Latter-day Saints across Africa Participate in Fifth Day of Service
Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
“It’s not just about participating in an annual event. We must seize the opportunity to serve whenever it arises. If we have a strong testimony of the gospel, there is no way we can live without making service a tradition in our lives.”—Mariatu Browne, Sierra Leone’s national director of public affairs for the Church
Six months after he first invited Church members across the world to participate in a day of service, President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency, described the thousands of projects that happened in these words:
“A council of your fellow Saints prayed to know what service to plan. They asked God to know whom we should serve, what service to give, and whom to invite to participate. They may even have prayed not to forget shovels or drinking water. Above all, they prayed that all who gave service and all who received it would feel the love of God.”
In Africa, such projects have been happening annually across the entire continent for the last five years in an event known as the All-Africa Mormon Helping Hands Day.
“It is a cooperative effort between the Africa Southeast Area and the Africa West Area and functions in every stake and district throughout the African continent wherever there are Church units capable of sponsoring such activities,” said Elder Stephen Harms, who serves as the public affairs director for the Africa Southeast Area.
“This day of service offers a simple and easy way of living our religion,“ said Elder Adesina J Olukanni, an Area Seventy who serves as the director of public affairs for the Africa West Area and who served as public affairs director for both Africa areas when the Day of Service began in 2007. ”It helps one to show our faith the gospel of Jesus Christ through service. It is the easiest way by which we can respond to the prophets call to be kind to our neighbors, to respond to their need, to give rather than to receive. It is the easiest way to preach the gospel—by example.
“It feels good to do good, it helps build testimony, it helps in building character, and it helps in removing strife and uniting communities. It helps people understand our church and [helps them understand] that we seek to do good.”
What follows are brief reports of just a few of the units who participated in this year’s event, held on August 20, 2011.
Long before August 20, members of the Accra Ghana Adenta Stake met in council to identify needs in their community and determine a plan of action. The stake organized its wards and branches into four clusters and appointed agent bishops to lead each one. Those bishops then met with the stake presidency and the stake public affairs director, all of whom coordinated with local institutions to determine where in their community they might make a difference.
Ultimately, several projects—ranging from cleaning at hospitals and police stations to filling potholes and other depressions in a local road—were selected and carried out both by Church members and partner organizations. The community noticed.
“Service is key to … helping bring the Church out of obscurity,” said Daniel Kabason, first counselor in the Adenta stake presidency. “With each service project, there has been a desire from the public to know about the Church and what we believe in.” In addition, several local TV and radio news outlets reported on the projects. In other instances, public officials and opinion leaders—none of whom are members of the Church—took note.
But this wasn’t only an exercise in helping the community, although the projects certainly did that. This was also an opportunity, said President Kabason, to solidify members’ understanding of service.
“We teach that the priesthood is not in the white shirt we wear—rather, it is in service and work,” President Kabason said. “This helps our members understand that the highest expression of love is to provide service to our fellow man.”
To underscore this point, on the Sunday preceding the Day of Service each ward held a combined meeting with all priesthood quorums, the Relief Society, and the Young Women classes, during which the member of the high council responsible for that particular ward taught a lesson about doctrines and principles related to service.
“The Savior, in His earthly ministry, exemplified service through His teachings and through relieving people’s suffering,” President Kabason said. “We are following His footsteps by doing what He would be doing if He were on the earth. After all, we know that the priesthood is given to mankind to act on His behalf.”
Just outside of Accra, in the Ghana Tema Stake, leaders chose to focus their service around the theme “Strengthening Families, Building Communities.” Each ward created a project committee which included a member of the bishopric, the elders quorum president, the Relief Society president, and a service project coordinator. Ideas for the projects were then presented in ward council for adoption and implementation.
Then, on August 20, 1,305 members representing all 13 units of the stake participated in cleaning and weeding at local police stations, community centers, courthouses, and public parks; de-silting choked gutters along two communities’ main streets; and visiting and cleaning a local orphanage.
The stake received great support from local government, said William Kofi Kassah, stake public affairs director.
“The three metropolitan assemblies and their mayors supported the projects,” he said. “At Teshie, for example, the member of parliament joined the members of the three Teshie wards for the projects and expressed a wish that other churches in his constituency would emulate the examples of the Latter-day Saints.” At the project at the community center, two court registrars and court security officers joined the project and were grateful for the work done, Brother Kassah said, as were many passersby.
“The smiles on the faces of those beneficiaries showed that they appreciated the work done,” he said. He also said that projects like those done on August 20 help him and other stake members remember that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
On the western coast of Africa, members of the Lagos Nigeria West Stake gathered as early as 6:30 a.m. to participate in projects ranging from painting buildings to clearing debris from city drains to weeding areas overgrown by grasses.
Saints in the Oshodi area of the city decided to repaint the Shogunle police station; it was the first time that the building, constructed more than a decade ago, had been painted in the traditional police colors of blue, yellow, and green, making it more identifiable in the neighborhood. Some 100 Saints participated in the painting and cleaned the premises of the building as well the adjoining Shogunle community hall.
The projected lasted from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., several hours beyond the planned project time of 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Bishop Ralph O. Onyeanula of the Oshodi Ward said that his unit chose the police station as a project site because ward members wanted the Nigeria police force and individual police officers to know that they care.
At the Akowonjo and Egbeda areas of Lagos, some 70 Latter-day Saints worked at the water works complex of the Lagos State Water Corporation, where they repainted a building, cleaned the premises, and cut overgrown weeds and grasses. And in the Agege, Ifako, Ejigbo, and Ikotun areas of the city, Church members cleared drains, cut roadside weeds and grasses, and did general cleanup work.
Various civic officers expressed their appreciation for the service the stake rendered, noting that several of the projects had helped create a healthier environment for residents. In addition, several residents of the areas where the projects took place prayed for Church members and expressed praise for what had been done in their communities.
In another part of the country, in the Calabar Nigeria Stake, the bishops of the Calabar Second and Seventh Wards identified a local community health center as a place where their wards might serve. With the stake presidency’s approval of the project, more than 100 members of the two wards—adults, youth, and even a few children—came with brushes, wheelbarrows, cutlasses (a blade often used for cutting grass), hoes, brooms, mops, and other equipment and spent four hours cleaning the inside and outside of the building.
Although the Day of Service has become an annual tradition across Africa, Blessing Uloma Nwachukwu, a member of the Calabar stake, said that the First Presidency’s invitation to the entire Church caused her to think more deeply about the reason the Church places such an emphasis on service. About hearing President Eyring’s general conference message last April, she said, “I felt that he was trying to pass a message about what the Lord wants us to do, and I thought about the hymn he quoted, ‘Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?’”
Her husband, Amuzie Nwachukwu, said that although “the matron of the center was pouring praises and thanks to the Church for such a magnificent service rendered,” he personally feels satisfaction in knowing that the members who participated were responding to the prophetic voice.
“My testimony has increased, and I know that when we obey the voice of the living prophet, we will be blessed,” Brother Nwachukwu said. “Our relationship with our neighbors will improve, and the Lord will smile on us because we have obeyed His commandment.”
With an open house for the new chapel in Freetown, Sierra Leone—the first in that city—just weeks away, Church leaders in the area determined to find a project that would help strengthen the relationship between Latter-day Saints and the neighbors in that eastern section of the city, known as Kissy.
Local Church leaders conferred with city officials, and they agreed on a project and a site: the group would clean drains, sweep, and dispose of garbage along a one-mile stretch of Kissy Bypass Road, a major thoroughfare in the area. The Church would provide many volunteers but would also invite other members of the community to join with them, said Mariatu Browne, Sierra Leone’s national director of public affairs for the Church.
“Service, especially community service, brings people together,” she said. “It makes us more unified.”
Some 600 people participated, including members of all 13 branches in the two Freetown districts as well as several Kissy community groups—especially those composed of youth.
“People were very much impressed by the project,” Sister Browne said. “They expressed their appreciation and offered to give us money. Some were surprised to have a huge number of people cleaning the streets, while others were not surprised at all because they know what the Church is capable of doing.”
Sister Browne notes that the Day of Service has become an important event for the members in their area but that it’s not the only time Latter-day Saints serve.
“It’s not just about participating in an annual event,” she said. “We must seize the opportunity to serve whenever it arises. If we have a strong testimony of the gospel, there is no way we can live without making service a tradition in our lives.”
Although many of the Saints participating in the All-Africa Day of Service live in large stakes or districts where the Church has been long established, all units capable of hosting such an activity were invited to participate. One of just a handful of units in the country, the Arusha Branch was among those to respond to that invitation.
When branch president Spear Mwakila assigned Patience Rwiza to be the chairman of the Helping Hands committee, he asked Brother Rwiza to identify organizations in their local community that they might be able to serve.
Brother Rwiza, who had been serving as branch president the year before when the branch participated in its first Day of Service project, said he “felt a sense of responsibility and [recognized a] wonderful opportunity to express love and care to the community.” He made the decision of how to help not just a point of research and discussion but also a matter of prayer before presenting three possibilities to President Mwakila. One of the proposed sites of service was the Shanga House, a facility that gives vocational training to people with disabilities and teaches them how to provide a living for themselves and their families.
On August 20, 2011, 35 participants from the Arusha Branch—adults, youth, and children; Church members, investigators, and missionaries—worked alongside people with disabilities in making craft items and jewelry that would later be sold. The people at Shanga House “seemed so pleased and happy to teach us their skills,” said Sandra Rydalch, who is serving a mission in the area with her husband, Rich.
The volunteers also helped with household chores like cleaning and sweeping.
A week later, branch representatives returned to Shanga House to present a DVD they had made using footage of their afternoon together. And since that time, when people from Shanga House see members of the branch downtown, “they readily recognize us, wave, and stop to visit,” Sister Rydalch said.
“It is a commandment of our Heavenly Father to serve one another,” President Mwakila said. “[The people we served] are children of our Heavenly Father, and by doing this project, I felt we were doing His work.”
Brother Rwiza points out that the activity was beneficial not just for those at Shanga House but also for those who offered the service. “People developed a sense of love by helping others, and during the process, people learned things from the community that they didn’t know before,” he said. “My testimony has been strengthened by what I did and saw—both the members’ participation and the community’s as a whole.”