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Venezuelan Church leaders travel to Colombia for rare in-person meeting with an Apostle, area presidency

Political and economic strife in the South American country has halted in-country visits by outside Church leaders

For years, leaders and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Venezuela have faced the challenges of political and economic strife. And due first to the government’s self-isolation of the country and later the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person visits and ministries of outside Church leaders have been nonexistent.

In a late August assignment to the South America Northwest Area, Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles brought together the 250 stake presidents of the area’s five countries — Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela — along with the mission presidents and Area Seventies.

Unable to go into Venezuela, Elder Andersen and the area presidency did the next best thing, having the leaders there travel to Bogotá in neighboring Colombia, meeting with and instructing the leaders of the two countries together on Aug. 28.

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“I was very, very moved,” said Elder Andersen of being with the Venezuelan leaders who traveled great distances.

During a lunch break, several stake presidents reminded Elder Andersen of a video conference with them years earlier, when he was asked if leaders should leave the country or not because of the ongoing woes.

They recalled Elder Andersen saying leaders wouldn’t be judged if they left, but “if you can stay, stay and help the Church help you. … It will have an amazing future.”

Recounting the lunch conversation, Elder Andersen said: “One stake president said to me: ‘I just made the determination right there I would stay. And we’ve stayed. It’s been tough, but it’s going to work out.’ So these are very impressive people.” 

Elder Rafael E. Pino, a General Authority Seventy who is a native of Valencia, Venezuela, and an area presidency counselor, knows how rare it is for his countrymen to meet and be instructed personally by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For some, a half-decade had passed since a similar meeting. For others newer in their calls, it was a first opportunity.

“With tears in my eyes, I saw and heard some of the leaders express a deep sense of gratitude to be in the presence of one of the Twelve,” Elder Pino said.

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Going the distance

Participating in the training were the four Area Seventies residing in Venezuela, the presidents of the country’s four missions — headquartered in Caracas, Maracaibo, Valencia and Barcelona — and 31 of the Venezuela’s 33 stake presidents.

The leaders’ travel to Bogotá was anything but routine, and it was determined by passport status, said Elder Jorge F. Zeballos, South America Northwest Area president.

To put the distance in perspective, the most time-efficient drive from Caracas to Bogotá is just over 1,500 kilometers (nearly 940 miles), taking nearly 24 hours. For some, such as those from eastern Venezuela, the trip took 30 to 36 hours each way.

If a leader had a valid Venezuelan passport, he could fly to Bogotá. Seven did just that, from Caracas by way of Panama.

If a leader had an expired passport, he couldn’t fly from Venezuela to Colombia. But leaders could travel by ground and cross the border into Cúcuta, Colombia, and from there be allowed to fly with an expired passport on to Bogotá. Of the Venezuelan leaders, 24 traveled an average of nine hours by bus to Cúcuta before then flying on to the Colombian capital city.

Six presidents had neither a valid nor expired passport, traveling 25 to 36 hours on the ground each way and overnighting in a hotel.

Elder Bhanu K. Hiranandani, second from the left, pauses for a photo with Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, second from right, Elder Brent H. Nielson, left, of the Presidency of the Seventy, and Elder Jorge F. Zeballos, right, a General Authority Seventy and president of the South America Northwest Area, on Aug. 28, 2022, in Bogotá, Colombia. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Dedication and determination

Once in Bogotá, the leaders were met by and received training from Elder Andersen, Elder Brent H. Nielson of the Presidency of the Seventy, and the area presidency — Elder Zeballos, Elder Jorge T. Becerra and Elder Pino.

Elder Pino, who hasn’t been in his home country for seven years, was especially anxious to greet and interact with the leaders from Venezuela. “I was moved to see the faithfulness of these brothers, even in time of difficulty,” he said, mindful that many Church leaders and members had found it necessary to emigrate to other countries.

“But what I saw and felt from the current leaders helped me understand how the Church has managed to move forward. I found in these brothers a lot of faith, dedication and determination,” he said, adding that the leadership instruction “strengthened in them the sense that God loves and knows them.”

Elder Bhanu K. Hiranandani, an Area Seventy from Caracas, said he felt “immensely blessed” to be with the visiting leaders. “I could feel the great love coming from them. They are great examples of humility and tireless services.” 

With Aug. 28 being a Sunday, the day started with a brief sacrament service.

“I was delighted to partake of the sacrament and to see our area presidency blessing the sacrament and also to receive Elder Andersen’s invitation to attend the temple regularly as a family,” Elder Hiranandani said.

Elder Pedro E. Hernández, left, an Area Seventy from Punto Fijo, Venezuela, visits with President Hernan D. Peña, center, of the Venezuela Maracaibo Mission, and President Fernando Vivas, right, of the Valencia Venezuela Los Sauces Stake, prior to the start of a priesthood leadership meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, on Aug. 28, 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sharing the instruction

Venezuelan leaders said that through Elder Andersen’s teachings and testimony they had received revelation about how they should act in their callings to bless their families and those over whom they preside. “They said they had identified new and better ways to teach and minister to members and help them stay on or return to the covenant path,” Elder Pino said.

As leaders returned to share the teachings, “the members are very happy to receive the instructions,” Elder Hiranandani said. “These are prophetic priorities, and I know that by putting them into practice, the Lord will pour out great blessings. We are doing our best to impart the teachings received so that it reaches all members.”

Elder Pedro E. Hernández, an Area Seventy from Punto Fijo, Venezuela, agreed: “I think it will give a boost to the work in Venezuela. For the stake presidents to hear from an Apostle what the Savior wants us to do is a treasure of great value to be able to share from this meeting of priesthood leaders.”

Elder Rafael E. Pino, right, a General Authority Seventy from Venezuela and a counselor in the South America Northwest Area presidency, visits with President Jesús L. Magallanes, left, of the Punto Fijo Venezuela Stake in Bogotá, Colombia, on Aug. 28, 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Not forgotten

In the Feb. 2 Venezuela Devotional, President Russell M. Nelson and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provided messages of comfort, encouragement and eternal perspective to those in the struggling, strife-torn South American country.

Travel restrictions and security concerns prevented them from meeting with Latter-day Saints there. So President Nelson and Elder Christofferson videotaped messages, which were transmitted to Venezuela, copied onto thumb drives and delivered to each stake and district to be shown locally. Collectively, nearly 24,000 viewed the Sunday devotional in meetinghouses across the country.

“We have never really felt isolated and forgotten — our senior Brethren and the area presidency are always looking out for us. I am a witness of all that the Church has done to bless the lives of the Saints here in Venezuela, both spiritually and temporally,” Elder Hiranandani said.

“The members are very grateful to receive all the great teachings from our Prophet, President Nelson, and the Apostles. The Lord has always been there to give us encouragement and strength, every time we listen to our senior Brethren.”

Elder Hernández offered in checklist fashion the status of the local Church members: “We know of the concern of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the temporal and spiritual needs of the Venezuelans. We feel the Spirit. We feel the love of the Savior. We feel that God hears us and blesses us.”

Self-sufficient

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And what should Church members worldwide know about their brothers and sisters in Venezuela and their faithfulness, their determination and their perseverance?

“There are wonderful local leaders who with great effort and courage continue to hasten the work of salvation,” Elder Pino said. “In the missions, an army of young missionaries are working hard to preach the gospel every day.

“In Venezuela, faithful members of the Church love the Lord Jesus Christ and know the Lord loves them. They know that they are not forgotten and that they are part of a wonderful work.”

Elder Hernández said Venezuela’s circumstances and difficulties have helped the local Saints to get closer to the Lord and to resolve adversity with faith and trust in the Savior. “If we are faithful and place our trust in the Lord, even the bad will turn for our good.”

He also noted how the country’s four missions have become self-sufficient, using only native Venezuelan missionaries.

It’s a theme Elder Hiranandani echoes.

“What a blessing indeed for us that we are a self-sufficient country ecclesiastically —  all of our missionaries, stake presidents, mission presidents and temple president are Venezuelan. And members work hard and make great sacrifices to attend the temple regularly,” he said.

“Now it is our turn to live the gospel in a holier and higher way. Members are always ready to immediately learn and put into practice the instructions we receive from the area presidency and the senior Brethren. We are having many baptisms, and the Lord is gathering His elect.”

Area Seventies, mission presidents and stake presidents from Colombia and Venezuela stand to welcome Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and accompanying general authorities, who led a leadership instruction meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, on Aug. 28, 2022. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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