Sitting on plastic chairs gathered in a circle on a cement porch, Charles David read aloud to family and visitors from the book in his hands. As rain pounded on the tin roof above them, some of the visitors, standing in the mud beyond the porch's cover, held umbrellas to cover themselves and leaned in to listen to the man who, just over a year before, had no knowledge of how to read or write.
As a security guard in a rural area in the eastern part of Sierra Leone, David had little education when he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But with the diligent help of a senior missionary couple and the materials provided through the Gospel Literacy program — part of an Africa West Area initiative for literacy which is in pilot testing — Charles David can now read and understand much of the English language with confidence.
In Sierra Leone, English is the language of opportunity, said Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society general president, after returning from a recent 11-day trip from June 5 through June 16 to the West African country.
After meeting with Charles David and his wife, Mamie David, on that rainy day during her visit, Sister Bingham said she was impressed by the way he taught his family with engaging questions and activities.
"I think the Gospel Literacy program is going to help families and individuals learn how to teach the gospel," she said. "And the more they learn, the more they'll understand their purpose here on the earth, and eternally."
Explaining how she visited Sierra Leone to participate in and witness how the Gospel Literacy pilot program is being implemented, Sister Bingham said, "Relief Society has a mandate for literacy, and I have personally been very concerned about literacy. There are so many women around the world who do not have the opportunity to go to school, and I wanted to see how we could harness the power of the Relief Society to help our sisters who do not have the blessing of literacy in their lives."
After meeting with people in Freetown, Kenema and Bo in Sierra Leone, Sister Bingham said she was surprised and pleased by how the program is locally administered and supported.
"The teachers are local. They have to be trained, but they are local members, and that's why it's sustainable," she said.
What is the Gospel Literacy program?
The Gospel Literacy project — which is currently in pilot testing with the Africa West Area of the Church and is not widely available — was first introduced in Ghana in 2015, while the model being used in Sierra Leone was introduced in 2017.
In Sierra Leone, as is the case in much of the Africa West Area, the majority of Church members are first generation — meaning they are not accustomed to learning and sharing the gospel at home or at Church.
Cason Curriden, one of the Gospel Literacy project managers, explained that when people are taught by the missionaries and brought into the Church, they are typically taught the gospel in a very individualized manner. But after baptism, when they are in Sunday School, they aren't getting that same experience.
"It can be hard for them because they can't understand what is happening," he said.
As Sister Bingham explained it, if members can't read and follow the scriptures or keep up with what is being discussed in Sunday School, Relief Society or elders quorum, it can be hard for them to feel like they are progressing or want to stay, so many of the members participating in the Gospel Literacy program are less-active members looking to come back and learn.
"The Gospel Literacy class provides that individualized, very personal learning experience that they had with the missionaries," Curriden said.
But in addition to offering them individualized support, it gives them the tools to be able to learn and progress in the gospel as individuals, explained Melissa Hawkley, Gospel Literacy project manager.
"The Gospel Literacy program helps them to actually be able to participate in learning the gospel, and that's a huge part of the impact of what we're seeing," she said.
Curriden added, "It's really beautiful to see that fire kind of reignite for people that have fallen less-active and to see their testimonies being expressed in a way that they've never felt confident enough to express them before."
Elder Tom Kunz and Sister LaDawn Kunz, senior missionaries who have spent the last year working with Charles David as he has gone through the first phase of the Gospel Literacy program, said they have witnessed the difference the program has made in his life.
"I would say the biggest thing that I have seen is how he is now teaching his family every week in family home evening," Elder Kunz said.
Since being introduced to the program, Charles David has shown immense excitement and dedication to learning both the language and the gospel, Elder Kunz explained.
"It's hard here for people to understand anything other than the surface of the gospel," he said, noting that the adult literacy rate in Sierra Leone is less than 50 percent.
"So the Gospel Literacy program is beginning to open doors for people," he said. "They're understanding gospel principles in a whole new way."
Addressing members' unique circumstances
Members in Sierra Leone and the Africa West Area face problems that members elsewhere may not have to deal with, said Sister Toi Clawson, wife of the former Sierra Leone Freetown Mission president, Kevin Clawson
"I think it's hard for people to imagine that there are Primaries where there's no one in the presidency who's literate," she said. "But just imagine how difficult it is to carry a program when not one sister can read a manual. And that doesn't mean they don't function in their callings, but how the Church looks in those branches is very different."
Addressing the problems unique to the area is part of why the implementation structure for the project is so important, Hawkley explained. The program focuses on helping individuals while also using the Church structure for support.
Teaching the gospel as families at home has not been common practice in Sierra Leone, Hawkley said. That's not part of the culture, so the Gospel Literacy program is helping teach people how to do that and is creating a place for people to share their testimonies and learn together.
"In some ways, it is like 'Come, Follow Me,'" she said. Members are learning key tools, words and principles through the program and then taking those and sharing them in their ward or branch units and with their families so that their knowledge is disbursed.
"It's changing the way that wards counsel together, it's changing the way that families learn together and, especially with the new emphasis on home-centered and Church-supported, it's beautiful to see families using gospel principles to connect and grow as a family," Curriden said.
As Hawkley and Sister Bingham explained, wards and branches meet together to assess the needs of their congregations and identify potential teachers for the program.
Learners are then often paired with ministering partners who can help meet their learning needs though the program and, using the workbook materials of the program that match their level of understanding, teachers and learners work together to improve gospel and language understanding.
"The literacy program really makes a difference in someone's life if they have a desire to learn," Elder Kunz said. "But the most important thing is that they learn the gospel. The fact that they learn to read and write along the way, it's just an added bonus."
Using Charles David's experience as an example, Elder Kunz said that a year ago, Charles David's wife, Mamie David, had stopped coming to Church because she couldn't understand anything. But since Charles David has been working with the Kunzs, he has started hosting regular family home evenings with his family and, as a result, Mamie has started coming back to Church and Charles David has made progress in understanding the priesthood by baptizing one of his sons and ordaining another.
He has confidence in doing things he has never done before because he has an understanding of them now, Elder and Sister Kunz explained.
"It's so interesting to watch," Sister Bingham said of observing the changes that have come through the program. "When you meet a gospel learner for the first time, someone who is just beginning, they will not look you in the eye. They look down. But then when they begin to learn to read or write, they look you in the eye and their confidence level just soars."
How Gospel Literacy can make a difference
During her trip, Sister Bingham and her husband, Brother Bruce Bingham, went with the Clawsons to visit the site where, in 1989, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the country for the preaching of the gospel.
"To stand up at the top of this peak looking out on the peninsula of Freetown and to just think of how this country has suffered so much, with a civil war, the cholera epidemic, Ebola epidemic, and all these things that kept setting back education, and yet the gospel is rolling forth, it just felt like this is another piece that is making this country move towards that wonderful blessing of being able to truly embrace all that Heavenly Father wants for His children," Sister Clawson said.
The Church is growing rapidly in West Africa and many of the people joining have little education or are illiterate, Sister Bingham explained.
"I think if this becomes a sustained program, it will make all the difference in the Church in Africa," she said, noting that when people understand, they can truly learn the principles of the gospel and feel that they belong. "We'll need this to help members grow and progress in the Church and stay on the covenant path."