The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Africa on the rise

(Courtesy photo | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A sacrament meeting in Africa.

Out of Africa this week: another sign of tremendous church growth on the continent.

The Utah-based faith announced it will split the Africa Southeast Area next summer into a Central Area and a South Area. The specific boundaries have yet to be finalized, but the move is more than a bureaucratic reshuffling.

“The establishment of the new area will provide for significant increases in resources to this region of Africa in regards to manpower, financial resources, and attention by international church leaders regarding missionary work and outreach expansion,” independent demographer Matt Martinich writes at ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com.

The three R’s — reading, ’riting and ’religion

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, studies Gospel Literacy program materials with a group of women in Sierra Leone, June 2019.

The Good Book is helping members in Sierra Leone learn how to read other books.

A church-run pilot program is helping boost literacy while teaching gospel principles in the West African nation.

“Gospel literacy is about learning to read and write so you can understand … the principles of the gospel so that you can teach your own children or your neighbors,” project manager Melissa Hawkley said in a news release.

Students start, for example, by discussing a picture based on a story from the Bible or the Book of Mormon, explained another project manager, Cason Curriden. From there, they “transition into learning letters and forming words.”

Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham, who visited Sierra Leone last month to launch the program, said that “reading opens up a world of ideas,” adding that “learners become leaders,” who then can influence the community.

BYU runner’s greatest race

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pictures of the Brigham Young University (BYU).

Brigham Young University track athlete Emma Gee loves to race, but she isn’t running away from who she is.

The senior steeplechaser is the first-ever Division I athlete at the Provo school to come out publicly. Gee told administrators, her family and her teammates that she is bisexual. She then went public.

“I met with all the necessary parties (at BYU),” she told USA Today Sports. “I wanted them to know me first because homophobia and stigma (are rooted) in fear of the (unknown). I had to be very careful with my words, explaining: ‘I’ve dated – both boys and girls. But we’re not having sex or kissing.’”

In short, she’s heeding the school’s Honor Code, which forbids “not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

Gee says the church-owned school has taken steps toward greater LGBTQ awareness but insists longer strides are needed.

“It’s very easy to turn these things into lip service. That’s a huge problem at BYU,” Gee told USA Today Sports. “Just because you’re having the conversations doesn’t mean it should be mistaken for taking action in terms of improving culture — to actually be inclusive.”

The history-making runner plans to keep doing her part to help, noting that she knows other LGBTQ athletes at BYU who stay closeted for fear of repercussions.

“I’ve fallen down more times than I can count,” she says. “I’m not someone who walks away from something the first time it gets uncomfortable. I’m going to keep hurdling.”

Missionary money

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sister missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach a young man in Lyon, France.

Missionary wannabes waiting for their calls to serve are being called to save — more money.

The cost of serving a mission will go up 25% in July 2020, from the current $400 a month to $500, the first jump in nearly two decades. The price hike applies only to missionaries from the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and more than a dozen European countries.

Missionaries and their families or congregations make these monthly payments to help cover living expenses.

“We hope that missionaries will use the time provided before this increase takes effect to carefully plan for meeting the expense of serving a mission,” church spokesman Daniel Woodruff wrote in an email.

“We know that many sacrifice greatly to help share our Heavenly Father’s love and the Savior’s restored gospel,” wrote the governing First Presidency in a June 27 letter.

Soon that sacrifice will include an extra $100 a month.

Nelson’s birthday bash

(Photo by Brandon Wilding courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Bonner Family consists of eight Bonner siblings and their parents, all talented vocalists, who perform and record together.

There will be no clowns, magicians, balloon animals or bounce houses. But a host of performers — including violinist Jenny Oaks Baker, The Bonner Family, Donny Osmond and The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square — will be on hand.

The guest of honor: President Russell M. Nelson.

The birthday boy turns 95 on Sept. 9, and the gala marking the occasion is set for Sept. 6 in the 21,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

The celebration will share insights into the prophet-president’s life, ministry and service, a news release stated, with videos about his family, ministry and career as a renowned heart surgeon.

Free tickets will be available at ChurchofJesusChrist.org/events starting July 30 at 9 a.m.

This week’s podcast: The ‘greatest export’

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Children play in a field of over 3,000 U.S. flags as they sway in the breeze outside Sandy City Hall in Sandy, Utah, Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.

Religious freedom.

Best-selling author Steven Waldman calls it “America’s greatest export” and warns that it is being threatened.

On that count, top Latter-day Saint leaders might agree. They bring the subject up often. President Russell M. Nelson discussed religious freedom in March with Pope Francis in their historic meeting at the Vatican and again this week with visiting Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Nelson’s first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, still holds court on the issue in many of his sermons. And it was a major force in the so-called Utah compromise, a church-blessed effort that brought housing and employment protections to LGBTQ individuals.

Mormonism’s role in the evolution of religious liberty is part of Waldman’s new book, “Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom.”

Listen here.

Unity of faiths

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Cardinal Timothy Dolan , archbishop of New York, embraces President Russell M. Nelson during a meeting in the Church Administration Building on July 1, 2019.

Four months after President Russell M. Nelson became the first Latter-day Saint prophet to have a private audience with a pope, the Mormon leader met with one of the nation’s most influential Catholics.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, met with Nelson and other top Latter-day Saint leaders this week, further knotting the deepening ties between the two religions.

Dolan, in Utah to give a keynote address on religious liberty at a patriotic service for America’s Freedom Festival, huddled with Nelson and his second counselor, Henry B. Eyring, along with apostle M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve, according to a news release. The cardinal also toured Temple Square and Welfare Square.

“He has a great personality, he has got a great sense of humor, but he’s also committed to values that are consistent with the things that we believe in as disciples of Jesus Christ,” said apostle Quentin L. Cook, who introduced Dolan at the service.

“ … To have us be able to work together on things that would bless this country… whether they’re of a faith or no faith at all, has been an incredibly significant thing.”

For his part, Dolan emphasized that religious freedom is vital for believers and nonbelievers alike.

“We come together as neighbors, we come together as a family, we come together as friends,” the cardinal said. “See, that gives a counterexample to those who would love to caricature us as these bigoted, hateful, violent people. And we can't allow that to happen.”

From Russia to the Baltics

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Elder David Gaag on “preparation day” in Vilnius, Lithuania.

When the Russian police arrived on game night at the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Novorossiysk, Elder David Gaag knew his mission “would never be the same.”

Sure enough.

The young “volunteer” spent three weeks in detention before being deported. The eager and enthusiastic 19-year-old is now serving in Lithuania, where he can proudly sport his missionary nametag and openly preach anywhere, anytime to anyone.

He tells his experience in this exclusive Salt Lake Tribune story.

Ah, that name again

It’s been nearly a year since President Russell M. Nelson’s appeal to members, media, scholars and skeptics to stop using the words “Mormon” and “LDS.”

How’s it going? Well, the church has made a number of changes — from high-profile (think the Tabernacle Choir’s new name) to low-profile (new website domains).

But the shift has hardly been universal, The New York Times reports, both inside and outside the faith.

Of course, everyone — including top church leaders — knew from the get-go that it would take time, perhaps generations.

Quote of the week

“Stop looking for God where he is not — on some big white throne up in the sky — and start looking where he told you he would be: among the poor, the outcasts, the despised, and the broken. Stop looking up and start looking out.”

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.