Sunday, February 8, 2009

Spotlight On Argentina: Integrity And Stability Fuel Latter-Day Saint Growth In Latin America

While there are some occasional challenges presented to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Latin America, such as the sudden evacuation of LDS missionaries from Bolivia to Peru in September 2008, and the recent decision to find a new site for the proposed temple in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the growth of the LDS Church in Latin America has been steady. Of course, one of the selling factors is LDS doctrine about Lamanites; a high percentage of Latin Americans are believed to have Lamanite (Amerindian) ancestry, although not all Amerindians are descended from Lamanites (the Book of Mormon merely focuses on two specific tribes in Mesoamerica from 600 B.C. to 400 A.D., and there is no reason to believe that other peoples did not live in the Western Hemisphere during that period).

But there are two other factors aiding LDS growth in Latin America; integrity and stability. During Latin America's most recent 500-year history, both qualities have been in short supply as country after country has been sporadically affected by coups and revolution. In addition, the spirit of mordida prevails throughout much of Latin America, since many public servants tend to be underpaid and rely upon gratuities to supplement their incomes.

Reuters has published an excellent article which not only focuses on the latter attribute, stability, but also on an area of Latin America which often doesn't get publicity - Argentina. Argentina actually defies the typical Latin American stereotype; the majority of their people are of Spanish, Italian, and German ancestry. Other than the fact that they speak Spanish, they are not significantly different than most mainstream Americans.

According to the intro to the main Reuters article, LDS churches are multiplying across traditionally Catholic Latin America, and the region boasts the largest LDS membership outside the United States. They make up some 5.2 million of the Church’s 13.5 million global membership. And Reuters sent Kylie Stott from their Buenos Aires bureau to visit the Belgrano Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints there. It is housed in one of the 692 Mormon chapels in Argentina (5,500 total in Latin America). The Church also has one temple in Buenos Aires and another being planned for Cordoba. Stott found that the perceived stability and status of the church is a draw for many Latin Americans who have lived through economic and political turmoil, and her findings are documented in a three-page article here. Some highlights are presented below.

Diego Lacho, a 28-year-old Argentinian who recently converted, spoke to Reuters. "To begin with it wasn't easy, obviously it was a life-changing decision ... But now I have the faith and I have a shield to protect me from society, because today's world is a difficult one". Lacho, a casino worker, married a Mormon woman three years ago and was baptized in August. He has learned to follow church rules against smoking, alcohol and coffee.

Sociologist Cesar Ceriani, who recently published a book on Mormon missionary work in Argentina, says Latin Americans see the Latter-day Saints as pure, reliable and economically powerful in a region often plagued by instability and corruption. The church has an estimated global annual revenue of $5 billion, and everywhere it is expanding it spends heavily on new temples and chapels and on aid projects like clean water wells, hospitals and educational kits. Indeed, the Church is participating in the effort to help the people in Western Kentucky who are still without power after the ice storms.

"The church has a lot of visible power, and people notice that the missionaries are always so neat, and the mission presidents are always so busy and well-dressed," Ceriani said. "They see the church as a tool, or a way of getting a better position or job, or belonging to a social group that gives one more stability and support," he continued.

Another factor working in the Church's favor is that in Latin America, most people are not aware of scandals that harm it elsewhere, such as media attention in the United States to polygamous practices by isolated fundamentalist Mormon groups. Church leaders emphasize that these fundamentalists do not belong to the official church, which abolished polygamy more than a century ago and opened its priesthood to males of all races 30 years ago.

Reuters also sought input from one of the Church's full-time missionaries serving in the area. "The life of a missionary is busy, busy, busy. We're working really hard all the time trying to find people that are interested in the gospel... from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. We're running the whole day. We get pretty tired," said Elder Fuller, a missionary from Idaho working in Argentina. Elder Fuller, who is not allowed to use his first name while on mission, is halfway through his mission, and so far has helped convert six people, a fairly standard number for most Mormon missionaries.

One of the LDS Church's continuing challenges is to keep converts active in the Church once they join. In some areas, converts tend to have a high inactivity rate; one comment to the Reuters story posted by a former LDS missionary in Ecuador indicated that out of 2,000 members in his area, only 20 were active. This is not necessarily typical, but it is an indicator of the need to keep converts interested and engaged. Upon becoming Church President in 2008, Thomas S. Monson issued a specific appeal to inactive members to come back.

Reuters did an excellent job with this article.

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