PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — The 20-year history of the Church in Nigeria is jeweled with examples of faith from among the many converts who make up its ever-increasing membership.
Converts in this nation have multiplied in the two decades since the original Aboh Branch was created Nov. 21, 1978.
Expressions of converts often reflect powerful changes in their lives.
One such expression was made by Elder David W. Eka, an Area Authority Seventy and pioneer member of the Church in Nigeria:
"I advise all to strive to do as much as they can to uplift the kingdom of our Father in Heaven," he said in a recent interview with Elder E. Richard Woolley, then public affairs director in Nigeria. "It will be our duty to build up the Church; it is our duty to lengthen our stride; it is our duty to hold onto the iron rod; we have to be humble; we have to do all that the Lord will want us to do."
The effect of his example of solidarity and that of many others is reflected in the broad sweep of progress: Nigeria now has an estimated 36,000 members in nine stakes. The Africa West Area, of which Nigeria is the most populous nation, was created last August to help accommodate this growth.
President Gordon B. Hinckley visited this city Feb. 14-15, 1998, on his tour of Africa, and addressed a gathering of more than 12,000 members.
At the conclusion of the Port Harcourt regional conference, there emerged a moment of insight — a snapshot — of the Church in Nigeria.
Following the closing prayer, a crowd of boys and young men hurried toward a circular staircase. They were hoping to catch a final glimpse of President Hinckley, perhaps touch his car or, as one woman said earlier, "just to have his shadow fall across me." But in their haste they ignored the request of the Church leader who conducted the conference to remain seated to allow President Hinckley to leave.
At the base of the staircase was an usher — another young man, but experienced in the Church. He pleaded in a kind voice with the group to remember who they were, to follow the rules, and to have respect for the prophet and for themselves. As he spoke, the group became quieter and a sense of reverence returned.
Like the usher at the bottom of the staircase, leaders here have the responsibility to bring new converts into gospel harmony and maturity.
Among the leaders with the longest tenure and experience in the Church in Nigeria is Elder Eka. A convert who was baptized in 1979, he has served in many leadership capacities, assisting missionaries and mission presidents in the early years, serving as the first stake president in Nigeria in 1988, and as regional representative and Area Authority Seventy from 1990 to the present.
He first heard of the Church as a young man in 1970 from an uncle in California. Later, when young David Eka traveled to England to study, he took with him a copy of the Book of Mormon and Church pamphlets. He received the missionary lessons in England but did not want to be baptized.
"I felt it was just a game saying that someone else had more authority than my beloved pastor [my local village preacher who had baptized me at age 11, whom I then believed to be the most perfect soul that could officiate
However, after pondering the fact that he had not received the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism, he reconsidered and was baptized a member of the Church shortly after returning to Nigeria in 1979. He was soon involved as a leader in the Church and wrestled with many challenges.
"The early coverage of the West African area of the Church was a big problem for the early missionaries. The roads were terrible. Many times during the rainy season it was impossible for us to visit some areas. I remember a typical day for us to visit [the branch at] Ikot Iyo and we sank into a pool of water that came up and swallowed the car. It was terrible; we were able to push out our car but we arrived at the chapel drenched."
Another convert from the early era is Lazarus Ogbuka Ikpegbu of the Central Ward, Aba Nigeria Stake, who was associated with a group established in the 1960s by a member who had been baptized in the United States.
He said before his conversion he was a "master smoker" who waited a year to be baptized because he wanted to be a member of integrity. He also said his children devoted many hours in the early years of the Church cleaning the meetinghouses by themselves.
He served as stake president's counselor to Pres. Eka, a man "who did wonders for the growth of the Church. He is a great man, a great motivator, a great wise man. I was very close to him."
Brother Ikpegbu is currently high councilor with responsibility for the single members in the Aba stake. "They changed my name to 'Papa Laz'; that is what they call me, yes."
Another person who was baptized early in the Church is Lars Kelechi Iroham of the Aba 5th Ward, Aba Nigeria Stake. Baptized Sept. 4, 1981, Brother Iroham was a participant in the destructive Biafra War of 1967-70. He credits his survival to following his father's teachings about the Lord.
Brother Iroham joined the Church after being given a pamphlet about the Church by Lars Bishop, who served as a missionary in Nigeria after a long career in the Church Educational System. After he was baptized, Brother Iroham served as first counselor to the branch president, Lars Bishop.
Brother Iroham told of once accompanying Elder Bishop to the home of a man who people said was devilish. "Eventually the man started coming to the Church. I know that nothing could have changed him if not the power of the priesthood."
A convert in 1985 was Izibeloko Jack of the Borokiri Ward, Port Harcourt Nigeria Stake. She was attracted to the Church when a new meetinghouse was erected near her house. She visited, felt at home with the spirit, and has continued since.
"I am acquainted with grief in my life," she said. "The gospel has helped me to know I can care for myself." She told of losing two sons to illnesses. "Without the gospel it would have been terrible."
She said that she carried the message of the gospel to others by portraying "the gospel of Jesus Christ in the way I am living. I share the gospel of love with my neighbors."
The gospel has helped women in Nigeria, she said. "Some of them have little of our kind of life, but they have been able to have their own testimonies and knowledge about God." She added that many of the women are working toward greater self-reliance "to help make ends meet in their families. The gospel has touched them in that fashion."
Felix Okwedy, Port Harcourt Stake patriarch and a member of the Rumuomasi Ward, was baptized in 1989 after a lifetime of investigating other denominations. "It has been a wonderful, wonderful life," he said. "I really was in darkness before I joined the Church."
He said that as members receive patriarchal blessings, "they become more sensitive, more responsive." After the patriarchal blessing, the member "gets up happy, with a smile and a sense of achieving something. They strive as much as possible to achieve the blessings they have been promised."
A more recent convert is Allswell Osini Muzan of the Diobu Ward, Port Harcourt Nigeria Stake, baptized in 1995. He is a graduate of the Columbia Law School of New York, and is dean of law at Rivers State University. A gospel doctrine teacher, he became acquainted with the Church after listening to the Tabernacle Choir while a student in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.
He said he inherited from his father, according to the rule of primogeniture, the role of chief in his ancestral village. "The precepts of the Church form my attitude," he said. "When it comes to keeping peace and helping with interpersonal relations, the Church teaches tolerance."
Elder David W. Eka summarized the goals of members here when he said:
"We have to show the attributes of Christ no matter what the condition is, no matter how people [who are not members of the Church] feel. We have to prove to them that we are a peculiar people, that we are a royal priesthood, that we are a holy nation."