John and I were asked to speak at a Stonewood Stake youth Fireside this evening about the growth of the Church in Africa and how we can apply what we learned there to our lives today.
As I thought about what I might say to the youth of our stake, I remembered something David McCullough said at a BYU Forum in 2005. He was talking about the Founding Fathers and how they had no idea what the outcome of their actions would be. He started his masterful discourse by saying:
One of the hardest, and I think the most important, realities of history to convey to students or readers of books or viewers of television documentaries is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. Any great past event could have gone off in any number of different directions for any number of different reasons. We should understand that history was never on a track. It was never preordained that it would turn out as it did.
Very often we are taught history as if it were predetermined, and if that way of teaching begins early enough and is sustained through our education, we begin to think that it had to have happened as it did. We think that there had to have been a Revolutionary War, that there had to have been a Declaration of Independence, that there had to have been a Constitution, but never was that so. In history, chance plays a part again and again. Character counts over and over. Personality is often the determining factor in why things turn out the way they do.
Furthermore, nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, George Washington—they didn’t walk around saying, “Isn’t this fascinating living in the past? Aren’t we picturesque in our funny clothes?” They were living in the present, just as we do. The great difference is that it was their present, not ours. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out, they didn’t either.
(You can find his talk here: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/david-mccullough_glorious-cause-america/)
That certainly was the case in Africa 38 years ago, as we went village to village teaching and helping our friends there. Who could have guessed what would happen in those little villages in my own lifetime!
Here are the notes from my talk:
When I was 17 or 18 I had a strong impression that I was to go on a mission. I went off to BYU, and I started to prepare to be a missionary while waiting to turn 21. I memorized scriptures and discussions and passed them off to my returned missionary roommates. It seemed my wait lasted Forever.
When I was finally 21 years old and able to go, I had my papers ready to send. I’d had my physical exams, my dental work was done, everything was in order and complete. But when I went to put my mission application into the mailbox, I was stopped. It felt like a brick wall came down around me. I could not put the letter in the box. I was stunned. I didn’t understand why. I had waited so many years to go. Why the impression not to go??
Confused, I went back to school. Then, after a couple of years, the impression returned: “Now it’s time.”
This time I filled out the forms, and nothing stopped me from sending them to Salt Lake. Several weeks later, a big white envelope was delivered to our mailbox. It took me a long time to open it. I knew that what was written inside that envelope would change my life forever.
I was right. I was called to serve in Africa. When I got to the MTC to learn Afrikaans, I discovered that I was the only Sister in the MTC going to Africa. They had only just started sending American Sisters there. Had I submitted my papers 2 years earlier, who knows what path my life would have taken, or where I would be right now.
I learned to LOVE my brothers and sisters in Africa. That love went deep down into my heart as I sat in humble circumstances, teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, in mud brick homes with dung floors and thatch roofs, often by candlelight.
Ann Laemmlen teaching in Illinge, Transkei, South Africa
Not long after returning from my mission in South Africa I listened to news reports of a horrible weather pattern called El Nino which was causing severe droughts and destruction around the world, especially in Africa. My heart longed to return, to go help in some way. One night I could not sleep at all. I spent the entire night on my knees praying to know how to help.
The very next day an invitation came. I was asked to go to Nigeria for 3 years to help direct a child health project. I was 25 years old and I wept tears of joy.
Ann Laemmlen with Doraty Bassey in Eket, Nigeria
In Nigeria, we worked hard to teach and train village health workers in dozens of villages throughout the region. We taught principles of basic home health care, nutrition, sanitation, water purification, and self reliance.
We were young and had dreams of saving the world. Instead, we learned that our efforts were a drop in the bucket, at least that’s what it felt like then.
Eket Branch 1983
I was the Relief Society President in a tiny branch that met in this home in a village called Eket. Samuel Dickson Paul (seated) was the Branch President. His wife, Cecilia, was my mentor and dear friend. I lived in the compound next to this wonderful family for almost 3 years.
During the years I lived in Nigeria, my team and I worked in dozens of very rural villages in the area. Several missionary couples came to teach our friends and loved ones there. The first branches in Nigeria were growing.
Here is one baptism we helped with. More than 60 villagers were baptized on this day, in 3 different sites in this river, which felt like the Waters of Mormon.
We were the very small beginning of the church in West Africa. We had no idea what the future would hold. We were just little tools, doing what we could, drops in the bucket.
Here I am with my companion, Mary Ellen Edmunds, at the dedication of the first LDS chapel built by the church in the city of Aba. (In the villages we met wherever we could, in mud brick homes or village meeting places without windows or doors.)
Aba Chapel Dedication
Today there is a temple in Aba. Last October a 2nd temple in Lagos, Nigeria was announced by Pres Nelson!
Aba Temple Dedication
Not long ago, in a Gospel Doctrine class, we talked about the beginnings of the church in many lands and the miracles surrounding the saints and pioneers who were firsts. One of the pioneers mentioned was Anthony Obinna, who I met in Nigeria. As I sat listening in class, it occurred to me that I was there! I was a very small part of the miracles happening in Africa. At the time, I had no idea what the Church in Nigeria would look like, now 38 years later.
My friends in Eket tell me there are now 5 Stakes in the region where we worked in a handful of branches. It is almost unbelievable to me!
Today in Nigeria:
more than 600 congregations
Membership approaching 200,000
2nd Temple in Lagos announced last October (2018)
We each have small offerings, or tools to help build the kingdom, in the places we serve. We may never know the end of the story, or what the final outcome will be, we just help in whatever way we can, wherever we are called to serve.
We are promised:
“If ye have desires to serve God, ye are called to the work.”
Where you heart is, opportunities follow.
Sometimes that service feels like a little drop in the bucket, but if we all do our part, where we are called, “out of small things proceedeth that which is great.” That’s what’s happening in Africa right now.
I will close by reading a journal entry made several years ago about one of the lessons I learned after another trip back to Africa.
This evening in my Doctrine & Covenants class we talked about Jesus’s words in Section 38, “I have made the earth rich, and behold it is my footstool.” Jesus tells us the riches of the earth and the riches of eternity “are mine to give.” In the same breath, his words implore us to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.” He could make every family rich, if he chose. Why has he chosen not to?
Whenever I read words like these, or like King Benjamin’s, I immediately see the faces of children who live in remote villages far from here, who pull contaminated water from drying wells and who’s meager diet consists of millet for every meal eaten from a communal pot. They sleep on wooden planks or on mats on the ground under nets to keep mosquitoes with deadly bites from infecting them. They work hard and long under scorching sun. Their feet are calloused, cracked and dry, their clothing, worn and tattered.
I wonder about my relationship to them, these children of the sun, and their families. I think about them at night as I slip into clean sheets under beautiful quilts and look out my bedroom window at green pine boughs covered with snow. My skin is soft, my belly is filled, my head swims with new ideas and exciting projects every night. My children are safe and healthy and comfortable. We have abundant lives. There is no need unfilled.
Why, why, why such abundance? Why do I live here and now? Why do we have so much more than we need?
I believe these children of the sun are here, on this earth, more for my sake than I am here for their sake. I need them more than they need me. They are here to help me learn to share.
Too often we look away, we fail to notice them, we ignore their need. They, and others like them, are so far from us. We pretend they don’t know what they are missing. They may not know, but I do. And so I must help.
I thought of this poem tonight, my constant prayer:
God–let me be aware.
Let me not stumble blindly down the ways,
Just getting somehow safely through the days,
Not even groping for another hand,
Not even wondering why it all was planned,
Eyes to the ground unseeking for the light,
Soul never aching for a wild-winged flight,
Please, keep me eager just to do my share.
God–let me be aware.
God–let me be aware.
Stab my soul fiercely with others’ pain,
Let me walk seeing horror and stain,
Let my hands, groping, find other hands.
Give me the heart that divines, understands.
Give me the courage, wounded, to fight.
Flood me with knowledge, drench me in light.
Please–keep me eager to do my share.
God–let me be aware.
–Miriam Teichner b. 1888
Last month many of us finished reading the Book of Mormon. In Mormon 8:39, Mormon, who saw our day, asks,
“Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not?”
I pray for 3 things:
That we will all have desires to serve.
That we will all be prepared to be a Drop in a Bucket wherever we are needed.
That we will all be aware and notice those around us and Help.