Robert Kirby: Did converts stick, or was only the LDS missionary stuck?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Kirby

A recent study about how many Latter-day Saint converts stay Latter-day Saints after just a year in their newfound faith revealed a few surprises.

At least it did to me. The country I served in half a century ago isn’t doing so well.

Uruguay is near the bottom of the list — found at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com — with a 33% retention rate a year after baptism. Austria and Venezuela finished in the cellar with 25% of converts sticking around longer than a year.

I don’t know what the retention rate was for my mission in 1973-1975. Probably about the same, but it was a long time ago.

According to my mission journal, I was partially responsible for the baptisms of 21 people. I say “partially” because I shared the blessings/blame with other elders.

Twenty-one sounds like a lot, but it was about average for the time and location. Growth in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was exploding in South America during the 1970s. Missionaries there were told to expect baptism numbers in the millions.

It was rumored that all a pair of missionaries had to do was knock on a door, say a few words, and people would drag us inside and start filling up their bathtubs. That’s how successful it was supposed to be.

Not even close. Not only was the country in the middle of a revolution, but there also was the basic fact that almost nobody likes having the day interrupted by someone pushing a celestial timeshare.

I don’t know how my mission “stats” would shake out today, mainly because when I left an area, I never heard from the people again. There was no internet back then. When your face disappeared, so did you.

Besides, I worked by a different set of statistics. For example, I had a couple of companions with whom I experienced zero success. Sometimes it was because we wanted to kill each other, and sometimes I just wasn’t in the area long enough.

Overall, I averaged 6.5 baptisms per bloody bike crash, 1.9 baptisms per dog bite (except in San Lugar Malo, where it was more like 5.1 animal bites, including a donkey, per conversion), and 2.3 bouts of diarrhea per convert.

It might be interesting to see how those numbers stack up today. Using social media, it took most of a night to locate eight of the 21 people I helped bring into the church. Three of them have died for sure.

Of those I couldn’t find, it’s almost certain that the majority are dead. It’s been 45 years since I left Uruguay. Adding that time to the 40-something couple we baptized in Los Monos Gritando almost guarantees that they’re no longer attending church. And if they are, they probably aren’t hearing much of the lessons or sermons.

Of the five I found still alive, only one of them appears to be still active in church. The other four have no pictures, entries or mutual friends associated with Mormonism. In fact, the Facebook pages of two clearly indicate a return to Catholicism.

So what did I go for? Was it a total waste of time? Yes and no. I met my future wife there and spent 728 days sober. Those are stats I can live with. And still do.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.