In 1925, three leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Elder Melvin J. Ballard, Elder Rey L. Pratt and Elder Rulon S. Wells — embarked on a 34-day journey, by land and sea, from Salt Lake City to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
They found an apartment to rent and went to work — preaching on the streets of Argentina.
On Christmas Day of 1925, in the park of Tres de Febrero in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Elder Melvin J. Ballard dedicated South America for the preaching of the gospel.
“Bless the presidents, governors and the leading officials of these South American countries, that they may kindly receive us and give us permission to open the doors of salvation to the people of these lands,” he prayed.
Early in the mission, Elder Wells became ill and had to return to Salt Lake City. Elder Ballard and Elder Pratt remained, walking the streets of Buenos Aires passing out handbills about the Restoration of the gospel; their efforts resulted in a single conversion.
Then on July 4, 1926, as Elder Ballard was preparing to return to Utah, he spoke about the future of the Church in South America: “The work of the Lord will grow slowly for a time here just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn. It will not shoot up in a day as does the sunflower that grows quickly and then dies. But thousands will join the Church here. It will be divided into more than one mission and will be one of the strongest in the Church. … The South American Mission will be a power in the Church.”
One has to wonder if Elder Ballard, who had worked so hard for so many months with little success, paused before speaking such a bold prophecy.
Yet, nine decades later, South America is a power in the Church. Latter-day Saint membership on the continent numbers 4,178,375, with 692 stakes; 5,570 wards and branches; 95 missions and 21 operating temples, according to Church statistics. Since 1970, more than 187,000 missionaries have served in South America.
I saw that growth firsthand while writing about two of President Russell M. Nelson’s ministry visits to the continent.
On one such visit, outside of the stately Government Palace in the Peruvian capital city of Lima, President Nelson paused before meeting Peru President Martín Vizcarra.
In that moment he caught the eye of a local tour guide who was not familiar with the Church or its leader. “Who is that man?” she asked. A Latter-day Saint from the crowd answered simply: “He is a prophet.”
The tour guide must have felt something powerful, because she turned on the spot and yelled to President Nelson: “Will you bless Peru?”
President Nelson would go on that day to address missionaries in the South America Northwest Area and speak to almost 6,000 at a member devotional broadcast throughout the country from Lima’s Coliseo Mariscal Caceres.
Then, at the conclusion of the day, he offered a blessing on the land and people of Peru.
He promised, in Spanish, that Peruvians would find delight in the words of Jesus Christ by applying His teachings every day. “As you do this, you will have joy,” said President Nelson.
Since then President Nelson has spoken a similar promise across the globe. Joy will be found in following the Savior and those who lead His Church, he has repeatedly told Latter-day Saints.
Two years ago this month, President Nelson shared five truths during a BYU devotional. They summarize his teachings.
• God loves His children.
• Eternal laws direct our life and are simply true.
• Great blessings and happiness will come to those who learn and live by God’s laws.
• Prophets and apostles speak for the Lord and will always teach those laws.
• We can know all these things for ourselves.
In the hours after President Nelson’s interaction with the tour guide in Peru, underneath the stadium prior to the Peru devotional, a small group of teenagers gathered in a makeshift room to have a conversation with President Nelson. Few in the room will forget the earnest and heartfelt question of one young woman: “What do I do if my parents are no longer active in the Church?”
President Nelson’s answer to her is the answer for all of us living in this challenging time. It is another example of a prophet asking God’s children to exemplify the life of the Savior, live His commandments and find joy.
Looking the young woman in the eyes, President Nelson promised her that her family would notice the light of the Savior reflected in her life and would be drawn to that.
It is the same light that a tour guide noticed outside the government palace in Peru and that another leader prophesied nine decades ago would fill all of South America — where an acorn has grown into a mighty oak tree.
— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.