This is part of a series of posts about stories from my mission in Argentina. This story deals more with church policy than anything else. The actual story starts 7 paragraphs down if you don't care for the church policy stuff.
A few months into my mission I was working in a city named Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña (or Sáenz Peña for short). There were three companionships (we refer to a missionary and his companion as a companionship) in the city, one for each one of the three branches (local congregations) in the city. I worked in a neighborhood of the city known as Barrio Obrero (it was actually several different neighborhoods together but Obrero was the largest), which was on the east side of the city. The particular branch where I was has a problem with local leadership. There were very few people who were willing to work in a leadership position and the few who did felt overworked or had many other commitments that prevented them from helping out too much. While the basic functioning of the local congregation was fine there were other administrative things that needed attention and the local congregational leaders could not do them.
In places in the world where the church is not as established the local congregations are organized into branches, and several branches together form a district. Each branch is led by a branch president (and two counselors if possible) and the district is led by a district president and two counselors. The district, which was headquartered in Sáenz Peña had seven (or eight, I forget) branches, of which three were in the city of Sáenz Peña and the others were in other towns in the area. One of the problems facing local leaders is that they could not find many men to work in the Priesthood. All church positions are filled by what is called a lay ministry, meaning no one is paid and training is on the job. When a man has been a member of the church for a while he is allowed to be ordained to the Priesthood, or when he gets old enough he can be ordained to the priesthood. This allows him to act as branch president, a counselor or in some other position. The problem was there were too few men who where willing and able to fulfill these responsibilities.
This was compounded by the fact that there were some men who had previously been ordained to the Priesthood, but were not living according to the standards required to fill a leadership position. There were some men who said they were willing, and even came to church quite often but they were not keeping the commandments, as we say in the church, which means they were doing things that disqualified them from being able to hold or exercise the priesthood. One of the biggest problems was people living jutado, (literally "together") which meant that the Priesthood holder was living with a woman to whom he was not married. In Argentina this was a remarkably common practice for people to forego getting married and just move in together. These were people who may have been living with the same woman for several years, and even could have had several kids with her, yet they never legally got married (Argentina does have a common law marriage that can be resorted to in certain cases, but a great number of people just never take the time to go to registrar's office and fill out the forms).
The problem was that this practice was against the rules of the church. For anyone to hold the Priesthood and to fill a leadership position they could not be "breaking the commandments" which means they could not be living with someone to whom they were not married. In some cases there were complications involving a previous marriage and a messy divorce, but in many cases it simply was that they never bothered to take the time to go to the local registrar's office and fill out the forms. And if they weren't willing to put forth the effort to do something like that, and acknowledge, publicly and legally, that the woman they were living with and have had 3 or 4 or 6 kids with is their wife, then we (missionaries and local leaders) were concerned that they would not be responsible enough to fill a leadership position. But the only problem was that we were short on leaders, so we kind of needed them to get their acts together and make things right.
So that is where the missionaries came in. Part of what we did was to try to work with some of these men, who had previously held leadership positions, but were currently disqualified because of their lack of marital status, but their non-lack of domestic arrangements. When I got to the city the local leaders were just finishing up a concerted effort to bring these men back into worthiness (some of whom had also been missionaries many years ago). While there had been some success, there were others who did not take the admonition seriously and continued to live with someone who was not their wife. All of these men they had been members for years, had previously held a Priesthood office, and in that sense, they should have known better, and in most cases they actively acknowledged that they were doing something that is not allowed by church covenants and rules. That is to say, they had previously covenanted (made a religious promise) to not do the very thing they were doing.
So when I got there the local leaders had been trying for over a year to get these men back into accordance with the rules of the church but they had done little or nothing to fix their personal situations. So after a while the district president, his counselors and the district counsel decided to excommunicate all the men who had previously been ordained to the priesthood, but were now living in such a way that their worthiness was in question. I was informed of the decision by the second counselor in the district presidency, who happened to live in the branch where I worked, that they would meet soon to discuss removing the membership of the men who did nothing to live up to the standards set by the church. Special considerations would be taken in each case, and no decision would be taken lightly but all of them had been well informed of what was expected of them as members of the church and also as those who had been ordained to the Priesthood. So they decided that it was time to enforce the law of the church and something must be done.
This is about when I met Renzo Sanchez. He had been a member of the church for several years, had been ordained to the Priesthood when he was a teenager (he was only ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, which is an introductory priesthood), but somewhere along the line he had stopped coming to church. In the years after he had stopped coming to church he met a girl, fell in love and they moved in together into a modest house. When I met him he was in his early twenties, and had two children, but legally they were not married. Through previous efforts the missionaries and local leaders had contacted him and encouraged him to come back to church. He was very receptive and made the commitment to come back to church since he enjoyed it and still had a testimony that it was true. The missionaries taught his "wife" and she too received the message and wanted to be baptized (I think she really encouraged him to go back to church since she had a more enthusiastic testimony than he did). The only problem was that they were not married so she could not be baptized. The other problem was that she had been born in another city and all her personal records were in that city, and they needed the records so that they could get married. So they were kind of stuck.
I talked to the second counselor in the district presidency about their case, and his impression was that if they had wanted to do something about it they already would have, so it wasn't really a problem of logistics. It was in his opinion more a problem of desire, which was the problem with so many other men we were dealing with. But having dealt with a few of the other cases I could tell a distinct difference in the level of desire between Renzo and the other men in his situation. So I actively lobbied that no action would be taken on Renzo. The second counselor responded with incredulity, but as they had other cases to deal with that were perhaps more serious he agreed to put Renzo further down on the list.
When Renzo's case came up again a few weeks later I took a moment in a District Conference to speak to the District President directly and made the case for Renzo. He said he was not fully aware of the situation and thanked me for informing him. He agreed to hold off on any decision, but stated that they needed to keep some order in the Church because that was the nature of problem that they were dealing with. I agreed (because I had to deal with the problem myself as a missionary), but insisted that Renzo was working on it. I made sure to let Renzo and his wife know the situation and they added some urgency to their efforts.
About a week before I left the area I reminded them that I would probably be leaving and my companion might not lobby as forcefully as I had to keep him from being excommunicated. They told me that a relative had recently traveled to the city where the wife's records were kept and was able to secure them, which meant that they could soon be married. I got transferred out of the area before that happened, but almost a year later I got transferred back into Chaco and at a mission conference I asked around to find the missionaries currently stationed in Barrio Obrero. When I found them I asked about Renzo and his wife and found out that they had indeed gotten married and that his wife had gotten baptized. He had since received the Melchizedek Priesthood and was currently serving as a counselor in the branch presidency (the missionaries also had a moment of, "Wait, you're Elder Tanner?!? That was you? Renzo always mentions you."). After all the work that I had done I was happy that it had worked out.