Peru's largest city rarely receives rain, and any area not religiously watered soon becomes barren of any plant life. Still, small flower-filled gardens and tree-lined streets attractively adorn many parts of this metropolis of seven million people.
Similarly, the Church has had to be nurtured. In a little less than 30 years, the Church in Lima has blossomed explosively, and after the historic creation of seven new stakes Jan. 30-31, it has become the city with the second largest number of stakes of any metropolitan area outside of the United States. (See chart on page 3.)The people here are masters at making small blessings go a long way.
Consider what has happened in Lima in less than 30 years:
There are now about 45,000 members of the Church in the Lima area (some 120,000 in Peru), a number that grows by the hundreds every month. The number of Church members per capita in Peru is now higher than in 23 states of the United States.
Lima is one of just two cities in the world (Mexico City being the other) that is headquarters to three missions. It also has a temple, and more than 40 meetinghouses are scattered throughout the metropolitan area.
Most members of the Church in Peru consider their "official" history to have begun on Nov. 1, 1959, when the Andes Mission, based in Peru, was opened under the direction of Pres. J. Vernon Sharp. Until then, missionaries, and very few at that, had been sent to Peru from missions headquartered in Uruguay or Argentina. The handful of members living in Peru before 1960 wer primarily Americans working in the country's developing mining industry.
Within 18 months of the mission's opening, two men who would become among Peru's most prominent and faithful Church leaders were baptized: Roberto Vidal, currently the recorder at the Lima Peru Temple, in past years the country's first stake president, and later a regional representative and mission president; and Elder Jose Sousa, now a regional representative and a former mission president.
Still, progress was somewhat slower in the early years. Vidal said it "was like a tree first putting out its branches. When it has more branches, then it grows more quickly."
Some examples of how those "branches" have spread:
Pres. Douglas Earl of the newly formed Peru Lima East Mission served in the Andes Mission 20 years ago. "When I arrived, there were just six branches and three chapels in all of Peru," Pres. Earl recalled. "Two years later there were 23 branches, but still no stakes. There wasn't enough priesthood leadership yet."
Twenty years later, nearly 90 percent of Pres. Earl's missionaries are from Peru.
Elder Angel Abrea came to Lima in 1970 from Argentina as a regional representative to assist with the organization of Peru's first stake.
Seventeen years later, he returned as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and first counselor in the South America North Area to help with the organizations of seven new stakes in one weekend. "When I look at the Church in Lima then and look at it now," Elder Abrea said at one of the weekend's stake conferences, "I can't think of it as anything less than a miracle."
Paul Clayton, a Salt Lake City area physician, served a mission in Peru 13 years ago. He was serving there when Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve organized the second Peruvian stake.
He returned to witness the historic weekend of stake divisions. While attending a priesthood leadership meeting the night before the conferences began, the speaker asked how many had been members of the Church when Clayton had served his mission. Of about 100 priesthood leaders present that night, "about five or six raised their hands," Clayton said.
Most of this phenomenal growth in Lima, then, has taken place in the last 10 years.
Elder Charles Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy and president of the South America North Area, feels there are various reasons for this. "The people here in Peru are simply accepting the gospel very well and responding very well to it," he said. "This is a very special and humble people. They carry a wonderful spirit about them."
But he credits the increased accessibility of temples, and particularly the opening of the Lima Peru Temple two years ago, for providing the spark that helps develop members into leaders in wards and stakes.
"The reason we're doing what we're doing this weekend (the division of stakes) is the temple," Elder Didier said. "Attending the temple is like putting red-hot iron into water and strengthening it into strong steel. We're very happy with the caliber of leaders we have in Lima."
Next to Mexico City, Mexico, then, Lima has become perhaps the Church's strongest international capital. And it has accomplished this in a generation.
Elder Sousa, a regional representative who has an enthusiasm to match his long Church experience in Peru, isn't satisfied. "I've seen the growth of the Church here from nothing," he said. "And I'm convinced that we could have 50 stakes if we were doing everything we should. The Church could be much bigger, and much stronger, than it is now."
For a resourceful people who can grow flowers and trees without rain, that certainly ought to be possible.
Information on new presidents in next week's issue
Biographical information on Lima's new stake presidents will be published in next week's issue of Church News.