Meridian Magazine’s Editorial Team will be in Ghana for the temple dedication, taking you to a front row seat at this remarkable, history-making spiritual milestone. With scores of photographic images by Scot F. Proctor and personal interviews with African missionaries and Saints, you will be able to feel the energy and excitement as the light dawns in what used to be called the dark continent. See these articles next week on Meridian—reporting from Ghana.
When the temple is dedicated in Ghana, Sunday, January 11, by President Gordon B. Hinckley it will be, according to Glenn L. Pace, “like an atomic bomb has been dropped right in the middle of Satan’s stronghold in West Africa. It will be the most significant thing that as affected West Africa since the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It will be the beginning of the end of Satan’s hold on these countries.”
That hold has been illiteracy, civil war, famine, disease, witchcraft, unrest, immorality, corruption, poor transportation, and poverty, enough that those who visit are left shaking their heads and wondering, “Why all this suffering?” Top this off with the tragic, abhorrent history of slavery, and much of West Africa is the picture of misery, etched in tones of muted pain.
Elder Glenn L. Pace acknowledges in his book Safe Journey that he sometimes asked himself, “Could the gospel of Jesus Christ really survive in that kind of environment?”
It has more than survived. It was grown spontaneously and taken root by the sacrifice of many home-grown missionaries. In its origins, missionaries didn’t go to West Africa seeking converts. Instead, it was the Africans who clamored for the gospel. For two decades before the revelation on the priesthood was received, letters poured into Church headquarters from Africans asking for “holy books.” During the 1960s more letters were received from Nigeria and Ghana than the rest of the world combined. Missionary pamphlets, tracts, a few copies of the Book of Mormon had found their way to Africa and had been passed from friend to friend, read and reread, cherished as a precious conduit of the Spirit.
Slowly, without the authority of the Church and without knowledge of each other, congregations spontaneously arose as people were touched by the message. They built small meetinghouses; they patterned their doctrine and teachings after the Church, some even named themselves The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Without priesthood authority and direction, these churches had omissions and errors. In some there were hallelujahs, drum beats and the passing of collection plates. Yet what was clear as Elder Pace reiterates in his book the message of the gospel is universal. In Africa, it found an exuberant, innately spiritual people, hungry for the message.
In 1965, LaMar Williams, who had been secretary to the Church Missionary Committee and had been called to Nigeria on a fact-finding mission, gave the committee the names of 15,000 people who requested baptism. When the first missionaries arrived in 1978, they baptized 149 converts in a 24-hour period. Not since Heber C. Kimball’s and Wilford Woodruff’s days in England had the Church seen such a deluge.
Elder Pace’s First Visit
Elder Pace’s first African initiation came in 1985 during a devastating famine in Ethiopia when he was the head of the welfare department for the Church. He called it “ one of the most intense spiritual and emotional experiences of my life.”
He visited a feeding camp in Makalle where 120,000 people were living in tents. “I will never forget walking out into a sea of dingy, dirty, starving, diseased, and desperate men, women, and children. The children sat as if in a trance. They stared at us with sunken eyes and bloated, malnourished stomachs. Flies were crawling all over their faces and they didn’t have enough energy to swat them away. There were thousands of children and no laughter. None of the children were playing. Our ears were met with a haunting, eery, deafening silence.”
In these desperate circumstances, whether they be Christian or Muslim, the people seemed very religious. “We paused at one tent and eavesdropped on a prayer. My guide translated the prayer which went something like this, “We thank you for our life. Some of our children have died. We are thankful some have lived. We pray for other family members who are missing. Our crops have failed for three years in a row. We are thankful for seed. We will plant again. We will pray for rain.”
On this and subsequent trips, the African people worked their way into Elder Pace’s heart and his respect for their hard work, intelligence and great faith intensified. He came to see the Church in West Africa as it was in Joseph Smith’s time. It was young; it was vibrant. People who joined the Church brought with them their own opinions, beliefs and customs and there was much to learn about administering the Church. The faith was always moving.
In 1986 he told a congregation gathered in Nigeria:
Do you know that as a member of the Presiding Bishopric I am privileged to meet with President Benson and the First Presidency every Friday morning?” Their eyes got as big as saucers. I went on to explain that about two weeks earlier in our Friday meeting I had reported to President Benson that I was going to Ghana and Nigeria. President Benson’s response was, “Can I go?” I looked at President Hinckley and President Monson, and they were both shaking their heads, “No.” He looked at them and replied, “Well, I guess not. But Bishop Pace, will you do me a favor? Will you tell them hello for me?” I promised I would, and to the congregation I said, “and so from the prophet I say to you “hello.”
I was not prepared for the response I received. Smiles came on their faces and tears streamed down their cheeks. They had received more than a verbal message. Through the power of the Holy Ghost they had received a little visit from the prophet. They felt his love and concern for them.
I was so touched it took me a few minutes to gain control of my emotions. Because of their reaction I went on and said, “I see that means a lot to you. I”ll tell you what I’m going to do. And the close of this meeting I’ll go back to those doors and as you leave you can shake my hand and I will take your greeting and love back to President Benson with me.”
I might as well have ended the meeting right then. Many of them went to the back of the room and started to line up. I bore a testimony and went to the back of the room where I remained shaking hands for almost an hour. They didn’t just shake my hand, they all had a message. “Tell the prophet I read the Book of Mormon again.” “Tell the prophet I don’t smoke anymore.” “Tell the prophet I have a temple recommend.” One of them said, “Tell the prophet I don’t hit my wife anymore.” I said, “He will be most happy to hear that.
” They all had sweet childlike messages to give.
Incidentally, when I returned home I made a point of telling President Benson this experience, and he was very touched. He asked how many were there and when I said about fifty, he walked over to me and began shaking my hand, counting the handshakes one, two, three…
Despite the burgeoning growth of the Church, in 1988, the government levied a freeze upon its activities in Ghana and the members still young in their faith were left to stand on their own. Rumors spread and newspapers circulated the word that the Church was evil.
Seventeen-year-old Michael wrote Elder Pace:
I am very glad to write you this humble letter. My name is Michael. I have black hair, black eyes, and fair in complexion…
I think you know what has happened in Ghana, but all the same I can assure you that it has been a blessing. It is good to give you my version of the story. It all happened on the 14th of June 1989. It was on Wednesday. I had just returned from school for holidays and was preparing myself for choir practice, which I enjoy very much.
So, it came to pass [he obviously had done some reading in the Book of Mormon] that I was resting in my father’s car when he called, “Michael! Have you heard what has happened?” I said, “No,” he then went on to tell me that the government has frozen the activities of the Church. From this, I just got up and said, “They are joking, for no power on this earth can stop this church.”
Seventeen years old and such a testimony! He wrote Elder Pace again:
I was very grateful and humble when I received your letter dated 21 January 1990. A young boy coming from a poor home was not expecting this sort of respect. My parents were filled with tears of joy when they heard that you have written. As I am not writing, in the dormitory of my school, I am in deep humility with tears all over my eyes.
Elder Pace wrote, “The humble tears shed had little to do with Bishop Pace, but more of the overwhelming desire to be in complete contact with the Brethren and to be able to have the kingdom continue to grow in his land.”
For I feel for the Church and its activities, I feel for the voice of the prophet and all general authorities. But all is not lost yet. For I know that one day we shall meet again…
This is my message for the returned missionaries. We in Ghana know perfectly well that one day we will resume activities in unity and love to build Zion for as one prophet said, the Church is moving according to the timetable of heaven. But tell them that they should be of good cheer and work hard for he who endures to the end shall be saved.
Elder Pace said that these kinds of experiences with the members continued to build his testimony of the potential of Africa for the Church. The single most inspirational experience at that time came for him when he joined in some interviews with missionaries at Cape Coast. When the government decreed that the Church could no longer function in Ghana, more then 70 Ghanian elders and sisters were full-time missionaries. Without any notice their missions were over.
Elder Pace wrote:
Eighteen months later, again without notice, the Church was back. These missionaries were all contacted to see if they wanted to finish their missions.
I was privileged to sit in on several interviews of those missionaries to determine whether they were worthy and desirous of finishing their missions. As we pulled up to the chapel at Cape Coast, excitement was in the air. Those young men and women were involved in a cross between a missionary reunion and a spiritual revival. To give you a flavor of it, I am going to share a few interviews with you.
The first elder had eighteen months left of his mission at the time of the freeze, and he said, “I want to continue to serve.” After the freeze he had gone to live with his family in Liberia and was there when civil unrest broke out and massive killings began. The family escaped without being hurt and had returned to Ghana. They were active in the Church in Liberia. When we asked if he was living a chaste life, and then asked to explain what chastity means, he said, ‘You don’t do certain things with women that are reserved for marriage.’ I thought that was an innocent and very appropriate answer to the question. He was worthy and anxious to resume his mission, even though his life had just settled down.
The next elder also had eighteen months left of his mission. His brother, who is not a member of the Church, had offered to send him money so he could travel to London, where he could find a job and go to school. He was the only member of the Church in his family and lived with his sister. He was asked to express his testimony and he said, “When I used to read the Bible, I read it more like a story book. When I heard about the Church, I felt like I had come home. I felt joy that I had never really felt before. I don’t want to do anything wrong to spoil the joy I feel. I always knew that the Church would come back because I felt it in my heart. I have written to my brother and asked if he will consider keeping the offer open for eighteen months.”
The next young man was twelve years old when he joined the Church and was therefore one of the early members of the Church in Ghana. During the freeze, he often wore his missionary badge so that people would ask him questions and he could defend the Church for what it really is. He was also one of the elders who had been thrown in jail at the beginning of the freeze.
Another elder had acquired a taxi. The members of his family and some of the members of the branch were counseling him not to go back on his mission because he would lose the car. He said simply,” Heavenly Father helped me get this taxi. If I finish my commitment to him, he is very capable of getting me another car when I go back, if that is what he wants me to do…
Of the seventy-seven missionaries serving at the time of the freeze, the mission president had interviewed forty by the time I left, and only three decided not to return. Two of those three had nearly completed their missions and had opportunities for education that likely wouldn’t come along again. The third one was the only one who was unworthy to finish his mission. I wondered, If we were interviewing missionaries from the United States, what percentage of them would be worthy and desirous of finishing their missions under similar circumstances? After being home for eighteen months would they have a desire or be worthy to resumem their missions? It was a very humbling and faith-promoting experience to see the faith and faithfulness of the young missionaries of Ghana.
Consider the joy of these people as the prophet comes to the country to dedicate a temple. This truly is a landmark event in the Church.
Tomorrow in Meridian: the next installment from Safe Journey: An African Adventure.