Sunday, August 25, 2013

Q&A with the Africa Area Presidency - 1994-97

In October 1994, the Church Magazines office interviewed the Africa Area Presidency: Elder J. Richard Clarke, F. David Stanley (later in the general Young Men’s Presidency), and James O. Mason. Coming from a day when that area has been broken into four, the concept of only one area for all of Africa seems comical. I look forward to the day when four seem comical too. Anyway, by that point there were 80,000 members in Africa, primarily in South Africa, but they were growing at more than 10% per year. Elder Mason added during General Conference that month that the number of baptisms could be even higher, but they were focusing more attention on training leadership to ensure that growth was real and lasting. After testifying of the spiritual growth and maturation of church members, he mentioned that there were by then five stakes in Nigeria and Ghana – half of the stakes in Africa.

The area presidency shared that managing that growth was the church’s biggest challenge, as I remember Pres. Hinckley saying on more than one occasion. “We are fortunate that when the Church began proselyting in West Africa, initial converts were men and women who had been well educated. Our leaders are in a position to act as a bridge between the colonial languages and the traditional tribal dialects.” From that day to this, the strategy has been to start from large cities with an established LDS presence and move out. That strategy is one of the reasons there are no missionaries in Yola yet: I am not enough by myself to count as a “center of strength.”

They indicate that the gospel gives the African members great joy and hope. The members love the scriptures and reverence the modern prophets:

They are a faith-exuding people with a deep love for the Lord. We are moved by the depth of their spirituality, the simplicity of their faith, and the way they pray and sing. When music directors stand up to conduct hymns, they often do so without an organ or a piano. They simply sing the first few lines of a hymn, and then the whole congregation joins in. The level of singing is inspiring—from little children to everyone else in the congregation. They do not need to be prodded to sing praises to the Lord. 
Sacrament meeting attendance is around 50 percent for the African area—and that is often under very difficult circumstances in getting to church. We attend conferences in some places where maybe a thousand people attend. Yet in the parking lot there will not be a half dozen cars; members walk to the meetings or come by public transportation. They will walk hours just to attend a conference meeting. That conveys an idea of their level of devotion.
They also shared this challenge
Another of our challenges is helping some learn about self-reliance—helping them shift their perspective from an expectation of “What will you do for me?” to “What can we do to help others?” For some of our local leaders, learning to preside over units of the Church and to follow principles of welfare and self-reliance can be a pretty sharp learning curve. As they learn these principles and learn the joy of self-reliance and the joy of personal accomplishment, marvelous things happen in the hearts and minds of the people. They move from subserviency to a position of independence in their minds and in their hearts.
I read that and thought, “Oh YEAH!” One of the people who has visited our meetinghouse-living-room has never come without an open hand and a request for a favor. Our brief attempt at teaching self-reliance did not go very far. The culture is dedicated the idea of a Big Man. The way you get to be a Big Man is to help people. You provide the food or the money or the public goods for your community and everyone gives you respect and loyalty. Big Men generally want to prevent the rise of other Big Men – they might lose some of their adherents and therefore standing. When there was a flood last year, AUN sent out relief efforts that were – or so I am told – appropriated by one of the local Big Men’s soldiers so that he could be the one to distribute it and keep people beholden to him.

In 1995 when Pres. Hinckley announced the creation of “Area Authority Seventies” who would continue their employment and serve under the Area Presidencies in their home areas, Christopher Chukwurah of Lagos  and Christoffel Golden Jr. of South Africa were called to be among the first Area Authority Seventies. David W. Eka of Port Harcourt was also called as an Area Authority Seventy in 1997.

By 1997 Elder Mason was Area President with Elder Golden as his second counsellor. The Ensign decided to interview the presidency again to celebrate the Church reaching 100,000 members in Africa. Three years earlier there were only 5 stakes in Nigeria and Ghana. By 1997, of the 17 stakes in Africa 8 were in Nigeria alone and 2 in Ghana. During those three years the Church also started proselytizing in Portuguese, in addition to English and French; the first stake was formed in Zaire; and church growth continued despite needing to pull missionaries out of Zaire twice due to political unrest.
For many, incorporating the teachings of the gospel into their lives constitutes real pioneering. … One mission president reported that a couple walked a round-trip distance of 18 miles for their temple recommend interview. Though they had little hope of attending the temple, they were willing to go that distance to show their loyalty to the Church and obedience to the prophet.
They close with a testimony of the gospel’s importance for Africa, including an implicit claim that the construction of a temple in Johannesburg helped bring down apartheid (not quoted).
The gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith is the answer to Africa’s problems of tribalism, war, and poverty. … The Church is one great family. Where else in the world do so many white and black missionary companions have the opportunity to live together and work together and show others that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a true brotherhood and sisterhood? Such companionships bring together the best of two worlds. Because of what they learn from one another, neither missionary in such a companionship will ever be the same again. The same can be said for the different races and cultures within the Church throughout Africa—and throughout the world—as we come together as brothers and sisters in gospel unity.
More on LDS in Nigeria here.