Visa snags slow LDS missions to Brazil
Hundreds of Mormon missionaries assigned to serve in Brazil increasingly find themselves preaching not in Rio de Janeiro, SÃ£o Paulo or Fortaleza, but instead in Philadelphia, Pocatello, Idaho, or even Provo.
The LDS Church's SÃ£o Paulo Missionary Training Center, which can accommodate up to 700 trainees, currently houses only about 60, none of them U.S. citizens. And the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lowered the missionary age from 19 to 18 for male Brazilians to make up for the loss of full-time American missionaries.
The reason? Visa snags. And who can Mormon missionaries and their parents blame for the delays? The U.S. State Department and its counterpart in Brazil.
This is no small headache for the LDS Church. Brazil boasts more than a million members, the world's third-largest Mormon population, after the United States and Mexico. It has 27 missions, more than any country outside the U.S. About 10 percent of the faith's 52,000 missionaries are called to Brazil. Any disruption in the flow of full-time missionaries could slow the number of converts and hamper the stability of LDS congregations there.
Waiting for weeks or months for visas takes an emotional toll on individual missionaries.
Rachel Smith, of Taylorsville, assigned to the Brazil Maceio Mission, was initially told to report to the SÃ£o Paulo training center in October 2009. But a week before her departure, she got a call saying she would learn Portuguese instead at the Provo MTC. She ended up staying five weeks beyond the usual two-month training, waiting for her visa. (Some of those waiting on visas are temporarily assigned to other missions.)
"Rachel tried to keep a positive attitude," said her mother, Susan Smith, on Tuesday. "But she said it was hard to see people arrive at the MTC after her and leave before her."
Susan Smith also noted the issue's financial impact. Her daughter left for Brazil a day after her visa arrived without warning and, her mother said, the airfare was several times more than it would have been if the church had been able to buy it well in advance.
Observers say the problem has escalated in the past 18 months after the U.S. government moved to a fully computerized visa process and required visitors from certain countries such as Brazil to be fingerprinted, pass a background check and pay higher fees.
Brazil complained about the new rules, wrote Mormon blogger Kent Larsen (times-andseasons.org), who is in the South American country this week attending a Mormon studies conference.
"It has also retaliated against some of those trying to visit Brazil, including LDS missionaries," Larsen wrote.
Gary Neeleman, Utah's honorary consul to Brazil, acknowledges that retaliation may motivate some of the delays. But he says the Brazilian bottleneck is caused largely by "bad planning."
"The new system was not thought out as well as it should have been," Neeleman said. "There are too few people dealing with the rush of visa applications, which is overwhelming."
All Utah visas for Brazil have to be issued in Los Angeles, he said, which has half as many personnel as needed. It would be nice to ship some of the applications to less-swamped San Francisco, Neeleman said, but the system doesn't work that way.
He has suggested that, until the problem is resolved, the LDS Church call its Brazil-bound missionaries not from Utah but from other states such as Idaho, Illinois and Indiana, which don't have to get their visas through Los Angeles.
The process on both ends is a long one, with dual background checks here and in Brazil, said Heather Barney, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
"There's not a lot we can do to speed it up," Barney says.
Neeleman is in contact with Brazilian officials and hopes the process can be streamlined. He is encouraged by the recent appointment of Antonio Patriota as the country's new foreign minister. Two years ago, Neeleman said, Patriota was in Utah, where he met with LDS leaders and visited Provo's MTC.
The LDS Church believes the Brazilian visa waiting game soon will end.
The church has "a long, congenial history with Brazil and its people," spokesman Scott Trotter said, "and we'll continue to work through the ebb and flow of the visa process."
But one change may be here to stay: calling Brazilian men on missions as early as age 18.
"The Brazilian educational system doesn't normally accommodate a two-year deferment as the colleges and universities do in the United States," Trotter said. "This allows young men to serve missions, fulfill their military obligations and receive higher-level education."