Church marks 75 years in South America

Elder Melvin J. Ballard's shipmates had no hint South America would become a power in the Church when the S.S. Voltaire docked in Argentina 75 years ago.

The apostle and a pair of fellow General Authorities — Elders Rulon S. Wells and Rey L. Pratt — were met at the port of Buenos Aires on Dec. 6, 1925, by a handful of members who had joined the Church in Germany before moving to Argentina. That tiny band of immigrants made up the Church population in South America. Not one government leader greeted Elder Ballard and his companions dockside that day. No local newspapers announced their arrival.

For months, Elder Ballard and the other Brethren lived Spartan lives and performed missionary work at ground level — passing out gospel tracts on city streets and attempting to spread their message via Buenos Aires newspapers. They had little success, according to the book From Acorn to Oak Tree. (Williams and Williams; Et Cetera, Et Cetera Graphics; 1987.)

Still, Elder Ballard owned a prophetic eye. He saw power in Argentina — indeed, in all of South America.

He knew that another apostle of the Restoration, Parley P. Pratt, had envisioned miracles during an earlier visit to this large and diverse continent. And ages before Brother Pratt, Nephi had received divine promise that his broken people, scattered throughout the New World, would be "restored unto the knowledge of their fathers, and also to the knowledge of Jesus Christ." (2 Nephi 30:5.)

So Elder Ballard gathered with other members at Tres de Febrero Park in Buenos Aires on Christmas Day, 1925, and dedicated South America for the preaching of the gospel. Months later, Elder Ballard stood before a sparsely attended testimony meeting and offered a remarkable prophecy on the land:

"Work will go slowly for a time just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn — not shoot up in a day as does the sunflower that grows quickly and thus dies. Thousands will join here; it will be divided into more than one mission and will be one of the strongest in the Church. The work here is the smallest that it will ever be. The day will come when the Lamanites here will get a chance. The South American Mission is to be a power in the Church."

Now, 75 year later, the unified prophecies of Nephi, Parley P. Pratt and Melvin J. Ballard are being realized. Church growth in South America has been miraculous. There were 73 members in South America five years after Elder Ballard's prophetic words — in 1999, there were almost 2.5 million. The boundaries of the original South American Mission now contain 69 missions. The children of Lehi are getting their chance.

Christmas Day 2000 will be a historic, spiritual day for South Americans living throughout the world. Besides rejoicing in Christ's birth, thousands will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the gospel's re-birth in this section of the land of Lehi.

"It's hard to imagine the growth of the Church here," said Denis Pitarch, 23, of the Buenos Aires Liniers Stake. "It has been wonderful to watch a small plant that began in 1925 grow into a beautiful tree."

South Americans will not celebrate alone. Since the advent of the South American Mission, tens of thousands of elders and sisters from around the globe have served on the continent from Colombia to Chile, Peru to Brazil. They, too, will marvel at how an acorn has become an ever-growing, sturdy oak.

President James E. Faust of the First Presidency remembers serving as a young elder in Brazil from 1939-42 when the work, as prophesied, moved slowly. Divine intervention, he said, has made remarkable growth a reality.

"At the time our labors were unfruitful and difficult," said President Faust of his mission during the October 2000 general conference. "We could not envision the great outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord which has come in [Brazil] and its neighboring countries in South America, Central America and Mexico in the intervening years. Sixty years ago there was only one stake in all of these countries. Now there are 643 stakes in Latin America. I believe it is only the beginning."

While a full-time missionary, young Elder Faust was assigned to learn Portuguese. Teaching the gospel in its fullness in the country's predominant language was challenging then. With the exception of the Bible, none of the Standard Works had yet been translated into Portuguese.

"All we had translated [in Portuguese] was the Joseph Smith Story," said President Faust in a Church News interview.

During one particularly slow year of President Faust's mission, there were only three convert baptisms among the 70 missionaries serving in Brazil. But numbered among the tiny group of Brazilians who accepted the gospel in that period were faithful members who "proved to be some of the elect," President Faust said.

In 1975, President Faust was called to preside over South America. When plans to build a temple in Sao Paulo, Brazil, were announced, the South American members were given the charge to raise 30 percent of the temple construction cost during a time of great inflation in South America.

It was also a period of tremendous sacrifice for many on that continent. Many donated "precious possessions" for the Church to sell and use the cash to help build the Sao Paulo Brazil Temple. President Faust told of a faithful Argentine member who had a gold dental bridge extracted to help raise money for a temple in a foreign country, Brazil.

In the end, each of the four stakes in Sao Paulo at that time raised the equivalent of $80,000 U.S. dollars, President Faust said.

Many Brazilians of African descent worked "with the same degree of devotion and love" as the others, even though there was no hope they would be able to enter the dedicated temple, President Faust said. Just months before the Sao Paulo Brazil Temple was dedicated, President Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation that all worthy men could enjoy the blessings of the priesthood, including temple worship.

"That was a great time in the history of the Church [in Brazil]," he said.

Today, President Faust marvels at the Church's strength in Chile, Brazil and the other countries of South America. Labor in that continent has been a family affair. Besides his own service, two of his brothers and five grandsons completed Brazilian missions. And, of course, Sister Ruth Faust and a daughter joined President Faust during his General Authority service in South America.

"It has been a great happening in the experience of my life to have seen the work begin from practically nothing in the years since Brother Ballard dedicated South America to where it is today," he said.

Frederick G. Williams, a BYU professor who co-authored From Acorn to Oak Tree with his late father, Frederick S. Williams, points to pivotal periods in establishing the Church in South America.

Early missionary work focused, first, on European immigrants, he said. Later, the majority of the proselyting shifted to native Spanish and Portuguese-speaking people. The missionaries, over time, became adept at connecting their gospel message with the local cultures.

Still, the amazing growth of the Church in South America is, first and foremost, the result "of the will of the Lord," Brother Williams said in a Church News interview.

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, a grandson of Elder Melvin J. Ballard, marvels at the work of the Church in South America. He remembers traveling to Lima, Peru, in 1988 when there were 11 stakes in the city. In one weekend, he and other leaders organized seven additional Lima stakes.

"I truly saw my grandfather's and Joseph Smith's prophecies fulfilled," Elder Ballard said in a 1989 address at the Institute of Religion at Utah State University. "A miracle had been accomplished there by the power of the Lord's Spirit working through His authorized servants, the missionaries."

<!-- The blood of Israel pumps in the veins of South Americans, Elder Ballard told the Church News. Latin Americans are a blessed people, possessing soft hearts that respond to the Spirit and feel the truthfulness of gospel messages.

Elder Ballard is optimistic about the next 75 years in South America. The Church, he believes, will enjoy constant growth. The gospel will become progressively more important throughout the continent. The faith is also maturing — it is common now for South American bishops and stake presidents to be the sons of former bishops and stake presidents.

Ballard family roots continue to run deep through South America. Elder M. Russell Ballard supervised the Church in Latin America for five years. His eldest son, Clark R. Ballard, was serving a mission in Argentina when the Church marked its 50th anniversary in South America. Clark spoke at that celebration. He is returning to Argentina for this year's anniversary to again participate.

Like his grandfather, Elder M. Russell Ballard has apostolic words for South America's members:

"Keep your eyes riveted on the leadership of the Church. Follow the counsel of the prophet. Live the gospel within your own families . . . and remain true, faithful and worthy to receive the wonderful blessings of the temples."

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