The greatest gift

We were a unit, not even a branch of the Church in 1988. Latter-day Saints and guests who gathered each Sunday in a rented villa in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West Africa, numbered fewer than fifty. As a missionary couple, we could not wear badges, proselyte, or put a sign on the Church door, since the government had not officially recognized the Church there. Yet in the fall of 1987, Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve had dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel. Excited members brought their friends to hear about the gospel, and the Church grew.

Alexandre and Dorothee Assard, members in Ivory Coast, are among those who attended first Christmas meeting. Felix Gnamba Aikpa, far right, was investigating at the time and is now a member.
Alexandre and Dorothee Assard, members in Ivory Coast, are among those who attended first Christmas meeting. Felix Gnamba Aikpa, far right, was investigating at the time and is now a member. Photo: Photo courtesty Cherry Silver

Then, just eight months into our stay in Ivory Coast, because of threats from the Abu Nidal terrorists, the area presidency asked us to leave the country. Shortly after the new year we were to transfer to the Zaire Kinshasa Mission. Stalwart members, who had asked the Church to send missionaries there were, of course, disappointed to lose their missionary helpers, but they prepared to carry on.

Christmas fell on Sunday in 1988. After holding our block of meetings joyously together in the hot, crowded five-room house rented for our use, we invited members and friends to come to the missionary duplex for a Christmas social.

Transporting 55 people from Church to our missionary quarters in just five cars took time. We spread out a buffet of fruits, along with ham and cheese sandwiches made on wedges of French bread. While that may not seem like typical holiday fare, it was what we could afford and obtain in this economy. We lacked chairs but had space enough to circle around for a program in our front room.

We began by singing carols and hymns in French, enjoying the rich, open sounds of African voices. Then as all stood in a circle, we invited everyone to say what Jesus Christ meant in his or her life. Answers radiated a warm Christmas spirit. Philip Assard, the Ivorian who had sacrificed his career in Germany to start the Church in his native land, remembered the sacrifice of Christ. Newly baptized school teacher Veronique told of directing her first grade students according to the example of the Savior. Teen-aged Alexander spoke of the Lord's protection as he defended his faith in school. Patricia Afoué, whose parents had joined the Church in France and now lived in Bouake where Brother Afoué led the second unit of the Church in the country, felt Christ had led her to be an example to her friends in school in Abidjan. Mouadi Okito, the first baptized woman in the Ivory Coast, spoke of teaching her young family. Her husband, Pungu Okito, who had brought many friends to the gospel by introducing them to us, bore testimony of the power of Christ's ministry as an example of true service to others.

Solange Sea spoke of a vision of Christ granted her before her baptism and His penetrating question, "Do you love me?" A serious student who was a philosophy major at the University of Abidjan bore testimony of how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught of a "living Christ" for him. He was baptized the following week. A family of seven bore witness of their love for Christ and three of the family were also baptized the following week. Many children spoke of Jesus' love for them.

Unit leader Terry Broadhead, an American serviceman assigned to the embassy, and his wife Bobette and three children added their testimonies. A newly arrived family, the Arnolds, brought stories from living the gospel in Mali. And Peggy Ngo, administrative assistant with USAID, living in Abidjan with her artist husband Lap Ngo, added strength to that gathering.

This was a Christmas spent without decorations or presents or formal meals. Instead, we looked into faces of people we had grown to love, many recently baptized in the palm-shaded lagoon. We shared our testimonies of Jesus as the greatest gift we could offer to each other and to Him.

Barnard and Cherry Silver reside in the Holladay 24th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay North Stake. They are currently serving a Church Service Mission.

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