“It is easy to love the people of Africa,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said repeatedly. The faith and obedience of African Latter-day Saints, born of their love for the gospel, sets an example for all members of the Church, he said.
“The memory I always have is the spirituality of the people,” Elder Holland said during an interview in Freetown, Sierra Leone. “That is a little hard to convey, unless you have been here, unless you have seen firsthand their goodness, their faith, and their spiritual gifts.”
The Temple, a Crowning Image
With the exception of South Africa, the Church has been in Africa for only 30 to 40 years. Because of that, Elder Holland said, the Church here has been “born before your eyes, born in a day,” and “Africa is one of those special places where you get to see the glory of the Lord, the wonder and the miracle of the Restoration, quite literally unfold before your eyes.”
He said it is impressive “to see how much the gospel means to them, to see what they have done with it, how they cherish it, to see their faithfulness in tithing and in service, in going to the temple—I think of the temple as the crowning image—and then to see them raising their children in the Church and sending their sons and daughters on missions. It is wonderful evidence of their faithfulness.”
He said he will always remember being in Accra, Ghana, with the 15th President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008), when he announced that a temple would be built there. “[The people] stood and cheered, wept and danced, held each other, and cried. And in a way, that spirit still continues. That is my love for the Africans—it is their uncompromised joy in the gospel. Most have had so little in their lives of material goods, but when they got the gospel, they just embraced it hook, line, and sinker. And they still do. They are doing it to this day.”
Even in Times of War
As an example, he said, “While there was a raging civil war in Cote d’Ivoire [Ivory Coast] the Latter-day Saints … just kept coming to the temple. It’s a great tribute to them. I stand in awe.”
Speaking of both Sierra Leone and Liberia, he said, “Because they’ve had such a bloody, war-torn, brutal recent past, that’s one of the reasons the gospel is taking hold so dramatically. They’ve seen what life ought not to be, and now with the missionaries and the members testifying, they’ve seen what it can be. Heaven has been able to turn it into a blessing, and they’re lifting themselves out of political disarray and civil strife.”
He also pointed out the growth of the Church in another African country, Zimbabwe, which has also had a difficult time in recent years, “and yet in the middle of that, the Church has blossomed. We have growth, we have stakes, we have missions. That’s what’s happening all over Africa.”
The Challenge of Growth
In some areas, Elder Holland said, the Church has been present much less than 30 years but is also growing rapidly.
“We certainly haven’t been in Sierra Leone and Liberia very long, and yet we see that in 10 or 15 years things have started to come to this marvelous fruition—the numbers, the strength, the quality of these leaders—that’s a pretty exciting thing when you think of some of the most remote places in the world. And yet the gospel is destined to go there, or is now going there, and there will be missionaries and missions, branches and districts, and then wards and stakes. And that is what we are seeing in this part of West Africa.” In some areas, in fact, 200–300 people per month seek Church membership.
This means that rapid growth of the Church must be directed in wisdom and in order (see Mosiah 4:27).
“Our very biggest challenge,” Elder Holland said, “will be to not let that get out of hand. If Church growth outstrips the ability to sustain itself, he said, the result is often lack of retention.
“We will still have to make sure new members are kept close to the Church,” he said. “They need to have callings and to be integrated into the Church fully and thoroughly. But local leaders are doing that—and new members are going to the temple, they’re serving, they’re building these units. It is really quite amazing.”
In an interview in Accra, Ghana, Elder Holland discussed the challenges the Church has faced in dealing with poverty in Africa.
“The Brethren knew, years ago, that we would be coming here, because the gospel is for all the world, and we knew that our African brothers and sisters were more than deserving. We also knew that [for the Church] Africa was this new, big frontier, and I think many were worried about the financial and welfare-related implications. How do you address such poverty? How do you address such third-world circumstances? It is still something we think about,” he said.
“But with 30-plus years of experience, it is a thrilling testimony to the beauty of the African people that that hasn’t been a big issue. We have a welfare program, like we have anywhere else in the world, but it does wonderfully well. Nobody is exploiting it; this isn’t a whole continent that’s looking for a handout. These are remarkable people, self-sufficient people, who live sweetly and often plainly, and they have been absolutely magnificent.”
One of the continuing miracles of the gospel, Elder Holland said, is that often what we thought might be a problem isn’t a problem. “There is no question that in so many countries, Africa is still a land of considerable poverty, some political turmoil—Africa has its share of despotic leaders—so there are economic, political, and social problems. But somehow the Church prospers in the middle of that.”
He mentioned a principle often taught by the 13th President of the Church, Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994). “President Benson always said we don’t so much take people out of poverty or take them out of difficult settings as much as we teach them the gospel and they lift their eyes and their vision and they make their own way out of poverty. That principle is true.”
We Preach the Gospel
One key to the Church’s success in Africa, Elder Holland said, is that “we don’t get involved in conspicuous, socio-political issues. We preach the gospel. We are concerned about justice, and we are concerned about social opportunity and equity. But we think the answer to that is the gospel, so we just preach the gospel. And it has been true elsewhere and it is true in Africa, that people get that insight, blessing, and light in their lives, and suddenly things start to change and their lives are blessed.”
Elder Holland said that some who join the Church in Africa have never thought about educating their children until they see the good example of other Latter-day Saints.
“They join the Church and see people who are getting educated, and often are already educated, and their lives seem to be better and their opportunities seem to be greater, and so Brother and Sister New Convert go home and say, ‘I guess we’ll try to educate our children.’ It’s wonderful. What the Church offers is not a big, orchestrated plan. We do have the Perpetual Education Fund around the world, and we’ve got seminary and institute, but mostly it’s the light of the gospel that comes, and that begins to be the answer to challenges, far more than any institutional attack of the problem. It’s the wonder of individual and personal conversion.”
Elder Holland said that because many Africans are spiritually in tune, they experience spiritual privileges “not always seen in this day and age elsewhere in the world.” As an example, he mentioned a woman of another faith at a press conference in Sierra Leone who explained that she had seen his face in a dream. Having such an experience “isn’t a common experience in my life,” Elder Holland said, “but I think it’s quite a common one in theirs.” He said that people like her, guided by the Spirit, will identify and cling to the Church. “This is one way that God responds to their faith. It’s intuitive; it is fundamental. I’ve said repeatedly that it seems to me what life hasn’t been able to give them materially, heaven has more than made up for spiritually.”
He continued, “Their purity is a powerful, central image in my heart. In the West we have always associated happiness with acquisition, but in Africa they’ve separated that in their minds and in their hearts. I think they would like to have enough to eat, clothing to wear, and education for their children. They’d like a higher standard of living, and the gospel will help bring that to many people. But they seem to be able to separate in their mind that ‘things’ don’t have anything to do with being happy. Simplicity is an element of their pure faith that we would do well to copy, remember, and teach. In so many ways, they are not of this world, and it’s a great compliment to them.”
The Last Shall Be First
Elder Holland quoted the Savior, who said, “The last shall be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
“In some ways,” he said, “the gospel is late in coming to Africa, at least as we could do it on the Lord’s timetable—and it was the Lord’s timetable, I’m quick to affirm. It is only comparatively recently that the Africans have begun to get missions and missionaries, the blessings of the priesthood, and so forth. It’s a big continent, and we still have a long way to go. But I believe the growth we are now seeing in Africa is part of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise. African Latter-day Saints are emerging with faith. They are on the move. They are meeting the challenge of receiving the gospel and making it obvious in their lives.”
Loved by the Lord
Once again, Elder Holland expressed his fondness for the people of the entire continent. “It is my nature to want to tell people that I love them and that the Lord loves them,” he said. “I think that’s really true, and it’s true anywhere. But Heavenly Father’s love for His children is conspicuous in Africa. They have the most gorgeous smiles, the happiest faces; their children have to be among the most beautiful children on the face of the earth. It is very, very easy to love them. It is something like meeting people you think you’ve known before. We’ve all had that kind of experience—a kindred relationship with somebody. That’s how I feel with the African people. There is something special about what we feel when we come to this land, come to these nations, when we’re on this continent. Something in them, and something in us, creates a camaraderie of the soul that is immediate and almost beyond words.”