Not long after Elder Gary E. Stevenson was sustained as Presiding Bishop for the Church in March 2012, he was involved in acquiring a piece of property in Uruguay to be used for Church-sponsored events and functions.
Intended as a gathering place for members living in the South America South Area, the land — after a few years of development and care — now includes an area with tents, bathroom facilities, a soccer field and a pavilion constructed of local materials harvested off the site.
During his travels to the South America South Area from Jan. 21-29, Elder Stevenson, now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, returned to this property in Uruguay, this time during a local “For the Strength of Youth” conference (similar to Especially for Youth).
As he walked around the property, he could tell the members considered it as sacred ground.
“They care for it,” Elder Stevenson told the Church News. “And also found an identity for [it]. It has been wonderful to see the acquisition and then the fulfillment of its use.”
While there, he witnessed more than 325 youth and their leaders enjoying their time together, learning of Christ and His Atonement and strengthening their personal testimonies. And this gathering was only one of the 18-20 sessions that will visit the property — an average of 10,000 people visiting the grounds each year.
“ ‘For the Strength of Youth’ activities provide our rising generation a special experience that the youth are so much looking for,” said Elder José A. Teixeira, who currently serves as the South America South Area President. “The youth [are] blessed when they participate and the young single adult counselors are equally blessed as they serve as role models. Both increase their faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
More important than any piece of property are the members who gather there to feel united with other members and strengthen their faith in Christ.
“These faithful youth leave these events and return home to become a strengthening agent in their families,” Elder Stevenson said. “There are many of them who are making decisions to go on missions and to remain steadfast with their goal to be married in the temple and also those who are motivated for higher education.”
For many youth, the “For the Strength of Youth” conference is an important element to building a more firm foundation for their testimony.
“The comments and testimonies of the youth today in the meetings about what it meant for them to participate in the ‘For the Strength of Youth’ and the things they have felt and learned makes us feel that it was worth all that was done for the activity to take place,” said President Nestor H. Ferrari, who presides over the Buenos Aires Argentina Aldo Bonzi Stake.
During his eight-day visit to the area, Elder Stevenson visited with members, missionaries and priesthood leaders in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. Accompanying him on his travels was his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson, as well as the area presidency — Elder Teixeira, Elder Allan F. Packer and Elder Mark A. Bragg, each General Authority Seventies — and their wives, Sister Maria Teixeira, Sister Terri Packer and Sister Yvonne Bragg.
After visiting many members living and serving in these three South American countries, Elder Stevenson said he is impressed by the dedicated youth of the Church in that area of the world.
“One of their challenges is that most of the time there is one, maybe two, members of the Church in their schools and in their environment,” Elder Stevenson said of the youth. “Even there, where Christianity is strong, they are in an environment with decaying moral values. There is a lot of pressure on them and as these youth are together it just gives them a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of critical mass that goes beyond the boundaries of their wards and stakes. It gives them a great sense of power from one another.”
Another highlight for Elder Stevenson was visiting with approximately 1,500 missionaries — many of whom are native to South America, as well as a high percentage of sisters among them — serving in a total of eight missions within these three countries.
“Most of the conversation was about teaching repentance by extending invitations,” Elder Stevenson said. “In every missionary meeting we talked about the missionary purpose found in Preach My Gospel. I would choose one missionary out of the congregation and ask them to stand and lead the other missionaries in stating the missionary purpose. They not only recited their missionary purpose, but they understood and strive to live their missionary purpose by inviting others to come unto Christ by helping them to receive the restored gospel.”
In addition to meeting with the missionaries, Elder Stevenson enjoyed meeting with other faithful members of the Church in the area. There are close to 1.5 million members living in the three countries he visited. Elder Stevenson observed their focus in following what their leaders have asked them to do to improve their discipleship and increase their faith. Many members carry around with them a card that explains how to achieve the “South America South Area Plan” for 2017.
“It focuses on the temple, self-reliance, Sabbath day and other things you can do to live the gospel more fully,” Elder Stevenson said. “Every member there keeps their card on hand — even the children — it’s very impressive.”
Elder Stevenson further reflected, “What a joy it was to assocaite with these faithful Latter-day Saints who have established Zion in each of their beautiful countries.”