BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Government and interfaith leaders converged on Movistar Arena in Colombia’s capital Sunday afternoon to greet a key partner in the effort to realize the religious freedom embedded in the nation’s constitution, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On Monday morning, President Nelson is scheduled to meet with the president of Colombia, Iván Duque,

The church’s membership comprises less than 1% of Colombia’s population, but the church is a strategic partner that makes a major contribution, said Lorena Rios, the nation’s director of Religious Affairs. Colombia is celebrating its 200th year of independence, but strong religious freedom protections were added to the constitution in 1991.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson say goodbye at the conclusion of a Latin America Ministry Tour devotional in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. | Ravell Call

Sunday’s meeting included a Muslim sheik, a Jewish rabbi and a Tibetan Buddhist. It took place directly before President Nelson, head of The Church of Jesus Christ, gave a special message about families that resonated with 10,464 church members who gathered for a devotional in the arena named for a Latin American mobile phone company.

“To me it is an honor to welcome President Nelson to my country,” Rios said, because the church and the Colombian government have worked together on humanitarian efforts and in defense of religious liberty. “We are doing important things together. We are promoting cooperation between religions and government.”

President Nelson addresses 10,000 Colombian Latter-day Saints on achieving salvation, exaltation

“I have a deep appreciation for the work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in terms of religious freedom,” added Charles Schultz, a former member of the Colombian Senate. “We work together at central government and local government levels to make a practical reality of the principles and values of religious freedom in the constitution.”

Rios and Schultz both have spoken at the annual symposium of the International Center for Law and Religious Studies at Brigham Young University in Provo.

“I showed that it is better not to have a state religion,” Schultz said. “It creates better warranties for religious pluralism and freedom. In theory, we have religious freedom in Colombia, and it is very important. We’re working on laws to be able to have full religious equality. We haven’t yet been able to finish building that equality.”

Roman Catholics comprise 79% of the country, and the Catholic Church continues to have favored status in some areas, said Monsignor Francisco Duque, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colombia, which has about 2,000 members.

“We have a better set of legislation that we need to push forward so all churches have the same rights the Roman Catholic Church has, without taking anything away from them,” said Monsignor Duque, who was raised Catholic and is related to Colombia’s president, Ivan Duque.

President Nelson’s message made a special emotional and spiritual impact on one family.

Brenyi Grondona, 15, lives with cancer in Montería, a 20-hour drive from Bogotá. Her mother, Luzdary, said Brenyi’s dream was to go to Bogotá to see the church’s prophet, but the free tickets for the devotional went to those living closer.

Luzdary Grondona and her husband, Juan Carlos, decided to take a week off work and travel to worship in the Bogotá Temple with their daughter and oldest son, Braider, 21. While there, one of their church leaders in Montería called to tell them he had managed to arrange tickets for all of them near the front of the arena.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson meet with youth in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred

“It was an answer to all our prayers,” Luzdary Grondona said with tears in her eyes.

“To be able to see him was indescribable,” Brenyi said after the devotional. “He’s the man chosen of God. God has given me a lot of trials and tests, and I have relied on him. Today, I feel closer to him.”

During the church president’s talk, he asked the young men and women to stand and waved at them.

“I’ll never forget President Nelson waving at me,” Brenyi said.

His message struck home with the Grondonas. He spoke about the church’s doctrine of exaltation, which he called “the highest state of happiness and glory in the celestial kingdom” in heaven. Faith and repentance are individual matters, he said, but “exaltation is a family affair.”

Homes, he added, must be God’s laboratory for love and service.

“That’s where a husband loves his wife, a wife loves her husband and parents and children love each other,” he said. “Our Heavenly Father wants husbands and wives to be faithful to each other in a home where children are considered an inheritance of the Lord. Thanks to God’s great plan of happiness, families can stay together forever. Exaltation is a family affair.”

Juan Carlos Grondona said the message edified him, and his daughter found it powerful.

“I’m going to be with my family forever if we live the commandments,” Brenyi said.

“It is the greatest gift,” her brother Braider Grondona said, “that we can get from the Lord.”

President Nelson and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counseled spouses to avoid all forms of abuse.

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife sister Mary Cook meet with youth in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred

Elder Cook spoke against unbridled passions, saying that the world is filled with visual evidence of violence and immorality.

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President Nelson said the Lord wants parents to correct their children but asked them to do so calmly, privately and lovingly when needed.

“In these days of unbridled pornography and immorality, parents, you have a sacred responsibility to teach your children the importance of God in their lives,” he said.

President Nelson also asked them to please study scripture as families, pray together, regularly participate in the sacrament, pay tithing with grateful hearts and attend the temple as often as possible.

“I felt Heavenly Father was actually providing his words, and he knew what to say and how to say it to inspire everyone who was here,” said Carol Steffany Vega Alvarez, 18, of Acacias, Colombia. “I will always remember that he said it is a personal choice to follow the Lord.” 

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