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Mission in Africa: Mormons find converts, challenges on very foreign soil

Published March 26, 2010 3:55 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ten white-clothed men, women and children came to the water's edge from various avenues of life -- teachers, students, orphans, gardeners, mothers, fathers and shopkeepers.

Some stepped hesitantly into the lake, determined but nervous. One stiff-limbed woman had to be submerged three times before her baptism could be deemed complete.

But they all emerged smiling and as new brothers and sisters in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Much like such converts throughout East Africa, these newcomers were attracted to the tiny LDS branch in Kigali, an hour's car ride away on bumpy mountain roads, and its welcoming community, its promise of close connections to the dead and its offer of new scripture.

The story of 14-year-old Joseph Smith's vision of God and Jesus Christ in a grove in upstate New York appeals to many Africans who have their own dreams and visions. Some also enjoy the unexpected feeling of respect and belonging when they take on the role of lay minister, teacher or missionary.

Surprisingly, just three decades after the Utah-based church ended its century-old ban on blacks being ordained to the all-male priesthood, the American-born faith has more than 300,000 members in some 30 nations across the continent. Little by little, it is building a nucleus of believers from Ethiopia to South Africa, from Cameroon to Namibia, filling Bountiful-looking LDS chapels that have sprung up on the African savannas and relying on core members who often found the church while living in the United States.

These newly minted Mormons are trading in their drums for organs, their dashikis for white shirts, beads for CTR (Choose the Right) rings, and their ecstatic religious services for subdued reverence.

"The spirit at church was so strong, people were so nice. It was so different than any other church. I was learning new things every week," says Agathe Rumanyika, a Mormon convert who lost many family members in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "People tell me bad things about the church all the time, but I don't care because my testimony is so strong."

Still, Mormonism faces many challenges in trying to bring its foreign faith to a continent beset by AIDS, dire poverty, political instability and corruption, tribal conflicts, civil wars, disease and a plethora of languages.

Not to mention the fact that polygamy, given up by Mormons at the end of the 19th century and forbidden in today's church, still is practiced in many African cultures. Oh, and coffee and tea -- barred by the church's health code -- are among the main crops.

Then there is the religious competition.

Spiritual seekers » Ayele Asfaw first encountered Mormonism when he was in the Ethiopian air force years ago and had some training at northern Utah's Hill Air Force Base.

Now Ayele is the district president over all Ethiopian LDS branches (smaller versions of wards).

Amanuel Heilmarian received a Book of Mormon from a friend, who got it from a missionary in a London airport. He practiced a solitary form of the faith at home with his family, hours south of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and now leads a tiny branch there.

Two escapees from the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda found forgiveness in the LDS Church for the killings they were forced to commit.

And Christopher Mugimu was on his way to buy books in central Kampala, Uganda's capital, when he spotted a sign for the LDS Church. He went to the address, where two missionary couples described the faith.

"I found it hard to believe the Joseph Smith story," Mugimu recalls with a smile. "As an educator, I know about 14-year-olds."

Yet he liked the church's emphasis on eternal families, prophets, baptism by immersion and its lay clergy.

"In the [Anglican] Church of Uganda," he says, "only trained people could do it."

When a branch was organized in his city, Mukono, Mugimu became its first president. In 1995, the family traveled to Utah to be "sealed" in an LDS temple. Four years later, he earned a graduate degree in education at Brigham Young University. He then launched the Mukono Town Academy with about 300 students, 250 of whom board at the school. He was again the branch president, overseeing an ever-changing flock, until he was replaced in January.

"The majority of our members are young people," he says. "They are often unemployed and then get jobs or go to school elsewhere. Some of them feel family pressures to drop out."

The branch's weekly attendance rate -- which mirrors most of the other areas of the Uganda-Kampala LDS mission -- runs between 48 percent and 50 percent.

"We would like to see a temple here someday," he says wistfully. "But so many people are jobless that tithing is a big problem."

An apostle's journey » Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland hopes it won't be long before God rewards the LDS faithful of East Africa with a temple closer than Ghana or South Africa.

"I was very impressed by the quality of the priesthood [men] and auxiliary [female] leaders," Holland said in an interview about his whirlwind 16-day, seven-country tour last August and September. "They knew all of it, the protocol ... the way to run a meeting."

In Zimbabwe, a country ravaged by political and economic mismanagement, Holland wanted to see how members were doing out in the bush, far from the capital of Harare.

"It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't get food or gasoline," he says. "I went there asking myself, 'What is the church going to be like?' "

He found that the Mormons "seem to have gone along and been blessed ... [were] even thriving," he says. "They do their best and share their resources. The church was able, in its standard welfare way, to help nonmembers as well as members."

And they were able "to acknowledge the hand of the Lord in their lives."

The LDS Church is finding success in part, he says, because those countries already are deeply Christian. Nearly every block in Uganda's Kampala and its surroundings displays messages of faith -- Blessed Metal Works, God's Grace Internet Cafe, Destiny Baby's Boutique, Dancing Your Soul to Eternity Radio Station.

"If you wanted to stand on a street corner and say, 'Let's talk about Jesus Christ,' you'd have 400 people swirling around you ready to hear it, carrying their Bibles and quoting their scriptures -- better than the missionary," he says. "That is one of the most admirable things about the African people. They seem happy, faithful people, devoted to religious principles."

At every stop, Holland says, he was inspired, educated and humbled.

He was amazed, for example, at how Rwanda was faring. The streets were clean, the government well-run, the city alive with rebuilding.

Holland, the first known LDS apostle to visit there, asked God's blessing on the country, the members and missionaries.

With local members, the mission president and visiting authorities, the apostle climbed to the top of a mountain to utter his dedicatory prayer.

"I felt such a powerful spirit," Holland recalls. "I know that the gospel is the answer to hostility and hate and blood and the travail of that little country."

The marketplace of faith » Mormons aren't the only ones seeking God's approval for their evangelism.

Pentecostals, Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, all of whom have been in Africa longer, are drawing away members from the dominant Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant faiths.

Uganda, for example, has more than 970,000 Pentecostals, 244,000 Adventists and 10,100 Witnesses, compared with fewer than 5,000 Mormons, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

"The Witnesses are growing faster around the world than the LDS, particularly in Africa," says Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College in Virginia. "They start with leadership that is much more nonwhite and have much more racial diversity overall, whereas Mormonism is seen as an American faith."

Pentecostalism, which is sweeping the global south, has much more to offer than Mormonism -- women preachers, small gatherings and easy accommodation of African traditions, says McDermott, co-author with BYU's Robert Millet of the forthcoming volume Evangelicals and Mormons: Exploring the Boundaries .

While the Utah-based church's claim that God still speaks today may sound exciting and different to traditional Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians, he says, "if you're Pentecostal and getting revelations all the time, this is nothing new."

Welcoming party » President Edward Christensen, of the LDS Uganda-Kampala Mission, doesn't worry about other faiths. He is too busy keeping track of his own church's expanding growth.

Converts tell him that "in Pentecostal churches, we sing, dance and clap because we don't know what to teach or how to teach," Christensen says over dinner in Kigali. "[In Mormonism], people answer our questions."

Since Christensen, a retired Hewlett-Packard executive, arrived in the summer of 2007, the LDS Church has entered Rwanda, added new branches in northern Uganda and Ethiopia and built new chapels.

Scores of Africans in isolated regions inquire about joining the church, including several thousand in war-scarred southern Sudan.

In the summer of 2008, Christensen and his wife, Erin, traveled to a remote region in Sudan's southern interior. When they arrived, they saw a sign, nailed to a stick, wedged in the tall grasses, saying, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- Visitors Welcome," and 2,500 people eager to hear from a church official for the first time.

These Sudanese had some Mormon pamphlets, some "quads" (the Bible and LDS scriptures bound together), General Conference tapes and CTR rings left for them by a Canadian member years before. Since then, they had organized themselves into about 10 units, using the church's name without ever connecting with Salt Lake City.

Christensen gave them more materials and encouraged them to keep studying -- though they remain unbaptized. Then, in December, he returned to Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, to organize the first official branch.

"We are currently looking for a meeting place for them," he wrote this week in an e-mail. "We are hopeful that, if the political situation in Sudan stabilizes after the elections this year and next year, missionaries could begin working there."

Challenges remain » Given the church's previous ban on blacks in its priesthood, it would be easy to presume that a lingering tension exists between white and black Mormons in Africa. Or that new members, discovering that history, might leave the faith in anger.

Not true, Christensen says. There have been very few defections based on race. A bigger barrier exists between members who hail from different tribes or nations.

Nor is polygamy as big a problem as it might be.

No man can be baptized who is living with more than one woman, Christensen says, but a polygamist can join if he divorces all but one wife. He can continue to support the others as long as he doesn't live with them as husband and wife. Besides, polygamy is dying out in the younger generations.

Once people are converted, Christensen says, giving up tea, coffee and alcohol doesn't seem too tough, either.

The biggest obstacle to continued involvement turns out to be economic.

Ugandans come to the cities for jobs, but go back to their villages when they don't have work or food. At home, they don't know how to get in contact with the church, which is purposely centered in cities. Missionaries can proselytize only within an hour's walk of an established branch.

Creating these "centers of strength" has helped the Uganda mission meet its goal of 85 percent new-member activity for the first year.

Yet Christensen's heart is open to those who come from far distances, like the people who walk three hours each way to church twice a month in Debre Zeit, Ethiopia.

In January, the president and his wife drove an hour and a half to Adullalah to meet with them before their baptisms.

"We stood under a large tree on a wind-swept hill and listened to their testimonies of the gospel and how it has changed their lives," he says. "They were adamant that they would do anything necessary to stay close to the church."

It is unforgettable moments like these that Christensen and other Mormons take away from their sojourns in East Africa.

"The future of missionary work will and ought to be on this continent," says Elder Tyler Krueger, a young missionary from Seattle. "We've got something special here."

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Documenting LDS history in Africa

The LDS Church is expanding its historical enterprise to include more narratives from members abroad, general authority Marlin Jensen said this week.

Jensen, official historian for the nearly 14 million-member faith, has just returned from a seven-country tour of Africa, where he and assistant historian Richard Turley met with area authorities, mission presidents, missionary couples and members to discuss how best to gather oral histories as well as institutional accounts.

"This would be a decentralized effort, governed by area presidencies and using local people and local resources to collect and preserve church history," Jensen said. "Our history is continuing everywhere.

"The Lord is raising up a people. We need to get these histories to flow into us and become part of the larger story."