Perhaps Elder Paul B. Pieper caught a glimpse of his German great-grandfather’s pioneer grit in the devotion of 21st century pioneers in Central Asia writing their own maiden chapter of local Church history.
More than a century has passed since Heinrich Friedrich Christian Pieper accepted a missionary’s baptismal invitation and became one of the few members in his hometown. Elder Pieper’s great-grandfather cut his gospel teeth without the benefit of wards, branches or well-entrenched priesthood leadership.
“All he had was his commitment to live the gospel,” said Elder Pieper, 47, who was sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy on April 2.
Gospel commitment, he’s learned, is a timeless quality. Elder Pieper witnessed such devotion as a young missionary laboring in northern Mexico and, years later, as Kazakhstan’s first branch president. “These people have so much faith,” he said. “To do what they do in these countries, at this time, is just amazing. To give up what they give up. And commit to do what they commit to do. And to serve the way they serve. These are Zion’s Camp people.”
The notion that Elder Pieper and his wife, Sister Melissa Tuttle Pieper, and their six children — would enjoy a front-row view of the Church’s new growth in Central Asia still amazes the Idaho farm boy. “The Lord just takes you and leads you.”
Young Paul Pieper grew up doing what many young LDS Idahoans do — milking cows and harvesting potatoes. His father, Dee Meyers Pieper, maintained a farm “to raise boys.” Time spent away from the fields was typically spent in some sort of Church function. Beginning with Elder Pieper’s great-grandfather — who immigrated to the United States in 1901 — the gospel had become the family’s anchoring root.
It became a hometown joke that the Pieper farm boys accepted mission calls so they could sleep in. During his mission to Monterrey, Mexico, Elder Pieper did indeed enjoy an extra hour or so of nightly shut-eye that farm life rarely afforded. But his pivotal memories are of “a magical time of teaching and testifying” among the Mexican people. Mission life “was a cementing of my testimony” and offered the young man a taste of international work that would later mark his professional career and Church service.
He returned home and enrolled in Brigham Young University. In his student ward he met Melissa Tuttle. Perhaps fate brought them together — they began dating during finals week.
“She was a complete person,” recalled Elder Pieper. “She had a lot of qualities you can’t coach, they’re just there. They are a part of the fabric of who she is.”
Sister Pieper quips her husband was attracted to her “just because I spoke Spanish.” Jokes aside, the couple made for an easy match. A daughter of the late General Authority A. Theodore Tuttle, Sister Pieper spent much of her childhood living in Latin America. The two students could swap missionary stories and practice their espanol on one another. Both hoped part of their lives together would be spent overseas.
The Piepers were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1979. Elder Tuttle performed the ceremony.
By the time Paul finished law school the Piepers were a family of six. Though never near destitution, the young family made do on a snug budget. “You have to reach down and see your resourcefulness,” said Sister Pieper. “See what you can do.”
Elder Pieper took a position with a Virginia law firm involved in international trade work. There the family would know challenges. Inside a two-month period in the early 1990s, Elder Pieper was laid off from the law firm and Sister Pieper gave birth to a daughter with disabilities. While dealing with such uncertainties, Elder Pieper was called to organize a Spanish-language branch and serve as its branch president. Eager for blessings, the Piepers accepted the call and went to work. “I have a testimony that the Lord tests you and then blesses you,” Elder Pieper said.
While working for the law firm, his interest in international economic development took hold. He took work with a private firm making inroads in former Soviet bloc nations making the challenging transition from command to market economies. A temporary professional assignment to Kazakhstan evolved into a permanent position and a new home for the Piepers and their children. Church membership in the nation was limited to the Piepers and a pair of other LDS expatriate families. They met each Sunday in a member’s home for sacrament meeting and Sunday school. About a dozen people typically attended.
“We loved it when visitors came — they were our speakers,” Sister Pieper said.
The Piepers said they could trace the Lord’s hand as the Church was formally accepted in Kazakhstan in 2000. People seemed to be raised up each time an obstacle arose. Soon missionary work was underway and local residents were being baptized. While still learning Russian, Elder Pieper enlisted his experience organizing the branch in Virginia as he served as Kazakhstan’s first priesthood leader.
Elder Russell M. Nelson visited Kazakhstan in 2003 and blessed the land. By the end of that year some 50 people had been baptized, all without the aid of full-time missionaries.
“It was amazing to watch miracles happen,” Sister Pieper said. “You knew the Lord was in charge.”
The Piepers deflect any credit for Kazakhstan’s first gospel steps, saying they were blessed to be among pioneer-spirited people eager to accept the gospel despite scant numbers. “We just had to pinch ourselves to even be a part of this.”
Last year, Elder Pieper was called to lead the Russia St. Petersburg Mission. He and Sister Pieper were thrilled to see the strides the Russian members had made over the past decade. Converts are building their testimonies and preparing their own children to serve. Much like Heinrich Friedrich Christian Pieper, the Russian devout are preparing the way for their own posterity, Elder Pieper said.
“The Lord has turned the keys. The gathering of Israel is going on.”
Now the call to serve continues as Elder Pieper settles into his new assignment with the Seventy.
“We’re thrilled and excited to be a part of the effort.”