Blessings come in surprising ways. In February 2013, I had been serving for 6 years as an Area Seventy in the Pacific Area and had been asked to extend for a seventh. We had, however, been invited to the Office of the First Presidency and my wife, Kay, and I were waiting to meet with then President Dieter F Uchtdorf in his office. The thought that he was about to call me as a General Authority had not entered my mind, and we were even more surprised when he told us that we would be living and serving in West Africa until we received a new assignment some years in the future.
We did not suspect that our hearts were about to be filled with love for the wonderful West African people. But they quickly were, immediately we arrived in Accra and began to meet the members of the Church and others in these countries of Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, The Gambia, and Burkina Faso. What incredible blessings we have received, and what wonderful eternal relationships have been forged.
“I think the Spirit of the Lord is brooding over Africa,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve in the first of two videos about the growth of the Church in Africa after years of political strife. “His hand is on the work. His Spirit is stirring the people,” said Elder Holland.
This has been most evident to Kay and me in the incredible growth we have witnessed here. Just before our arrival, and earlier in July 2013, the 38th stake of the Africa West Area had been created by Elder Joseph Sitati in Warri, Nigeria. And then in June 2018, I was blessed to preside over the creation of the 100th stake in the Africa West Area in Lagos, Nigeria. These 62 additional stakes (29 in Nigeria, 13 in Ghana, 9 in Côte d’Ivoire, 4 in Sierra Leone, 4 in Liberia, 2 in Togo, and 1 in Benin) were created in less than 5 years!
And the 100th Stake was formed just 30 years after the first ever West African stake. I have personally had the privilege of forming the first branches in Dakar Senegal, Conakry Guinea, and Bamako Mali, and of witnessing the land of Senegal dedicated for the preaching of the Gospel by Elder David A. Bednar. I have accompanied this same apostle as he dedicated the new Ghana MTC, and I have been blessed with numerous other spiritual experiences.
The growth, however, has not simply, or even primarily, been in numbers. Kay and I, together with the other members of the Area Presidency, are witnesses almost daily, to incredible faith in the face of adversity and temporal poverty. But there is no spiritual poverty in West Africa. The region is rich in those things most precious - the faithful sons and daughters of God. And the mandate of our Saviour for West Africa as so clearly stated in the following verses has been accepted: “And if any man among you be strong in the Spirit, let him take with him him that is weak, that he may be edified in all meekness, that he may become strong also. ...... Behold, this is the way that mine apostles, in ancient days, built up my church unto me” (D&C 84:106, 108). In fact, it has been embraced as our united call for action in the phrase “one take one”.
This leads to a most important principle in the Lord’s way of doing His work. These five years have reinforced for me something that I had partly understood before and which is crucial to our time in mortality. That message is this: No matter what calling we have and whether our responsibility be for a family, a ward, a stake, or the Africa West Area, there is no difference, because our primary responsibility is to the “one”. We are called to minister to others - both those we are assigned, and the many, many more placed in our daily path by the Lord Himself. Our task is to seek revelation and the companionship of the Holy Ghost as we focus on the “one” at any, and every, point in time.
My calling regularly involves my speaking to large congregations, but I have been taught clearly that each time I do, what I am really doing is speaking to the “one” whose prayers the Lord is answering without my knowing. It is marvellous to know that Heavenly Father uses me (and you) as a conduit to send His messages to His individual children.
Many times, people have approached me after I have spoken to tell me that what I have said was just for them, an answer to prayer, or a needed spiritual insight. But each time I have known that it’s not what I have said but, rather, the words that our Father has put in my mouth, or the thoughts He has put in my head, or the personalised interpretation of my words by the Holy Ghost for individuals who are present and prepared to hear.
I have learned very clearly that my responsibility is simply to prepare myself spiritually prior to any assignment so that I can have the Holy Ghost with me when I deliver the message which He chooses to give me. “ ....... for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Nephi 33:1)
Then the Holy Ghost can work with those who are prepared to receive His message. “And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? If it be some other way it is not of God. Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together. And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.” (D&C 50:19-23)
I love the “edifying” that comes to both the messenger and the recipient. And I love the “rejoicing” that follows as a consequence.
In fact, these are two of the three feelings that best describe what my sweetheart, Kay, and I have felt most strongly while living in West Africa. We have been “edified” and we have “rejoiced”! But the feeling that we have felt most strongly and most often (even continuously) is “love” for the people of West Africa. That love is impossible to uncouple with the love we feel for our Saviour and our Heavenly Father, and our love for each other. These, too, have grown somehow even more powerful as a result of our living and serving in West Africa, as has our utter dependence on the Holy Ghost.
We have formed relationships with so many people who are now family to us, and we have been taught about discipleship, caring and “ministering” by the most accomplished of possessors and practitioners of these divine attributes - the saints of West Africa.
The saints of West Africa are blessed now with a most wonderful Area President in Elder Marcus B. Nash, with his two talented and marvellous counsellors in Elder Larry S. Kacher and Elder Edward Dube, all of whom are good friends to me and to you. And the Lord has blessed me in my new assignment with responsibility to assist a member of the Twelve in guiding His work in three Areas of the world - North America Southeast, Africa Southeast and most happily, Africa West. We are excited to know that we will return from time to time to greet our dear friends and loved ones here.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts! We love you and we will miss you! But we have confidence that the true friendships formed in this life will continue as blessed associations throughout eternity.