MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — In a towering tent surrounded by eucalyptus trees and the buses that transported Church members to the southern tip of Uruguay, President Russell M. Nelson stood and viewed a congregation of some 4,200 Latter-day Saints on Thursday, Oct. 25.
“I can hardly believe what I am seeing," he said. "Hundreds and hundreds of faithful Latter-day Saints have transformed this tent into a chapel."
The member devotional, held at the Landia Centro de Espectaculos and broadcast across Uruguay, marked the fourth stop on President Nelson’s ministry tour to South America. The historic trip includes visits to five countries in nine days and will culminate with the dedication of the Concepcion Chile Temple on Oct. 28.
The power of posterity
Eduardo and Jeanet Echevarria Risso — with four generations of their family — are a symbol of the strength of the Church in Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million people with 104,996 Latter-day Saints in 18 stakes, three districts and two missions.
They met President Nelson across the street from the Rio de la Plata in a building influenced by European culture and architecture.
“Our posterity is our most important thing,” said Eduardo Risso. “It is our joy.”
President Nelson picked up 3-year-old Pierina Risso and bent down to visit with many of her cousins. A child asked the prophet what he can do to prepare for a mission.
“Be like your Daddy. Be like your mother,” replied President Nelson. “Home is the best MTC (missionary training center). All others are secondary.”
The family, which came into the Church in 1973, now has a posterity that includes missionaries. “We are so proud of our children,” said Eduardo Risso, noting their first goal for their posterity was Church activity.
“How powerful it was to walk into a room and see four generations of Latter-day Saints in this country,” said Elder Gary E. Stevenson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who accompanied President Nelson to South America. “What power there was in seeing that and feeling the connectivity that great-grandparents had to their grandchildren — each generation, as they meet the prophet, greeting him with such joy.”
Elder Stevenson said many observed the family’s desire to be with the prophet and to listen to his words. “More impressive was the evidence of the way they are living the gospel every day,” he said. “You could feel that they weren’t just dressed in their Sunday best today to come and do something they don’t do every single day.”
The Uruguay Mission, created in 1947, was the Church’s third mission in South America, following Argentina and Brazil.
Work in Uruguay — home to an educated, literate Christian population — moved forward first in 1952, when the government granted legal recognition of the Church, and again two years later as the first meetinghouse in the country was dedicated.
The country continues to experience incredible Church growth, said Elder Mark A. Bragg, a General Authority Seventy who serves as first counselor in the Church’s South America South Area presidency.
“The members in Uruguay are very focused on family history work and getting to the temple,” he said. “The members have been extremely successful in getting new converts to the temple right after baptism, and that has done miracles for the retention of those new converts.”
As a missionary in Uruguay, Sister Christelle Dawson of Keller, Texas, is continuing the work of her grandfather, who served in the South American nation exactly 60 years ago.
She has served in some of the same cities as her grandfather and walked the same streets he walked. She knows she is building on the foundation he laid. "There is still a lot of work to do," she said.
Elder Ricardo Javier Torres, a missionary from Uruguay, was abandoned as an infant and placed in the home of his adoptive mother. As he saw children stay at the home for a time and then leave, he made a decision.
"I want you to adopt me," he told his mother.
"I was just waiting for you to ask me that," she replied.
Elder Torres' adoption brought him two blessings — a family and the gospel. "I owe her everything," he said of this mother, Ana Lucia Romero Falcon.
President Mark D. Eddy of the Uruguay Montevideo Mission said he was immediately impressed with how much Elder Torres had been through and his desire to serve a mission. When the mission president asked Elder Torres why he was serving a mission and working to build the Church in his own country, he said: "After all the Savior has done for me, I felt like I needed to give something back."
A sweet reunion
Missionaries from both the Uruguay Montevideo Mission and Uruguay Montevideo West Mission filled the Montevideo East Stake Center and sang a missionary anthem for President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson.
The visit was special to the Nelsons, as their grandson, Elder Nicholas R. Nelson, serves in the Montevideo West mission. Before greeting every missionary individually, President Nelson greeted his grandson. He also had a special greeting for Elder Ricardo A. Padilla, his grandson’s companion.
“We saw something today that was quite special,” said Elder Stevenson, who was accompanied by his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson. “We saw President Nelson shake the hand of his grandson and give him a big hug. It was tender to watch.”
During a time when President Nelson is talking to Latter-day Saints about teaching their children and when he is helping the Church implement a new “home-centered, Church-supported" instruction, Elder Stevenson said it was profound to witness the prophet “for a moment in his role as a grandfather.”
Sister Nelson told the missionaries that shaking their hands is important to both her and President Nelson. "We can experience your love of the Lord, your desire for being a missionary for the Savior. Sometimes we can even feel a recent sacrifice you have made," she said. "It all comes through the light in your eyes."
After three years of working with the missionaries, Nestor Curbelo was baptized in 1969. On the day of his baptism, he paid the tithing he had been saving for more than one year.
Back then, without a temple in South America, he was told to “get baptized, be faithful and attend Church.”
Missionaries became a symbol of the Church in early days in Uruguay.
Early in their marriage, Curbelo's wife, Rosalina Coitino, thought of the temple as "something she would do in the millennium."
But "the Church started growing little by little. We started learning about the temple little by little.”
The 1978 dedication of the Sao Paulo Brazil Temple — the 17th in the Church and the first in South America — changed everything for the Curbelos and the other members of Uruguay. Many members sacrificed for the temple, selling military medals of honor or the gold from their teeth, said Curbelo. "Families sold their TV or their car or their bicycle. They did this to build the temple or to travel to the temple.
"The Sao Paulo temple was the temple of South America," he said. "All the converts who joined the Church from the beginning to 1978 had the blessing of the temple."
With the dedication of the Concepcin Chile Temple, the Church will have 18 temples in South America — including the Montevideo Uruguay Temple, dedicated in 2001.
"I saw the Church with just a few members when I got baptized," Curbelo said. "Now there are thousands and thousands."
The future of Uruguay
Edgar Borba volunteers his time each week to teach Spanish, via Skype, to missionaries in the Provo Missionary Training Center. He loves seeing the effort the missionaries put into their lessons and the spirituality they bring to each session.
It is a commitment he has seen from the youth in Uruguay as well. An hour before the missionary lesson, the same room of the Borba house had been filled with youth, holding a weekly home evening to study the "For the Strength of Youth" pamphlet. "It is an opporutnity for us to get together as youth, to not forget about the gospel during the week and to have fun together," said Nahuel Memdiuil, 15.
During the member devotional in Uruguay, President Nelson had the children stand. "They are the future of the country," he said. "They are the future of the Church."
Elder Bragg said the area presidency is focused on the rising generation. "Since much of the current Church membership is aging and is established, we are working to strengthen the youth so that they lead the Church into the future,” said Elder Bragg.
While speaking to the members of the Church in Uruguay in Spanish during the devotional, President Nelson recalled a time in his life when the airplane in which he was traveling almost spiraled to the ground.
But the plane did not crash and President Nelson's life was preserved for a season. "With that time, we have the privilege to work, live, love and choose," he said.
One part of choosing is the decision to participate in the sacred ordinances of the temple, he said.
He left the congregation with an Apostolic blessing that they will feast upon the words of Jesus Christ and apply His teachings. "As you do so, you will prosper in the land and have joy in your posterity, if you are faithful in keeping the commandments," President Nelson promised.