This has been one interesting year! There has been nothing like it on record, in the history of the world. In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters that have swept our globe and our hearts with emotions ranging from inconvenience to fear, we have found ways to carry on and to do the things we love. I have loved working on my family history and writing projects this year, while serving as a full-time missionary with John. It’s amazing to see how little bits and pieces add up. It’s turned out to be quite a productive year, in so many ways!
Here is a short accounting of some of the things I’ve completed this year, spent entirely in Africa, while serving in Bamako and Abidjan.
Blog posts written:
Mission Blog: 526 posts written, visited 31,575 times (643 posts total)
Ann’s Words Blog: 20 posts written, visited 31,700 times (908 posts total)
Ann’s Stories Blog: 26 posts, written, visited 7,630 times (762 posts total)
Facebook pages maintained or regularly contributed to:
My personal Ann Laemmlen Lewis feed
Laemmlens Gather Here
Decendants of Charlotte and Jacob Bushman
Martin and Elizabeth Degen Bushman
Theodore Turley Family Organization
Memoirs and personal history stories written:
Legacy data base:
63,788 individuals, 21,343 families
15,025 sources, memories and people added
It’s my feeling that every word recorded, every person found and documented and every photo preserved adds a bit to the good in this world. That’s my goal, to find, to record and make safe, and to preserve for future generations the good that I see and am experiencing, no matter where I am. It’s been a good year, in spite of what’s happening out there. I am happy and looking forward to 2021.
I started reading Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg last February right before the trip that took us from Bamako to Accra, then Abidjan. I was only one chapter in, when I decided to leave it on my book pile in Bamako, thinking I’d return to it in 3 weeks after our return. That 3-week trip turned into a 9 month trip because of the COVID restrictions on travel that were imposed in this part of the world.
We finally returned to Bamako on 3 December and after the first very busy week introducing our Mission President to our world here, I picked the book back up and started again. I enjoy reading books like this about writing memoir and personal history. I brought several with me, thinking this would be a good project to do in my down time here in Africa. This particular book grabbed me as soon as I started reading and I determined to complete each writing assignment Natalie Goldberg gave, on almost every page.
During the next week, I spent every spare moment I had writing, writing my fingers to the bone. I felt like a window of time and opportunity opened to me here. As John did the heavy work cleaning and organizing our Bamako apartment after being away so long, I sat at my computer and let my fingers fly, answering prompt after prompt. I wrote about things I’ve never written about, many were hard delicate topics, many left me mourning and sad. Natalie Goldberg asks that you dig deeply into your memories and face some of the wolves in the room.
There were also plenty of happy memories of my childhood and growing up years on the farm. Many of her topics are just random to see where they lead you, like “write for 3 minutes about cabbage.” The topics were not chronological or organized by subject, rather her chapters taught writing techniques and then prompts were given to practice those techniques. I enjoyed what and how she taught, but more importantly, her words motivated me to write.
After 8 days, I finished the book. My hands ached with fatigue. But my heart was lightened, knowing that more parts of who I am are now preserved. I typed 88 pages of memories and stories on all sorts of topics. Then I listed several more pages of things I will write about next.
If you are inclined to write a personal history, or capture some of your stories, I strongly recommend Natalie Goldberg’s book. It’s not intended to be devoured and digested in a week, rather maybe a year or two. I just got carried away and had some hours to write and so I dove in and did it.
Another favorite I’d highly recommend is To Our Children’s Children by Bob Greene and D. G. Tulford. I’ve purchased more than 100 copies of this book (used on Amazon) for my family history students and friends who are serious about writing and preserving memories. It is also excellent. The entire book is filled with interesting and unusual (not the ordinary) prompts that are thoughtful and fun to write about. I promise this little book is worth it’s weight in gold.
Here is one more book I just finished that I’d recommend by Dawn and Morris Thurston– Breathe Life Into Your Life Story. This husband and wife team teach sound principles of writing memories and recording stories. They are helpful teachers who give a good overview of the entire process of writing and publishing your life story. Their book also has helpful prompts and exercises to help you practice your writing craft.
If you are wondering if you have stories in you worth telling, the answer is YES. There will be individuals, many in your own family and among your own descendants, who will want to know who you are and how you lived. They will want to know what moved you and what things you stood for, especially in a world that is filled with so much change and turmoil. If you do not tell your stories, your life will fade into oblivion after you go.
Historian, Ron Barney said, “If you do not write your story, your name will be obliterated from the human record and you will not speak from the grave. You will not have any influence on those who come after you. Those who write about the things they have done and learned in life have a huge impact on posterity. Write your story. You have overcome things your children need to know about.”
Please pick up a pen and let the new year be a time to start recording. Don’t wait until you’re old and forgetful. Don’t wait until the window of opportunity comes. If you start, the window will open. You have a life to save!
I’ve spent a few hours yesterday and today reading through news reports following the 2020 Presidential Election. We are now day 10 and 11 post election. Joe Biden is the President Elect. Donald Trump has lost. I find it fascinating to see what words writers and reporters are using to describe what’s happening in our world today. These words are just clips, as I found them, in no particular order taken from two days’ worth of various news reports. I have not cited the sources. Little words tell big stories. Most describe Donald Trump and who he is. Some refer to how he’s handled the COVID crisis. All are reflective of what people think of the situation we find ourselves in right now. Draw what conclusions you will. (I did not intentionally skip over positive comments–there simply were none to be found.) Here’s what I found:
One reason why Trump’s advisors are so worried he might not be able to win is because he lost.
Despite clinging to the job desperately, he’s not actually doing any of it.
Still asking supporters for donations. Never misses a hustle.
scamming people out of their money by saying that is country wrongly kicked him out of power
continuing to fire off baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud
keeps fighting as a performance
the elephant in the room–his election loss
claims weren’t credible
disdain for the workings of government
Mr. President, pack your bags, and be gone.
cries voter fraud
lawsuits inadmissible or unreliable
incorrect and not credible
cheap talk on Twitter
claimed alleged fraud
refused to concede
fanning the spectre of voter fraud
laying the foundation for questioning the legitimacy
blasting out inflammatory accusations of fraud
questions of US elections will linger
refused to acknowledge while launching legal challenges based on unsubstantiated claims of fraud
so many lawsuits have been filed in so many state and federal courts that no one has an exact number
they are throwing the kitchen sink against the wall to see what sticks
continued to spread lies
beset with infighting
a slew of baseless lawsuits
corrosive to democracy
deplorable approach to life and politics
stop the circus and get to work (House Speaker)
The election’s over. Stop delaying reality
long shot litigation
refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power
absolutely disgraceful, un-American
coddling and kowtowing despite his defeat
let the grim era of demonization in American begin to end here and now
relationships have been jeopardized
conservatives have been crowing
TX Lt. Gov. has offered $1mil for anyone who produces evidence of voter fraud
the long knives are out, and he’s a big score settler
making them serve a hitherto hidden agenda
“Pentagon Purge” to help him carry out irresponsible withdrawals
widespread concerns in national security community
something repugnant is brewing
to support his personal agenda
How is this going to end?
amplifying misleading messages
activity sits on hold
refusal to accept results
transition offices sit vacant
planning conversations are silent
awkwardly twiddling threats
playing into fantasies
so as not to leave a paper trail (no one’s talking about it)
officials growing anxious
I am worried they are going to open the hood, and it’s going to be a lot worse than they expected.
contacts have gone silent
anyone looking for another job would be fired
the silence is still deafening
a flurry of lawsuits
spreading false claims
refused to accept the outcome
transition still hypothetical
undermining urgent need
downplaying the significance
strategy lies in tatters
it’s not enough
claims fall apart in court
sinister, fraudulent motives
the crisis is accelerating
purely outlandish stuff
legal team grinds to a halt
chaos and meddling
mysterical claims of fraud
rang mostly hollow
Trump with his grotesque character on full display: the greed, the bullying, the mysogyny and flagrant sexual infidelity, the malignant narcissism.
“the most flawed man I’ve have ever met in my life” (Trump’s own Chief of Staff)
inability to even pretend empathy
bullying the press
casual subversion of justice system
moral cowardice toward dictators
4 chaotic years
inconsistent, dishonest, reckless policymaking
world-historical calamity that alters the course of civilization
habitual dismissal of logic and standards of proof
constructed his own narrative
eager participant whenever he sees some advantage for himself
flair for spectacle
tenuous relationship with and sometimes outright disdain for truth
casts doubt on legitimacy
extremely dangerous, extremely poisonous to our democracy
stay out of the fray (Republican aids)
election stolen from him
potential to become violent
obtuse and perverse
refusal to acknowledge empirical facts that conflict with how he sees the world
belief based on nothing
fed his cynical promotion of blitherism–belief based on nothing
pressured newsmen to change forecasts to agree with his misstatements
ludicrous assertions and irrelevant
damage done to American democracy
stirred up political currents
impulse toward authoritarianism
cheapened with tacky stunts
took advantage of and inflamed them into an absurd culture war
reversed conventional wisdom
ignored party leaders
defeat may trigger civil war
grievances and paranoias refusing to congratulate
allegations and irregularities
declined to concede
calls Biden’s victory “an immaculate deception”
peddles baseless claims of fraud
this will not help his legacy
refuse to recognize
created a false image
fraud allegations based on extra-ordinary failure to understand how elections function
claims of cheating
lack of understanding
debunked conspiracy theories
promoting a bizarre lie
all claims refuted
implications plainly false
votes concocted out of thin air
baseless claims refuted
allegations of coaching voters
Trump fumbled COVID, sabotaged his own election
baseless voter fraud claims
rejected, DRT has had a haphazard inattentive handling of the crisis (COVID)
tirades on Twitter
obstruction of justice
bickering wings of the party
high political tension
fuel conspiracy theories
dawdling and denial of access
clogging things up
arbitrary and illegal actions
no evidence the votes were compromised
gaining little traction
public relations nightmare
judges: no evidence of fraud
stealing the election
keeping up a charade
spiraling out of control
usually first the evidence, then the lawsuit
disillusion of reason
riding the crazy train
on an island of misfit toys
rabbit holes of unreality
baseless conspiracy theories
a fractured nation
undermining of democracy
seeded a lie before the event
corrosive to democracy
a slew of baseless lawsuits
stop the steal rallies
messy and nasty
preservation of power above all else
DRT’s disastrous response (to COVID)
tried to spin coronavirus out of existence
Trump presidency marked by errors in judgement
strange overtures to foreign dictators
appointments that deviated wildly
tried to minimize the impact of COVID
no shows of empathy or compassion
political aids have unflagging loyalty to DRT
steered into treacherous waters
failed attempts to convince
He tweeted, shouted, heckled, interrupted, mocked, lamented and filibustered his way through crisis after crisis.
Top scientists, policy makers and experts driven out by Trump’s political appointees intent on ferreting out adherents of a fictitious “deep state.”
The kind of attention he has always sought required conflict as its oxygen.
statements not occasioned by reality
inflated incremental victories into victories
a show of energy and force
disregard for facts
accusations grossly untrue
mistakes of judgement
Fake News Media
drowning out wiser counsel
no patience or attention to detail
personal and petty
worst fears played out
it became a kind of withering exit music to DRT’s brief attempt to act like an ordinary president
hectoring Democrats while praising Republicans
badly mishandling virus
sullen, graceless exit
threatened the rule of law
threatened to arrest rivals
cheapened the presidency
looted the Treasury
norms bent to accommodate his whims
seemingly unending Trump show
incorrect and not credible
bogus claims and invalid arguments
accusing people of fraud
legal strategy looks amateurish and disjointed
Judge called claims of widespread voter fraud “fiction”
inadmissible hearsay within hearsay
keeping multiple balls in the air that we know are not going to land in a good place
I grew up next door to my Grandma Elsa Laemmlen. When I was a girl, I wandered through the orchard to visit her, often daily. I knew her and she knew me. We didn’t need to say much, we just loved being together, doing things together. Sometimes we stitched. Sometimes we baked. Sometimes we plucked caterpillars from the tomato vines. Her button box was filled with treasures collected from decades of mending and repurposing clothing for her family. I always wondered where my favorite magenta buttons came from. I should have asked her.
There is not much that remains of my Grandma’s life now. My children did not know her. They will not understand these treasures, now so dear to me. I wonder if you, seeing these remains, can feel her goodness.
She is not here to tell her story. She seldom spoke of her own experiences no matter how many times I asked her to “Tell me a story.” She was a strong woman who did hard things. She new how to tend beehives, pluck feathers for down pillows, make sausages from a butchered hog, bake Kuchen and raisin pies. She was a Mennonite quilter with nimble fingers that were never still. She taught me to knit and crochet and sew doll clothes on her old black Singer sewing machine. She taught me to tie grape vines and work in the fields. She taught me how to pack Kelsey plums, green and pointed, into paper cups, counting each row carefully. She made her own prunes in a lye bath. She made jams and jellies from fruit she grew on the farm, including quince and damson plums. I spent hours and hours picking up walnuts with her in the fall and shelling those walnuts with her during the cold winter hours. We stemmed cookie sheets full of sun-dried raisins together, Thompson and Muscat, as we sat in the recliners with the space heater humming at our feet. We took naps together in the front sun room on the “devan” covered with an old Indian blanket. And often we just sat together (she always in the rocking chair by the window) and watched out the window.
These photos are a few of the pieces, the artifacts, the treasures that remain from my Grandma’s life. I miss her. The life she shared with me was filled with love and joy and beauty and goodness. I hope you feel it too.
How can we be so superior to “our barbarous ancestors”?
The truth will never be complete in any mind or time.
It will never be reduced to an explanation.
What you have is only a sack of fragments never to be filled:
old bones, fossils, facts, scraps of writing, sprawls of junk.
You know yourself only poorly and in part, the best and the worst maybe forgotten.
However you arrange the pieces, however authentic,
a story is what you’ll have, an artifact, for better or worse.
So go ahead. Gather your findings into a plausible arrangement. Make a story.
Show how love and joy, beauty and goodness shine out amongst the rubble.
–Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems 2006
We have had an incredible couple of weeks in the Abidjan West Mission. Every 6 weeks in every mission around the world, each missionary is interviewed by the Mission President. Since we are filling in for the other Pres Lewis here right now, we are the lucking ones doing these interviews. And because this is out of the ordinary and because we don’t know the missionaries in the West Mission very well yet, we decided to do the interviews together and get to know each of the missionaries better.
We have been spending 30-40 minutes with each missionary, listening to their stories–who they are, where they came from, why they are here, and how they met the Church and began to follow the path they are on.
Right now, after all of the COVID evacuations, there are only 85 missionaries in the West Mission. By the time we finish in a couple more days, I will have collected 85 incredible stories of faith and inspiration. These young men and women are absolutely amazing. Their stories are a part of history, the history of the Church in Africa. They are living and experiencing history in the making. I am thrilled to be here watching from the sidelines.
Here are just a few of their beautiful faces. Can you see the light?
I don’t often keep the duplicate photos I take. A wise photographer told me years ago, “Never take just one photo, always take at least two. One will always be better than the other.” It’s the best photography advice I’ve ever heard and I always take at least two and I delete all but one. One is always better. Except for today. I took the photo above, and then snapped a few more of these sisters who get excited every time we stop to buy fruit from them. Their mother is in the back on the right. They set up their stand on a busy road and do a good business.
The girls are always a little shy when I ask to take their photo, but then they love to see the photos I take of them. I think they are stunningly beautiful young women. It would be a sin to delete a single one of these photos.
Last March, remember how the travel lady here booked our tickets to Mali, but she did it in the names of Pres and Sis Lewis of the Abidjan West Mission (we’re the East Mission) instead of for us? And we missed getting back to Mali by hours because the next day the lockdowns happened? And then we ended up being here to help with all of the mass evacuation of all the missionaries in March and April and May? Remember how good it was for us to be here to help the Binenes finish up their mission and then to welcome and help the Bendixsens settle in? Remember all those reasons we needed to be here?
Another reason has been added to why we are not in Bamako right now.
We’ve been asked by the Area Presidency to be interim Mission Leaders for the Abidjan West Mission. Pres Lewis has some health issues that need to be addressed at home in case surgery is needed. They’ll be returning home for a time on Oct 13th to have things checked out. Sis Lewis will also be able to have her knees scoped and their daughter has rescheduled her marriage so her parents can attend.
The hope is that they will be able to return after 6-8 weeks where John will be an interim President until Pres Lewis returns. This assignment has come from the Area Presidency in Accra and has been approved by Elder Suarez and Elder Vinson and by Elder Nash in the Missionary Department in Salt Lake City.
So while they are gone, our assignment will switch over to the West Mission. Our offices are side by side and the mission homes are side by side too, about 5 min from here. We’ll get to stay in our little apartment in the same area. I think they picked us so our nametags would match!
This evening we joined Pres and Sis Lewis in their home as they informed the missionaries of this change in an online mission-wide devotional. It’s a hard thing to step away from missionaries you love. We will do our best to keep the work rolling forward while they are away.
To follow along on my Mission Blog where I am posting regularly, you can go here:
I have been reading a wonderful book called Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints 1830-1900 by Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr. It is filled with journal entries and first person accounts of women who lived fascinating and difficult lives. This week I read Martha Cragun Cox’s words. She is a woman after my own heart.
Here are a few parts (with my own highlights) of a long and beautifully detailed overview of Martha’s life and memories which was written by Lavina Fielding Anderson. You can find this complete review here:
Martha Cragun Cox A “Salt of the Earth” Lady
Lavina Fielding Anderson
Martha James Cragun Cox was born into a Salt Lake family on 3 March 1852, married into a polygamous St. George family on 3 December 1869, had eight children, buried three, and died 30 November 1932. To support her family she taught school all over the southern end of the Mormon corridor in the small towns of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. She went to Mexico in time to be expelled by the Revolution. She loved history, and her narrative gift found expression in Church periodicals. She spent her last years in temple work in St. George, Manti, and Salt Lake City.
Why is she important? Because she left a handwritten autobiographical record just over three hundred pages long, written in 1928. It is because of this autobiography that she is more than a name on the family group records of her hundreds of Latter-day Saint descendants. She claims neither unusual beauty, power, intellect, wealth, nor influence, though she seems to have been above average in her hunger for knowledge, her energy, and her loyalty. But her autobiography, by its very existence, transcends the limitations of her time and place to show her struggling towards a sense of self, struggling to make sense of the world, and struggling to make sense of her life. In her autobiography, she performs the labor which is the distinctive work of that genre; and by so doing, she has stocked the toolshelf and provided cheerful companionship for scholars of first-generation Utah, of second-generation Mormonism, and of future generations. It is a record, quite simply, of a strong, uncomplicated woman, a lady who was the salt of the earth. Like salt, she both seasoned and preserved what she touched. And like salt, her influence was subtle, not compelling or dominating.
Her autobiography sets one goal for itself in the first two sentences: “There are few lives so uneventful that a true record of them would not be of some worth, in which there are no happenings that can serve as guide or warning to those that follow. It is to be hoped that in the pages that follow there will be some things found that may be taken as good lessons to those who read.”  Because she has perceived shape and direction in her own life, she is a reliable guide. . . .
One senses in her pages both the pleasure in recollection that is one of the joys of reminiscence and also an urgency to record, to make an island of permanence in an ocean of evanescence. Thus it is also a vivid and little-mined scrapbook of small-town life along the Mormon southern corridor—dances, courting, Indian relations, diet, and doctrinal understanding are all there. . . .
I feel the same urgency to record my own simple but true record that might someday be of worth or a guide to someone after I am long gone from here. Every day I fill pages in my journal. I doubt my family now will ever read what I write, but someday, in some distant future, I think my words will be of value to someone, including the children and grandchildren of my own kids. They will wonder what it was like for me here and now, in this day and age, when all of our world seems to be falling apart around us.
There may be some who will wonder why and how I believe what I believe and how I feel permanence in the tempest around me. My words will stand as a testament that I find peace in Christ and in His teachings. I am grateful every day for Him and for His gifts to me as I continue writing my fingers to the bone.
I have recently been introduced to the poetry of Helen Mar Cook. Her son, David Cook, was our son, Aaron’s Mission President in Santiago, Chile. Pres Cook has been sharing her poetry with me and with others and I have loved each piece. Especially this one.
I share her heartfelt desire to leave myself behind–with words but also with a few quilts!
My friend troubles over the mixing bowl,
measuring salt, sugar, flour and yeast,
mixing, blending, then kneading the dough
to place under a damp cloth for rising.
She pummels, rolls and shapes
the perfect loaf, places it in the oven
to come out fragrant with taste and lightness.
I am a troubler over words. I measure
metaphor, mix, blend, knead and pummel
to shape a poem that I hope my dear ones
will taste and savour.
She stores her trunk with embroideries
while I go on threading the rainbow
with silk strands, stitching, unstitching.
sometimes dropping a stitch
to bring subtlety, meaning
into a line.
Her children will treasure her recipes,
and her patchworks will be handed down
through generations after she has gone.
My patchworks, my recipes will turn
into a shuffle of papers, phrases
that I measure into hoped-for meanings.
when nights grow cold. I wonder
will my crazy patchworks keep them warm.
Helen Mar Cook was the last surviving grandchild of Elder Orson F. Whitney, sometimes described as the Poet Laureate of Mormonism. She inherited her grandfather’s gift for the written word and became an accomplished and frequently published poet, receiving numerous awards in prose and poetry. She published four volumes of poetry. Her first book, Shape of Flight, was published in 1975 by the Utah State Poetry Society when she was named Poet of the Year. She was a well-known teacher and lecturer in poetry workshops and readings throughout the state of Utah. She was a member of the Utah State Poetry Society having served as President and in various official capacities. She served as president of The League of Utah Writers and the Utah Association of the National Pen Women and served on the National Letters Board. She also served as President of the Ben Lomond Poets, Blue Quill Writers, and on the Literary Arts Panel of the Utah Arts Council. She was also a member of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.
Here’s an article I wrote that was published in the March 1989 Ensign.
Ekaette’s World and Practical Christianity
How a Nigerian sister taught me about true service and practical Christianity.
by Ann Laemmlen
I would like to introduce you to a friend of mine named Ekaette, my neighbor for two and a half years. She lives in a tropical rain forest in Nigeria, the most densely populated country in Africa. During the rainy season, Ekaette’s home is surrounded by lush green undergrowth. Palm trees decorate the horizons, and the sun shining through the clouds creates gorgeous sunsets. During the hot, dry season, winds from the Sahara desert bring a haze of fine dust that filters the harsh rays of the sun.
Ekaette is two years older than I. She was a young schoolgirl when her marriage to Akpan, ten years her senior, was arranged. Their first child was born when Ekaette was only fourteen or fifteen years old. Ekaette has had eight children. Five have survived. Her family joined the Church a few years ago.
Akpan is unemployed, but he works at miscellaneous jobs and repairs things for other people. He is a proud and industrious man, a good husband and father.
Ekaette has a nice home made of reddish clay packed between bamboo poles. A thatch roof protects her family from the heavy tropical storms. Inside, the home has a hardpacked earth floor and is divided into four rooms. A covered cooking area is separate from the house.
As with many other places in the world, there is no electricity in Ekaette’s area of the country. Ekaette cooks over a fire, washes clothes in the stream, and irons them with an iron filled with hot coals.
Ekaette’s day begins very early. She and her children must carry all the water they will need for the day from a stream not far from their home. Several times a week they must make a trip into the forest to cut the firewood they need. They carry the wood home in bundles on their heads.
Most of the food for Ekaette’s family comes from several small farm plots outside their village. Ekaette grows cassava, yams, bananas, plantain, pineapple, hot red peppers, and several kinds of greens used in different soups. Ekaette and her family are happy. They have a good life.
I met Ekaette while I was directing a village health program for the Thrasher Research Fund, which sponsors research projects on child health in third-world countries. My colleagues and I organized health classes and trained volunteer teachers in dozens of villages to teach basic health principles like nutrition, sanitation, personal hygiene, and home health care. The teachers then taught similar classes in their own language in homes, schools, churches, and village council halls.
I remember one hot, sultry evening sitting under a generator-operated ceiling fan looking through some of the latest editions of a newspaper which I had just received. I paused at a page filled with suggestions of practical things to do in our homes to save money. Ideas included turning off lights and water when they are not being used, buying food in bulk and then freezing it in small containers, using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones, sending letters to cut down on long-distance telephone bills, and not shopping for food when you are hungry. These suggestions are certainly practical, but they belonged in a world other than the one I was in at the time.
But in spite of the differences between my world and Ekaette’s, there was something that united us: the gospel of Jesus Christ—Christianity.
Christianity is absolute. It should not be affected by our environment or circumstances, even though they determine how we practice our beliefs. Christianity should not be affected by skin color or race, by how we earn a living, or by what we buy at the market. It should not be determined by climate or geographical location.
I returned from Africa with a simpler definition of Christianity than I once had. To me, Christianity is love, or charity—the highest, noblest, strongest kind of love—the pure love of Christ. It may prompt alms or benevolent deeds, but it is not the same thing as charitable works.
In other words, Christianity is not so much what I do, but how I love; it’s the process of learning to love as Christ loves. Churches are institutions where we can learn about Christ and practice being Christians. But attending church will not make me a Christian any more than sitting in a library will make me a scholar. It simply gives me the means and opportunity of learning to become a Christian. Christianity teaches me about my relationship to God and to those around me. Understanding that relationship helps my heart change, increasing my capacity to love.
Principles such as love, sacrifice, faith, repentance, self-reliance, and consecration are universal. Working in Africa taught me how much more important principles like these are than programs. The Western world provides many programs for third-world countries. Schools are built, clinics are established, medicine is dispensed, tractors are imported, and food is distributed. The programs help meet immediate needs, but often, the principles behind the practices are overlooked. I don’t think I could do much good for Ekaette if I concentrated on programs like food storage or family history, worthy though they are. But Ekaette and I share a broad basis of belief in such eternal principles as faith, love, and self-reliance. In practicing these principles, we learned from each other.
I realized the importance of teaching principles after I attended a Relief Society lesson at the local branch. The lesson, taken from the manual, was on keeping our homes neat and clean. An illustration in the lesson manual showed an American home that was neatly arranged and obviously well kept. Our instructor was so unfamiliar with Western-style homes that she held the picture upside down when she showed it to the class.
Later that week, I went to Ekaette’s house and found her covered from head to toe with mud. She was beaming. Inspired by the lesson, Ekaette was cleaning her home. She had taken every single item out of the house (there wasn’t much), and she was smearing new clay mud on the walls and floor. She excitedly showed me how she had decorated the front of the house by using a darker mud along the bottom for a nice trim. It looked beautiful. Ekaette had learned the principle, then implemented it in a way that was practical for her.
Her example prompted me to think about my own efforts to apply the principles of Christianity. It occurred to me that perhaps the first and most important principle to practice is self-examination. For example, many times I think, “That’s a good idea, but I don’t have the means to do anything about it.” Money and material things become issues that prevent Christian service. But what things does it take to be a Christian—a rug to kneel on, or a warm loaf of bread to share with a neighbor? Must I be financially established before I can share my means? Must I go to Africa to find children who need help? I believe the Lord is pleased when we serve with whatever resources we have available to us.
A second principle I learned is that it is important that I serve wherever I am. My experiences in Africa was very special to me, but I do not feel that it is better to love someone far away than those near at hand. The Savior showed by example whom I should love. He didn’t leave his own country and travel far away to another place and people. He went among his own people, and he associated with a variety of people—the wealthy and the poor; the politicians; the sick, the lame, and the blind; tax collectors; the hungry, the tired, and the lonely; and even those considered unworthy.
When I was in Africa, it was clear to me that Africa was the best place for me to practice being a Christian. Now that I am home, the most practical place for me to be a Christian is here, among my own people. This is challenging for me. It often seems easier to send some money to a “save-the-world” organization than make room in my busy schedule to take time with a brother, sister, neighbor, or friend.
A third lesson I have learned is that I should prepare myself to serve in a wide variety of settings. I had many experiences that helped me understand Ekaette and her family better. But because I could not understand all she had experienced, it was hard for me to know how to help in the best and most practical ways. I don’t know how it feels to have three of my own children die in my arms because no medical help is available. I don’t know how it feels to wonder where my next meal is coming from. I don’t know how it feels to mold the walls of my home into shape with my own hands. I don’t know what has brought Ekaette her greatest joys. As hard as I try, I am not able to relate to many of her problems and challenges.
And yet, I’ve learned that the more variety I can experience, the more people I will understand. Choosing to associate only with a select group of individuals who think and act the same way I do will seriously limit my opportunities for Christian service. I can choose to increase the variety of my experience and my capacity to love. The more people I understand, the more like Christ I can become.
As I have tried to practice being a Christian, I’ve discovered that many of my motives are often reflected in the actions of the people around me. As my colleagues in Africa and I associated with hundreds of people from dozens of villages, we observed many reasons for their participation in our program. Some came because they believed that white health workers would provide free services, medicine, or employment. Others were curious about the novelty of white faces in their villages. Some came because they were concerned with their family’s health; they were frightened of illness and feared that a child might die. Others wanted to learn more about health for their families’ sake. Some came because their neighbors came. Still others came because there was love in their hearts and a desire to know how to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
It was fascinating to see the different responses to our project. The people who came hoping to get something free dropped out very quickly. The curious got used to our white faces and also left. Those who needed to solve family health problems usually did well; they not only received some answers to meet their current needs, but they also stored up information against future needs. Those who were motivated by love not only stayed, but went a step further in offering what they had learned to those around them.
Ekaette was one of these people. She told me once, “If you had given me money—no matter how much or how little—it would all be gone now. But you have given me knowledge, and no one can ever take it away from me!” In the last year or so, Ekaette, on her own with very little help from us, trained teachers to instruct several groups of women in different villages.
In Ekaette’s life, I have seen Christianity—or love—at work. Guided by gospel principles, she has found practical solutions to her daily challenges. And so can we. I am convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the answers to all of the world’s problems.
I have spent nearly half of the last decade living outside of my homeland. During this time, I have seen and experienced much contrast, and I have looked into the eyes of many who have great challenges in their lives. I believe what President Spencer W. Kimball said to be true—that in the gospel of love taught and exemplified by the Savior, we can find the answers to all our problems. With that kind of love in my heart, I can be a practical Christian, whether here or in Ekaette’s world.