“The South American Area General Conferences,” Ensign, June 1975, 71–75
The basic facts of the recent area general conferences in South America can be told in just a few sentences. On February 28 and March 1 and 2, a conference was held in Sao Paulo for members of the Church in Brazil. And on March 7, 8, and 9, a conference for the members in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay took place in Buenos Aires. More than 5,000 attended the sessions in Sao Paulo, and over 10,000 attended in Buenos Aires.
The format for both conferences was the same. On Friday evening the members presented a program of songs and dances that depicted local cultures. General sessions were conducted on Saturday and Sunday. Special sessions for parents and youth were held on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning there was a special session for priesthood leaders.
President Spencer W. Kimball led the delegation of General Authorities, accompanied by President N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor in the First Presidency. Elder Mark E. Petersen, Elder Delbert L. Stapley, and Elder L. Tom Perry represented the Council of the Twelve. The Assistants to the Council of the Twelve were represented by Elder ElRay L. Christiansen, Elder Franklin D. Richards, Elder James E. Faust (in Brazil only), and Elder J. Thomas Fyans. Elder A. Theodore Tuttle, Elder Hartman Rector, Jr., and Elder Rex D. Pinegar represented the First Council of the Seventy.
Those, then, are the basic facts of the area conferences. But what about the color, the spirit, the excitement? What impact did the conferences have on those who participated?
The members who were interviewed about the conferences seemed to list the same three things as having impressed them most. “Seeing and hearing the prophet speak was the best part,” said some. Others claimed, “It was the news about the temple.” Still others added their appreciation for the wonderful choirs that furnished the music.
Those who had looked forward to the conference for months had focused on the thought that the prophet of the Lord would be at the conference. And so they worked, sacrificed, and helped each other in order to be able to attend. Choir members spent many hours in rehearsal, often travelling long distances. Those who participated in the Friday evening cultural programs also travelled long distances and worked many hours at perfecting their presentations. They wanted to be at their best for the prophet and the General Authorities who accompanied him.
Then, when President Kimball and the others arrived, the Saints at the conference received even more than many of them had dared hope for. In his opening remarks at Sao Paulo, even before the prayer was announced, President Kimball said: “We are very happy to announce to you and all the world, that subject to the conditions that exist, and your total cooperation, we will build the 17th temple of the Lord in South America. And it will be located in Sao Paulo, Brazil.”
Those who live far from where a temple is located will have some idea of how much impact this announcement had. One beautiful young family from Uruguay said, “It would have taken us at least ten years to save enough money to go to one of the temples in North America.” But now that a temple is to be built in South America, they can enjoy the blessings of the temple in just a few years. Some seemed to have difficulty in expressing their feelings about the temple. “Wonderful!” was all they could say, as though they were still stunned by the news. Their moist eyes indicated that a more comprehensive answer was in their hearts.
From beginning to end the conferences were great uplifting and unifying experiences. The Friday evening cultural programs, for example, did much to stimulate a feeling of unity among members who came from regions and countries hundreds of miles apart. Each group seemed to gain more appreciation for the others’ unique talents and cultural heritage.
An interesting outgrowth of the rehearsals for the choirs and cultural presentations was that young people were able to make new acquaintances with youth from other branches. As a result there were some deep friendships that developed, and there were even a few engagements.
The youth in South America make up a large part of the Church population, and their contribution to the spirit of the conferences was great. In addition to their performances in the cultural programs, they provided some beautiful choirs. In Sao Paulo, for example, a seminary and institute chorus of over 1,200 voices provided the music for the Sunday morning session. Dressed in pastel shirts and dresses, they filled the entire center section of the conference hall. And when the session had ended, they remained in their places and began to sing again. Song after song, their enthusiasm built as they stood looking up into the faces of the General Authorities on the stand. Many, both in the chorus and on the stand, had tears in their eyes.
It was such choruses, among other things, that made a strong impression on nonmember observers of the conferences. In Brazil, for example, the conference was featured on the nation’s most popular television news program—one reaching an audience of millions. The camera crews and reporters were astonished. “Where have you been keeping these choirs?” they asked. Of course, the answer was that the choirs as such had not existed until the people arrived in Sao Paulo.
Other observers were impressed by the behavior of the members attending the meetings. The manager of the Anhembi Convention Center in Sao Paulo remarked that this was the cleanest, best-organized group ever to use the facility. A cab driver who had been retained by one of the news media representatives had to remain outside the center for hours at a time. He had ample opportunity to observe the conference crowds. On the last day of the conference he couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer. “Where do these people come from?” he wanted to know. “I haven’t seen any shoving or heard any arguing—just expressions of love.”
Because the conference proceedings in Sao Paulo were carried to other parts of the building by closed circuit television, it was necessary to have a crew of technicians on the scene. Early in the conference they continued talking during the prayers. But during the last session as the final prayer was being said, someone walked into the control room and began to talk. The chief technician, who was not a Latter-day Saint, turned and said: “Shhh! They’re praying.”
The Saints in Buenos Aires made a similar impression on nonmember observers. The manager of the facility where the conference was held remarked about the cleanliness and orderliness of the group. And one of the policemen on duty outside the building made similar observations.
Observers of the conferences might have been even more astonished if they had known of the personal sacrifices some had to make in order to attend. One mission president estimated that it cost some of his members as much as three months’ wages to get to the conference. Many took extra jobs or participated in fund-raising projects in order to finance the trip.
Even travelling to the conference sites was not easy for some. Bus rides of more than 30 hours were common. One man from Chile travelled 65 hours to reach Buenos Aires.
Interestingly enough, people who were asked about sacrifice shrugged it off. “No,” they would say, “it hasn’t been easy for many to come, but I wouldn’t call it a sacrifice.” That, perhaps, is the key to the spirit of the conferences. It wasn’t a sacrifice; because, after all, they were going to hear the Lord’s servants. And their expectations were fulfilled as they sat listening to inspired counsel at the feet of the prophet and the other General Authorities.
They heard President Kimball remind them of the challenge that Joshua gave the Children of Israel: “… choose you this day whom ye will serve.” (Josh. 24:15.) He reminded them again of the announced temple and encouraged them to sacrifice for it. “We hope you will receive this temple as a new sacrifice, for we remember that ‘Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven.’ (“Praise to the Man,” Hymns No. 147.) Of all the blessings that come to you, nothing is greater than the blessings that come to you by having fathers and mothers sealed to each other for time and eternity, and having all the children sealed to them so that after death families go on and on becoming like God and growing in righteousness and perfection together.”
Elder Mark E. Petersen spoke of the commandment, “Take my yoke upon you.” (Matt. 11:29.) “The act of taking his yoke upon us is the most serious and solemn thing we can do in life. If we take his yoke upon us, we must be sincere. We must be honest with the Lord. Although we live in the world, we cannot allow the sins and practices of the world to overcome us.”
Those who attended the priesthood leadership session in Buenos Aires heard Elder Franklin D. Richards tell how to develop one’s capabilities as a priesthood leader. He mentioned the effective use of time: “We must learn to simplify our lives and work patterns. We can accomplish this by doing the most important things first and not trying to do more than we can do well.”
At that same priesthood session, Elder Delbert L. Stapley spoke of the nature of the priesthood, saying, “There is a difference between the authority of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood. … A man may have the priesthood conferred upon him, but through inactivity, disobedience, and violating the commandments of God he will not gain power in the priesthood. The priesthood may lie dormant in an individual, the power of it never realized whereby miracles can be performed. Such an inactive person denies himself personal benefits, as well as denying others who could be uplifted and blessed had he been faithful.”
Special counsel was also given to those who attended the sessions for parents and for youth. President Kimball warned of forces that are trying to weaken the family unit. He reminded parents of the temptations that face modern youth. “The solution,” he reminded, “lies in keeping the commandments and attending to family duties.” He said that the Lord’s program is to “return the father to his rightful place at the head of the family, to bring the mother home from social life and employment, the children from near-total fun and frolic. The home teaching program, with its crowning activity, the family home evening, will neutralize the ill effects only if the people will apply the remedy.”
President Kimball went on to remind them of the fall of past civilizations: “Had every father in Babylon, assisted by the mother, taught and trained little ones in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, would that great city ever have been covered with sand and its corruption buried in the earth, its springs dried up, its temples toppled? Would drunken revelry have lulled them to sleep in unawareness of their danger? Would palms and willows wither, and would lands be dried and desolate? Would Babylon have become a hiss and a byword?”
At the Sao Paulo conference Elder Rex D. Pinegar spoke of parents and prayer: “How grateful I am for the faithful prayers of my parents. Just how often their prayers have been the means of my salvation I may never know. I do know, however, that children need the blessings that come through the prayers of their parents.
“Children need to pray for their parents, for each other, for the leaders of the Church, and for the Lord to bless the leaders of the land with righteous desires. Children should learn prayers of gratitude. … Children should pray for strength and wisdom to overcome the personal challenges they face. … Children must also be taught to live as they pray so they will be worthy to receive the blessings they seek.”
In their meetings the youth heard the General Authorities speak with love and plainness. They were reminded to keep themselves clean and pure. They were advised to heed their parents and their priesthood leaders. And they were told of their missionary responsibilities.
President Kimball’s address to the youth in Buenos Aires was especially powerful with regard to missionary work. He spoke of all of the problems that beset men in the world because they do not know the truth. “If only we could tell this whole world that they will be happier, they will be less hungry, they will be better taken care of if they join the Church.
“I am looking for the day when we will have 5,000 missionaries from South America. There are more than 5,000 boys in South America. Why aren’t they in the mission field? I think they didn’t understand. They thought it was something you could just choose to do or choose not to do.
“But a mission is like paying tithing. Of course, you don’t have to pay tithing, but everybody who loves the Lord is going to get the tithing habit.”
President Kimball told the story of a young college student who fell in love with a very beautiful young woman. When he proposed marriage she answered, “I’d like you to be my husband, but, where did you fill your mission?” When he explained that he had decided to get an education instead, she replied, “Well, maybe we’d better wait.”
He was in one of the next missionary groups going to Australia.
President Kimball then went on: “Do you young women realize how much power you have? If there were an army here telling them they had to go, it wouldn’t be as powerful as you would be. When one of these boys falls in love with you, you have the controls. You can just say what you want to say, but you could say, ‘Oh, let’s wait until you get back from your mission.’”
What effect did such addresses have on the youth who attended the conference? “I am determined to be more of a missionary,” one 17-year-old girl reported. “And I am going to encourage my younger brothers to go on missions.”
Another example of the effect on the youth was cited by President Puerta of the Sao Paulo West Stake. Prior to the conference, he had interviewed a young man about going on a mission. A third-year engineering student, the young man had expressed doubts about interrupting his schooling, because it would be extremely difficult for him to get back into school following his mission. He said he would give his answer about the mission after the area conference. When the last session was over, he sought out his stake president and, with tears in his eyes, said he would love to go on a mission.
It is difficult to say how many others were influenced in a similar way, but the enthusiasm of the young people at the conferences could be seen in their eyes and in their smiles. “I feel as if my heart has been cleansed,” said one. Another had a note of awe in his voice as he said, “I shook the prophet’s hand.”
For many of the General Authorities and Regional Representatives of the Council of the Twelve who attended, the conferences were an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and to see the fruits of seeds planted in years past. They had been active in South America over the years as missionaries, mission presidents, and supervisors of missions. They had taught, counselled, and called to positions of leadership many of the Saints in attendance. They had watched Church units grow, and they had watched people grow. Now they saw thousands of dedicated Saints gather in two great area conferences. They saw the numerous dedicated young people, many of them second- and third-generation members.
Many of the members there had had their lives touched by the Brethren in very personal ways. Two incidents at the Buenos Aires conference, both involving President Kimball will illustrate.
Speaking at the session for parents, President Miguel Avila, first counselor in the Buenos Aires Argentina East Stake, told how his wife had been ill about ten years ago. She had been given many tests and had undergone surgery, and still her condition did not improve. The couple had remained childless for seven years, and they were faced with the possibilities of more surgery and of remaining childless.
Then one evening Brother Avila had a dream in which one of the current apostles told him not to worry. An important calling would come to him, and he and his wife would be blessed with a child. Eight months later the Buenos Aires Stake was organized, and President Kimball—then a member of the Council of the Twelve—ordained Brother Avila a bishop. It was President Kimball he had seen in the dream. Within two weeks Sister Avila’s health had improved and subsequently they were blessed with a son.
In another instance, a woman at the conference approached Allen Litster, one of the Regional Representatives, and asked if he would arrange for her to talk to President Kimball. She said that she had lost ten children before President Kimball had given her a blessing. Then, indicating the attractive teenage girl beside her, she said, “My daughter would like to thank President Kimball.”
Over the years, thousands of missionaries have labored in South America, planting seeds of faith. The thousands of Saints who attended the area conferences were part of the fruits of their labors. And during the conferences, more seeds were planted that will bear fruit in the years to come. Just one member, his heart touched by the counsel of the Brethren, could bring scores of others into the Church. One young man, inspired to serve as a missionary, may affect hundreds of lives for good. And how many parents and future parents received counsel that will enable them to raise future generations of leaders?
The complete story of the area conferences cannot be written yet, because the most important part of the story is what has taken place in the hearts of those who attended. But perhaps the future can be read in part in the shining faces of the thousands of fine young people who were there. If so, great things will come out of the conferences that were held in Sao Paulo from February 28 through March 2 and in Buenos Aires from March 7 through March 9.