“Conversation: The Church in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela,” Ensign, Jan. 1997, 79–80
With temples built, under construction, planned, or announced in all five countries of the Church’s South America North Area, more dramatic growth in conversion, retention, and activation is expected. For an update about the Church in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, the Ensign spoke with Elder Jay E. Jensen of the Seventy, South America North Area President, and his counselors, Elder Francisco J. Viñas of the Seventy and Elder Carl B. Pratt, an Area Authority.
Question: Tell us, please, about the temples in these five countries.
Answer: We are very excited to have so many temples soon to be available to the members in our area. Every time we attend a local conference, members want to know the latest details about the temple planned for their country. Since the Lima Peru Temple was dedicated in 1985, growth in terms of spiritual strength and number of members has accelerated in Peru. However, our members in Venezuela have to travel five to seven days to reach the Lima Peru Temple, and those in Ecuador and Colombia have to travel three to five days. Because of this cost in time and money, many members have not been able to visit the temple as often as they would like, if at all.
That will soon change, however. As we speak, the Bogotá Colombia Temple, located about 10 miles from downtown Bogotá, is well into the concrete phase of its foundation and basement, and nearby temple-patron housing is almost completed. Construction on the Guayaquil Ecuador Temple is scheduled to begin soon, and work on the Cochabamba Bolivia Temple is expected to begin sometime during the first half of 1997. A site has not yet been finalized for the temple announced for Venezuela.
Temples have a profound effect not only on Latter-day Saints but also on the communities and even the nations in which they are built. We saw that happen with the Lima Peru Temple. In the beginning, very little was located near the temple, but today beautiful, lighted streets of well-kept houses surround the temple. Similar improvements are already beginning to happen around the Bogotá Colombia and Guayaquil Ecuador Temple sites. Wonderful things also happen inside people’s hearts as the influence of the temple reaches them. Building a new temple is like throwing a stone into a lake: the resulting ripples radiate out and lift everything they touch.
Q: How is the Church progressing in these countries?
A: Church membership in this area of 95 million people is about 700,000, and the Church has 148 stakes and 20 missions. Peru has the most members with 300,000, followed by Ecuador with 128,000, Colombia with 115,000, Bolivia with 90,000, and Venezuela with 75,000. We have found that the Church grows fast in Peru, Ecuador, and parts of Bolivia. In Colombia, Venezuela, and other parts of Bolivia, we find a little less openness to the gospel among the people. In the area as a whole, the Church baptizes between 35,000 and 40,000 new members per year.
We are excited to see a second generation of Church members rising strong in these countries. For example, on a recent visit to the missionary training center in Bogotá, Colombia, we found that out of nine missionaries in one training district, eight were the children of returned missionaries. This statistic represents significant maturation and development among our members. Although North American missionaries and General Authorities serving in Peru and Colombia in recent years were reassigned elsewhere due to political unrest, Latino and North American missionaries now work side by side in all five countries, complementing and strengthening each other’s cultures.
Challenges are what help us grow, and the same is true for the Church in these countries. For instance, when Elder Jensen was serving as a mission president in Colombia during the mid-1970s, North American missionaries began having problems obtaining visas to enter Colombia. Although only three native Colombians were serving as full-time missionaries in 1975, by 1978 more than 50 native missionaries were serving. The members successfully met the challenges presented by the decreased availability of North American missionaries. Today those native missionaries are serving in stake presidencies and bishoprics, and some have served as mission presidents and regional representatives. We’re very confident about the depth and strength of seasoned Church leaders in these countries.
Q: How are members pioneering in the gospel?
A: One challenge faced by our members is poverty. Many members are limited in their transportation and communication, which makes it more difficult to carry out shepherding efforts such as home and visiting teaching. Even attending Church meetings can be a struggle for some members. It is not uncommon for us to attend a stake conference and see only half a dozen or fewer cars parked outside the building. We have also heard of families who, because of the cost of traveling to meetings, must alternate their Church attendance: one Sunday the mother and daughters might go, and the next Sunday the father and sons take their turn. To help members pioneer through some of these difficulties, the Church is striving to make units smaller both in terms of geographical reach and number of members. The ideal is for each Church member to be able to comfortably reach a meetinghouse by walking.
The Church in these countries has grown and will continue to grow from centers of strength. However, we are also finding more clusters of strength in unexpected, remote places. We find that because of the efforts of latter-day pioneers our members are located throughout these countries. For instance, we are aware of gospel inroads being made with some remote Indians who have maintained traditional language and culture. The son of the governor of one of these groups went to a major city to gain an education, and while there he met the missionaries and was converted to the Church. Now he has returned to his group and has become a gospel influence among them. Pioneers like him are encouraging gospel growth all over the five countries.
Most of the Church’s converts in these countries come from among the humbler, poorer classes. For many of these new members, the gospel becomes a catalyst that helps them pioneer into new areas of progress and improvement in their lives. The gospel gets inside their hearts and makes them want to reach out and serve others and better provide for their families by getting an education, working harder, and raising standards of living.
Q: How do members meet the challenges of retention and activation?
A: One key to retaining new members is to baptize entire families whenever possible, which our missionaries are striving to do. Another goal is to get the priesthood into homes, first the Aaronic Priesthood and then the Melchizedek Priesthood. We find that when the head of a household holds the priesthood and is active, he can unify his wife and children in Church activity. With temples in all five countries, retention of converts will improve as more members are able to achieve the realistic goal of attending the temple a year after their baptisms.
We echo President Spencer W. Kimball’s expressions that the humble children of Lehi are very open to being taught, converted, and activated. They seem to have a spiritual receptivity that no doubt hearkens back to the wonderful promises made to them in the Book of Mormon (see Gene R. Cook, Ensign, Nov. 1980, 67–69). For those members who for some reason slip away, often all it takes is a loving visit for them to come back. For example, two months before we created a fourth stake in a Peruvian city, local leaders organized an effort to visit every member of record in the area. Within weeks, sacrament meeting attendance rose dramatically in many units. Results such as this demonstrate the willingness of the people to be loved and led into the gospel. We feel that the Church’s growth in these countries is just beginning.