In speaking assignments as a Church leader, Elder Robert Christopher Gay is apt to refer to the message of Jesus Christ as “a gospel of deliverance.”
“That’s what we’ve seen and lived all our lives,” Elder Gay said, referring to himself and his wife, Sister Lynette Nielsen Gay, in an interview on the occasion of his recent call to serve in the First Quorum of Seventy.
“We worship the God of deliverance: spiritual, physical, mental, emotional,” he said. “With that faith, you can bring that blessing all across the world.”
He has worked the past quarter-century in the private equity field. But in conversing about himself, Elder Gay seems more disposed to discuss the humanitarian service he and Sister Gay have been involved in than his career success.
Part of that stems from his experience as president of the Ghana Accra Mission from 2004 to 2007. The time they spent there instilled within Elder and Sister Gay a love for the people of Africa, particularly in the three nations where they served: Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“At any given time, we had missionaries serving from nearly 30 nations — the Pacific, maybe 15 different nations of Africa, all through Europe, from the United States, quite a few from the Middle East,” he said. They came with varying levels of preparation, education and language capability. In addition to working with full-time missionaries, President and Sister Gay oversaw districts and trained members in the priesthood quorums and auxiliaries.
“And we left a big part of our heart in Africa,” Elder Gay said. “We set up a foundation, which my wife still runs to this day, called Engage Now Africa.”
Sister Gay said the foundation, which was begun in Ethiopia in 2002, was extended to Ghana, assisting the needy to become more self-reliant by means of literacy, education and micro-credit loans.
“We just continued to enlarge that after we left,” she said. “Now, we’ve opened up in Namibia. They’re getting good solid organizations within those countries and are going to be able to depend on themselves now. So even though we will not be working in Africa personally, the organization will still be going forward very strongly, and we’re expanding.”
The humanitarian efforts of Elder and Sister Gay extend to some 50 countries of the world, including a large micro-credit organization called Unitus, which they co-founded with several other Latter-day Saints, that has reached more than 12 million people in poverty. And they have participated in a United Nations organization called Family Watch International, which champions the family unit.
Closer to home they have been involved with organizations that help children, such as Steve Young’s Utah-based Forever Young Foundation and the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, Ga., which last year honored the couple with a special recognition for their service.
But for Elder and Sister Gay, deliverance in a gospel sense transcends meeting temporal needs. From the time they met as students in neighboring high schools in California’s San Fernando Valley, they have been missionary-minded. In fact, after their mutual friend, Peter Walker, introduced them to each other, they made him better acquainted with their religious faith, at his own prompting.
“He said, ‘I see how you live, and I want to live that way,'” Elder Gay recalled. “And he said to us one day, ‘Well, when are you going to baptize me?'”
Bob did baptize him, just before they finished high school. Tragically, Peter suffered a fatal accident not long afterward.
Elder Gay served as a missionary in Spain from 1971 to 1973, being something of a pioneer there, as he was in the first group actually called to serve in that country, the group that came just before him having been reassigned from South America.
“It was very hard; there were very few members, but it was a wonderful blessing,” he said. “We were able to go to many cities that had never been opened to missionary work.” He learned recently that one of the cities he opened to the work, Elche, now is the headquarters of a stake that is about to be divided to make two stakes.
Married six months after his return, Elder and Sister Gay worked hard to balance the demands of school work and providing for and rearing a family. The first thing he bought her was a sewing machine, which she used to make alterations and repairs at home to supplement their income. She received a medical assistant degree and worked until the birth of their first child.
In Salt Lake City, while attending school, they took leadership of a company that made snack foods called Cutie Pies, which are still something of a local fixture in grocery stores.
As their children grew, they would have some of the greatest experiences of their lives. Elder Gay explained, “We’ve had three children marry individuals who were not members of the Church. We had faith that if we just kept serving our desires would be fulfilled.”
In fact, they were given that promise in a priesthood blessing before departing for Ghana.
“Not only did all our family join the Church, we had five temple weddings while we served in Ghana,” Elder Gay said, adding with a smile that he missed all of them due to his assignment but acknowledging that the family was indeed blessed.
“And so, we’ve seen crises,” he remarked. “We know what it’s like to bring less-active kids back. We know what it’s like to bring those that aren’t in the faith into the faith at a very real family level. We’ve gone through physical challenges. We have great faith, whether it’s now or down the road, the Lord will never forsake you.”
Family: Born Sept. 1, 1951, in Los Angeles, Calif., to Bill and Mary Thain Gay; married Lynette Nielsen on April 20, 1974, in the Los Angeles Temple; seven children: Robert “Chris” Christopher (Chelsea), Summer (Peter Paulos), Jon (Gabrielle), Daniel (Kelly), Melissa (Greg), Lara (Christopher Kelly), Kyle; and 12 grandchildren.
Education: Received bachelor’s degree from University of Utah in 1976 and doctorate from Harvard in 1982.
Career: Businessman working in private equity for more than 25 years, most recently as a partner with Jon M. Huntsman Sr. in Huntsman-Gay Global Capital. Prior to that, a partner in Bain Capital with Mitt Romney.
Church Service: Most recently Area Seventy serving in North America Southeast Area. President of Ghana Accra Mission, 2004-2007; bishop; counselor in bishopric; high councilor; high priest group leader; ward Young Men president; ward mission leader; Sunday School gospel doctrine teacher.