Sitting in his office overlooking the grounds of Temple Square after returning from a nine-day visit to the South America South Area, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reflected on a recent experience he had of witnessing the ongoing fulfillment of a prophecy made more than 180 years ago.
“It was exciting to see the love of the members for President Russell M. Nelson, who had recently visited their countries as well,” Elder Gong said. “The youth there raised their hands to signify the blessings that have come in their lives as they have followed President Nelson’s inspired counsel. This is part of a continuing fulfillment of prophecy.”
A prophetic revelation
In April of 1834, the Prophet Joseph Smith gathered all the men in the Church who held the priesthood for a testimony meeting. At that time, the sum total of priesthood holders in the Church fit into a small 14-by-14 foot room.
Recounting this occurrence from early Church history, Elder Gong shared the Prophet Joseph’s response at the end of the meeting. “I’ve been edified by your testimonies, but you don’t comprehend the destinies of this Church and kingdom. This church will fill North and South America. It will fill the world…”
“I’ve grown up hearing about that,” Elder Gong said.
He noted that, as President Russell M. Nelson shared on his recent travels to South America, in 1924 when President Nelson was born, the fulfilment of the prophecy from Joseph Smith was not yet visible in South America.
On Christmas Day in 1925, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, stood in a grove of willow trees in what is now known as the Tres de Febrero park in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and invoked an apostolic blessing to dedicate the land of South America for the preaching of the gospel. And 89 years after that original dedication, in 2014, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — the grandson of Elder Melvin J. Ballard — returned to that same park to dedicate the specific country of Argentina.
“Standing at that historic and sacred site, I felt the profound love of our Father in Heaven for His children and for the ongoing fulfillment of prophecy to bless Heavenly Father’s sons and daughters,” Elder Gong said, recalling his own recent visit to that same park with members of the South America South Area presidency.
“The sense of being at a place where prophecy is being fulfilled and how, as a consequence of our Father in Heaven’s blessing and those apostolic blessings, those dedications, the work then in a miraculous way starts to expand, you see it, you feel it,” Elder Gong said.
Commenting on the power of that experience, Elder Mark A. Bragg, a General Authority Seventy and first counselor in the South America South Area presidency, said, “It was powerful thinking of the moment when (Elder Melvin J. Ballard) dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel and to see how the Church has flourished and how the blessings have been poured down on the people of South America.”
After reading both the dedicatory prayers while standing together in the park, Elder Gong and members of the area presidency then discussed how those specific promised blessings could be applied and help as they went about teaching and talking with youth, young adults, young married couples, missionaries and other members throughout their travels.
“For me, one of the testimonies and inspirations was to feel the connections to prophecies about this area, which I’d thought about over the years but which we were now witnessing in a direct and personal way with the people who are there,” he said.
During his nine days in South America, Elder Gong visited four countries: Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. In each country, he visited temples, attended stake conferences and devotionals or other meetings with members, visited with missionaries and ministered to members in their homes. And everywhere he went, the members were excited to see him and learn from him. In each location he was accompanied by his wife, Sister Susan Gong, and members of the South America South Area presidency and their wives – Elder Benjamin and Sister Evelia de Hoyos, Elder Mark A. and Sister Yvonne Bragg, and Elder Juan Pablo and Sister Carola Villar – as well as Area Seventies and their wives.
Sharing stories of the excitement members felt for the Apostle’s visit, Elder Bragg expressed how memorable each encounter was for both him to witness and for Elder Gong as he connected with members.
“There was a young man who is a convert of about two years in Bahía Blanca, Argentina, who walked miles to the airport on the outskirts of town to welcome Elder Gong. His name is Branco Zarate. He is the only member in his family and is amazingly faithful just waiting until he can serve a mission,” Elder Bragg said.
In Santiago, a very senior couple turned up at a devotional for young married couples because, after 40 years of being together, the husband was baptized and the couple was recently sealed in in the Santiago Chile Temple. “So they figured that they were newlyweds and deserved to participate, and they wanted to shake Elder Gong’s hand,” Elder Bragg said.
Elder Jose A. Texiera of the Presidency of the Seventy shared a story of a visit Elder Gong made to the De Los Santos family in Paraguay. Sister Rufina De Los Santos and her daughters met with Elder Gong and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, and shared stories about her late husband, who served as a patriarch for 13 years.
"In a spirit of peace, Elder and Sister Gong expressed their love and gratitude for Sister De Los Santos. They rejoiced in hearing of the influence the gospel has had in the lives of her daughters and grandchildren," Elder Texiera said. He noted too that Rufina had said that having an Apostle visit her home was the fulfillment of a promise made by her husband before his passing that she would see great miracles in her life.
Relating another memorable moment with members, Elder Gong described a humble family he met in Bahía Blanca.
“One of the little boys in the family, I think he is 10 years old, and he is raising chickens,” Elder Gong said. “He takes the chickens and eggs and he sells them because his family is remodeling their house, and he’s helping. After tithing, he takes the money that he earns and helps the family buy the things they need for their house.”
It’s wonderful to see how strong and united families in the gospel are, Elder Gong noted. “Anytime you’re with members, you feel their strength,” he said.
What really matters
It is clear that the members and youth love President Nelson, Elder Gong said.
And as Elder Bragg noted, in nearly every meeting, Elder Gong shared principles from the scriptures and from the teachings of President Nelson — including themes of ministering, staying on the covenant path, personal revelation, the proper use of the name of the Church, and using the gospel to find answers and overcome challenges and obstacles.
“He taught all of these principles using experiences that were applicable to the lives of those in the congregation and were easily understood,” Elder Bragg said. “He taught the youth on a few occasions that they can literally hold in their hands the proof of a loving Heavenly Father in the form of the scriptures and their patriarchal blessing. These are loving guides on how they can return to Him.”
Watching Elder Gong minister to the people was perhaps the most memorable part of each meeting or home visit for Elder Bragg. “He taught by his example that we need to slow down and be sure that we are seeing people and ministering one by one,” he said.
At the end of every meeting or encounter with members, Elder Gong left everyone feeling uplifted and more hopeful in their personal worship, Elder Bragg said. “The end result of ministering one-by-one is that all are eventually blessed. What starts small and focused eventually expands and touches everyone.”
With members of the area presidency and area seventy and their wives, Elder and Sister Gong had the opportunity to meet with eight missions and two MTC’s in the four countries, and with five additional mission presidents and their companions at a special lunch. “These are consecrated, effective mission presidents and companions, with fabulous Preach My Gospel missionaries,” said Elder Gong. “They speak with the Spirit from their hearts with everyone they meet. They know how to plan and find. They are bringing many souls to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Elder and Sister Gong said they felt privileged to meet in a devotional with the dedicated employees of the South America South area and with the director for religious affairs in Bahía Blanca municipality. “We were grateful to meet all those we were privileged to be with,” they said.
Being a witness to prophecy
In addition to visiting with members in each country, Elder Gong said he had the privilege briefly to greet the presidents and matrons and others serving in the Santiago, Montevideo, Asunción and the Buenos Aires temples, Elder Gong said, “To feel the gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil in those places is just a remarkable testimony experience. … These temple blessings on the covenant path are so real and strengthening for the members.”
Reflecting on the idea of the oak tree, which was shared by President Nelson and President Ballard during their recent trip to South America, Elder Gong said Elder Melvin J. Ballard’s description of the great oak tree was fitting in more ways than one.
“We see and feel the establishing of the Church as a whole through the blessings to individuals and multi-generation families. It’s wonderful to see in the beginning of every young married couple the beginning of a great oak that’s growing with deep roots in the gospel and wonderful branches and fruit coming. I saw that and I felt that very deeply,” Elder Gong said. “I think we’re always blessed when we see the faith and strength of members and to be reminded that there is great truth in the fact that the gospel is going to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. When you see it in different countries and cultures, you’re reminded of how universal the gospel is and how it truly blesses people no matter their country, no matter their circumstances. To be a witness of that is an incredible blessing.”