As “strangers in a strange land,”1 the first Latter-day Saint missionaries in Chile were greeted by overwhelming odds.
Civil war and what Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles termed “an empty purse and imperfect tongue”2 prevented him, his wife Phebe, and Elder Rufus C. Allen from turning “the keys of the Gospel as yet to these nations.”3 Five months after arriving at Valparaiso on 8 November 1851, the trio left without a single baptism. The stay was long enough, however, for Elder Pratt to find Chile’s beauty endearing. In a journal entry, he wrote that the orchards, farms, and vineyards of the beautiful Aconcagua River Valley are “as fertile as Eden.”4
Nearly 150 years later, those same words could be said of today’s missionary labors. Chile—from an Araucanian Indian word meaning “where the land ends”5 —has become for hundreds of thousands of Chileans a land where faith begins. It has been only 40 years since modern-day missionaries began laboring in Chile, yet the Church has blossomed into nearly 100 stakes and 420,000 members—a significant milestone considering that the country has fewer than 14 million people.
With an average width of just over 160 kilometers, Chile stretches 4,265 kilometers from its border with Peru on the north to the southern, rocky tip of South America. The towering Andes Mountains serve as Chile’s eastern border; the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, as its western border. In its north lie a thousand miles of parched desert, home to one-fifth of the world’s known copper reserves; in its south lies an equal expanse of lakes, fjords, wind-whipped islands, and snow-capped volcanoes. Between Chile’s extremes reposes the Central Valley, a river-ribboned checkerboard of fruitful orchards, vineyards, pastures, and cropland that is home to three-quarters of the nation’s population.
Historian Rodolfo Acevedo, author of the book Los Mormones en Chile (Mormons in Chile), calls his country an isolated island. “As a result,” he says, “we are very curious about the outside world and are quite willing to listen to strangers.”
Chileans have been listening to, and accepting, the message of the Restoration since Elder Henry D. Moyle of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the nation for the preaching of the gospel on 5 July 1956. In his dedicatory prayer, Elder Moyle blessed the nation that “large numbers of people would open their doors to the missionaries.”6
When Elder Gordon B. Hinckley organized the first stake in the capital city of Santiago 16 years later in 1972, Church membership in Chile numbered 20,000. The Latter-day Saint population had jumped to 146,000 by the time the Santiago Chile Temple was dedicated 11 years later, in 1983. Since then, membership has more than doubled as annual growth rates have averaged 10 percent. Chile’s seven missions, among the Church’s most productive, have been bringing more than 20,000 people into the Church every year.
“The main factor behind the Church’s growth is the quality of the Chilean people,” says Chilean native Elder Eduardo Ayala, president of the Santiago temple and a former member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy. “They are humble and receptive. Many people, in fact, are looking for the missionaries because they want to hear the gospel. Once they find it, they live it and love it.”
About 20 percent of Chileans descend directly from European immigrants; another 3 percent are of unmixed Indian ancestry. Most, however, are the product of intermarriage between Spanish settlers and the determined Araucanians, who successfully withstood being conquered by the Spanish during the colonial period.7 That mixture of peoples and parentage, combined with Chile’s historical isolation and strong democratic tradition, has produced an independent, productive, hopeful, and friendly people who enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. But despite their material success, Chileans are spiritually hungry.
Guillermo Soto, his wife, Pilar, and their children are like many Chileans who have found the Church during the past four decades.
“The missionaries would always greet us in the street,” Pilar recalls. “One day they asked whether they could come over for a visit. I told them we wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation in our home because our eight children made a lot of noise. One of the elders replied, ‘Excellent! I have five brothers and sisters myself.’”
The missionaries came, and their message rang true. Soto family members, who had often spent evenings together singing and playing games, embraced the family home evening program. Word of Wisdom warnings against tobacco coincided with familial prohibitions against smoking in the home, but posed a challenge for Guillermo, a professional musician who directs music for television programs.
“As a teenager I had found peace and love by studying the Bible,” Guillermo says. “But I later lost my way and began living a worldly life.”
The Soto children who were old enough were baptized in 1994, but Pilar waited until her husband was ready. Guillermo struggled with the Word of Wisdom until his prayers about the gospel’s truthfulness were answered.
“I received an answer many times,” he says. “Once I imagined seeing myself come up out of the waters of baptism pure and clean, and I began to weep. I felt something very special and decided that I needed to get baptized.”
Brother Soto left behind his struggles with the Word of Wisdom but kept his musician friends. “My presence in my group of friends is important,” he says. “I am preaching the gospel by leading a new life. Little by little my friends will become interested in the Church.”
These days the sounds coming from the Soto home include prayers of thanksgiving and the harmony of Guillermo, Pilar, and their children singing gospel hymns. The closeness they shared before baptism has increased as their understanding of the gospel has grown. In their Tierra del Fuego Ward in north Santiago, Brother and Sister Soto serve respectively as elders quorum president and Relief Society president.
“I had always asked God to put me on a path where I could grow with my family, where Pilar and I could do the right things for our children, where they could grow strong and find some heaven on earth,” Brother Soto says. “It has been a long journey, but at last we are on that path.”
The rapid expansion of the Church in Chile has not come without growing pains. Assimilating new members and providing chapels to house bulging wards and branches pose significant challenges. Elder Jorge Zeballos, who directed Church construction in Chile from 1982 to 1989 and is now a South America South Area Authority, says that during one three-year period more than 300 chapels were built in Chile.
“It turned out to be a good decision,” says Brother Zeballos. “Construction in Chile was slow at the time, and materials and labor were cheap. Some wards had their own buildings for a short while in the 1980s, but it was good to plan ahead. Now look where we are.”
With the creation of more than 100 wards and branches and nearly 25 stakes in Chile in 1995, “it’s very easy today to get behind with necessary construction,” says Daniel Almeida, director of temporal affairs for the Church in Chile. “As soon as buildings are completed, three wards are ready to occupy them. Some chapels are being used by as many as six wards at once.”
Local Church leaders, including Patricio la Torre, welcome the challenges and work that accompany rapid growth—despite the inconveniences and sacrifices. “For two years in our sector we had 10 wards meeting in just two chapels,” says Brother la Torre, who has seen four stakes created from the single stake he belonged to in 1990.
Brother la Torre, now president of the José Miguel Carrera Stake in south Santiago, attributes baptisms and rising retention and activation rates to what is known as the esfuerzo mancomunado (balanced effort). The effort involves priesthood leaders working with the full-time missionaries to set goals, reclaim the less active, and involve new members and prepare them for the temple. Brother la Torre says the balanced effort is helping members to mature and capture the vision of the Church’s mission.
“That really is the news story of the Church in Chile,” says Roger Hendrix, released last July as president of the Chile Santiago South Mission. “Through the esfuerzo mancomunado, we have entered into a new period of retention, activation, and stake and ward creation.”
Von Packard, president of the Chile Santiago North Mission, credits the balanced effort with increasing Sunday meeting attendance in north Santiago by approximately 1,000 during a recent one-month period. For those willing to love the less active, he says, “it is not hard to bring people back.”
Roberto Vargas was not active in the Church when he moved his family to the northern port city of Antofagasta in 1989. But the warmth of the welcome Roberto, his wife, Erica, and their three sons received from Latter-day Saints was exceeded only by the heat of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the world’s most arid desert.
In Antofagasta, which is sandwiched between the desert sand and the sea, precipitation is little more than a rumor. For the Vargas family, however, the area is beautiful. “Here is where we have progressed most as a family,” says Sister Vargas.
The friendly reception and ward efforts to activate Brother Vargas, a civil engineer for a nearby copper mine, prompted him to have “a long-overdue interview” with his bishop. A calling to the elders quorum presidency soon followed. Today, three years after being called as bishop of the Gran Vía Ward, Bishop Vargas welcomes the opportunity to help others progress spiritually.
“If we have an earthquake, the chapel fills up. If a tsunami warning is issued, everyone returns,” he says. “But I tell people not to wait for a disaster before they straighten out their lives. My family has been blessed here, and I know it is because we are keeping the commandments.”
In 1977 when Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addressed an area conference in Santiago, the Church had fewer than 50,000 members in Chile.
“I foresee the day when the seven stakes here will be seven times seventy,” Elder McConkie told the Chilean Saints. “… I foresee the day when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be the most powerful influencing leaven in this whole nation.”8
Chilean Saints like Guillermo Miranda know Elder McConkie’s prophecy, and they are working toward its fulfillment. “I feel that the Lord has blessed me in my business so that I can be a positive influence,” says Brother Miranda, who owns and manages a successful chain of department stores.
Brother Miranda is a high priests group leader in the city of San Fernando, an agricultural area about an hour’s drive southeast of Santiago. His business, which he believes should be “a light for others,” is respected and renowned for its honesty and strict employee behavior code.
“I want Church members to be good examples for my nonmember employees,” says Brother Miranda, “especially in those areas where the Church is small.”
Brother Miranda considers himself blessed rather than successful, though he has experienced both persecution and professional setbacks since joining the Church in 1982. “I have been the brunt of gossip, and my business has been the object of attack,” he says, recalling a widely distributed flier that claimed his department-store chain was failing. Rather than seek legal action against the perpetrators, he prayed that his business would be protected, and he made sure his tithing was paid promptly. As a result, business improved. These days Brother Miranda, who often is asked to speak about his business philosophy, does not have enough job openings for all those interested in working for him.
Brother Miranda isn’t the only Chilean employer who is impressed with Latter-day Saints as potential employees. Well-known Chilean playwright Luis Rivano wrote a newspaper column in 1991 extolling church members’ honesty, productivity, and healthful living. “More and more companies are preferring the kind of employee who gives them fewer problems … [and] a higher quality performance,” he wrote. “If I had to choose between hiring a Mormon and [a member of another faith], I wouldn’t hesitate one second to hire the former. And I know that by so doing, I would further my nation’s economic progress.”9
Miguel LeFargue, one of the first to join the Church in the fishing and industrial center of Concepción, says Chileans, regardless of their economic and professional background, cannot help but be influenced by Latter-day Saints who live righteously. “The Church has been a great blessing,” he says. “It has helped hundreds of thousands of people to improve themselves and to become better citizens and better fathers, mothers, and children.”
In Chile, where the nation’s president is known to speak out on the importance of family, traditional values, and service to others,10 even some government and religious leaders are taking notice of the Church’s teachings and growing influence.
“The mayor of Hualqui, a town near Concepción, knows that our members are reliable and worthy of confidence,” says Brother LeFargue, a counselor in the Chile Concepción Mission presidency. “He has called the local bishop several times, asking for advice or for help from our young people on service projects. He knows our youth are responsible and well behaved.”
When a leader of another faith in one southern city maligned the full-time missionaries, he sparked curiosity among his congregation. “It turned out to be the best publicity we ever had in that small town,” Brother LeFargue says. “People left the meeting wanting to know more about the Church and the well-behaved missionaries who were dressed in white shirts and ties. We never had so many baptisms there until that leader spoke about us.”
Opposition to the Church, however, has not been just verbal. In the 1980s, a group of terrorists who viewed the Church as a foreign influence set off more than 200 fires and explosions in Church chapels throughout the country.11 A few members were injured, but the attacks decreased dramatically after several children living next to a chapel in Santiago were hurt during one blast.
“The injuries to these children generated a lot of public criticism of this group,” says author Rodolfo Acevedo, director of public relations for the Church in Chile. Local Church leaders have worked hard and successfully to inform the public that attacks against the Church in Chile constitute attacks against fellow Chileans and not against a foreign entity.
Karen Montalva hears more than music when she directs the two dozen Latter-day Saints from Chile’s central coast who make up a youth choir named Gethsemane. She hears faith and testimony and spiritual strength. “The Church is going to be in good hands,” says the Young Women president from Viña del Mar.
Karen, who helped form the choir, says Latter-day Saint young people are stepping forward and assuming their responsibilities. As an example, she cites choir members, all of whom serve in a variety of Church callings and sacrifice dozens of hours each month to rehearse, travel, and share the gospel at missionary firesides.
“Many people who come to our concerts feel the Spirit,” Karen says. “The best thing about the choir is that it influences others and helps us to maintain a high level of spirituality. I always dreamed of a group of young people like this who would be willing to give their talents to the Church.”
Throughout the country, Chilean youth are giving of themselves to strengthen their wards and branches and to share the message of the Restoration. “I understand the gospel’s importance because I have lived it,” says Luis Pereira, an 18-year-old from Viña del Mar who is preparing to serve a mission. Echoing the feelings of many young Latter-day Saints, he says, “I know that the Church’s future depends on the youth.”
Chilean Latter-day Saints, young and old, feel strongly about the early mission of Elder Parley P. Pratt and take seriously their responsibility to spread the gospel.
“It’s not by chance that people are accepting the gospel here,” says Eduardo Lamartine, Church Educational System director and a South America South Area Authority. “Why did the Lord inspire President Brigham Young to send Elder Pratt to Chile? Why do we have so many stakes and so many baptisms today? It’s because we’re not alone in this work; we have help from God and from our faith.”
The deep, crescent harbor that welcomed Elder Pratt to Valparaíso after his 64-day voyage from California remains unchanged. But the steep, house-crowded hills that spill toward that harbor are now dotted with chapels filled with four stakes of Latter-day Saints.
In Chile, the harvest truly is great. The country’s fruitful fields, as Elder Pratt described them, remain “one of the most beautiful scenes … ever beheld in the old or new world.”12
Perla García calls them her tesoros (treasures): yellowed newspaper clippings of the Church’s early days in Chile, old photographs of visiting General Authorities, an aging Bible signed by some of the first converts, and other mementos of the nearly 50 years she and her husband, Ricardo, shared. They flood her heart with love, and her mind with memories.
When Sister García shows her tesoros to visitors, she cannot help but express gratitude for the gift of the Holy Ghost, speak with reverence of the missionaries who taught her the gospel, and recall with fondness being one of only a handful of Latter-day Saints in Chile during the late 1950s. The members may have been few, she says, but the blessings were many.
On 23 June 1956 Elders Verle M. Allred and Joseph C. Bentley from the Argentina Mission flew over the Andes Mountains and into Santiago to begin modern-day missionary work in Chile. “We were on our own. We had to stay very close to the Lord and depend upon him,” recalls Brother Allred, who now serves as patriarch of the Brigham City Utah Stake. “We felt like pioneers,” adds Brother Bentley, a Sunday School teacher in the Parleys Fifth Ward, Salt Lake Parleys Stake. “We worked very hard, but it was a great experience.”
Sister García met the elders while watering her yard. She invited them to come back after her husband had returned from working out of town. When the elders met Brother García, “he greeted us and cordially received us as though we had met before,” Brother Allred recalls. “Once we started talking about the Church, he wouldn’t let us leave.”
Their meeting turned into a three-hour discussion, during which Brother García was moved to tears as he listened to the missionaries’ message. On 24 November 1956 in a Santiago country club pool, Brother García became the first Latter-day Saint to be baptized in Chile. He was joined that day by eight others, five of them children. Sister García was baptized in January 1957.
Brother García’s agricultural work often required that the family relocate. When they found themselves in a new city without a branch, they would start one. Over the years, Brother and Sister García served in many Church callings.
“The gospel has been a great blessing for Chile,” says the couple’s daughter, Perla, recalling the joy her family felt by serving the Lord. “My father used to say that it is so beautiful to be laborers in the Lord’s vineyard.”
Ricardo passed away 26 September 1994. Despite illness, he spent the final years of his life serving as the Santiago Chile Nuñoa Stake patriarch and as an ordinance worker in the Santiago Chile Temple, where Sister García played the organ. It is in the temple that she feels closest to him.
“He was a very special man. I know he is waiting for me,” Sister García says. “I wasn’t happy to see him go, but my husband died a happy man. He said, ‘Don’t weep. I have finished my work and am ready to go. I know I will see you and the children again. Tell our brothers and sisters to remain faithful, that I love them, and that they should not be sad because I am happy to move on.’”