionaries would be fed, enjoy a roof over their heads, take literacy training, and have regular daily scripture study. In the process, they would learn a trade: at the end of their two years they would have marketable skills as carpenters, electricians, plumbers, brick masons, and cement workers. Now all that was needed were competent building supervisors.
In the spring of 1957, my father received a phone call that altered the course of the McClellan family history. My father had established a successful career as a building contractor in Salt Lake City and was on the verge of developing his own sub-division. That phone call resulted in a three-year mission call to supervise the construction of eight Church buildings, using unskilled labor, in northern Mexico with headquarters in Monterrey. He would receive no salary per se but the family’s expenses would be met. I was twelve years old, my two younger brothers were in elementary school and my older brother, having just graduated from high school, would go into the U.S. Army.
For hundreds of years much of Mexico’s wealth had been siphoned off to Spain or to the Vatican, prompting Mexican President Benito Juarez to revise the Mexican Constitution so that church property became the property of the nation and could not leave the country. Ministers had to be Mexican citizens to the exclusion of foreign nationals. My father, having been born in Mexico but naturalized to the United States could work in Mexico but at the cost of his newly acquired U.S. citizenship.
In order to circumvent the strict laws pertaining to the ownership of church properties and to maintain title to those properties, the LDS Church did not build “churches” but rather “cultural centers” under the auspices of the its youth program, “The Mutual Improvement Association.” These buildings, although relatively small by today’s standards, had a chapel with pews, a cultural hall, often with a basketball court, classrooms, a kitchen and a library. They were well appointed with modern windows, lighting, choir seats and pianos.
The adventures of working in Mexico are too numerous to recount in much detail here. Suffice it to say that Dad fought dust storms, hurricanes, mosquitos, corruption, bribery and tough labor unions that were opposed to “labor missionaries.” At one point all the labor missionaries working in the city of Valle Hermoso south of Brownsville, Texas, were rounded up by Mexican Army soldiers and thrown into jail. One young missionary working in the mining town of Cananea, Sonora, south of Nogales, Arizona, was murdered by a deranged gunman. It was a sad day when my father had to deliver the boy’s body to his grieving parents.
On one occasion, Dad was escorted out of Mexico by Mexican immigration authorities and was sent right back to Mexico by U.S. Immigration authorities. After accomplishing his goals in northern Mexico, the Church asked him to take over the building program in all of Mexico with offices in Mexico City. He had oversight of the construction of many more churches with the addition of schools and missionary facilities not only in Mexico but in Central America and parts of South America. He was responsible for the purchase of more than 300 properties for future growth. Not many years ago, the restrictions on church ownership were lifted in Mexico and subsequent buildings, of any denomination, can now prominently display the name of the respective church.
Since 1957 Church membership in Mexico has grown from a few thousand to well over one million. Modern LDS churches and temples now dot the Mexican landscape. When my parents retired from Church service they were not wealthy in terms of earthly possessions. What little they were able to accumulate went into the purchase of fruit trees to be planted in the beloved little town of Dad’s birth in the state of Chihuahua. Some have been critical of what they did, saying that they would have been much better off if my father had remained in the States to become a big time developer. But my parents never saw it that way. They weren’t just building buildings, they would say, they were building men and women and influencing for good the lives of thousands. My mother stood by Dad throughout her life and, like he, was honored by all those who knew her.
Did they make a sacrifice? Perhaps in some ways. Was it worth it? I suppose it depends on one’s point of view. My parents, with total faith in a loving God, left their comfortable way of life to leap into the unknown—and they never looked back. It is written, “When you are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). I think a good definition of sacrifice is to give up something good for something better.