Tree of Life
Claudia faces one of the darkest nights of her life—both literally and figuratively—when she is taken hostage and held for ransom. Her only comfort comes in the form of a radiant sign from God that He loves her and is aware of her situation. When she is finally let go, she embarks on a journey to seek for more light and develops a relationship with God that she never would have imagined was possible.
Claudia grew up in El Salvador and joined the Church when she came to study in the US:
A photo of Claudia in her childhood in El Salvador:
Photo of Claudia when she served a mission soon after joining the Church:
Welcome to "This Is the Gospel," an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, which literally means, "Penn's woods," you could say that I took trees for granted. Like the McDonald's on every corner, or whatever new variant of COVID is about to ruin our best laid plans, trees were just everywhere. And besides my childhood appreciation of tree branches as a place to hide from my siblings, with the newest Babysitter Club book, I didn't really notice or not notice trees.
But then I moved to the desert in my mid 20s. And that first summer of the Utah dry, hot, heat, I noticed something totally crazy. I could be dying, a slow roasting death in the unfiltered sunlight, but the minute I stepped into the shade of a tree, it was actually cooler.
I know this is something that's like scientific and all of that. But when you grow up with humidity, trees don't do a whole lot to stave off the dripping death of summer. So this was totally novel to me. And I think I spent that entire first summer writing and reading under the trees of liberty and Memorial Parks in downtown Salt Lake.
And now I am totally obsessed with laying under trees. In fact, my happiest place is in my backyard swaying in the hammock under a canopy of lacey leaves dappled with summer sunlight.
There is something positively life-giving under those branches. And I often say that God must have known that I would need this particular tree of this particular little house to ground me on the days when life feels overwhelming.
Now, obviously our theme today, the Tree of Life is not just about literal trees. But when you're rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ–see what I did there?–trees certainly have a storied role to play. In the scriptures two trees play a central role in the kickoff to our journey here on Earth. Deborah, the wise judge and prophetess of Israel did all of her judging and prophetess-ing between two trees.
Jesus is referred to as the branch of Jesse, Lehi's vision centered around all of us making our way to a tree that was symbolic of the love of God. I mean, I could go on and on and on. And so could you probably, trees abound in our sacred texts as a symbol of growth, connection, steady faith, and yes, life.
And while today's story from Claudia is not just about a tree, I think you'll agree with me that the trees that find Claudia are clearly a gift from a truly loving Father in heaven.
We recorded Claudia remotely while she was visiting her family in El Salvador. So you may notice some shifts in the sound quality here and there. That's just the price we pay for awesome stories from around the globe.
Also, Claudia's story while carefully told does have some elements of a traumatic event that could be difficult for sensitive listeners. Here's Claudia.
I was in El Salvador, I had returned for a few days, because I wanted to process my student visa, and was scheduled to go back to Florida for college in a few days.
The night before my flight, I went out to eat with my brother and one of our good friends from high schoo, just the three of us. We ate, we had a laugh about memories from school and then we dropped my friend off and me and my brother returned home.
As we pulled up into our driveway, some people approached our car and opened both of our doors. All of a sudden, from the quietness and the darkness, there was a lot of noise and tumult that people were yelling at us, holding us at gunpoint. One of them instructed me to get into a pickup truck. I was in shock. I felt myself doing what this person was telling me to do, kind of understanding that I had to do it.
I kept hearing my brother yelling on the background, "What are you doing? Don't take my sister." As they put me in the car, the two men that were, I guess, holding us at gunpoint, also got in the car and the car started taking off full speed.
I grew up in El Salvador. And El Salvador is in Central America, and we had war while I was growing up from 1980 to 1992 El Salvador was in civil war. And my dad was in the military at the time, I was very aware of what a difficult time our country was going through.
I graduated from high school in 1992, and at that time, there was a peace treaty signed and the war was officially over. However, the country was still very disorganized, and it was still not a safe place to live, there was a lot of crime. So when I graduated from high school, my parents wanted me to leave the country, because it would be safer. We had relatives in the US, and so I moved to Florida.
First, I was there without necessarily a plan, but eventually, we decided that I would stay more permanently and go to college. Because I was going to go to college, they asked me to go back to my US Embassy in my home country, and get a student visa. And so I traveled to El Salvador for a week in order to get this document, and that is where I was when I, when all of this happened.
I remember the silhouettes of the two men in the front, and a little bit of silhouettes of the two men next to me. And the light of the car, illuminating the absolute pitch darkness of the road. And I could not believe what was happening. Some strange men were taking me.
And at some point, I started screaming. And I said, "Let me go! You can't take me, you don't know what you're doing. What you're doing is terrible. And you can just take a person." They had originally sat me next to a door on the back, and so in spite of the car moving at high speed, I decided to open the door and jump out. And they caught me and they put me back in and they sat me in the middle this time and they proceeded to tell me what a bad choice I had just made.
And I said, "Well, I think you should really," you know, in my screaming, I said, "You should take me back. You can't do this to me, because–" I could have said that I was a daughter of a colonel in the military. But the first thing that came to my mind was, "I am a child of God, and God is watching over me. And you can't do this with impunity."
And I think there was a split second of shock in them. But the quick rebuttal was, "Don't worry, honey, we're all going to hell." And when somebody said that, they all laughed. Laughed really hard. And I know I was screaming and crying for a few minutes until I hit fatigue and I just started sobbing.
The truck drove away from the city for about 30 minutes. And then it stopped on a road in the middle of nowhere. And it was pitch dark, and everybody got out of the car. And they told me to get out. And they made me stand in front of the car and they shone the lights on my face. And they said, "Yes, this is her." And then they turned the lights back off. And they were all covered, their faces recovered.
And they said, "Look, I I know your father. He's a colonel in the military. He did some things to me that were very wrong. And I'm here to take vengeance. And I'm going to take you and keep you for a few days and ask for money. And when he gives me that money, I can give you back, I'm not going to hurt you. Nothing's going to happen to you. If you don't run. If you run I might shoot you, but if you stay and are compliant, then you'll be okay. And you'll go back to your family." And I believed him.
So after that, they kept driving me to someplace in the middle of the wilderness. And we finally arrived somewhere and they had me walk a little ways, maybe about a block or two distance. They made me sit down and we were in the middle of a cornfield now. And again, absolute darkness. And one of the men stayed with me and the rest of them left.
So we were there the rest of the night. I fell asleep at some point, I was extremely tired. And I remember waking up and it was still dark. The man they had left watching me was trying to talk to me, trying to get me to calm down. He said they were going to get me to a new location and we were going to have to walk in a little while. So after some point, he told me, "Okay, it's time to walk."
And we started to walk, I guess he could see the way but I couldn't, I just saw darkness and kind of estimated where he was. My thoughts at this time was–I have a good possibility of surviving this, I think I am not in danger anymore. I was starting to feel more calm. But I knew that my family didn't know that, and so all my thoughts were, what is my mother thinking and feeling right now? I wanted to let her know that I was fine. So that was, that was all my thinking at the time. How can I tell her–how can I tell her I'm okay and that I'll be okay?
Eventually, the time came to walk out of the cornfield, and we started to walk down a mountain. As we turn–we came to a turn–a large, large tree appeared, it was so huge. It was probably a guanacaste tree that's native to the area, it was very tall, I would say it's about as tall as a four storey building. The shape of the foliage is round. And the trunk is just so very thick, of course.
And what was striking was, there were probably thousands of fireflies at the tree. And so all of them combined, and just concentrated on the tree was such an amazing spectacle. There were fireflies like mostly in the tree, and then on the trunk, but they did cast a bit of a glow all around the tree. And so from that glow, I could see the path where I was walking a little bit better. And I could see where the path continued past the tree. And then the rest of the the area was dark.
The image was just so powerful and so shocking. And something I had never seen before in my life. But as I, as I thought about it, I thought–it makes sense, it makes sense that the the lightning bugs will come to this tree and it makes sense that all of them together will make this amazing spectacle.
So I felt somehow in my heart, a powerful feeling of joy and hope. And I immediately thought that God was watching over me. And that he was really trying to communicate this message to me, "You are going to be okay. And I'm watching over you."
I think I had had small experiences with prayer but something this dramatic could only be brought about, I think, because of the special circumstances that I was going through.
So we walked about 200 meters past the tree and we went into a cabin. And that's where I remained for the rest of the time I was kept, which was three days. During those three days, I was absolutely just passing the time in this cabin in silence with this man taking care of me, occasionally making conversation. But at the end of those three days I was released and I was unharmed.
And my family was very much in shock. They couldn't believe that nothing had happened to me and they kept asking me repeatedly, "Are you sure? Please don't be afraid to tell us. Please tell us everything that happened to you, everything they did to you." And I assured them that I was okay.
And so I flew out to Florida about three days later. And I decided to get more involved with the church. And one of the, I guess one of the family acquaintances told me, "I think God wants you to do something important. And that is why he didn't let anything happen to you. Because he didn't want your path to be–" What's a good word for that– "truncated."
I think those words were very powerful for me. And I thought that would kind of be the explanation as to why I was able to survive. Because I had been kept safe throughout that experience, which did not have a lot of possibilities of having a safe ending, so in a way, I felt like I had a mandate to do something and to understand what God wanted me to do with my life.
After I returned to Florida and I started going to school, I felt a little bit excited because of the new place where I was living. At my age, I wanted to get to know new new cities and new places. But from time to time, friends would invite me to go out and to probably go drinking with them. And I still didn't feel very interested in doing that. But sometimes it felt like they were almost going to convince me.
I was kind of aware of this idea–I was all by myself, without family that were adults near me that could say, "Don't go out," or "You need to be back at this time," I was completely on my own. And I had this feeling that at any moment, my life could take a negative turn, because I was only 18 and I was in the United States, all by myself with a new freedom.
My mom came to visit a few months later, and she would come to visit every few months. And on one of those visits. She said, "Let's go for a walk." There was a Latter-day Saint chapel near my home, I didn't know what denomination it was. But as we were walking past it with my mom, she pointed to it and she said, "Honey, I really think you should go to this church. I've seen a lot of really orderly people coming in and out from there." I looked at it. And it was a pretty building surrounded by trees. And I said, "Yeah, I'll come sometime. Sure." I made a note to myself to look that up eventually, butnot necessarily a life mission at that moment.
But coincidentally, a few weeks later, two sister missionaries knocked on my door. And my brother was staying with me at the time, and he opened the door. And he said, "I think somebody is looking for you because they're sisters." And I went and I talked to them. And I didn't understand–I was still learning English, and I was not accustomed to a lot of the accents.
And coincidentally, the missionary that did the introduction at the door, she was from Utah and she had a way of speaking that I didn't understand very much, but I did understand "Jesus Christ." At this point, my attitude was, "I am in a search for what God wants me to do with my life."
So I had no reservations, to let them in and listen to them for a little while. And they told me the story of Joseph Smith and they explained a little bit about the Book of Mormon. And they marked a few pages for me to read and I didn't recognize the Book of Mormon, it was completely new. Looking at it, I never doubted that it was a book of scripture.
My mentality was still very innocent about different religions and religious conflict. I felt that I could trust the sisters and take them at their word and they asked me if they could come back and I said absolutely yes. And it just went very smoothly from there.
When they asked me to be baptized, I had already been thinking about being baptized and attending Church meetings. I felt very quick connection with the members of the singles branch where I started attending. I felt that familiar feeling of learning about God and learning about things about eternal life and the importance of being good. And I kind of felt like I was going in a good direction, like I implicitly felt that God was pleased with what I was doing.
I guess at some point, near the time I was baptized, some friends from another faith, found out that I was starting to go to Church, and they gave me literature that was against the Church. And they gave me partial information that looked really bad. "Did you know Joseph Smith was in jail many times?" And I was very shocked. And I started to feel conflicted.
And I started to ask the missionaries, a lot of questions. And at some point, they said to me, "Look, we're only missionaries, and we're going to be here temporarily. Of course, we hope we keep in touch, but you will frequently come across things that are confusing or troubling. So what you need to do is pray, ask Heavenly Father to answer your question, as many days as is necessary. And ask Him to give you a testimony of what you're being taught. After you pray, I recommend that you look in the scriptures. That you read, if you want to read by topic, or if you want to just open anywhere, but that you search the scriptures. And if you pray, and you search the scriptures, I promise you that you will find answers to your questions."
I did that that particular day, and it was amazing. I found a scripture that helped me understand very well. So that was a new dimension of the relationship that I could have with God.
Because up to that point, I had always felt that God loved me, and God is real. But He is somebody who does favors for me. "Please help my aunt get better." "Please help me do well in this test." So those were my prayers before, but now, there was a very powerful new way of praying that was helped me grow in knowledge. And I was taking an active part in that by praying and reading and searching.
I really, really appreciated that it was a defining moment, feeling that I could come to God with a decision that I wanted to make and that He would guide me.
So after that, I became more active. And the sister missionaries tried to get me more involved. So they would ask me to come with them to teach people who were interested in the Church and I started to look at what they were doing and to really appreciate it.
So my desire to serve a mission started to grow stronger. And when I was about to turn 21, I really, really wanted to go on a mission. And I was a little bit nervous to ask my parents for support. But my dad told me that he could see that it was important to me, and that even though he was not of my faith, he felt that it was a very positive thing. So he supported me, he gave me his full support during my mission. And I was called to go to San Diego, in California.
I remember, during this time, me and my companion were sitting with a family. And we were reading the Book of Mormon with them. We decided to read the vision of the tree of life. And we would read a phrase here and there and we would ask them, "What do you think this phrase means?" "How do you think it felt when that happened?" So they could understand more in depth what was happening in the story.
But on this occasion, the phrase where Lehi said that he had been walking in darkness for a long time really caught my attention and then I started explaining and sharing with them that, "Can you imagine what it felt like to see this beautiful tree after he had said a few verses back that he had been walking in darkness, what would it feel like to see a tree full of light?"
So when I said a tree full of light, the memory came to me. Unfortunately at the moment it didn’t come full impact, but that night, as I wrote in my missionary journal, I made that connection. I guess I was strengthened in my gratitude to God for having protected me. And having shared that moment, that beautiful, beautiful moment with me.
And of course it gave me so much more strength to be a missionary and to help people feel the way I felt.
I think this whole experience kind of began to show me a pattern of–there will be a lot of times where its going to be necessary that you are in darkness. And that you don’t understand something, but that you continue to be faithful, because now I know that there is an ultimate goal. And before we get to that goal, many things can happen. And the times of darkness, and the times of trials and the times when I don’t know the answer actually will make the final experience richer. It will help me understand it better and help me appreciate it better.
I think that . . . knowing that I was out in the field, in the middle of nowhere, that God helped me and wanted to send a message to me, shows me how important–first of all how important I am to Him and how important every person is to Him.
So . . . I think to myself, if that happened to me, I'm kind of glad that it happened to me when I was not a member of the Church, because that also strengthens in me the knowledge that everybody is equally valuable and important him no matter what your belief is.
Many times when you find the gospel, you realize how unlikely it is that you would have found it. You ask yourself, "Why? What does it mean that you found the Church? That you found the gospel?” It helped me understand that I have a responsibility, I have a privilege of working with Him to help others.
That was Claudia. I can't help but wish I was an artist after hearing her description of that tree glowing wildly with all of those fireflies. There is something about that scene that demands a painting that I am 100% not qualified to do.
But I am so grateful that we could capture it just a little bit with her words. Claudia's faith and determination to search for a way to dedicate her life to God after being spared by her captors was really inspiring to me. I love her thought that there are going to be times when it's necessary for us to be in the darkness. Times when we won't understand something or be able to make sense of the present. But if we can try to focus on the big picture and move forward with faith, there is an opportunity to let the darkness become transformed into light.
Now, let me be clear, I don't think Heavenly Father begrudges any of us whatever amount of time we need to move through trauma or sorrow or pain. I can't even begin to imagine the emotional anguish that must have come after an experience like Claudia's. But I am grateful to learn from her ability to make meaning from this horribly scary experience and work towards healing through seeking a more committed relationship with the Savior.
One of the best things that I discovered as I was preparing to introduce the story and our theme today was that the symbol of a Tree of Life is not just sacred in Judeo-Christian texts like the Bible and the Book of Mormon.
In ancient civilizations like Urartu and Iran, there are representations of a tree of life guarded by servants carved into the armor of warriors and depicted on fortress walls. In Chinese mythology, the tree of life is often accompanied by a dragon guarding the base and a phoenix rising at the top of the tree toward the sun.
Nordic folk traditions of Europe also have a sacred tree with an apple that provides immortality to the gods. Islam, Hinduism, the Baha'i Faith, all of these make reference to a tree of life and their sacred texts. They may not call it the exact same thing, but that connection to trees and deity and eternity, they're all there.
Now, I'm hardly a scholar of antiquity or Mesopotamian religion, so please take my musings about the ancient symbolic trees in the spirit that they are intended, rather than academic truth.
I just couldn't help but see that beautiful connection between this new information and that moment at the end of Claudia's story. Her admission that she was grateful she experienced that tree of light before finding the restored gospel of Jesus Christ instead of after, because it has given her an irrefutable testimony that God loves all His children.
And just so I don't get overly complicated about this, I pulled the definition of the tree of life from the Primary Four lesson manual, where it says simply, quote, "The Tree of Life is the love of God in giving the world His only begotten Son," end quote.
Claudia's experience, though it seems magical is actually just the gospel in its most practical terms. The light of that tree that is woven its way into her life, that light comes directly from the love of God embodied in the sacrifice of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
And that sacrifice was and is for everyone. For literally all of God's children, for ancient Mesopotamians, and Nordic warriors and followers of Islam, for current El Salvadorians, and future El Salvadorians, and El Salvadorians living in Florida. It's for believers and non-believers and deniers and even persecutors. It's for the pure in heart. And it's also for those whose hearts are clouded by sin or transgression.
It's not lost on me that Claudia was not alone when she saw that tree lit up in the field, and that the other person who saw it was the very person causing her suffering at that moment. We have no way of knowing if he–her captor–even noted the beauty of that moment or if the light made its way into his heart. But it was there. The light was there shining for him too.
And I'm not suggesting that those who cause us pain don't have to reconcile their actions with God, because they absolutely do and they must, whether in this life or the next. But it is reassuring to me that despite my weaknesses, my failings and the times when I outright do wrong, that that love–God's love–doesn't disappear.
When Nephi asked to see the vision of the tree of life that his father Lehi had been shown, an Angel began to offer him visions from the life of Jesus Christ. And a little while into the visions, the angel asked if he understood what he was seeing. And Nephi answered simply, "I know that He"–meaning God–"Loveth His children. Nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things."
Like Claudia and Nephi before her we may not know the meaning of all things, there is so much in this life that is confounding and confusing and unfair. But we can know the thing that will keep us rooted in our faith and in hope. We can know that God loves His children, every single one. And that the love of God like a tree shining in the dark night in a field in the middle of nowhere, is represented in the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ for us.
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storyteller Claudia for helping us to learn more about feeling and seeing the love of God in our lives. You can learn more about Claudia and all of our storytellers in our show notes at LDS living.com/thisisthegospel.
All of the stories in this episode are true and accurate as affirmed by our storytellers. If you have a true story about your life, and living the gospel of Jesus Christ, we want to hear it. You can call and pitch your story on our pitch line at 515-519-6179. We meet so many of our storytellers this way, you'll have three minutes to leave us a pitch so plan ahead to give us the best parts first, you can find more tips on how to pitch a great story by following us on Facebook or Instagram at @thisisthegospel_podcast.
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This episode was co-produced by me, KaRyn Lay and Erika free with additional story production and editing by Katie Lambert. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDS living.com/podcasts