In the month since Elder Neil L. Andersen and Sister Kathy Andersen came to Bogotá, Colombia, Sarina Bohórquez has seen her life change as she follows their counsel.
“This devotional brought a new motto into my life, and like Sister Andersen’s mother, I too ‘want to be right before the Lord,’” said Bohórquez, who is a member of the Granada Ward in the Bogotá Colombia Granada Stake.
Bohórquez attended a special meeting for married couples in Bogotá on Friday, Nov. 19, presided over by Elder Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The devotional was part of multiple meetings and trainings held around Colombia and Ecuador by Elder and Sister Andersen, Elder Brent H. Nielson, of the Presidency of the Seventy, and Sister Marcia Nielson, and members of the area presidency and their wives from Nov. 12- Nov. 20.
During the visit, the General Authorities and the South America Northwest Area Presidency met with hundreds of Latter-day Saints, missionaries, mission presidents and Church leaders to offer counsel and prayers for an area hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bohórquez said the visit was an answer to her many prayers: “Elder Andersen’s visit had a powerful impact on my heart, I could feel that the Lord sent an Apostle to bless me, comfort me and strengthen my life in a very personal way.”
And for one Colombian family taking the missionary discussions, being invited to hear from an Apostle has changed their entire perspective.
“We are more united as a family,” Edison and Andrea Medina Cubillos wrote in an email. “We learned the importance of being united, of love and understanding. Since that day we have dedicated more time to our daughter and us, and we remember the importance of teaching our daughter and remembering always our love toward God.”
The COVID-19 pandemic greatly affected many areas of Latin America. Several local leaders and Church members died. Many missionaries and members have felt isolated.
In Guayaquil, Elder Andersen was very concerned for Latter-day Saints who had been lost to COVID-19. He wanted them to know that senior Church leaders “know these people by name.”
Elder Nielson said it was evident this was on Elder Andersen’s mind during the trip.
“Guayaquil, Ecuador, was really hit hard,” said Elder Nielson. “We lost many valiant members of the Church. The Sunday we were there, Elder Andersen reviewed many of their names with the congregation of 30 stakes, and who they were and where they had served. We paid tribute to these members who had moved through the veil.”
Ecuador Guayaquil North Mission President Tracy O. Skousen spoke of the pandemic’s impact on the area in an email conversation with the Church News. “Many loved ones have passed away, families have been concerned for the welfare for their family, their missionaries and their friends. When Elder Andersen recognized that Church leaders are aware of the challenges here in Ecuador it was very well received and brought great comfort.”
The missionaries were locked down for a while, and nearly all nonnative missionaries were initially sent back to their home countries. Those missionaries who remained were not allowed to leave their apartments for anything except to purchase food. But they found new ways to preach the gospel during this challenging time. This included virtual lessons, and eventually a return to some in-person visits under local guidance and regulations.
“Following a difficult 20 months of quarantines and survival tactics due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elder Andersen’s visit was a time of refreshment and new hope; a time for the missionaries, local leaders and members alike to be fortified in testimony and purpose, and to be reminded that they are not forgotten,” said President Alan B. Tingey, the mission president of the Ecuador Guayaquil South Mission.
Come back to Church
Guayaquil is Ecuador’s main port, and its largest city with around 2 million residents. It has four missions and 17 stakes. Elder Andersen told the Church members and missionaries in Ecuador about the importance of returning to their wards and worshipping together.
“He spoke of the need to ‘re-establish the Church’ following a challenging pandemic by inviting all members to ‘come back to church’ and re-engage in the establishment of Zion,” President Tingey said.
Colombian Latter-day Saints also were reminded that they are not forgotten, when Elder Andersen and the other leaders visited Bogotá after leaving Guayaquil. He shared a message with them that with vaccinations and masking, they can safely attend Church meetings again. Elder Nielson acknowledged there has been some hesitation to go back to Church, and he hoped Church members received the message of how important it is to worship together.
“It is wonderful that he visited our city and our country and blessed many families including ours,” said María Amelia Olmos and Mauricio Gutiérrez of the Funza Ward in the Bogotá Colombia el Dorado Stake. “We testify of his sacred calling, and can declare that he is a special witness of Christ.”
Testifying in Spanish
It had been several years since a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has been in Guayaquil.
“We loved being with the good members in Guayaquil,” said Elder Andersen in his office in Salt Lake City after returning home.
During their time there, Elder Andersen, Elder Nielson, the area presidency and their wives spoke at several meetings, seminars and trainings with missionaries, mission presidents and stake leaders. And Elder Andersen spoke mostly in Spanish. His missionary language is French, and then he was in the area presidency in Brazil where he learned Portuguese.
“The fact that Elder Andersen made the effort to come personally to South America and speak to the missionaries in their own language lifted them after a long year of restrictions and worry. For many, it may be their only opportunity to be in the same room with an Apostle, to hear his testimony and to feel of his spirit. They felt remembered,” said Sister Susan F. Tingey, who serves with her husband, President Tingey, in the Ecuador Guayaquil South Mission.
President Skousen also pointed out how impactful it was for the missionaries in his mission to hear an Apostle come speak Spanish to them in-person.
“Our missionaries appreciated every word he said,” said President Skousen. He said all of them are working on the challenge he offered to memorize five scriptures from the Book of Mormon and five scriptures from the New Testament that they believe deeply and want to remember long after their missions.
Not only did the four missions in Guayaquil — North, East, South and West — gather together in one spot for the first time, many of the missions themselves were united for the first time. Sister Diane Skousen of the Ecuador Guayaquil North Mission said before that day, she and her husband had only ever had three zones together at once. (The Skousens began their service in July 2020 in the height of the pandemic.)
Each of the four missions stood on risers outside the Samborondon meetinghouse for an historic picture together.
“Walking in to that area and seeing all of these missionaries together, close to 450, was an emotional experience,” Sister Skousen wrote in an email. “The Spirit touched me as I looked and saw for the first time our mission all together, and for the first time four missions together! Each missionary is vaccinated for COVID and all were wearing face masks standing reverently waiting for an Apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ to arrive. The spirit, even outside in the heat of the afternoon Ecuador sun, was so strong!”
Since the Guayaquil missions meeting on Nov. 13, the missionaries have seen specific blessings as they follow Elder Andersen’s directives. Besides memorizing 10 scriptures, he told them to gather Israel and reestablish the Church in Ecuador.
Sister Skousen said the missionaries are becoming more visible in their communities. They hold youth activities, do service projects and clean up and plant around their neighborhoods. They are distribute COVID-19 kits and other resources from the Church. They encourage people who are hesitant to come back to Church in-person to attend sacrament meeting, organizational meetings, seminary and other youth activities.
“There is a much stronger focus on the youth. We have a stronger focus on working with the members to help re-establish the church through greater Sunday meeting attendance. We are seeing much reactivation. Even though our mission culture is very good, Elder Andersen brought additional strength and support. His counsel to teach more the doctrine of Christ and use the words of the Prophet is helping to develop the missionaries to become disciples of Jesus Christ,” said President Skousen.
Elder Andersen emphasized the central role of the doctrine of Christ and the principles of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance followed by the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost.
“The missionaries and mission leaders have been lifted to higher ground in our understanding of these powerful principles and we are left with a spirit and optimism that miracles continue and the Lord’s work moves forward,” said President Tingey. “The effects will be long-lasting as we continue to teach these principles within the mission.”
On Sunday, Nov. 14, Elder Andersen, Elder Nielson, Elder Mathias Held, a General Authority Seventy and first counselor in the area presidency, and their wives spoke in a stake conference meeting from the Centenario Stake Center that was broadcast to multiple stakes in the area and region.
“It was fantastic to hear the testimony and teaching from each of the spouses. These powerful women with so much humility, experience, fortitude, counsel and insight were such an example of expounding on the scriptures and words of the Prophet to every missionary. It shows all missionaries the power and strength of exemplary women,” said President Skousen.
Later, in Bogota, Sarina Bohórquez said she was impressed by the testimonies of the women as well. “Sister Andersen quoting President Hinckley reminded us of a promise: that our descendants would remain faithful to the Lord for generations to come as we obey the law of tithing,” she said.
The visiting authorities held an area review on Nov. 16 in Bogota. Elder Nielson said this was one of the main reasons for their visit. He said it gave the general authorities a chance to take a deep dive into everything happening in the area, from missionary work to baptisms and humanitarian efforts to temple work and family history.
He remarked on the beauty of Bogota and the strength of the Church members there. It’s a city on a high plateau, sitting at more than 8,661 feet high. As a comparison, Salt Lake City is at 4,226.
Church members there said having an Apostle travel to their country was an inspiring example to them of how they could safely return back to worshipping together in-person.
”The experience of being ministered by one of the Twelve Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ in our country was wonderful,” María Amelia Olmos and Mauricio Gutiérrez wrote. “It strengthened our testimony about the Savior and His gospel plan of eternal family relationships.”
Elder Andersen and Elder Nielson and their wives met with the two missions in Bogota — Colombia Bogota North Mission and Colombia Bogota South Mission — and the Colombia MTC missionaries on Nov. 17. Elder Nielson said this was another opportunity to teach the missionaries from the scriptures, and express to them how much the Lord loved them and their sacrifice and service.
Learning from each other
Venezuela Barcelona Mission President Alexys Uriepero was one of 36 mission presidents who traveled to meet with Elder Andersen in Bogota, Colombia, for a mission leadership seminar from Nov. 18-20. Each participant underwent COVID testing so that they all could meet together safely. Many had been locked down for a year and a half, and said they appreciated being able to be together and learn from each other.
This was the first time in their lives that the Urieperos had been close to an Apostle of the Lord. Six months before, they were in a video training with Elder Andersen, and since then, President Uriepero said Elder Andersen continues to improve his Spanish.
“Before the seminar, we did necessary things in the mission. But after listening to an Apostle, we are implementing his teachings to the letter and with the guidance of the spirit, because we know that it is the will of the Father and this is His work,” said President Uriepero through a translator.
Elder Nielson said there were several moments in the mission presidents training where the spirit was really strong, and he was sure that everyone could feel the powerful witness of what they were learning. He also pointed out that many of the most impactful moments of the two-day training came in the meal times and breaks. The mission presidents were able to share with each other the different experiences and solutions they were finding in their own service.
“These meetings were our first after having served for 17 months,” said President Skousen. ”I want to thank all of those with the thinking that this was important. I appreciate Elder Andersen and Elder Nielson and their sensitivity to the needs of the church leaders, church members, mission leaders and missionaries.”
All of the mission leaders and the visiting authorities attended the Bogota Colombia Temple together that weekend. The leaders said for those who had felt isolated during the pandemic, this was a healing balm.
Frank and Rosa Borda Santamaria of the Federman Ward in the Bogota Colombia Stake attended the devotional for married couples on Friday, Nov. 19, in the Alhambra Meetinghouse. Rosa is a member of the Church while Frank is not. They both felt grateful for the privilege and all they learned.
It felt like Elder Andersen was a friend speaking directly to them, they explained. “He illustrated very well the responsibility that we have as parents to guide our children, and illuminate their path, so that they obtain their own light in the years ahead,” the Santamarias wrote in an email to the Church News.
“Without a doubt, the words will remain in our minds and hearts from the leaders who participated in this beautiful devotional to help us love our spouse and know how to guide our children,” they wrote.
Sarina Bohórquez said she felt inspired by Sister Andersen’s message to be honest in the paying of tithing and staying worthy to attend the temple. Sister Andersen shared a story about tithing and her mother. She shared her love of living prophets and love of Jesus Christ.
“You can feel that no matter how many evils or pandemics hit the world, my family will be fine. As we obey God’s laws, His promises will always come in His way and in His time,” Bohórquez said.
The meeting was also broadcast to reach other audiences, and even those who were not there in-person said they felt the Spirit.
“We could notice the enormous humility from the Apostle,” said Jaime Bedoya of the Bogota Colombia Stake. He said his testimony was strengthened and how important it is to have an eternal companion like his wife Lucero.
The Gutiérrez Olmos family wrote since that meeting, they have moved forward with a higher resolve to obey God’s commandments and have an eternal family.
“In more than 20 years that we have been members of the Church, this is the first time we were ministered to by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It is wonderful he visited our city and our country and blessed many families, including ours.”