"As for me, I feel loved as one belonging to a great family."
These words of Massac E. Ndoumbe from the west African nation of Cameroon capture the feeling of welcome and joy that black LDS members expressed about their membership in the Church during Black History Month at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors Center.
It was the first opportunity for many participants to gather with so many LDS members of black heritage. The firesides, family history conference, musical performances and exhibits throughout February helped connect these contemporary pioneers to each other and the larger Church community, as well as to their neighbors and friends.
Events at the visitors center allowed them to share their testimonies and memorabilia from their homelands, as well as hear outstanding black Church leaders relate their conversion stories.
More than 10,000 people visited the center during the month.. They were from Brazil, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, Kingdom of Lesotho, Madagascar, Nigeria, Northern Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, United States, Trinidad and Zambia. Some 1,200 attended firesides at the center.
Many new converts were drawn to the Church by the way they were fellowshipped. The events at the visitors center reinforced their feelings of love and family and provided an opportunity to share common experiences.
"It was like a homecoming with everyone talking, and hugging and greeting each other," said Christine Oryang. "With the growth of the Church in Africa, it's uplifting to know that Africans who join the Church in America are partaking of the same fruit that their families can enjoy in their respective countries."
Chairwoman Betty Cannon worked for months with her committee to provide a gathering place for the black LDS community in the mid-Atlantic region. Committee members included her husband, Mark; David and Christine Oryang of Uganda; Herma Hosang of Jamaica; Bassey Obot of Nigeria; and Barbara Louya, Alvin Pettaway, and Ahmed Corbitt, all African-Americans.
While there are many black bishops and branch presidents in the Washington D.C. Temple District, plus an increasing number of black converts, Sister Cannon found they didn't know each other. "They wanted a forum for connecting and strengthening each other," she said. So committee members located black LDS members in the area and collected their biographies and conversion stories.
Brother Ndoumbe's written testimonial was part of 66 biographies that were displayed in the visitors center. Each describes an individual's unique journey to find the gospel. Many visitors were moved by reading these conversion accounts and sought out the missionaries. Others were inspired to be baptized, including a military nurse from Nigeria who has been investigating the Church for four years. During the "Why I Believe" fireside, new members introduced themselves, including one young man who had been baptized just three hours earlier.
Stories included Bernard Balibuno of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who described "miraculous" events that led to his baptism. As a young man, Brother Balibuno fled his war-ravaged country to South Africa, where he met the missionaries. "Don't wait to see the manna falling from heaven," he said. "There are miracles now."
Featured speakers included Ahmad Corbitt, president of the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake, . He said the members need to learn the will of God and make a firmer resolve to reconcile themselves to that will by embracing Jesus and honoring their covenants.
Members of the Kensington Ward, Washington D.C. Stake, helped fill the 544-seat theater to hear their bishop, Alvin Jackson, and his wife, Juleen, talk about what the Church means to their marriage and family.
Burgess Owens, former NFL football player, shared experiences from his "character-building years" that taught him about the power of faith. He endured 12 losing football seasons before his winning season with the Oakland Raiders that culminated in a Super Bowl victory in 1981. He said that what he learned about faith, patience and enduring to the end also apply to life.
"Everyone will have a 13th season, if you're willing to go through the other 12," he said. "The Lord is waiting to get you up again. . . but the only way we can learn about faith is to go through the dark times."
His wife, Josie, said that football could be a metaphor for the Church. "We have the same quarterback, and He calls the plays," she said, adding that by following the playbook, there is no confusion about the goal, or the expectations of each player.