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A combination of mysticism and pragmatism is bringing exuberant Chileans into the LDS Church. Now, efforts are being made to keep them in the fold
SANTIAGO, Chile - In his first year as a Mormon, Oscar Campos lost his business, his car, his home, his confidence.
As he wrestled with what to do, Campos dreamed of a pointed hill and awoke convinced that was where he was supposed to move his family. He scoured the countryside outside Santiago until he found just such a hill near La Islita and promptly settled there.
When Campos showed up at the tiny Mormon branch there, he was asked to bless the water, break the bread and pass both to the eight congregants in a makeshift chapel. They also enlisted him to give one of the talks. Within months, he became the branch president.
During the ordinance to confer the office on him, church leaders promised Campos that if he served diligently and righteously, he would get back everything he lost. Two years later, he has. (He uses his new car to pick up members for church and teens for early morning seminary.)
That combination of mystical experience and pragmatic results is winning converts to Mormonism all over this Latin American country.
In the 50 years that LDS missionaries have toiled in Chile, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' membership has swelled to 540,000, the third-largest Mormon population outside the U.S. (behind Mexico and Brazil).
Scholars say Mormon emphasis on traditional family values, self-reliance and spiritual progression resonate in Chile, a nominally Catholic country with a large middle class, strong emphasis on education and a vibrant economy.
"Chileans are morally conservative and they are also highly religious," says Katherine Hutter, who wrote her master's thesis at Georgetown University on Mormons in Chile. ''The Catholic Church has not necessarily filled all the spiritual needs of the population.''
Mormonism appeals "to upwardly mobile lower- and lower-middle-class Chileans who feel that they're stuck," Hutter said in a phone interview. "It also provides a huge social network for people who feel displaced."
While converts in Chile bear a resemblance to their Utah counterparts, they are not carbon copies.
They are more exuberant, more colorful in their customs and more expressive of their feelings. Think karaoke at a Relief Society dinner.
"They didn't grow up in the church so they don't have all our, you know, habits, er, inhibitions," says Elder David Brodegard, a young missionary from Ohio working on the Chilean coast.
Not all Chileans are politically conservative, either. In fact, the missionaries say, most Mormons in Chile oppose Bush and the war in Iraq. And they cheered the recent election of their first female president, who is agnostic, divorced and leftist. That could be because many of them come from lower, more disadvantaged classes than American Mormons.
While generally traditional in their outlook, Chileans are more tolerant of nontraditional marriage arrangements. After all, about half the children are born out of wedlock.
Baptizing Chileans is easy. People have little trouble finding Jesus among the Mormons, shifting allegiance from pope to prophet, or seeing visions of church founder Joseph Smith rather than the Virgin Mary. But making them into lifelong Latter-day Saints is another thing.
Less than a third of those baptized stays in the Mormon fold.
"We are changing lives," says LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, who spent two years overseeing the church in Chile. "Retention is a challenge."
Making Saints: In recent years, Holland says the church has purposely stayed out of politics. Except once - it backed the 2004 effort to legalize divorce.
"We are not pro-divorce but are in favor of helping people be legally married," Holland says.
Traditionally, Chilean marriages have been somewhat informal arrangements. Those who wanted to split might get the marriage annulled by the Roman Catholic Church. But many just separated without any paperwork or government approval. Neither church nor state recognized any future marriage.
In this environment, the LDS Church quietly baptized unmarried partners, especially those who had been together for a long while or who had children together. But it drew the line at having those marriages "sealed for time and all eternity" in a temple.
Now the church forbids even baptizing these couples.
That leaves people such as Alejandro Barrera and his unofficial wife, Rosa, who are completely active in the Bollanar branch outside Santiago, in a kind of religious limbo. Their children have been baptized, but they cannot be until they get formally divorced from earlier spouses.
The marriage dilemma is a headache for missionaries and sometimes causes would-be converts to lose interest. But it is only one of several reasons members and/or potential members fall away.
For many, being a Mormon is a big leap from other Christian faiths, especially in the demands it makes on its members.
Consider Magaly Morales. She came to Chile from Argentina after joining the church with her husband, who died a few years ago of cancer. After her son was murdered by a neighbor, she took in his three teenage children. They live in a wood shack without running water. And she's a Relief Society president.
Because the church has no paid clergy, it expects new members to take on assignments including administering the sacrament, giving speeches, teaching Sunday school, organizing youth activities and doing charitable work for others - and that's every week.
In addition, members who want to go to the temple abstain from coffee, tobacco and alcohol, which can be tough in Chile, a major exporter of wine.
By far the greatest challenge, though, is tithing.
The church wants all members to donate a tenth of their annual income, and not all new members understand or are willing to commit to it. That keeps them out of the temple and away from full participation. Even some bishops and branch presidents have occasionally failed to pay.
The importance of paying tithing became a kind of mantra during LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's visit, repeated by everyone in leadership.
"There was nothing we emphasized more than tithing paying," Holland says. "Every church needs funds; we do it in the scriptural way."
Keeping Saints: Ted Lyon - a Brigham Young University specialist on Latin America who was a mission president in southern Chile from 1996 to 1999 and president of the Santiago Missionary Training Center from 2002 to 2004 - blames several factors for the low retention rates.
Too many people were baptized before they had made the commitments to pay tithing or attend church, he says, and the culture promotes an apathetic approach to religious involvement.
In Latin America, many Catholics consider themselves devout though they don't go to church every week, Lyon says. ''With Mormonism, we expect more.''
Mormon congregations are like small towns, says Elder Shawn Brock of Kaysville. They can be ripped apart by gossip. One insensitive comment and even longtime church leaders might never be back.
"It's a very young church," says Elder Ryan Finn of Pocatello, Idaho. "I like watching it grow up."
Rebuilding the faithful: In the summer of 2002, Hinckley began talking with the apostles about sending one of them to live abroad, either in Chile or the Philippines.
One day Hinckley called Holland into his office and said, simply, ''You'll love Chile. Pack your bags.''
Holland was dumbfounded. ''I didn't know a thing about Chile and couldn't lay claim to a word of Spanish.''
Within six weeks, he and his wife, Pat, were on a plane heading toward Santiago.
The assignment was twofold: To build strength into the church's local leadership, which then might improve membership retention, and to experience the church in an international setting.
Holland got off the plane running. He met all nine mission presidents, nearly 2,000 missionaries and all stake presidents, and examined every aspect of the system to see how it could be improved.
Eventually, he reduced the number of stakes (like a diocese) from a little more than 100 to 74. He revised policy to insist that converts attend church three weeks in succession. He encouraged the missionaries to focus for 25 hours a week on bringing back the inactive members while slowing down in their baptisms. He told them they were responsible for the people they baptized for the rest of their lives.
''We need to teach toward establishing the church, not just adding numbers," Holland told them. "Look past the baptismal font.''
His efforts seem to have made a big difference.
The stakes are running more smoothly, with an increasing number of lay leaders to fill the positions. More Chileans are serving missions.
The church's two job training centers place about 250 people a month, while its Perpetual Education Fund has helped about 2,500 Chilean returned missionaries get an education. It is adding four more "bishop's storehouses" to feed the poor; with that addition, it will have most storehouses in Latin America.
Someday soon there may be more families like the Del Pino/Calatayuds. They joined the LDS Church in 1967, becoming ''pioneers'' and now are raising the fourth generation devoted to the faith.
On March 11, they joined the more than 45,000 Chilean Mormons packed into a stadium outside Santiago to hear Hinckley speak, and even more filled the 74 stake centers the next day to watch their prophet rededicate the temple.
Just as the temple was remodeled, it was time to remodel their lives, said Francisco Ve as, the church's area president. "It is a new era in Chile."
Contact Peggy Fletcher Stack at email@example.com or 801-257-8725. Send comments to religioneditor@ sltrib.com.
By the numbers
Members on the LDS Church rolls
Names in the "Lost Addresses" file
People who identified themselves as Mormons on the 2002 Chilean census
Average attendance at sacrament meeting, nationwide
-- Source: Ted Lyon, Brigham Young University specialist on Latin America