As converts increase, faithful Argentine LDS are key to future

Despite continued explosive growth of the Church in other South American countries, Argentina progressed slowly for many decades.

Although growth here was slower, however, it was constant and now missionaries and members are finding a significant harvest of converts as they build on this foundation of constancy.Argentina's growth pattern was foreseen when the South American Mission was organized in Buenos Aires in 1926. Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Council of the Twelve said: "The work will go forth slowly for a time, just as the oak grows slowly from an acorn. It will not shoot up in a day as the sunflower that grows quickly and thus dies. Thousands will join here. . . . The South American Mission will become a power in the Church."

In the early decades of missionary work here, membership increased only by handfuls. In 1960, when the Church had been in Argentina for 35 years, the country had a membership of only 3,500 with no stakes. But later in the 1960s the work began to flourish. Argentina's first stake was created in Buenos Aires in 1966 and other stakes soon followed. In the 1970s, 11 stakes were created in Argentina. Four missions have been created in the past five years. One of the developments of greatest impact was the placing of a temple in Buenos Aires, dedicated in 1986.

Today, Argentina has 195,423 members in 23 stakes, a temple, a missionary training center and 10 missions. Yet in a country of more than 33 million, the Church remains comparatively small.

One General Authority has been called from Argentina, Elder Angel Abrea of the Seventy, who was Argentina's first stake president. He is now serving as president of the Mexico North Area. The first Argentine mission president was Juan Carlos Avila, called in 1974.

The influence of the members is already being felt. Argentina's members rank high in faithfulness. Many have leadership abilities that help the Church progress not only in Argentina, but also in other lands. Up to the present, 21 brethren and their wives have been called to lead missions. Increasing numbers of Argentine members are born in the Church, attend seminary, fill missions and are married in the temple.

Pres. Anthony I. Bentley of the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission, observed: "I am convinced that not withstanding the growth and progress of the past 57 years, all of that predicted by Elder Ballard will be realized.

"In reality, we are just commencing. The day will come when the members of the Church will represent a high percentage of the population of Argentina. The Church will be well-known and its members very respected. The influence of the Church will be beneficial and will be felt throughout the land."

Mission and stake leaders in Argentina today seek new ways to carry the gospel to the millions of the people who live in the great cities. Missionaries no longer go door to door because modern urban life no longer permits this form of proselyting. In the cities, many people dwell in buildings with electric security doors. Others fear opening doors to strangers. In addition, many homes are vacant in the day as people work long hours, or attend school.

This leaves local members as the key to sharing the gospel with their neighbors. "We have a good participation of the local members, especially during recent months," said Pres. Bentley. "We have noticed that there have been many baptisms, that there is an atmosphere of helping and working together of priesthood leaders and members. Members have helped in every thing we have asked of them."

In past decades, converts faced a serious hurdle as they started a new social pattern among members. Many converts simply did not join because of the difficulty of abandoning traditions and customs that did not harmonize with the gospel. Often, the bonds between the family investigating the Church and their non-LDS relatives and friends were very strong. At the same time, the fellowshipping in small wards and branches lacked necessary strength.

Today's members are a great help over this hurdle. Walter Pizzaro, baptized in 1979, recalled that when he joined the Church, he had to change many habits. "My friends also changed because my interests were different." Fellowshipping helped him make the adjustment.

Now, 14 years later, the trials of adjustment are far behind. He has filled a mission, married in the temple, is the father of three and president of a branch.

"Today, it feels natural to be a member of the Church," he said. "We no longer feel social pressure. Our relationships with our non-member families are good; they accept our customs and beliefs. Our children feel the gospel is the basis for their lives and the standard by which they develop relationships at school."

His wife, Mariel, added, "It seemed strange for our 5-year-old, that her teacher at school did not know about the Book of Mormon. She begged me for a copy of the Book of Mormon to give to her teacher."

Another convert, Mario Truman of Jewish ancestry, was baptized with his family in 1988. A friend at work invited him to Church and introduced him to the missionaries. After his family was baptized, the friend helped integrate them into the ward and its activities.

Today, a bishop's counselor in the Lugano Ward, Brother Truman commented, "The gospel has increased my love and respect for our family."

Ward members were also there to support the Truman family as they went to the temple, a strengthening experience for all.

"When we went to the temple, that experience awakened in us the sense of eternal life, and an understanding that through the ordinances I am able to continue the unity of family with my wife and my children," said Brother Truman. "We also have covenanted personally with our Heavenly Father to work in His service with all our strength."

Another source of strength are the lifetime members now serving as leaders. An example of these is Bishop Benjamin Rodriguez of the Vicente Lopes Ward in Buenos Aires, who was born in the Church. His parents were baptized in 1950. He attended Primary, seminary, Young Men, filled a mission, married in the temple and, at age 28, was called as bishop. Regarding his preparation, he said:

"In my work in the bishopric and especially with the youth, it helps me very much to remember the experiences I had as a child and youth in the Church.

"I remember when we as children knelt during family prayer and I remember family home evening. I also remember the example of my parents in maintaining fidelity and constancy in the Church."

His wife, Andrea, also a lifetime member, agreed: "Seeing my mother being dedicated to her callings and at the same time putting the family first has been a great example that I have tried to assimilate in my life. I now try to put that example into practice.

"Without her example, perhaps today I would be more worried about obtaining a good job than about my own family. The gospel has given me a clear vision of the value of its transcendent truths."

Through leaders such as these and members who extend the hand of fellowship, strong bonds of unity continue to be welded between the long-time members and converts. Increases in missionary work, predictably, will continue to build upon the foundation of faithful members.

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