Editor's note: Deseret News staff writer Tad Walch, together with Church News Editor Sarah Weaver, is chronicling the South American ministry of President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the impact the church is having in various countries. He reports today from Uruguay.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — More than 4,500 people completely filled a massive tent here on Thursday night to listen to President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I can hardly believe what I'm seeing, hundreds and hundreds of Latter-day Saints who have transformed this tent into a chapel," he said.
Buses and cars delivered them to the dirt and grass fields of the Landia complex in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, where they sat below a canvas supported by 10 towering tent poles, but it is a fact of President Nelson's entire five-nation South American trip that they were just the tip of an iceberg of Uruguayans who would have come to see their prophet if there were space enough for them.
"My heart exploded with happiness to see him," said Janaina Silva De de Mollá, 36, a mother of three who is a staff corporal in Uruguay's army, runs a budding side business built on a loan from the Perpetual Education Fund loan and serves as first counselor in a Montevideo stake Relief Society presidency.
"I have no doubt that he is a prophet of God," she said. "He was super humble, clear in his words and full of love. Personally, I am full of energy and eager to continue in this wonderful work. It was a unique experience for me and my family."
The Mollá family is among of tens of thousands who have attended events with the church president in four countries so far or watched via in-country broadcasts. In Peru more than 6,000 packed an arena while about 35,000 more watched a video feed. In Bolivia another 9,000 filled an arena nearly to the rafters while 15,000 watched the broadcast. In Paraguay on Thursday, 3,467 spilled out of a convention center and onto chairs on the concourse, while nearly 35,000 watched a feed.
Early estimates are that another 7,400 in Uruguay watched via broadcast and Internet feeds, while 6,000 missionaries have attended or watched three mission meetings on the trip, which ends this weekend when President Nelson will hold a youth devotional and dedicate the Concepcion Chile Temple.
President Nelson, 94, said earlier this week that he, too, would like to meet directly with more church members.
"We're a bit frustrated because we want to go to every country," he said. "We'll have meetings in five countries in South America. That means all the others are left out. But hopefully, little by little, year by year, we'll be able to reach a larger number of people, but we'll still speak directly to a small fraction of the 16 million (members) of the church."
On Thursday night he spoke in Spanish, as he has done previously on this trip, sharing his message that parents should teach their children about the Atonement of Jesus Christ and opposition.
"The Lord's way will bring them joy," he said, "and the Satan's way will bring them misery."
He also stressed the importance of prayer, Sabbath observance, tithing, ordinances and temple covenants.
"Our message is the same," he said at a news conference in Paraguay, "whether it's in one country or another or to whatever age: Choose to follow the Lord, and you'll find happiness. Follow the Lord and keep his commandments and you'll have joy not only here but hereafter. It's simple. It's not a complicated message."
Sister Helen Romero of Choluteca, Honduras, and her missionary companion, Sister Asia Kehl, 20, of Sandy, Utah traveled nine hours from the city of Artigas on a bus rented by the Uruguay Montevideo Mission to attend Thursday's mission meeting with President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson.
They said they were thrilled to shake a prophet's hand and hear his voice in person.
"I saw the light and love of God through him," Romero said. "When I saw him and shook his hand, I felt close to Christ and I knew he sent him here to Uruguay."
Like Romero, it was Kehl's first experience being in the same room with a prophet. The feeling she had surprised her.
"When he came in and shook our hand one at a time, it felt like 3 Nephi, where the Savior ministered one by one," Kehl said. "I expected a different feeling, like 'boom,' but it was more like love — love and peace — and it confirmed that he's a prophet of God. I saw the love he has for every one of us, and that he is a representative of Christ to us today. I didn't want him to ever leave.
"It's a great blessing to have the prophet come here. Uruguay is a very blessed place today."
A natural need
Elder Stevenson said the urge to gather around President Nelson is natural.
"People want to gather in the latter days to hear a prophet speak," he said in a news conference Thursday night after the devotional. "Imagine if you had the chance to gather in the Kirtland Temple to hear Joseph Smith speak or in the Salt Lake Tabernacle to hear Brigham Young or John Taylor. I would not miss that for the world.
"I think we see that with President Nelson and the Latter-day Saints wherever we go."
At each stop, church members have lined up hours before the devotional.
"It's probably what it was like before King Benjamin spoke," Elder Stevenson said. "People came early to pitch their tents. The same thing is happening now."
Romero, the missionary from Honduras, said Thursday's mission meeting with President Nelson provided her with answers to her prayers.
"He is the person the Lord sent because he loves us so much, to help us be with him again," she said. "I still can't believe it just happened.
"I cannot imagine how hard life would be to live in these days without a prophet."
While Latter-day Saint revelation points to perilous times, a living prophet is a feature of what church doctrine also calls the fulness of times, Elder Stevenson said.
"The Lord knew these perilous times needed to have a counterbalance," he said. "I think of the fulness of times offsetting the perilous times. ... We have a prophet giving specific revelation for the days in which we live."
Janaina Silva de Mollá said she feels blessed by the church each day.
Two years ago, she determined that she needed to earn money to help her family, but wanted to work in her home so she could be with her sons, 19 and 18 as they finish high school and her 10-year-old daughter.
As she took the church's self-reliance course "Education for Better Work," she realized her dream was to start a business baking for weddings and parties. She applied for a low-cost Perpetual Education Loan and received nearly $3,800 to attend a professional school. She is one of 520 Uruguayans to receive a PEF loan since 2001, said Melissa Riley, senior manager of strategic initiatives for the church.
Now Janaina's tiny stove in Air Force housing — her husband, José, is an Air Force trainer — is on for hours at a time as she bakes three-layer wedding cakes that sell for $125 or sugar cookies for birthday parties. Her business, "Delicias De Mama" ("Mama's Delights"), is a family project.
José and Elias, their oldest son, help bake cakes, while José Aaron, the middle child, does many of the dishes.
"It is very messy and the dishes pile up," he said with a smile. "I have to wash a lot of dishes."
"The business is part of our lifestyle now," his father said. "It's a way of developing our family. Janaina is making something she loves, and our whole family enjoys what she is doing and helping her."
The family is now working to become debt free and save money to expand the business and buy a home in five years.
"The self-reliance classes were the first step to starting my dream," Janaina said. "Really, without the help of the church it would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. I am extremely grateful."
Mercedes Pérez has been the stake self-reliance specialist. She said dozens of church members have launched businesses since 2014 because of the church's self-reliance program.
"I've seen a lot of people improve their lives," she said. "I've seen a big change in Janaina and others, in their self-confidence."
For the church in Uruguay and elsewhere, its teachings about self-reliance and lifting the poor are inseparable from its doctrine.
Since 2015, the church has helped 1,500 Uruguayans start businesses, find better jobs or obtain additional education pursuits or take finance courses, Riley said.
Additionally, LDS Charities, sponsored by the church, has helped more than 450,000 Uruguayans with health services, emergency response, wheelchair donations and vision care since 1985.
The church had 105,239 members in Uruguay as of April 1. It has 55 congregations in Montevideo, home to more than one-third of Uruguay's 3.3 million people.