Making Waves in Argentina

by Larry A. Hiller

Assistant Managing Editor

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    To think it all began with a prayer in the park …

    This is not a history lesson. But—sometimes you have to know a little about the past to appreciate the present.

    For example, on Christmas morning in 1925, three men walked down to the river’s edge in a park in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Most of the city was probably still sleeping late on a holiday. But these men had left their families behind and spent 21 days on a steam ship to get here. Elder Melvin J. Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, had been sent by President Heber J. Grant to dedicate the entire continent of South America for the preaching of the gospel.

    So while the rest of the city still slept, Elder Ballard entered a willow grove with Elder Rulon S. Wells and Elder Rey L. Pratt. They sang hymns and read from the Book of Mormon. Then Elder Ballard offered a prayer and used his apostolic authority to “unlock and open the door for the preaching of the gospel in all these South American nations.” From that time on, like a stone tossed into a pond, the ripples of the gospel message spread outward across a continent.

    Since Elder Ballard’s visit to Buenos Aires, Church membership in South America has grown from less than a dozen to over a million. Tens of thousands more are joining every year. There are an increasing number of LDS chapels, and temples have begun to dot the land.

    At the Center

    When you toss a pebble into a pond, the ripples quickly die out, beginning at the center. But spend a little time with the LDS youth in Argentina, and you realize that here, where it all started, the gospel wave is still building. And seminary gets a lot of the credit.

    That’s why seminary graduation time in Buenos Aires isn’t just another weekend. When Elder Ballard offered his powerful prayer in that willow grove nearly 70 years ago, he asked the Lord to “remember in mercy … the youth of thy Church who are to bear the responsibilities of the future, that they may keep themselves clean … and come to their glorious destiny.” For the LDS youth in Argentina, seminary has been one of the most direct answers to that prayer.

    As Eduardo LaTourrette says, “Seminary is a source of strength.” Debra Alvarez adds simply, “Seminary is where I gained my testimony.” That feeling is echoed by the other seminary students you talk to in Buenos Aires. That’s why seminary graduation is a big deal this weekend.

    Parque 3. de Febrero

    For some of the students in Buenos Aires, the weekend’s activities begin with an early morning testimony meeting. And what better place to hold it than in Parque 3. de Febrero, where Elder Ballard dedicated their land.

    The park is quiet at 6:00 on this Saturday morning. The palm trees are still dark silhouettes against the pale pink dawn. Sleepy bird calls mingle with the voices of sleepy students as they gather in a clearing, offer prayer, and begin to bear familiar testimonies. As you hear phrases like “I know the Church is true” and “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet,” you realize you could be in a testimony meeting in Montpelier, Idaho. Or Montpelier, Vermont. Or Montpelier, France. And suddenly you realize that it’s not trite; it’s great. The testimonies are as strong as you will find anywhere in the Church.

    Afterward, walk through the park with Virginia, Esteban, Carolina, and the others. They clown for the camera. They cluster around a mulberry tree, picking the purple fruit and staining hands and faces. It’s obvious they like each other and spend a lot of time together. As Maria Jose Menjoulou observes later, “It’s easier to do the right things if we are surrounded with people who share the same goals and strive to achieve the same things.”

    They do spend as much time together as possible, playing basketball or soccer, bowling, eating pizza and ice cream. And dancing. They love to dance. In fact, they’d probably be dancing on this Saturday night if it weren’t seminary graduation.

    Big Deal

    This is more than a ceremony; it’s an occasion. The building is decorated with banners, crowded with students and their families. While a torrential rain fills the streets knee-deep, a group of moms are in the kitchen, piling platters high with food to be enjoyed at the end of the evening. The delicious smell of empanadas, savory meat-filled turnovers, begins to waft through the building.

    And the ceremony itself? It’s more than just walking up to the stand, having their names announced, receiving their graduation certificates. There’s genuine affection between the students, their teachers, and their leaders. The handshakes are lingering ones. There are quiet words exchanged. It makes for a longer evening, but even with all of that good food waiting, no one seems to mind. Seminary graduation here is a big deal. And it should be.

    Sunday Morning

    The next morning, Sunday dawns warm and sunny, with a sky full of puffy white clouds. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city of broad, tree-lined boulevards—think of it as Paris with palm trees. Later in the morning, sidewalks and parks will fill with people out for a stroll. For now, some of the busiest places are the LDS chapels, like the one in the suburb of Belgrano. Here you meet young people like Federico Casco. His dad was going to the United States on business, and Federico had the chance to go along and visit Disneyland. Instead, he stayed home so he could have four years of perfect attendance at seminary. Now he’s graduated, and he says, “It was a light in my life. It helped me obtain a stronger testimony and helped me decide to go on a mission.”

    Going on missions is not easy for Argentine youth. The economy is just starting to improve after years of high unemployment and super-high inflation. There are very few jobs available for young people under 18, so saving money is tough. On the bright side, without part-time jobs, friends have more time for each other and for Church service.

    Sunday Night

    Mauro Berta is first counselor in his ward Sunday School and an assistant to the bishop in the priests quorum. Florencia Gomez is Young Women’s secretary and teaches the Stars in Primary. And Guillermo Pitbladdo is Sunday School president. Sunday night finds them at the Pacheco chapel with other friends from their stake.

    These are not just recent converts, clinging to seminary to learn about their new faith. Many of them come from second- and third-generation Latter-day Saint families. They have been taught the gospel in their homes. But Diego Griffith says, “Everything I had not learned during the fourteen years that I have been a member of the Church I learned in four years of seminary. That’s where I started to become more familiar with the scriptures and where I learned about the promises of the Lord.”

    Besides, as Debora Walker points out, when you are a teen, there seem to be lots more temptations around, and without seminary “it would be much more difficult to resist those temptations.”

    Maybe Juan José Zopetti sums it up best: “Seminary helps me primarily to increase my testimony of Jesus Christ—his love and his mission.”

    That restored knowledge of Jesus Christ—his mission and commandments—that’s the gospel. That’s what Elder Ballard sent rolling forth across a whole continent nearly 70 years ago. And here at the center, where it began, LDS youth are making sure the wave is still building.

    Photography by Larry A. Hiller

    Thanks to seminary and teachers like Corina Casco (left), kids like Caroline (below) and Eduardo (above) thrive in giant Buenos Aires.

    This is a culture that places a high value on friendship. And what better place to find real friends than in seminary?

    Seminary graduation is a major event here. But then, the gospel is a powerful influence among these youth. Many come from second- and third-generation LDS families. Seminary helps keep that heritage alive.

    Being together is important, even if it’s just to taste the mulberries or pose for a photo in 3. de Febrero Park. But caring reaches beyond their own circle too. For example, the Scouts in Linier Ward (bottom right) recently did a great job of gathering clothing for flood victims in a nearby area.

    It started here in a very small way. Now LDS youth in Argentina are riding the crest of a powerful wave that just keeps growing.