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‘Bless the land’: When Elder Ballard second-guessed his apostolic blessing in flood-stricken Bolivia

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The following is excerpted from Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard.

Church membership in South America had grown exponentially since Elder Ballard’s grandfather, Melvin J. Ballard, dedicated the continent for the preaching of the gospel in 1925. A year later, as Elder Melvin J. Ballard was preparing to return to Utah, he uttered these words of prophecy: “The work of the Lord will grow slowly for a time here just as an oak grows slowly from an acorn. It will not shoot up in a day as does the sunflower that grows quickly and then dies. But thousands will join the Church here. It will be divided into more than one mission and will be one of the strongest in the Church.”

Sixty years later, with a new Elder Ballard in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, there were “30 missions, with 5,140 full-time missionaries, of which approximately 60 percent [were] natives of South America. One hundred eighty-six stakes covered the land, with 2,148 wards and branches dotting the countryside. [And there were] approximately 776,000 members of the Church.”16

Within one month of being called to the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Ballard was sent to Bolivia to begin a significant period of focused ministerial service filled with love and concern for the Saints in South America. “Each trip to South America is an emotional experience for me,” Elder Ballard says. “It’s hard to express what I feel as I see the marvelous results of the work that Elder Melvin J. Ballard helped to start. This makes me feel closer to my grandfather, and closer to the wonderful people of South America.”17

On his first trip to Bolivia as an Apostle, Elder Ballard was driven to a regional conference in La Paz. Before the conference began, Elder Ballard and the other Church leaders who were traveling with him greeted one man whose shirt was a different color from about the chest up than it was from the chest down. Through an interpreter, Elder Ballard learned the man and his companions had come from a high plateau in the Andes Mountains called the Antiplano. They had walked six hours before catching a ride in the back of a truck for an additional two hours. During what had to have been an exhausting journey, the man had forded two rivers, with water coming up to his chest—hence the different coloration in his shirt. Elder Ballard asked if the man had eaten. He had not. When asked if he had any money, he replied, “No.” The man then explained his reason for coming to the conference: “Brother Ballard, you are an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. My companions and I would walk for weeks, if necessary, to come to hear from one of His Apostles what the Lord wants us to do.”18 Elder Ballard was humbled by the man’s faith. The leaders saw that the man and his companions received food, shelter, and funds for the trip home.

While the group was traveling and holding meetings in Bolivia, they learned that the waters of Lake Titicaca, South America’s largest lake, had been rising to crisis levels. Many people living near this lake, which straddles the border of Bolivia and Peru, had been flooded out—including a number of Church members.

“We went up into that country to meet with those people to try to encourage them and to try to bless their lives and let them know that we cared,” Elder Ballard reported. “We stood there on a little piece of dry land and looked at the damage caused by the rising waters.”

Before long, the other members of the traveling party returned to the vehicles in which they were traveling, anxious to be on their way to scheduled meetings. But Elder Ballard lingered on that piece of dry land, surveying the situation and pondering possible responses. As he stood there alone, he said he “had an impression come as powerfully as anything in my life: ‘You are an Apostle; bless the land.’”

He asked those who were traveling with him to rejoin him on the dry piece of ground. “I do not know what the Lord has in mind, but I know that I am to pronounce a blessing on the land,” he told them. “We joined in prayer, and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by and through the holy apostleship which I had vested in me for less than a month, the power of God, the power of the Holy Ghost, spoke through me to command the lake to recede, that the land might be reclaimed to the people.”

At the conclusion of the prayer there were tears in many eyes—including Elder Ballard’s. But after the people had returned to the cars and resumed their travel, he said he started feeling doubts, asking himself incredulously, “What have I done?”

“When I got back to my room that night, I spent a good portion of the night on my knees pleading with the Lord to somehow honor that prayer,” Elder Ballard said.

Within two weeks he received reports out of both Bolivia and Peru indicating that the water levels of Lake Titicaca had miraculously dropped by ten feet and that people were returning to their homes and tilling their land. “Hydrologists had no explanation for what happened,” Elder Ballard said. “But those of us who were there knew and understood what had been done through the power of God.”

In sharing this experience with a large group of missionaries, Elder Ballard said: “Now, you are not apostles, but you bear the priesthood. You sisters have been set apart by the priesthood. You have the power of God to do His will and to speak for Him if you are living worthy to receive it. You will know what to say, and you will know what not to say. You will know whom to bless and how to bless and how to teach and how to live and how to inspire—for you are servants of the Lord, Jesus Christ.”19

Anxiously Engaged: A Biography of M. Russell Ballard

In Anxiously Engaged, accounts of this dedicated missionary, husband, father, business leader, and Apostle—accompanied by photos throughout—offer a close-up look at President Ballard’s life, faith, and testimony. As readers come to appreciate the meaningful difference he has made in the lives of the Lord’s children around the world, their own testimonies of his role as a prophet, seer, and revelator will grow.

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