Worldwide Church: Members face distinct challenges, enjoy similarities

With 7.4 million members in some 128 lands throughout the world, the Church is becoming increasingly more diversified. New converts bring with them an assortment of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and the challenges members face in each distinct area are varied and many.

Despite these inevitable differences between members across the globe, however, the similarities are abundant, for the gospel – and what it means in the lives of members – act as a common thread to bind them together.Following are several examples of families from various parts of the world, and how the Church affects their lifestules where they live.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

As in many other Latin American countries, Argentina is beset by economic troubles and social instability. The Church, however, is growing steadily here; in fact, "we are being fortified spiritually be these problems," noted Luis Callero, bishop of the Pacheco Ward, Buenos Aires Litoral Stake.

"As we become accustomed to the hard times, we see the promises of the Lord being fulfilled," he said. "From our ward alone, five missionaries have been sent out in the field, thanks to the sacrifice of their parents, and members attend the temple [as a ward] at least once a month. The troubles make us hold on even more to the iron rod."

His wife, Mirta, added, "The Church helps us to deal with these problems, and to share solutions with others. Recently we had a big conference at the ward where we invited non-members from the neighborhood, and speakers talked about drugs, AIDS, and other challenges we're facing today. Afterward, our neighbors approached us with more trust, because they knew we cared."

This sense of community has been opening up doors for the Church in Argentina, where citizens have realized that they must all take part to keep the country together. Church members here see sharing the gospel as an essential part of that role.

"Here in Argentina, we know that it's the responsibility of active members to teach others what the Lord expects of His people," said Bishop Callero, a radiotherapy specialist. "We try to be an example."

Latter-day Saints make up about 4 percent of the population in this city of some 12 million people, where the dominant religion is Catholicism. Buenos Aires is a sprawling, cosmopolitan city on the pampas (plains), reminiscent of a cross between Paris and New York, where the streets are as jammed with people at 3 in the morning as they are at noon.

Members here are widely recognized and respected, said Bishop Callero, because of their distinctive lifestyle.

"At first, people see us as a little strange," the bishop said, laughing. "Here in Buenos Aires, Sunday is a day of sports and playing, and so they think it's strange for us to get up early and go to Church as a family. But we are accepted very well."

Bishop Callero added that in his country, women are expected to take the responsibility of going to Church, but because of a high level of "machismo," men are not given the same expectation. In contrast, male members of the Church place activity and family at the top of their priorities.

A typical family home evening in Buenos Aires may include a lesson with refreshments, taking a walk through a local park, visiting a museum or amusement park. Bishop Callero and his wife often use the outings as an opportunity to teach their three children, Luis, 10, Melisa, 7, and Evangelina, 3, that it's important to learn about their culture as well as just have fun.

They also teach their family that it's important to develop their talents, and it is particularly in this area that the Church has greatly helped LDS youths here.

"There are limitations in the school and the community," said the bishop. "But through seminary and Church callings and activities, the youths are encouraged to develop and share their talents, as well as gaining a more profound knowledge of the scriptures and the Lord." – Elayne Wells

HONG KONG

Daniel Chan and his wife, Kwai Fong, are not unlike thousands of other married couples who live in Hong Kong. The couple has three small children, Annie, Anson, and Samuel, and Chan works hard at his job in a printing business to support the small family.

But, in one important way, the Chans are different. They are members of the Church – a blessing that Chan says makes all the difference in the world.

First, Chan explained, the gospel has affected his work. "The gospel encourages us to work hard, teaches us to be honest and not cheat others, and encourages a positive attitude," he pointed out.

But even more important, the influence of the gospel is felt in his home.

"The gospel has helped us learn that life has a purpose," said the 31-year-old, who serves as a counselor in the bishopric of the Aberdeen Ward.

"Through the gospel, our family has learned to be happier, to cooperate, to work together. Our family is more unified than we would be without the gospel."

In Hong Kong, an area with some 5.5 million people and a heavy dominance of Buddhist religions, there are only approximately 17,000 Church members. Chan, a returned missionary, is representative of many converts in Hong Kong, who join the Church as teenagers or slightly older. They are a growing force of members who, with faith and dedication, will be able to influence many thousands as they quietly live the gospel of Jesus Christ. – Kellene Ricks

BLACKFOOT, IDAHO

Blackfoot is a quiet little Idaho community with a population of approximately 15,000. Surrounded by smaller "cluster" communities and nestled between Idaho Falls and Pocatello, sometimes the town seems bigger than it actually is.

But, "it's the perfect place to raise a family," claims Gary Empey, who ought to know, because he raised all five of his children here.

Although the family has spent some time living outside the state, Empey is just finishing his 14th year of teaching seminary at Blackfoot High School and is grateful for the influence that the Church has had on his family and the community.

"Everything we've ever done has been because of the Church," explained Empey. "My wife and I both served missions and as a result, not only were we very conscious of living the standards of the gospel, we were also very missionary conscious.

"The gospel has made us who we are," Empey said. "We never did ask any of the children if they would serve missions, we simply talked about missionary experiences. And we welcomed people into our homes to hear the discussions."

Added to the emphasis on the gospel, the Empeys have also emphasized the value of education.

That quiet example paid off. As a result, all five of the Empey children (three girls and two boys) have served missions for the Church and, in April, all five will have earned bachelor's degrees.

Although all of their children have grown up and moved away, Empey and his wife, Marva, are raising the son of a family friend who died several years ago. "His mother asked that we raise him like we raised our own," Empey explained. "She was impressed with the principles and standards our children had."

And those gospel principles and standards are impressing others as well. According to Empey, in a community that is roughly 55 percent LDS, many of the young people who are excelling are Church members.

"About seven to nine out of every top 10 students in each class are seminary students," he said. "We have teachers commenting all the time about the caliber of the young people we have." – Kellene Ricks

SOLOTHURN, SWITZERLAND

Daniel Schnyder, 28, awakens early, showers and shaves, then hops the train for a 1 1/2-hour ride to his job as a writer for a corporate magazine in Zurich, 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. A convert to the Church of six years, Schnyder stays busy with work, school, family and Church responsibilities as a home teacher and public communications director for the Bern Switzerland Stake.

His wife, 31-year-old Christiane, is a lifetime member who spends days with the couple's 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Sara.

Duties as a homemaker, mother, visiting teacher, Solothurn Ward public communications director and translator keep her busy.

The family is part of the 195-member Solothurn Ward in a community of 35,600 people, 30 kilometers north of the Swiss Temple in Zollikofen, a northern suburb of Bern. Though the ward is not large by U.S. standards, it is larger than most in Switzerland's three stakes (5,500 members) and has an activity rate of better than 66 percent.

Solothurn lies on the Swiss Plateau a couple thousand feet above sea level. The Glarus Alps rise majestically a couple of hours to the east, and the Pennine Alps are closer to the south.

Schnyder's life took a dramatic turn when he joined the Church in September 1984.

"In general, if you live the commandments, you live quite differently from the average Swiss person outside the Church," he explained. "Our beliefs on Sunday activities, alcohol and moral standards are different from the norm. You have to be quite strong in the Church. It's really not easy, especially for the young people."

As the only member in his extended family, Schnyder said his family "accepted his joining the Church, but didn't understand it."

Catholicism and traditional Protestantism are the dominant religious practices in Solothurn and throughout Switzerland. The LDS Church is obscure – not viewed as an American religion, but simply not known to many.

But that is slowly changing. Church growth is slow but steady, and its image is boosted by activities such as an upcoming BYU chamber orchestra concert in Solothurn that will be attended by many non-members and local dignitaries.

Most missionary activity is done on a personal friendshipping basis, he added. The ward also has quite a few activities – including a lot of dances – designed to encourage members to bring their nonmember friends.

"Switzerland is quite a wealthy country, and very conservative," Schnyder said. "It's not easy to reach the people. You don't get into their houses or hearts very fast. The best way to do missionary work is to become friends, so they will see your example." – Mike Cannon

IJEBU-ODE, NIGERIA

Johnson Oladehin, a building supplies salesman, went to Nigeria's capital city, Lagos, on business a few years ago. While there, he accepted an invitation to attend a meeting of one of Nigeria's then-fledgling branches of the Church.

Impressed with what he saw and heard at the meeting, Oladehin returned to his home in Ijebu-ode with a strong desire to learn more about the Church.

"I drove straight to my home and got down on my knees and prayed that the Church would come to Ijebu-ode, but if it wouldn't come, I promised that I would drive to Lagos to learn more about the gospel," he said.

The next Sunday, Oladehin arose early and drove 1 1/2 hours back to Lagos to attend Church. He repeated that Sunday-morning routine for several weeks until he finally conceded that such a drive was simply too expensive for him to undertake on a weekly basis.

Since he could no longer go to the Church, he prayed day after day that the Church would come to him. One day in 1988, as he was driving to work, he saw a sign that had not been there before: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

"I was so overjoyed," he said. "I didn't even stop to inquire at the building where I saw the sign. I just turned my car around, went back home and got on my knees and thanked my Heavenly Father that the Church had come to my town."

Oladehin went to Church the next Sunday, and he has been attending ever since. He is president of the Ijebu-ode Branch, which was organized just 15 months ago, and has 86 members. His wife, Victoria, is a school teacher who recently graduated from college; they are parents of three young children.

According to Elder Paul Christie and his wife, Sister Melba Christie, missionaries in the Nigeria Lagos Mission, the Oladehins are typical in their "hungering and thirsting" for the gospel.

"Members here are very Bible-oriented and enjoy turning to scriptures and reading from them," the Christies' reported. "It has been very natural for them to accept the new truths about Christ that they have learned since taking the missionary discussions.

"Most members are avid readers and one of their great accomplishments is how quickly they have learned the truths of the gospel and can relate these truths accurately to others."

One of the major difficulties members face in Nigeria, particularly in such areas as Ijebu-ode, is transportation. "The distances from the Church are sometimes great," according to Elder and Sister Christie. "Those who live far must either walk or pay for a taxi." – Gerry Avant

AVARUA, RAROTONGA

As the setting sun's golden glow bathed the tiny island of Rarotonga in a brilliant kaleidoscope of tropical light, dozens of Church members gathered in the cultural hall adjacent to the Avarua Branch meetinghouse.

The Saturday evening activity was a social gathering for members of Rarotonga's three branches, an occasion for them to visit, enjoy an assortment of songs and dances and savor favorite foods. The social hour was in conjunction with Rarotonga's segment of the Cook Islands district conference, a conference that would resume on three other islands where branches have been established in the district: Mangaia, Atiu and Aitutaki.

(The islands of Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atiu, Aitutaki and Mauke comprise the major islands in the Cook Island group. The entire land mass of all these islands combined is only 93 square miles; their combined population is about 19,000. About 1,000 Latter-day Saints live in the Cook Islands.)

The Cook Islands are among the estimated 20,000-30,000 islands in the South Pacific. Located some 1,800 miles northeast of New Zealand, Rarotonga is represented on many maps as just a tiny speck of land.

The first LDS missionaries arrived on Rarotonga in 1899, but stayed only until 1903. They returned in 1942. Members who were baptized just 20 years ago on Rarotonga are regarded as "pioneers" of the gospel in this remote part of the world. The islands are part of the New Zealand Auckland Mission; there are six branches in the Cook Islands District.

Since Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand, many island students, after having completed elementary levels of education, attend boarding school in Auckland to obtain their high school diplomas. A great number of LDS students from the islands go to high school at the Church College of New Zealand.

In the past five years, 20 members have been called from the Cook Islands to serve as missionaries in other parts of the world. This exporting of missionaries is just one barometer of Church growth in the Cook Islands. – Gerry Avant

CLINTON, MO.

About a year ago, Pres. David Lawrence Hunt of the Clinton Branch went to see the president of the Missouri Independence Mission.

"We hadn't had missionaries for a while, and I felt we could put them to good use again. A week later he called back and said: `We'll have missionaries at the bus stop today. Can you pick them up?' " Pres. Hunt related.

The missionaries depend upon Church members for transportation in the branch, which covers about 10 agricultural communities.

That dependency has been a blessing, Pres. Hunt said. "It's getting the members wrapped up in missionary work. They can't help but get involved. The members have been just super to transport the missionaries around and to go on companionship splits."

The member-missionary activity has borne fruit with convert baptisms. In addition, less-active members have been coming back into activity.

"About five or six months ago we were averaging in the low 60s in sacrament meeting attendance. Last month, we were in the 90s and one Sunday, we had 104," noted Pres. Hunt.

Much of the missionary activity is among young people. Among the most popular weekend activities for teenagers in Clinton and surrounding communities are the Church youth dances at the stake headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

"The dances are about a 65-mile drive north of here," Pres. Hunt said. "We have an average of 25 youths going to each dance, and about one-third of those are not members of the Church.

"Our youths are a selling point for the Church. Their non-member friends very much respect their values, and that is shown by the number who want to go to the dances."

Early morning seminary is well-attended in Clinton, although it starts at 5:45 a.m.

"Some of the non-LDS youths are telling us to order materials for next year," Pres. Hunt said. "We've had a baptism for the last two or three years in a row from our seminary classes." – R. Scott Lloyd