NAIROBI, Kenya — Misty British Isles and colorful African plains revealed themselves as matching bookends for the Church by the end of the first week of President Russell M. Nelson’s global tour.
In both places, entire congregations famously converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints upon the arrival of the first missionaries.
In each, Church membership surged for decades once missionaries reached them.
And to both, a prophet made a meaningful gesture at a time when persecution wracked the Church, including President Nelson’s visit to Kenya and Zimbabwe this week.
Finally, those who attended the tour’s meetings in London and Nairobi demonstrated the escalating racial, ethnic and cultural diversity of an international church.
“We don’t look alike,” President Nelson said on the tour’s third leg in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 16. “That’s good. We have individual identities, spiritually and physically, but we are His children.”
He tweeted that quote on Wednesday.
“[President Nelson] really wants to reach out to the whole world,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told members at London’s Hyde Park Chapel during the tour’s first stop on April 12. “There would hardly be a ward or a stake more international than the Hyde Park Ward or the [London England] Hyde Park Stake.”
In that same meeting, Elder Holland called the United Kingdom “the salvation of the Church” in the late 1830s when “the Prophet Joseph Smith was courageous enough and inspired enough in the throes of terrible, terrible moments in Kirtland, Ohio, when his very life was threatened and the future of the Church was certainly in doubt ... to send virtually the entire Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to the United Kingdom.
“And in that gesture ... that movement through northern Europe saved this Church, numerically and statistically and in terms of the faith and the devotion and service of its people.”
Church membership spiked on that distant shore. By 1850, members in the United Kingdom outnumbered those in the United States by nearly 3 to 1.
Fast forward to 2018, more than a century and a half later. On April 16, one of Joseph Smith’s successors, President Russell M. Nelson, made a similar gesture when he traveled to Kenya, a place where some fallaciously label Mormons as devil-worshippers. He spoke to 2,000 eastern African Latter-day Saints and a dozen eastern African journalists.
National television and newspaper journalists recently have challenged the persecution of Church members in Kenya, and many members found President Nelson’s decision to stop in Nairobi a timely one.
President Nelson and Elder Holland with their wives, Sister Wendy Watson Nelson and Sister Patricia T. Holland, visited Mercy Maken, a single mother of three in Nairobi, before the devotional they held with 2,000 members from eastern Africa.
They gave Maken a color photograph of the new First Presidency for her home.
Maken told the Church News before the meeting that some LDS children in boarding schools do not reveal their membership because of persecution. She said she herself met the missionaries when she stopped them on the street to ask them if they were devil-worshippers.
Despite challenges, the Church is growing in Africa as it did in England 160 years ago.
President Nelson pointed out — both in London and in Kenya — that when he was born, there were nearly 600,000 Church members in the world. Today in Africa, where missionary work in nearly every country began only after 1978, there already are more than 575,000, he said.
After 40 years, Africa now has 152 stakes. At President Nelson’s birth, the entire Church had 94 stakes.
Those who have joined the Church here were keen to see the prophet.
They came from multiple east African nations for his visit on April 16 because they considered it a great and historic day, said Meshack Mbuya, who traveled seven hours overnight by bus with dozens of other members from four congregations in Eldoret, Kenya.
“We were eager to meet the President of the Church and revel in the great blessings that his influence is going to offer to us,” said Mbuya, 42, first counselor in the Sosiana Branch presidency. It means everything concerning spiritual growth and personal mentorship. He is is playing a great role on earth for the maturation of the gospel.
“I know today I am going to leave here with great blessings.”
At the end of his 35-minute talk, President Nelson asked Elder Holland to join him at the pulpit as he invoked an apostolic blessing on those in attendance.
President Nelson invoked a similar blessing on April 12 on the saints in London at the end of the special meeting at the Hyde Park Chapel, where more than 750 people gathered, packing the chapel and an overflow room in the basement.
“When he stated that blessing, there was an absolute hush and stillness in that room,” Londoner Caroline Cooke said. “Sister Nelson quoted Elder Bruce R. McConkie saying we still need to fight with premortal valor. Heaven knows that’s what we need, especially with what’s going on culturally in so many lands.”
At the trip’s outset, Sister Nelson said she looked forward to seeing people throughout the trip.
“I love to see them, from brand-new converts to people who have been in the Church from the start,” she said.
She expanded on that thought in an interview with the Church News.
“I would rather ‘saint-see’ than sightsee,” Sister Nelson said. “That has been my message to my husband for our 12 years. At this point in my life if something is on the internet or on a postcard, I don’t want to use my time to sight-see to see it. I would rather be with a congregation or have a heart-to-heart with one of our members or families, the struggling as well as those who are finding joy in living the gospel and keeping their covenants.”
Bridging the veil
The Nelsons and the Hollands returned over and over to themes of revelation and temple and family history in their talks in London and Nairobi.
The temple and family history resonated in Kenya, where many families live in multigenerational homes. Some Kenyans also bury their parents or grandparents in their front yard so that when they walk out the door each day they pass their ancestors, said Shadrack Barasa, the Church’s oral genealogy operations manager for Kenya and Uganda, whose father is buried in front of his mother’s home.
Elder Holland told Kenyan members, who await the groundbreaking of a temple in Nairobi announced in April 2017, that temple work appears to be a hallmark of President Nelson’s nascent administration.
“I’m confident even as President Nelson’s ministry begins, that a significant portion of his prophetic ministry is to declare the work of the living and the dead,” Elder Holland said. “To love God and love our neighbor, to serve faithfully and devotedly as disciples of Christ — and the ultimate expression of that is to save souls of the living and the dead in the highest order.”
He told them they want to be in the temple.
“You want purity, safety, comfort, hope, answers to prayers, happiness,” that the temple brings, he said. “Those are all things that are available in the temple in magnificent amounts.”
Elder Holland also said the temple “bridges the gap between this world and the next, between the challenges of this world and the peacefulness of the next.”
The Lord’s way
President Nelson denounced the practices of paying a dowry or paying a bride price for marriages. He emphasized that cash or commodities shouldn’t be given to the family of a bride or groom.
“That’s not the Lord’s way,” President Nelson said. “The Lord’s way is to be married in the temple, for time and all eternity, with your children sealed to you.”
He added that if he’d had to pay for his wife, “I would have missed five children, because only with my last five was I out of debt.”
He also said tithing can break cycles of poverty in poor nations and families.
“We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation,” he said. “That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing.”
Members rejoiced to see President Nelson and exhibited reverence for his calling.
In London, Katrina Phillips, 12, had been looking forward to two things for a long time: seeing President Nelson on April 12 and going to the temple for the first time on April 14.
“Not only did I get to see the prophet, I literally got to meet him,” she said with a smile.
“I was very touched,” Londoner Chris Cooke said. “I had a confirmation that he is a prophet of God. I felt like he knew me, as if he knows me personally. I just love him. I just love that man.”
Eunice Amuge of the Lira Branch in Lira, Uganda, made three bus transfers over two days to attend the Nairobi meeting in a striking orange African dress. Afterward, she met the prophet briefly.
“I’m very happy because my prophet, I shook his hand,” she said, “a very nice blessing. I learned from him today about family and forgiveness and loving one another, and to clean our hearts, to forget about every bad thing and start anew.”