Out of Africa and into the heart of Mormondom — Swahili LDS branch offers wounded souls new hope while battling old demons

Swahili LDS branch offers wounded souls new hope while battling old demons.

Suppose you are sitting on a standard Mormon pew in a nondescript, windowless LDS chapel in Sugar House and the person who passes you the sacramental water is a Rwandan Hutu, whose clan killed your parents.

Or maybe you are listening to a Mormon Sunday school lesson on forgiveness taught by a guy on the other side of Congo's civil war you barely escaped. You might even be asked to take a casserole to someone who stole food from you during a drought in Tanzania.

Such is the social experiment underway among the band of believers in the Parleys Creek LDS congregation, known as the Swahili branch.

It's as if a United Nations refugee camp in Africa — with its teeming and traumatized masses fleeing genocide, war, abuse and economic devastation — had been plopped into the heart of Salt Lake City.

These transplants face not only the daunting challenges of learning a new language, navigating an unfamiliar faith, culture and landscape, and developing fresh employment skills, they also often suffer psychological scars from witnessing unspeakable atrocities and living in camps, where they were disoriented, unmoored from their homelands, and exposed to hunger, disease and death.

Even worse, some Swahili members say, ghosts of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which Hutus massacred nearly a million Tutsis in a few months and after which another 2 million Hutus were displaced, hover over the branch.

Maintaining spiritual unity can be tricky for any Mormon congregation with its brew of strong personalities, opposing scriptural approaches, varied lifestyles, social classes and political leanings — imagine being an LDS Democrat in Utah County — but for the Swahili branch, which includes Mormon converts from Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and a smattering of other countries, the challenge is magnified tenfold.

"It's the equivalent of taking on three large Salt Lake City wards," says Robert Kagabo, a former counselor in the Swahili branch's inaugural lay presidency.

The obstacles are multifaceted and expanding exponentially — beyond what most American Latter-day Saints can comprehend, he says. Still, the African branch serves great and small needs of members who might otherwise be invisible in a mostly white suburban congregation.

Volunteers from an LDS stake (a group of congregations) traverse the Salt Lake Valley to pick up potential attendees and drive them to Sunday services. No African Mormon is required to attend the Swahili branch — many go to their neighborhood wards — but those who want to can have their membership records transferred to its rolls.

"Some live far away; we bring them here," says Rosetti Bahati, president of the branch's female Relief Society. "That person is going to feel better with Swahili language and African culture."

The Congolese Bahati visits as many of the congregation's women as she can and relays their needs to the branch president, Emmanuel DeMzee, from Tanzania.

"It's good," she says.

Africans of all countries and backgrounds may be drawn to the LDS branch, which meets at 1621 S. 1100 East, because of shared traditions and language — sermons are in English or Swahili, then translated by a person standing next to the speaker — but many also find joy, purpose and redemption in this worship.

They see their faces reflected in individual portraits hanging in the Relief Society room, where the female leaders wear dazzling headscarves and hoop earrings, and in artwork accompanied by Swahili script, which, loosely translated, reads: "We are beloved daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us and we love each other."

Even illiterate members can belt out the Swahili Christian hymns, imprinted on their hearts from childhood.

Gathering such disparate groups under a single religious and linguistic umbrella — and then bombarding them with messages about hope, compassion and transformation, while assigning them to minister to and with their enemies — seems like a good start on the way to overcoming centuries of hostilities.

Maybe the only way.

Built on optimism • The ebullient Amram Musungu joined the LDS Church as a young man in Kenya, served a mission there, and then emigrated to Utah, where he earned a degree from LDS Business College. He married, started a family and sang in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Full of energy, Musungu pushed the church to launch the Swahili branch in 2009 to serve East African Mormons, who were having a tough time integrating into the community, and became the congregation's first lay leader.

Musungu was well aware of the agonizing experiences his members brought. Some had seen machete attacks, gang rapes and murders; others had participated in assaults.

"We have people who are haunted day and night from what they have seen in their countries or the camps," he says. "They grind their teeth all night at the memories."

In the present, many of his flock had trouble adopting American mores, particularly finding and keeping a job.

"I did not turn anyone down for church welfare," Musungu recalls. "I was not there to judge. If they were not telling the truth, they'll be accountable."

The Kenyan convert grew up with nothing, he says, and didn't want people in his care to go hungry.

What, he asked himself, would Jesus do?

Economic realities — pressure from higher-ups to limit welfare distribution and from desperate refugees with little means — pressed in on every side.

Differences about how to meet the branch's financial demands emerged. All three men who have served as branch president — Musungu, Garland Dennett (a white American) and DeMzee — have wrestled with how much to give, for what needs, to which members and under what circumstances.

"We wish we could do more and more for them," says DeMzee, who earned a degree in computer information from Brigham Young University-Idaho and now works for a tech company in Salt Lake City. "Sometimes we can't."

Consider the case of Beatrice Mapendo, who runs the African Boutique in West Valley City.

The Congolese businesswoman was married in a refugee camp at age 14 and gave birth to her first son at 15. After eight years in squalid conditions, her husband was killed, and she left with her boy for the United States, eventually landing in Utah, where she met Mormon missionaries.

From 2006 to 2014, Mapendo attended the Swahili branch, helping to pick up members and teaching in the Young Women program for teenage girls.

One Sunday, she awoke with scorching abdominal pains, which continued during her cross-town pickup trip and through the first part of Sunday services.

"My stomach was hurting. It kept burning. I asked a girl to drive me home. I was screaming," she recalls. "President Dennett said, 'We have to take you to the hospital and give you a blessing.' "

She replied: "I don't want to go; I have no insurance."

The American assured her, she says, that the church would take care of the cost.

After being treated with antibiotics in an emergency room, Mapendo says, she forgot all about the bill, which was $1,700, assuming the church would pay. She heard about it only in 2014, when a collection agency came calling. Now, with penalties, the tab amounted to $3,700.

She says when she asked DeMzee, who by then had replaced Dennett, he refused to pay and suggested she declare bankruptcy.

Instead, Mapendo says, she worked three jobs to pay off the debt — and never returned to the branch.

DeMzee says he has no memory of the exchange but points out that about 90 percent of the branch's welfare needs are medical bills.

"Unless we decide to pay every bill — which is impractical — we help them in other ways. We write letters to medical providers. Sometimes these bills come to them, and they can't pay or didn't do paperwork. Most of our members qualify for Medicaid."

Welfare needs are a persistent problem, and miscommunication due to language and cultural barriers is common.

"A lot of members who were there [in the branch] in the beginning are no longer there," says Kagabo, a University of Utah teacher and now a member of the stake, or regional, high council. "Some have been disappointed by not getting what they thought they would get ... financial gain or assistance."

Tribal identification • A counselor in the branch presidency is a Tutsi from Rwanda. Though most see him as a kind and devoted leader, some say he favors Tutsis over Hutus, especially Burundis and Congolese, members from surrounding countries with similar tribal groupings that harbored some of the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

Recently, some male teens, mostly from those two countries, reported that the counselor accused them of being disrespectful and pressured them to leave the branch. They still attend, Musungu, the former branch president says, but sit on the back pew and slip out as soon as services end.

Musungu, who still worships at the branch, has organized them into a soccer team, which he coaches, and has tried to make them feel welcome.

When Tutsi refugees arrive in Utah, they often are baptized into the LDS Church within weeks, Musungu says, while Hutus are left alone.

"Unfortunately, we bring our forefathers' divisions into the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," he says, retaining "tribal and national ties."

"I want to see people change," Musungu adds, "Christ didn't care about tribes."

Likewise, Congolese are not treated as "responsible members," says Alex Ngendakuriyo, originally from Burundi, "and [seen as] not worthy to be church leaders."

He believes some tensions might diminish if "people from each country were part of the leadership." At the same time, he says, "tribal issues" don't necessarily bother him because he joined the LDS Church based on an "understanding of gospel ideas."

Post-genocide Rwanda has done much bridge-building, says BYU's Benjamin Cook, director of the school's Center for Conflict Resolution, including making it illegal to identify as a Tutsi or Hutu.

For all the Swahili congregation's challenges, it can also be a "laboratory of love," he says. "The church hasn't created separate Hutu and Tutsi branches, or, for that matter, Democrat and Republican branches. We are expected to not just sit side by side, but actually learn to love the other. I see conflicts all over the place, but places like the Swahili branch offer members this rare opportunity."

DeMzee, too, is hopeful about its ability to transform former foes into brothers and sisters.

"These are people who couldn't be together in the past, but now they are helping each other," he says. "They are leaning more into their faith, singing in a choir together, serving each other."

No one, DeMzee says, should underestimate those tiny miracles.

pstack@sltrib.com Twitter: @religiongal