Long before the sun rises in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the moist morning air carries quiet sounds of students arriving at a chapel located in a busy area of this grand and beautiful city. A key in the meetinghouse door turns, and the door is opened, then closed and locked behind one group of arriving students—a standard security measure taken in the dark hour before dawn. A soft knock, and someone runs to let in yet more students, whose smiles and cheer belie the early morning hour. In all, 13 students join together to begin their day by studying the New Testament. After class, they enjoy a simple continental breakfast prepared by one of the parents. Fortified, the students leave for school or work.
In the midst of their joyous farewells and the last-minute hubbub of long-time friends parting at daybreak, a woman walking down the street sees the meetinghouse gate open and hesitantly enters. “Are you Mormons?” she asks. “My son wants to be like his cousins in Mendoza, who are Mormons. Can someone tell me about your church?” Coincidentally, missionaries arrive at the chapel, and arrangements are soon completed to introduce the woman to the life-changing principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This scene, caught for a moment by the early-morning rays of the rising sun, captures hope for the future of the Church in Argentina: the strength of a rising generation and the growing missionary harvest.
Gospel seeds were first planted in Argentina among German immigrants in 1925, when Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated South America for the preaching of the gospel in the Tres de Febrero Park in Buenos Aires. Shortly after, he declared: “The work will grow slowly for a time here just as the oak grows slowly from an acorn. … [But] the South American Mission will be a power in the Church” (quoted in Melvin J. Ballard—Crusader for Righteousness , 84).
Indeed, Argentina, as well as other areas of South America, is seeing the fulfillment of Elder Ballard’s words. Those acorn-sized seeds have spread slowly but steadily over the years among this people, descended largely from European immigrants, until today Latter-day Saints in Argentina number more than 265,000 members in 62 stakes.
Argentina, which fills most of the southern portion of South America, is a country of vast spaces that stretches from the windy beaches of the Atlantic Ocean along its southeast coast to the tall, snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains to the north and west. In this eighth-largest country in the world, where patriotism runs strong, two realities hamper the growth of the Church: traditions and poverty.
The first reality, deeply held cultural traditions, discourages individual family members from changing religions. “Life will be different for someone who joins the Church,” says Elder John B. Dickson, President of the South American South Area until August 1997. “They will need to learn new religious traditions.” In a country rich with tradition, change comes only with sacrifice, and in the past many new members found the obstacles overwhelming.
The second reality, economic disparity due in part to long-standing political unrest, has resulted in severe financial challenges for the people. “It is hard to learn the gospel if your family is hungry or lacking basic necessities,” says Hector Navarro, bishop in the Maipú de Cuyo Ward, Maipú de Cuyo Argentina Stake. Recently, however, economic instability—with inflation at times running over 200 percent a year—has been brought under control, with government affairs at peace. As a result, banks have begun to lend money, allowing people to buy homes, cars, and business equipment. The result has been a mushrooming economy over the past seven or eight years, resulting in a growing middle class. High-tech skills are in demand, and while financial challenges are still often the norm, opportunities to prosper are increasing for those with sufficient education.
Yet despite these and other challenges, the Church has taken firm root and begun to grow in earnest in towns small and large throughout the country. A look at the Church in three different cities shows how the Saints in Argentina are using gospel principles to create new traditions and to bring economic relief to members.
In Salta, stucco and concrete houses crowded side by side down long narrow streets are home to about a half million people, many of them descended from early Indian and Bolivian people. This scenic town, nestled in the lush, green foothills of the Andes, lies about 22 hours north by bus from Buenos Aires. Salta and its neighboring city—San Salvador de Jujuy (who-WHO-ee) farther north, also home to nearly a half million people—have three stakes. The stakes are similar to many Church units throughout Argentina in that expanding membership needs outstrip available leaders.
“The work is growing rapidly,” says Salta Stake president Jacinto Roberto Díaz. “We need more people—we need them to go to the temple.”
To help new and less-active members adopt a gospel-based lifestyle, the stake places great emphasis on two important programs: paying closer attention to new members and helping youth set gospel-centered goals.
Helping New Converts
Emphasis on convert retention, which is receiving added attention throughout the Church, is significantly helping to strengthen not only the three stakes in Salta and Jujuy but also other stakes throughout the country. To help converts change from old to new ways of living, ward mission leaders work closely with full-time missionaries. Stake missionaries give new-member discussions to recent converts and build friendships that help when the missionaries move on. “We send members to meet with investigators and new converts,” explains Bishop Mario Rodriguez of the Portezuelo Ward, Salta Stake. “The missionary-conversion process has a strong impact on people, but it isn’t the usual day-to-day experience of membership. Investigators need amigos—they need to make friends with people like themselves. In this regard, the responsibility for successful missionary work is really ours, not the missionaries’.”
While new-member discussions help build friendships and deepen understanding, the Area Presidency also felt a need to help recent converts in Argentina learn specifically about Latter-day Saint traditions. “We have very much taken to heart President Hinckley’s desire to retain more of our new converts,” explains Elder Dickson. “One way we have found helpful is to extend the time missionaries work with a family after they have been baptized. They return to the home of newly baptized members and help them better understand Latter-day Saint traditions.”
“By extending time missionaries spend with new converts, ward or branch leaders have an opportunity to work with new members, give them callings in the ward, and ordain men to the priesthood,” says Area President Elder Carlos H. Amado, who was called as Area President in August 1997.
The presidency directed missionaries to teach recent converts eight principles—one a week—relating to practices that come with Church activity. Some of the new traditions taught include talking about the expectation of weekly attendance at church; discussing how often to pray and what kinds of prayers should be offered in a Latter-day Saint home; becoming familiar with Church hymns; establishing a consistent scripture-reading program; and teaching where to get a tithing donation slip, how to fill it out, and whom to give it to. “Missionaries give each family a copy of ‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World,’” says Elder Dickson. Then, while explaining about the paramount importance of family life, missionaries invite the family to frame the proclamation and hang it on a wall. Besides these basics, families are taught how to organize and conduct a family home evening and are introduced to family history work and the need to set a goal to attend the temple.
“A big part of our work is in the area of retention,” says Carlos Pedraja, president of the Salta Argentina Mission. “And it’s bringing results.”
For example, Victor and Norma Soardo and their children, Lilian, 12, and Marcos, 15, were baptized just over a year ago. The Soardos are grateful for both the warm welcome and the lessons they received in how to be good Latter-day Saints. “From the time I came to know the Church, my life has had surprise after surprise,” says Brother Soardo. “Good surprises!” he adds, referring to his amazement at being called to serve in the branch presidency. Shortly after their baptism, the car Victor used to make his living was demolished in an accident. It left the family without means of support and soon he became desperate. He had only $700 with which to buy a car—in a country where autos are generally more expensive than in the United States, for example.
One Monday evening it was his turn to plan family home evening. He gathered his wife and children around him and said: “Instead of our regular lesson, let’s pray tonight. Let’s put this problem before the Lord.” They took turns in petitioning the Lord.
“A few days later I heard about someone with a car for sale,” he recalls. “As I drove down a street looking for the address, I passed an old truck sitting by the side of the road, and the idea came to me to stop and ask the owner if he would be interested in selling it.” The owner was interested, and the two bargained unsuccessfully for several minutes before the owner finally asked Victor how much money he had. Then, cutting the original price in half, the owner sold his truck to the Soardos.
“With this vehicle, I support my family. I pay my tithing. The truck was so much better for my needs,” says a grateful Victor. “I never thought I could own a truck. The Lord knew better what I needed.” Learning the specifics of how to be a good Latter-day Saint helped the Soardos face this and other challenges and strengthen their testimonies.
Partly as a result of continued attention after baptism, both Salta and Jujuy, as well as other areas in Argentina, have enjoyed significant growth in the last few years that has produced a number of new leaders such as Victor Soardo. “About 80 percent of our leadership here in the north comes from first-generation members,” explains Pedro Lopez, an orthodontist who joined the Church at age 25 and was called as Jujuy stake president at the age of 29. Helping converts adjust to their new Latter-day Saint lifestyle has significantly strengthened the wards and stakes in Salta and Jujuy.
Reaching Out to Youth
Helping youth prepare to become future leaders is also high on the priority list of Church leaders. “A large number of youth are recent converts and the only members of their families,” says President Díaz, who goes on to explain that currently about 60 percent of all adult male converts are young men between 17 and 20 years of age. Add to these the number of young men and women from part-member or less-active homes, and it’s understandable that young people would need much support from Church leaders.
In a country where the average full-time wage earner brings home about $400 a month, youth are often expected to work when they complete their required schooling—currently set at seventh grade but soon may change to ninth—and contribute their earnings to the household. Where their salary helps support the family, many Latter-day Saint youth from part-member or less-active families are not encouraged to attend high school or to serve missions.
To surmount such compelling challenges, Church leaders work to change young people’s sometimes limited expectations, which are born of old traditions and for some, anchored in years of living with little income and little hope. They try to help youth see who they are and what they can become. “Our youth progress with the support of their bishops and seminary leaders,” explains President Díaz. “In every interview they are given a vision of missionary service and temple marriage.” Also educational goals are often discussed as well as the need to prepare themselves for future responsibilities.
In Salta, where experience in Scouting is hard to come by and finding enough men to shepherd stake and ward youth programs is difficult, the stakes rely heavily on the Church Educational System to assist bishops in giving youth needed gospel perspectives. “Teachers in the seminary and institute classes do a great work with the youth,” says President Díaz, who is grateful for these programs. These efforts are successfully helping offset the considerable challenges in the lives of young people. “The miracle,” says President Díaz, “is that any of them facing these challenges make it on a mission. But there are those who do.”
President Díaz truly understands because he was one who made it. Baptized at age 17, he was the only member of his family to join the Church. “What got me through was my branch president,” he explains. “He spent hours with me; he always had time for me.” That important contact helped young Jacinto Díaz make the decision to serve a mission. He left despite the opposition of his parents. When he returned two years later, however, his mother and 11 other family members had joined the Church.
Youth who persevere despite the odds and serve missions, then return and set goals for further education and temple marriage, are a great support to the work. Marcelo Gonzales set a goal to serve a mission, then returned and married in the temple. He was called as a bishop at age 24 and as a stake president by age 26, and today he is a counselor in the Salta Mission presidency. Miguel Samudio, who was studying in Buenos Aires, joined the Church—the only one from his family—and left his girlfriend behind while he served a mission. “Her parents wouldn’t let her get baptized, and she didn’t want me to go,” he explains. “But I had to. I had found a great treasure.” Six months later he received a photograph of her dressed in white standing with two missionaries and realized she had been baptized. When he returned, they were married in the temple. He was called as second counselor in the Jujuy Stake presidency less than five years after his mission.
“In the midst of problems, we maintain a vision of this great work,” explains President Díaz. “Problems are inevitable. But we must always maintain our joy.”
Like seedlings taking root at last and beginning to grow in earnest, Church members have doubled in number in Salta and Jujuy within the past five years, as well as in all of Argentina, thanks in part to convert retention programs and strong support for youth.
Approximately 600 miles west of Buenos Aires and tucked into the warm and dry lee side of the Andes, where rain seldom falls, lies Mendoza, home to more than a million people. Like other larger cities in Argentina, the Church in Mendoza is maturing and programs are well established. Yet the ongoing economic challenges nationwide continue to test the best of Saints, who sometimes must choose between spending bus fare to attend a Church meeting or buying food for their family. Seeking ways to help members achieve self-sufficiency is a high priority, especially in the Maipú de Cuyo Argentina Stake, whose president, Luís Wajchman, joined the Church as a teenager.
While living in Argentina, Luís’s Polish parents, though not Christian, raised him in a good, religious environment. Invited one day to talk to a seminary class about the Old Testament, he gladly obliged. At the age of 17 he felt at home with the youth in the class and continued to attend the early-morning meetings to answer their questions. “I thought I was teaching them,” he says now, “but they were teaching me.” He became interested in finding out about the Book of Mormon, which they often referred to during class, and one day began reading it. “As I read, it slowly came to me who Jesus Christ really was—the Messiah!” he recalls. “This affected me profoundly. I read all night long.” After receiving an answer to his prayers, he decided to get baptized, despite the strong disapproval of his family. “I had a great desire to study and make up for all I felt I’d missed,” he says. In time he married Laura Moltó, the daughter of his seminary teacher, and soon after began serving in leadership positions, first in his ward, now in the stake.
President Wajchman’s stake, with busy city streets giving way to country lanes that lead to outlying farmland, includes a large number of families who struggle economically: some are single-parent families, others do not have adequate jobs—a plight not unusual in a country currently experiencing 17 percent unemployment.
Concern for the economic welfare of the people of his stake prompted President Wajchman to look carefully at resources and Church programs that could be used to help meet basic needs of members. “I know Luís well,” claims Jaime Moltó, President Wajchman’s father-in-law. “He worries about every member—every single person.” What resulted was a multipronged approach that addressed not only the underlying causes of poverty but also the immediate needs of the people.
Education, a vital key in helping people become stable economically, enables people to take advantage of the emerging economic opportunities available today. To help members of his stake qualify for better employment, President Wajchman called David Duran as the literacy specialist in the stake. Brother Duran holds reading classes for those who need this basic skill. To further supplement his members’ education, President Wajchman made arrangements with the government to open a school for adults: the stake provides classroom space, the government provides the teachers. “We are encouraging everyone—all members, not just youth—to get at least the equivalent of a high school diploma,” he explains.
Other Church programs also help: an employment specialist has been called to help people find work, and the Relief Society miniclass program is being used to teach sisters how to sew clothing and can or dry food—skills new to many sisters. “I am hoping to help everyone become self-sufficient,” says President Wajchman, who was arranging to obtain cloth so that the sisters could begin to produce their own clothing. Miniclasses are also helping sisters learn the importance of a balanced diet and teaching them how to use more vegetables and less meat in their cooking, which helps stretch their food dollars.
Perhaps his most ambitious plan is his pioneering effort at establishing a garden to help feed the people in his stake. Located behind a small meetinghouse out in the country, the garden takes in just over an acre of fertile farmland, where crops are now grown year-round. “Each week elders from one of the wards come out on a rotating basis to help care for the farm,” explains Bishop Silvio Valtolina of the San Martín Ward. “It is a sacrifice for them. The ones who come to work are not usually the ones who need the food.”
Though farming machinery is common today in Argentina, it is impractical for a single acre. So with help from the stake budget, which covers the cost of seeds and some tools, such as a hand plow that is pulled by a horse from a neighboring farm, members of the stake resourcefully returned to older methods of farming. Many kinds of crops, such as beets, beans, onions, and celery are planted in the rich, black soil and watered by snowmelt carried in canals from the Andes. “We were concerned that the birds would eat our seed,” says stake missionary Mario Duran. “But we have been blessed. The Lord knows of our sacrifices and of the needs of the poor. The birds come to the farms around us, but few come to this one. And where we expect 100 pounds of produce, we harvest 300.”
Such bounty has not only built testimonies and strengthened faith but also produced a challenge. In a country where eating meat is common and some varieties of vegetables less well known, some sisters are unsure how to prepare the produce. “President Wajchman gave pumpkins to the sisters,” recalls Jaime Moltó, “and asked them, ‘What can you do with this?’ Then everyone met together to try recipes.”
The produce, along with chicken and rabbit meat from yet another of President Wajchman’s projects, is distributed through the bishops to the needy of the stake. “In our stake,” he says, “we teach people to sow that others may harvest. Many men sacrifice that the widows and fatherless may eat. We still have many poor among us—but they are no longer destitute.”
Church programs to improve educational levels and economic conditions are possible because of strong leaders and members who are willing to sacrifice, and those sacrifices are making a difference in Mendoza.
Tall skyscrapers hug a maze of roads—some extremely narrow and some extremely wide—in this city of more than 13 million people. Located on the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, Buenos Aires enjoys strong European roots growing together today with people from many nations. Into this interesting mix the Church, with 22 stakes in Buenos Aires as of August 1997, is blossoming.
Because the Church has been established longer in Buenos Aires, more members here have caught the new vision in their lives that Church membership brings. First-generation parents, willing to sacrifice, have enabled a strong second generation to attain educational and business skills that help them in their leadership roles. The stories of the Hofmann and the Salas families illustrate the advantages that catching the gospel vision brings.
The Hofmanns: Early First-Generation Members
In 1937 a German couple named Hofmann accepted the gospel and were baptized. Their son, Carlos Guillermo Hofmann, born a few months later, grew up as a Latter-day Saint. “We met in a small branch in those days,” he recalls. “I was raised with the beliefs of the Church. We always stayed on the pathway.” Staying active in those days entailed meeting in homes and being the only Latter-day Saint in school, and then as an adult carrying heavy leadership responsibilities almost singlehandedly.
After marrying, Carlos and his wife, Irma Scholz, made the needed sacrifices to raise their children in the Church. Sacrifices for parents who choose to raise their children in the Church are often significant, because allowing young people the privilege of continuing their education means families lose prospective income. But first-generation families, such as the Hofmanns, who catch the vision of implementing new Latter-day Saint traditions into their lives and encourage their children to pursue educational goals, open to their children a new way of life.
“I am grateful to my wife, who carried the responsibility while I was working and serving in Church callings. It seemed I was often away from the family, but the children never lacked. We were diligent in holding our family home evening.” Today his children and grandchildren are strong and active in the Church.
The Salas Family: Second-Generation Leaders
Alfredo Salas, president of the Buenos Aires West stake, is an example of what is happening today in Argentina as a result of parents who have sacrificed old ways to adopt the vision of their new-found faith. “My parents joined the Church when I was 11,” says President Salas. “I grew up attending a little branch in Bahía Blanca.” When the seminary program was first introduced, he wanted to attend, but his parents, already sacrificing to send him to school, were concerned it would interfere with his studies. To alleviate their concerns, he and his brother studied extra hard, getting up at 5:00 A.M. to attend seminary, and running several blocks to catch a bus. After the bus ride, they ran eight blocks to the chapel. Then, to arrive at school on time they ran the eight blocks back to the bus, which carried them back to their neighborhood, and then ran all the way to school. “This sacrifice cemented my testimony,” he reflects.
With the backing of his parents, a mission followed, which greatly deepened his testimony. When he returned, he faced a new challenge because of his limited finances: whether to finish his schooling or get married. The choice was not easy. To marry, he would lose support for his schooling efforts. Nevertheless he chose to marry, and it took seven more years before he finally received his degree in computer science. At age 26 he was called as a bishop and served in that calling during the final two years of his schooling. He subsequently went on to earn a master’s degree in business administration. As a result of his parents’ emphasis on learning, today President Salas is doing well as country manager of a computer programming company and is able to devote needed time to Church service.
Second- and third-generation members like Alfredo Salas are increasingly stepping into leadership positions, thanks to faithful parents. “We work hard to be good parents,” says Bishop Gustavo Berta of the Litoral Ward, who was baptized in the late ’60s. “In every room of our home is a picture of Jesus Christ. We have our family home evenings and family prayer. We are teaching our children new traditions.”
This emphasis on education and missions is paying off in Buenos Aires. “In the past it was not common to see young men serve missions,” says Area Authority Seventy Carlos Agüero. “We are seeing change with the generations. Now young men and women are going by the hundreds. Education and mission goals are becoming the new tradition for Latter-day Saint youth.” Today about 80 percent of leadership positions in Buenos Aires are now filled by well-educated second-generation members anchored in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and able to support their families.
From Salta, where new vision is changing old ways of thinking, to Mendoza, where Church programs are lifting economic burdens, the Church is taking root and maturing quickly. And in the early mist of dawn in Buenos Aires, seminary and institute students still arrive by the thousands to meetinghouses where keys open doors and let the gospel light shine in their lives, bringing with it hope for the future—as old patterns give way to new ideas and new prosperity. That light is bringing the promise of a bright and joyous day to the Saints in Argentina.