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Zimbabwe pioneers take front row seats at historic occasion

Ernest Sibanda became the Church's first black member in Zimbabwe, baptized in 1965. He and his wife, Priscilla, sat on the front row next to Zimbabwe's first black missionary, Peter Chaya, and his wife, Gladys, for the first meeting ever held in their country with a president of the Church.

"I'm grateful to everyone who has been so kind in welcoming us this day," President Gordon B. Hinckley said. "How many do you have here tonight? About 1,500? Marvelous."Church members had been gathering for hours at a rented hall next to one of Harare's government buildings. Members had begun arranging flowers and chairs in the hall the day before to make sure everything was ready.

Among the congregation were several high-level government officials, including Zimbabwe's Secretary of Defense Moven Mahachi and Social Welfare Director Claudius Joseph Kasere.

Both officials have friends among the Church and came at their invitation.

"We've become a great family across the earth, 10 million strong in 160 nations," President Hinckley told the congregation. He would know - traveling widely to visit with congregations far from Salt Lake City. "We're no longer a small little group. We're a great cosmopolitan group. But the marvelous, wonderful thing is we're all one. We sing the same songs. We offer the same kind of prayers. We teach the same gospel wherever we are."

English is an official language in the African nations that President Hinckley visited during his weeklong tour, due to the past colonial associations that countries like Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, had with Great Britain.

The hymns sung by the congregation were indeed familiar in both tune and lyric, though the choir singing between speakers at the Harare conference performed verses of "God Be With You Till We Meet Again" in local Shona and Ndbele tongues as well as in English.

Some of the Church's membership predates Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, most of those members having European ancestry. But the black majority in the congregation came into the Church after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. President Hinckley reaffirmed his testimony of the revelation received after much pleading and preparation by President Spencer W. Kimball.

"In 1978 came the revelation, 20 years ago, concerning offering the priesthood and every other gift of the Church to every worthy man. I want to give testimony here that that was inspired, that that was a revelation from God. I was there. I was an eyewitness to it in the House of the Lord. . . . How grateful we are."

President Hinckley went on to tell of the Apostle Peter and the conversion of Cornelius according to the account in the 10th chapter of Acts. Peter says he perceives "that God is no respecter of persons. But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." (Acts 10:34-35.)

"That, my beloved brethren and sisters, describes you," President Hinckley continued. "I've had that testimony reconfirmed in my heart on this trip, as I have met with you and many others, that all are alike unto God. We are. I repeat: We're all of a great family, a marvelous family, the family of the living Christ, worshiping Him together."

He told of the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood by the resurrected John the Baptist and of the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood by the resurrected Peter, James and John.

"Brethren, do you recognize what you have? Do you know what it really means, this power to speak in the name of God, the ruler of the world, even the universe, our Father? What a blessing. What a gift. What a rare privilege.

"Are you living up to it? Are you worthy of it? Are you living the kind of lives that merit that?" President Hinckley asked, counseling priesthood holders to respect their wives and treat their children kindly. The priesthood would have no effect in their lives if not.

But the traits President Hinckley said he has observed while in Africa are the overwhelming "evidences of faith."

"Wherever we've gone we've seen strong men and women who have endured so very much for the cause of Christ; who have suffered the vile remarks of many of those around them; who have suffered indignities of various kinds for the sake of the gospel which they carry in their lives. Why? because they have faith."

Zimbabwe's members are anxiously awaiting the time their numbers grow to the point where they can be organized into a stake. Beyond that, they hope a beautiful garden spot on the grounds where the mission home and a chapel are located will soon be announced as a temple site.

In an interview after the meeting, the Social Welfare director, Claudius Joseph Kasere, praised humanitarian relief efforts in which Church members participate through Provo, Utah-based Deseret International. He said he first saw humanitarian efforts conducted by Church members in Zimbabwe three or four years ago. "From that time, I began to believe in the power of the Lord - you can do much more than on your own power," he said.

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