It is no surprise that the first “Face-to-Face” event for Mormon youths in Africa was broadcast from Ghana — and that it featured LDS apostle Dale G. Renlund and his wife, Ruth Renlund.
After all, the Renlunds know Africa well after spending five years there, and Ghana’s capital, Accra, includes a prominent Mormon campus with a temple, visitors center, church offices and a newly constructed Missionary Training Center (MTC).
West Africa has been home to Mormonism’s fastest growth of any region within the past decade, according to independent LDS demographer Matt Martinich.
“Nearly all major indicators of LDS growth [there] have demonstrated significant improvements during this period,” Martinich wrote late last month on cumorah.com. That includes “increases in church-reported membership, congregations, stakes, districts, missions, convert baptisms, the number of countries with an official LDS presence, and the number of full-time missionaries serving from the area.”
Such statistics “mirrored rapid growth experienced by the church in the Philippines and Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s,” the Colorado-based researcher wrote, but West Africa has “higher self-sustainability and better convert retention and local leadership development outcomes.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not begin sending missionaries to black Africa until 1978, when the Utah-based faith ended a long-standing ban on ordaining black men and boys to its all-male priesthood and excluding black women from entering its temples.
Once that prohibition ended, the West African nations of Nigeria and Ghana were the first to take off. In 1983, the LDS Church reported having 3,081 members in the region — 73 percent of whom lived in Nigeria and 27 percent in Ghana.
By the end of last year, the church listed approximately 300,300 members in the region, including those two countries as well as Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo and Benin.
The new MTC in Ghana reflects that growth. A former facility, in Tema, could house only 90 missionaries. The new one, near the faith’s Accra temple and set to be dedicated in October, can accommodate 320 missionaries, with room take take in 500 if needed.
Earlier this year, Martinich reported, the church created its first branch in Mali.
Saturday’s internet chat with the Renlunds drew thousands of participants via satellite from more than a half-million Mormons in nearly 1,800 congregations spread across the continent, not just on the west side, posing their questions in person or via the internet.
Saturday morning’s event was broadcast in English, with simultaneous translation in Portuguese and Malagasy, while the afternoon broadcast was in French, which the Renlunds speak.
The young people asked the 64-year-old apostle and his wife about faith, repentance, recognizing messages from the Holy Spirit and navigating life as the only Mormon in their schools. They also inquired about why chastity is important, why marriage is sacred and how to know if they had been forgiven of their sins.
On divine communication, Dale Renlund said the Spirit speaks “differently to different people, sometimes even differently to the same person.”
It can include “thoughts, impressions, feelings, sometimes voices, sometimes dreams,” the Mormon leader said, noting that he mostly gets short, one-word imperatives — go, do, say, don’t — but with almost no explanation.
Ruth Renlund said heavenly messages come to her in the form of thoughts and ideas, which sometimes can be confused with her own.
It takes “practice” to distinguish the source, she said. Just know the Spirit will “always prompt you to do good, never to act contrary to the standards of the church.”
Teenager Lethe-Ann Kauzeh-Anfo of Ghana said in a news release that she “felt the Holy Ghost strongly as [Renlund] spoke about the principles of the gospel, and I also had a lot of my questions answered through what he said today.”
For their part, the Renlunds were moved by the experience.
“Ruth and I were thrilled to get the assignment to return to Africa,” Renlund, who served as president of the Africa Southeast Area prior to his service as an apostle, said in the release. “While we lived in Africa, we were frequently in awe of the immense faith we found in the members [there] and in the island nations of the Indian Ocean. There is no question the light of the gospel shines brightly in their countenances.”