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Elder Stevenson visits 'vibrant, wonderful' people in West Africa

Just over a year after missionaries returned to Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone and almost two decades after civil war rocked the West African nation, Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently visited Latter-day Saints in the area.

Elder Stevenson said he was filled with “tender feelings” during the assignment Sept. 7 through 19 to Sierra Leone and other nations in the Church’s Africa West Area. The visit, he said, was an opportunity to reflect on the “challenges and adversity” faced by the faithful Latter-day Saints who have found “love and joy in the gospel.”

Elder Stevenson and his wife, Lesa, were accompanied on the assignment by Elder Ulisses Soares of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Rosana; Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric and his wife, Darla; and members of the Church’s Africa West Area Presidency — Elder Terence M. Vinson, Elder Marcus B. Nash, and Elder Vern P. Stanfill.

As part of their assignment to West Africa, Elder Stevenson, Elder Soares, and Bishop Davies conducted a review of the Church’s Africa West Area; held priesthood leadership, district and stake conferences, member devotionals, and missionary meetings; and visited the Accra Ghana Missionary Training Center and the Accra Ghana Temple. In addition to Sierra Leone and Ghana, they also visited Liberia and Ivory Coast, where they met with members, missionaries and priesthood leaders.

Elder Stevenson’s assignments began in Sierra Leone, where members share a remarkable legacy of faith and sacrifice.

Two years after the first convert baptisms in Sierra Leone in June 1988, new converts began meeting in their homes. In May 1989 Elder Richard G. Scott became the first member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to visit the country; he met with Church members and dedicated the land for the preaching of the gospel.

The first district was organized in Freetown in December 1990, a second district was organized seven months later in the city of Bo. Church meetings moved to rented meetinghouses.

Soon, however, Church President Ezra Taft Benson asked members to abandon their new rented meetinghouses and gather in their homes to worship. The news was very discouraging for the local Latter-day Saint leaders and members, who felt that the rented buildings were an important milestone for the Church in Sierra Leone. But they were obedient.

Just months later civil war erupted in Sierra Leone.

In the midst of war, churches were frequently targeted by rebels; thousands lost their lives while worshipping God. But Latter-day Saints in the country were safe from harm, obediently worshipping in their homes.

Because of this faith, the Church in the country continued to grow until Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created, in 2012, the first stake in the nation — the 3,000th in the Church.

But trials were not over for Latter-day Saints in the country. After years of civil unrest, the country was hit by the Ebola virus epidemic, which moved into Sierra Leone in 2014. Due to Ebola, another apostle did not visit Sierra Leone again until Elder Stevenson’s recent visit; Bishop Davies’ trip marked the first time a member of the Presiding Bishopric has ever visited Sierra Leone.

Bishop Davies said the members in Sierra Leone are a “light growing out of a darkened nation because of Ebola and war.”

While visiting Sierra Leone, Elder Stevenson, Elder Soares, and Bishop Davies met with the faithful members in the country to talk about the civil war and other hardships.

Elder Stevenson compared the members’ experiences to trials faced by the people of Alma in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 24). The Lord, he explained, did not take away their burdens, but instead made them feel light.

“I think this is what is observed in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast,” he said.

In Ivory Coast, for example, Bishop Davies met a group of Latter-day Saints at a member meeting just returning from the Accra Ghana Temple; the trip had taken 14 hours one way.

Elder Soares said members in all the West African nations arrived for meetings three to four hours early.

Elder Stevenson said he loved to look out at the congregations of member meetings and see the number of children and families. “Every country we visited is experiencing high growth,” he said. “We have many new converts that have deep faith. … They testify the gospel has brought joy to their lives, they love the hymns. They sing without a hymnal and seem to know every word of every verse. They are vibrant wonderful people.”

Elder Soares said he loves to hear the members in West Africa sing.

“They have a special enthusiasm when they sing,” he said. “It is really beautiful.”

Bishop Davies said Church leaders often talk about the growth in the Africa West Area. “The people are not just growing in numbers,” he explained. They are growing “in wisdom and maturity.”

“Church members reflect a sense of purpose, industry, and faithfulness,” he said. “They are pleased with their membership in the Church. They are resourceful and devoted in caring for themselves and for each other. They understand the importance of temples and make unusual sacrifices to go to the temple. In the face of almost overwhelming adversity, they are patient and their faith in God is unwavering.”

As an example, in the Ivory Coast Bishop Davies met a group of Latter-day Saints at an evening member devotional after they had just returned the same day from their 14-hour one-way trip home from the Accra Ghana Temple.

The missionaries don’t have a challenge teaching and baptizing new members, said Elder Soares, noting that referrals in the area come from relatives and friends. The members are a great example of happiness, which brings others into the gospel, he said.

Elder Stevenson said all of the countries they visited belong to the Accra Ghana Temple District. They faithfully attend the temple, despite two to three days’ travel from some locations. The temple announced in Ivory Coast will be a blessing to the area, he added. Despite the long drive to attend the Accra Ghana Temple, members continue to come, said Elder Soares. “They fill temple patron housing every time they come. They want to come more frequently.”

Other challenges facing the Church in the area, Elder Stevenson said, come as a result of the dramatic growth. The Church is working to provide meetinghouses and to train local leadership, he said. “All of this has built faith in Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ and His Atonement.”

The members are hardworking, doctrinally sound and obedient, added Elder Stevenson. The area presidency is directing the rapid growth of the Church in an impressive, orderly way, he added.

“I was really impressed by the resilience of the African Saints,” said Elder Soares. “Beside the challenges and suffering they are resilient and they look for God in every way. They have a faith in God that allows them to go forward.”

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