Editor's note: Deseret News staff writer Tad Walch, together with Church News Editor Sarah Weaver and photojournalist Jeff Allred, 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 Chile.
CONCEPCIÓN, Chile — On the eve of the dedication of the new temple here, community and political leaders called it a symbol of the larger impact of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the area.
They described the church's charity work, voluntarism and other contributions and said they are welcomed in this city of 225,000. So is the Concepción Chile Temple, the faith’s second in the country.
"It's an enormous honor to have this temple in our city," said Sen. Jacqueline Van Rysselberghe, the city's former mayor. "As I have met members of the church throughout Concepción, there is a common thread: They have a deep love of service. I have found that members of the church are always willing to come forward and serve other people.
"The beauty of this temple represents the beauty of the souls of the church's members."
President Russell M. Nelson met with more than a dozen local community leaders on Saturday at the temple site and thanked them.
"We are very grateful for you," he said. "We know you're grateful to have this beautiful temple. It will bless the entire country and this part of Chile. … I have love and gratitude for your support for the freedom of religion and the defense of the family."
The temple is a built on a floating base to protect it from the region's frequent earthquakes, he told church youth in a devotional broadcast Saturday night throughout Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
"If there's a big earthquake, the safest place in Chile will be the temple," he said. "It's the safest place temporally and spiritually."
Biobío Region Gov. Jorge Ulloa praised President Nelson for promoting "the work of Christ."
"I know the contributions and the services the church provides in the community," he said, adding that he appreciates its spiritual contributions as much as its care for "the least-favored people."
LDS Charities, sponsored by the church, has directly helped nearly 5.1 million people in this nation of 18.5 million. Over 592,000 church members live in Chile and worship in 601 congregations.
"For us," Ulloa said, "the church is very important."
Concepción's current mayor, Alvaro Ortiz, found refuge as a child, and was introduced to the church, playing soccer on church fields.
"The church is a very good member of the community," he said. "It extends its arms into places the state can't go. The social work of the church is very important here. We recognize their great work. They absolutely and totally make a difference in neighborhoods that need it most."
For example, Ortiz praised the church's emergency response after a 2010 earthquake, He also said the church's addiction recovery program has helped many families in the region.
"This temple is significant for the church and for Concepción, the most important city in southern Chile," he said. "It’s important to us to have it here."
He said more than 83,500 people attended the temple open house, which was confirmed by Alfredo Salas, area public affairs director for the church's South America South Area.
Ortiz called the palm-tree lined temple site "magnificent."
Sergio Bobadilla, a member of Chile's House of Representatives, said the temple's architecture has added to the character and beauty of the city.
"My constituents have talked to me about how beautiful it is and how happy they are to have it in Concepción."
He said he hoped "the house of God" will help people grow closer to him and that it was a blessing for him to attend the open house. He urged his children to attend, too.
"We're proud to have the church in our land," he said.
Three years ago, thousands of Chilean Latter-day Saints took to the streets to join the country’s annual weekend fundraiser for child burn victims, said Francisco Javier Irarrazabel, a member of the board of directors of the Burned Children Foundation.
They consistently returned with more money than other volunteers, so the foundation studied them to learn why.
"First, we learned they do it with pride and happiness," Irarrazabel said, "because they think, 'I am serving the Lord and helping others, and I'm happy doing this.' Second, they are extremely polite and well-trained at communicating with people, saying please and thank you, whether or not someone gives a donation.
"We saw that if people were going to give a coin, they gave three to the Latter-day Saint volunteers. If they were going to give a bill, they changed to a larger bill."
The church has a longstanding relationship with the Burned Children Foundation for years.
"It’s been an incredible partnership," Irarrazabel said.
The church has provided equipment, a laundry room and a water pump. The foundation now has treated 140,000 kids in 37 years and today helps about 8,000 to 10,000 burn victims per year.
"If a child is burned, he loses mobility as he grows," Irarrazabel said. "You need to treat them with surgery, plastic surgery, massage and therapy as they grow.
"There are lot of kids walking around Chile in better shape because of the church and its contributions to us."
Since 2015, the church has helped over 6,500 Chileans start businesses, find better jobs or obtain additional education pursuits or take finance courses, said Melissa Riley, senior manager of strategic initiatives for the church.
One of those Chileans, Alejandro Valenzuela, 57, who launched his own auto repair shop in June after taking the church's "Starting and Growing My Business" self-reliance course, worked as a volunteer with his wife Ingrid and son Sebastian during the temple open house.
On Sunday morning, they will attend the first of three dedicatory sessions in the temple.
"We used to travel six hours to attend the temple," Ingrid said. "Now it will take 15 minutes. "We're really happy. Its just a blessing for our ward and our country. It's what we wanted more than anything.
"I hope we are temple workers some day. I'm just waiting for them to call."