Inside the first 18 months of the new mission in Ethiopia: Pandemic, civil unrest and lots of miracles

When Robert and Darice Dudfield of Melbourne, Australia, were called in late 2019 to serve as mission president and companion in an English-speaking assignment in mid-2020, they had no idea what awaited — presiding over a new mission, arriving late but before missionaries, battling COVID-19, sending missionaries 2,700 miles away for their temple endowments, and recently relocating to a neighboring country because of civil unrest.

Welcome to the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission and the present life and times of President Dudfield and Sister Dudfield, who see how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has great potential to grow in the northeastern Africa nation and bless individuals, families and communities.

“We see the Lord’s hand guiding us continually,” said President Dudfield, as he and Sister Dudfield recounted their mission experiences to date in a Jan. 11 Church News podcast.

“It’s just been such a tremendous blessing and a privilege to be able to be serving and witnessing a small part of the great and powerful work of the Lord, which will continue to move forward, in spite of any of the restrictions that we might be facing.”

Mission beginnings

After the June 2020 seminar for new mission leaders, the Dudfields didn’t reach Addis Ababa until that August due to COVID-19 restrictions. A handful of local members greeted them, since the new mission was without missionaries. Those to be assigned from nearby Uganda had been returned home due to the pandemic.

Eight missionaries soon arrived, with limited remote training and wearing their best attire.

“Their Sunday best for some was a pair of ripped jeans and one shirt — that’s all they had, and your heart goes out to them,” President Dudfield said. The mission leaders quickly helped the missionaries get dressed to match the message.

Sister Dudfield recalled the first eight — some were orphans, some had been members for a couple of years, others since the pandemic’s start. “We had two days a week of full-day training with them, because we became the trainers for these new missionaries,” she said, recalling one sister with limited pre-pandemic service, “but everyone else was brand-new.”

The training proved to be time-consuming — the missionaries’ native languages were Amharic and Oromo, with English a second, third or even fourth language.

President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield of the Addis Ababa Ethiopia Mission welcome new missionaries in 2020.
President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield of the Addis Ababa Ethiopia Mission welcome new missionaries in 2020. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield

COVID-19 hospitalization

With missionaries in companionships and assigned to local branches within the first months, an ill President Dudfield was diagnosed with severe symptoms of COVID-19. While Sister Dudfield remained asymptomatic and quarantined in the mission home, the mission president spent much of October 2020 hospitalized, his lungs riddled with viral and bacterial pneumonia.

Most of the time I was on oxygen — it was very difficult to talk,” he said, recalling that collapsed veins resulted in constant catheters in his feet and arms to help with fluids and antibiotics. “Darice was actually running the mission and dealing with different matters.”

Those matters included helping the missionaries to get out to contact and teach while the Church was still without public meetings and to learn how to use smartphones and area books.

President Dudfield recalled one October Sunday morning, listening to the bells and chanting from a nearby Orthodox church while looking at his bruised arms and admittedly feeling sorry for himself. He recalled Joseph Smith’s pleadings from Liberty Jail and the Lord’s gentle reminders in Doctrine and Covenants 122.

“I reflected on that and felt very humbled — I was corrected in my thinking that for a small moment, I was going through somewhat of a trial and a challenge,” he said, labeling it “a turning point, a very sacred experience.”

“I looked at my arms — they were bruised and broken and bleeding. Yet this was nothing compared to what the Savior had gone through, and it gave me such a deeper appreciation of what the atoning sacrifice might have been for me personally.”

Unable to receive any visitors, he received a priesthood blessing from a local doctor — Dr. Andrey Klimash, a neurosurgeon and former stake president in St. Petersburg, Russia. “Each day he came to minister to me while I was there,” said the mission president of the “very tender mercy” to have Klimash guide him not only medically “but also to assist with emotionally and spiritually overseeing my healing process.”

After four-plus weeks of hospitalization, President Dudfield made a full recovery, with no lingering effects.

President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield, right and second from right, are joined by Dr. Andrey Vasil’evich Klimash, left, and his wife, Elene. Klimash, a Russian neurosurgeon a, helped get President Dudfield admitted to an Addis Ababa hospital after contracting COVID-19 and the former St. Petersburg stake president gave the mission president a priesthood blessing in the hospital.
President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield, right and second from right, are joined by Dr. Andrey Vasil’evich Klimash, left, and his wife, Elene. Klimash, a Russian neurosurgeon a, helped get President Dudfield admitted to an Addis Ababa hospital after contracting COVID-19 and the former St. Petersburg stake president gave the mission president a priesthood blessing in the hospital. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield

The Church in Ethiopia

With a faith makeup of two-thirds Christian and one-third Muslim, Ethiopians benefit from a rich religious history and a knowledge and understanding of the Old and New Testaments, President Dudfield said.

While the Ethiopia mission is new, the Church has been established there since the early 1990s, with the country home to about 2,000 Latter-day Saints.

The Dudfields underscore the faith, testimonies and efforts of the local leaders and members and their commitment to missionary work, reactivation, progressing along the covenant path and preparing for Ethiopia’s first stake.

Church News podcast: Leaders of the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission speak on faithfully and flexibly serving the Lord amid trials and the pandemic

“The goal is always to be able to help the country become temple-ready,” President Dudfield said, “so the next step is to be able to strengthen families through ordinances, because it helps to strengthen communities, and it strengthens the nation.”

The steps are obvious, he said — first, families, then a stake, then a temple. “We’ve got no doubt that at some point in time, the prophet of God will announce a temple for Ethiopia. For now, what we’re doing is we’re laying the foundation — as the scriptures say, the foundation of the great work.”

To the temple

Because of the pandemic, missionaries assigned to serve in Ethiopia had no on-site missionary training center experience and no temple endowment. The Dudfields started preparations to send a first small group of missionaries — and later a second — to the Accra Ghana Temple for temple instruction, worship and covenants.

Some of the first group of Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission missionaries at the Accra Ghana Temple after their temple session conducted in their native Amharic language in spring 2021.
Some of the first group of Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission missionaries at the Accra Ghana Temple after their temple session conducted in their native Amharic language in spring 2021. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield

Ethiopian Latter-day Saints previously had participated at the temple in English. But arrangements were made to have Ghana Missionary Training Center teachers and a returned-missionary sister of one of the traveling missionaries to read the temple instruction and ordinances in Amharic.

Missionaries going to Accra were also able to receive their patriarchal blessings, since there is no stake and no patriarch in Ethiopia.

“They were just so thrilled to be able to go to the house of the Lord,” President Dudfield said, “to make sacred covenants and to experience the love that the Savior has for them by participating.”

Relocation to Kenya

In early November 2021, civil unrest spread across Ethiopia, including misperceptions that the Church’s full-time missionaries were recruited and employed rather than volunteers serving from their own support and of their families, President Dudfield said.

Elder Thierry K. Mutombo, left, a General Authority Seventy who serves in the Africa Central Area presidency, joins President Robert Dudfield of the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission and his missionaries for a photo in late 2021 in Kenya following the mission's temporary relocation there.
Elder Thierry K. Mutombo, left, a General Authority Seventy who serves in the Africa Central Area presidency, joins President Robert Dudfield of the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission and his missionaries for a photo in late 2021 in Kenya following the mission’s temporary relocation there. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield

The decision was made to relocate those serving in the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission — missionaries and mission leaders — to neighboring Kenya, with the move endorsed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

The exodus of the Dudfields and 67 full-time missionaries proved challenging: packing for the temporary relocation, keeping luggage at appropriate weights, getting — and passing — COVID-19 tests, arranging for visas, finding and collecting passports, traveling en masse to the airport and then getting checked in and through immigration on the same flight to Nairobi.

President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield wear Ethiopian attire while attending an inter-religious event in Addis Ababa in 2021.
President Robert Dudfield and Sister Darice Dudfield wear Ethiopian attire while attending an inter-religious event in Addis Ababa in 2021. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield

“It was just a miracle after miracle of things unfolding,” said President Dudfield, adding “we’re having some remarkable experiences here in Kenya, as we continue to operate as the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission — just located in a different location for a period of time.”

That transition, Sister Dudfield explains, can be stressful, trying to help missionaries reach out to contacts in Ethiopia in an area of the world where smartphones and internet are expensive and far from the norm. “It does make it challenging,” she said, “but our missionaries are putting in the extra work.”

Missionaries are reconnecting with the less-active, and local members in Ethiopia are helping to continue the on-site work — including convert baptisms — even without the in-person presence of the missionaries, President Dudfield said. 

In Nairobi, the Dudfields and their missionaries have located three large communities of thousands upon thousands of Ethiopians, an opportunity to share the gospel in Amharic and Oromo.

“We would not have had that experience,” President Dudfield said, “had we not been here in Kenya — to be able to reach out both to the Ethiopian people here in Kenya and to also be able to connect with their families back in Ethiopia.”

Perspective

Every time the Dudfields have had a challenge pop up, Sister Dudfield said, “we feel the prayers being offered for us, and we feel that the Lord is on our side and guiding us through this whole process.”

President Dudfield acknowledges knowing the purpose for him and his companion to be in Ethiopia, to push through the challenges and to cheerfully embrace every situation as a learning opportunity.

“Taking that approach has just unfolded miracle after miracle, experience after experience and lesson after lesson that has helped to refine us and to become closer to the Savior as representatives in Ethiopia of His great work here.”

Missionaries and leaders from the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission gather for Christmas 2021 in Nairobi, Kenya.
Missionaries and leaders from the Ethiopia Addis Ababa Mission gather for Christmas 2021 in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Provided by President Robert Dudfield