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The Church in the South America Northwest Area: Increase in stakes and young, strong leaders

From 1 stake in 1970 to 250 today, Elder Andersen emphasizes growth in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela

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Elder Neil L. Andersen greets a young girl following a member devotional meeting in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 26, 2022.

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Global growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be measured in different ways — from a specific country’s number of members or congregations to a nation’s total of temples or missions.

Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles found a different, yet effective, measurement during a 10-day, late August assignment to the Church’s South America Northwest Area.

In meetings with local leaders, members and missionaries throughout the area, he found considerable growth not only in the number of stakes in the five countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela but in the young, strong priesthood leaders leading those stakes.

First, a historical perspective. A little more than a half-century ago, the Church had only one stake in those five nations — a stake was created in February 1970 in Lima, Peru.

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A group photo — including Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy and members of the Church’s South American Northwest Area president — shows the Area Seventies, mission presidents and stake presidents serving in Peru. The photo was taken in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 21, 2022.

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Today, the five nations account for 250 stakes and 56 districts. Peru leads the way with 112 stakes — one of only five nations in the world with at least 100 stakes. The others are the United States (1,671), Brazil (281), Mexico (222) and the Philippines (123).

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“You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed,” said Elder Andersen of the increase of stake leaders in five decades, adding that most of the stake leaders were in the age range of 35 to 50 years. “There are a lot of stake presidents who are first-generation members and almost all are returned missionaries. This is something that surprised me. … And they are raising righteous generations to follow them.”

Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy, who accompanied Elder Andersen, said that having area and stake leaders spend a day with an Apostle after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic “was an encouraging moment for them. The feeling in the room was palpable as they also observed the power and strength of the Church by observing their fellow stake presidents.”

Almost 20 years had passed since a member of the Twelve had gathered stake presidents together in one place in these countries.

Elder Jorge F. Zeballos, the General Authority Seventy who serves as area president, underscored the missionary backgrounds of local leaders, with 72% of the area’s current stake presidents and 60% of the bishops having served full-time missions.

And all this growth in the five countries comes while each has struggled with a range of struggles over the past several decades — the pandemic, political uncertainties or restrictions and economic trials.

‘Moved’

Elder Andersen and Elder Nielson were joined by their wives, Sister Kathy Andersen and Sister Marcia Nielson, as well as by Elder Zeballos and his area presidency counselors, Elder Jorge T. Becerra and Elder Rafael E. Pino.

Elder Andersen led member devotionals, missionary meetings and instruction meetings with Area Seventies and stake presidents in four of the five countries — in Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Lima, Peru; Quito, Ecuador; and Bogotá, Colombia.

Said Elder Zeballos of Elder Andersen shaking hands with each leader and missionary and many of the attending members: “Every time he encountered an elderly person, someone in a wheelchair, a child or a new convert, he spent extra time with them. These sincere personal touches added sweetness to the wonderful spirit that we enjoyed at each meeting.”

In Bogotá, the Colombia stake presidents were joined by their counterparts from Venezuela. Leaders from the latter traveled for extended times and distances to be in the presence of not only an Apostle but any general authority for the first time in years because of the pandemic and the government’s self-isolation that has not only halted the assignment of nonnative missionaries but in-person visits and ministries of outside Church leaders.

“I was very, very moved,” Elder Andersen said.

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Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, flanked on both sides by Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy and the members of the South America Northwest Area presidency in a group photo with Area Seventies and stake and mission presidents from Colombia and Venezuela during a leadership training in Bogotá, Colombia, on Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022.

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A native of Venezuela, Elder Pino said of he was also “moved to see the faithfulness of these brothers, even in times of difficulty.”

While some Venezuelan leaders and Latter-day Saints have found it necessary to immigrate to other countries, “what I saw and felt from the current leaders helped me understand how the Church has managed to move forward,” Elder Pino said. “I found in these brothers a lot of faith, dedication and determination. This experience strengthened in them the feeling that God loves and knows them.”

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Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles walks among full-time missionaries serving in the Quito, Ecuador, missions while teaching them during an Aug. 26, meeting in Quito.

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Measured by President Nelson

The stakes, leaders and members are evidence of “the power of the work of people over the last five decades,” Elder Andersen said, noting the fruits of foreign missionaries going into the five countries at first, followed by the strengthening of the members and missionaries from within.

“When I mentioned this trip to South America to President Nelson recently, he said he remembered going to Lima when there was only one stake president,” said Elder Andersen, noting it would have been when President Nelson was Sunday School general president from 1971 to 1979.

Celebrating his 98th birthday earlier this month, President Nelson was born in 1924, a year before the continent was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel by Elder Melvin J. Ballard, an Apostle and the grandfather of President M. Russell Ballard, the current Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

After dedicating South America from the southern country of Argentina, Elder Ballard prophesied: “The work of the Lord will grow slowly for a time here just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn. … 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.”

That “oak” started in Argentina, Brazil and Chile before slowly working into the northern nations, which in recent several decades have served as flourishing upper branches.

“So the whole continent has taken off just in President Nelson’s lifetime,” Elder Andersen said.

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Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy and members of the Church’s South American Northwest Area presidency, all in the center of the front row, join Area Seventies and stake and mission presidents from Ecuador during leadership training in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 27, 2022.

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Role of temples

Elder Andersen and Elder Nielson said temples played a key role in the area meetings. The area has eight dedicated and operating temples — three in Peru, two in Colombia and one each in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela. Nearly that many are new temples anticipating future dedications — a temple in Quito, Ecuador, that is awaiting its open house and dedication; a second temple in Lima, Peru, expected to be dedicated next year; and recently announced temples in Bolivia (two), Colombia and Peru.

“Suddenly there is this flood of new temples,” said Elder Andersen, who with his travel party made visits to the temples in Lima and Quito.

Said Elder Nielson of Elder Andersen at the Quito Ecuador Temple: “Once he saw the temple ready for dedication, everything in that country changed. All agendas were out the window, and we focused on the temple.”

In meetings there, missionaries and members were instructed on how to invite friends to the temple and how to make the open house a finding and teaching event.

But something extra special happened in the session with the stake presidents and Area Seventies. Asking how many had been to the temple site, Elder Andersen saw only a handful responding affirmatively. He asked the area presidency about the possibility of a bus; and less than a half-hour later, the leaders were loading into a bus and cars for a 30-minute ride to the Quito temple.

There, Elder Andersen led the some 55 leaders through the baptistry and instruction, sealing and celestial rooms, teaching for an hour. “We had an amazing spiritual experience together,” he said, adding “It wasn’t something that was anticipated, … but that is what they are going to remember.”

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With Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles coaching from the left, a Peruvian stake president accepts the Apostle’s invitation to practice expressing love, affection and appreciation to his wife during a member devotional in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 24, 2022.

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Expressions of affection

Meeting with stake presidents in Peru, Elder Andersen gave them a blessing that they would express their love for their wives.

Later in the member devotional, he provided an impromptu opportunity for three stake presidents to do just that, by inviting them up front with their wives. In one case, the expression ended in a kiss between one couple.

The expressions “really touched these sisters because the stake presidents are really good men. They expressed to them their love and appreciation for what they brought into their lives,” Elder Andersen said.

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A Peruvian stake president accepts an invitation from Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to practice expressing love, affection and appreciation to his wife during a member devotional in Lima, Peru, on Aug. 24, 2022.

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Elder Zeballos sees continued growth now and into the future for the Church in the South America Northwest Area, with a big post-pandemic recovery in the number of young Latter-day Saints going on missions and the number of convert baptisms as well as the increases in sacrament meeting attendance and temple worship and work.

“Faithful members of the Church in our countries are humble, obedient and eager to follow the prophets and serve in God’s kingdom on earth,” he said. “The future is bright for the Church of Jesus Christ in this part of the world.”

Elder Andersen agrees. “These are very impressive people — when you are shoulder to shoulder with them, you realize the kingdom is worldwide, and these are choice sons and daughters of God.”

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Elder Neil L. Andersen speaks with children following a member devotional meeting in Quito, Ecuador, on Aug. 26, 2022.

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