Without a doubt the most difficult part of our mission thus far has been the pain of the
poverty around us. There are so many wonderful people here who are trying their very best to feed their families, get an education and improve their standing. The problem is that all of these things cost money and there just isn’t enough economic strength here to create the opportunities for men and women to do all they want and, quite honestly, all they need to do. We have members who teach school part of most days in a month and make less than $20. These are generally men who are either going to school, awaiting verification of their credentials by the government or know the principle of a school and he is giving them some work when he can. Almost without exception, as we have mentioned before, a person has to work for free for 3-12 months after securing a job to “prove” themselves. If they do well, then they will be brought on with a salary. If not, then they will be dismissed and someone else will get an opportunity. The Perpetual Education Fund (PEF) is active here, but it is minimal. In Kenema, there are only 2-3 “degrees” that are considered acceptable by the PEF administrator. They are: Lab technician and Driver, or at least this is what we have been told. These are two year programs (or less). The reason they are accepted is because the possibility of getting a job after finishing the program is very high. I think initially PEF was much more encompassing, but the money would be loaned but upon graduation the recipient could not get a paying job and so the money was not repaid. In some cases, people received the funding and then did not follow through with the schooling. In the end, it has significantly curtailed the use of the program here. It is both understandable and sad.
As white-faced Americans we are perceived as having money that can be given to those in need. It is understandable from the people on the street and those who beg to survive, but we are finding that it has also reached into the church. For example, last week we were asked by individual members for money totaling nearly $400. The needs here are so great that we understand completely why people ask, but they do so without fully appreciating the consequences of the request. Imagine for a moment that someone with a legitimate need comes to us and asks for $20. Let’s say that we agree and pull money from our mission fund to do so. Even though they would be asked not to say anything, the likelihood is that word would get out and then the number of people asking would increase. This cycle would repeat it itself endlessly. We would then have to leave the mission because we could no longer afford to stay, not to mention the confusion it would cause in the District. Therefore, our policy has to be that we are not authorized to help. On those occasions when we have felt inspired by the Spirit to do something, it has generally been when no request has been made and when we can offer some sort of work where the money can be earned. As might also be imagined, we are constantly asked for work, but there is also a limit to what we can offer.
There is a cultural underbelly here among some who feel that fast offering assistance is a “right” rather than a privilege. As we have ministered among the less-active, it is not uncommon to find those who have been offended by a branch president who told them “no” due to repeated financial needs with no long-term plan to become self-reliant. I know we have the same issues in the U.S., but it is miniscule compared to what we see here. I don’t want to mischaracterize the saints here. The vast majority are doing their very best and never expect anything from the church. They are givers and their sole desire is to be disciples of Jesus Christ. These are the core members who are building the kingdom of the God, and they are the majority.
We mention this today because this week we have learned something in regards to the problem. It has to do with feeling discouraged because we are concerned that we have been singled out and targeted as a new money source here in Kenema. Repeatedly telling people “no” has been difficult. In at least one case it took an emotional toll because we know how desperate one particular young man had become due to some bad decisions he had made. We have learned that an important aspect of our callings here is to work through this particular issue. We do not need to feel challenged or discouraged or singled out. This issue exists because it is a natural result of the hardships that people face. While we do not have money to offer people, we have experience, knowledge, empathy, understanding, and ideas about how to work through difficult situations. This is the gift we bring to the people here in Kenema and this is what the Lord expects us to do rather than feel sorry for ourselves or for that matter, for others. We are grateful for the still small voice of the Spirit of the Lord which continues to teach us and help us to serve these wonderful people.
On Monday evening we went to Dauda Town where the Elders had arranged for a Family Home Evening. We thought it was just going to be for the young single adults, but as it turned out 38 members of the branch, both old and young came. We had a marvelous discussion about the Book of Mormon and the importance of reading from its pages Every Single Day (ESD). We were all uplifted and edified and strengthened by the spirit and the fellowship we felt. Since we only brought 20 cupcakes, we ended up cutting them all in half!
On Tuesday we went out again with Alfonso Bockerie, one of our guards and the Elders Quorum President of the Kenema Central Branch. We first visited Samuel Sevalie. It
took as a while to find him as he teaches in a school halfway up the hillside. We first went to his home, but he was not there. We were just about to leave when LaDawn had the idea to ask Alfonso if Samuel’s wife was home. As it turns out she was there and was able to call Samuel to find out where he worked. It was not easy to find him and it took a couple more calls to him, but eventually we worked our way up the hill to his school. It is hard to explain the joy I felt when we found him. I felt a kinship to him that I have rarely felt in my life. We invited him to come back to church and especially to attend at least one session of General Conference on Sunday. We couldn’t leave without taking a picture from this rather lofty place. The picture does not do justice to the view behind us.
Also on Tuesday we searched out Fabbah Demby. Kabbah is 23 and serves as a branch missionary but has not been attending as regularly as he once did. We found him at work, but so as to not keep him from his labors agreed to meet him later at his home. Unfortunately, when we went to his home, we missed him by about 20 minutes so when he called back we promised we would come see him at 4:30, which LaDawn and I did. We had a wonderful visit and also invited him to come back and to especially come to conference on Sunday. How we love these visits to these wonderful saints who sometimes lose their footing and just need someone to give them a helping hand back onto the path.
Between the visits to Samuel and Fabbah we went with Elder Zouo and Elder Marrett
(pronounced Ma ‘Rhett). With them we visited Kornyah and John Baion of the IDA branch. Kornyah and John are siblings and live in a home with other siblings, all who are members of the church but have struggled with coming to church each week. Their grandmother lives in Freetown and introduced all of her grandchildren to the gospel. We had a wonderful discussion with both of them about the importance of the iron rod and what it means to continually hold fast to it. Both of them agreed to begin reading the Book of Mormon every single day (ESD). We loved our visit with them! Elder Marrett and Elder Zouo are so good together. Both are kind and
gentle with firm testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ. After visiting with the Baion’s, we went over to a gas station and met with Augustine who is also a member but has not been coming to church much. As we sat with him and talked about the church the crowd just kept getting bigger. At one point as I was explaining the restoration I wondered if this is what it felt like doing a street meeting in England back in the 1800s!
On Wednesday we met with Br. Konneh (1st Counselor) and Robert Anthony (Clerk) of the Dauda Town Branch Presidency. We did a walkthrough of the building and made a list of the things that need attention. We then sat down with Br. Anthony and he put each of the items into the Facilities Issue Report on LDS.org. This is now the 6th chapel where we have completed this review and we still have two left to do. The idea is to train the branch leadership how to report items that need attention. As I have mentioned before, because of the overall condition of the country and infrastructure, it is hard for the saints here to recognize when something needs attention. I love to see the enthusiasm they have for learning this system and gain better awareness of what it is that is simply not acceptable in a chapel dedicated to the worship of Jesus Christ.
I need to mention that the Occupational Training Center (OTC) which is staffed by polio
victims (the missionaries continue to teach many of them) have been helping us with repairs to electrical equipment. Their director Eku Scotland is a retired computer and electronics teacher and is quite the whiz. Last week we took him two of our missionary freezers that had stopped working and on Tuesday we went back over and picked up one of the freezers ($20 to repair it) as well as a floor fan for the Simbeck Branch (also $20 to repair it). This has been a huge blessing to us as we have been able to repair broken fans and freezers that would otherwise have just sat in a room somewhere.
On Wednesday evening about 5 pm I received a call from President Clawson asking if I could help get the truck repaired that John Conti drove to Kailahun to pick up the Elders and bring them to the
zone conference. He apparently hit a rock and cracked the oil pan, causing an oil leak that needed to be repaired. I called Felix Kanneh one of our returned missionaries and he was able to get his boss to repair the truck that night. It took them about 2.5 hours in the dark (the power was completely out) to get it up and going again. I was very grateful for their help. Total cost was about $80. It was probably more than we should have paid, but he stayed late and worked in the dark and I felt it was the right amount to pay him.
Thursday was zone conference and it was wonderful to be with President & Sister Clawson, Elder & Sister Moomey as well as all of the missionaries in the Kenema Zone. I
love the consistency of the messaging. “Teach with the Spirit”, “Use the Book of Mormon”, “Become Preach My Gospel Missionaries”, “Be Obedient”. Repetition is so important in the learning process and absolutely critical to be able to internalize concepts. Zone conference provides wonderful opportunities to make new friends and renew “old” acquaintances. It is like an oasis in the desert! Here is a picture with Elder Cayetano, one of the family history missionaries. We have a natural bond because of the time we spent in the Philippines. Elder Serano, Elder Cornista and now Elder Cayetano. All Filipino missionaries. I love these wonderful elders!
Because of the damage to the truck the night before and because John Conti was needed in Freetown for other driving duties, President Clawson asked if I could drive the 4 Elders back to Kailahun. I initially thought he meant on Friday morning, but instead he was hoping I could do it on Thursday. So at 1 pm I loaded the 4 Elders and headed to Kailahun. The road was certainly no better than last time and probably a bit worse. There was certainly more water. We made it safely in just under 3 hours and within 5 minutes of arriving I was back in the truck and headed back home. There were no shortage of prayers as that road is difficult to navigate because of the mud and the rocks.
I was happy to make it home safely just before 7 pm. What a long day that was! I managed to stop a few times and take some pictures on the way home. The scenery was so beautiful. With fewer people, there is minimal trash and my heart swelled with joy reflecting on the beauty.
On Saturday we had training at the Hangha Road branch with the young men (YM) and young women (YW) president, a counselor in YM and the YW secretary as well as Br. Kanu, a counselor in the branch presidency. I loved their receptiveness and desire to implement these new ideas into their ministry as youth leaders. We talked about shadow leadership, responsibilities of the YM/YW presidencies, agendas for presidency
meetings and ideas for youth activities two times a month. Later that day we met with the Elders Quorum and Relief Society leaders along with the branch president in the Kenema branch and the District President. Similar to what we did last week in Hangha Road Branch. Again the training was well received and we hope will help them get the ministering program up and running. Alfonso Bockerie, who I mentioned earlier, was working for another one of our guards who had taken his wife to Freetown for medical attention so he was not able to attend. But we have been on a number of ministering visits with him and he has already started to form companionships. After we finished at Kenema Branch we drove out to the IDA missionary apartment where we picked up Elder Zouo and Elder Marrett and made our way to an investigator family. As it turns out Pres Cobinah was already there. Joseph has been a long time friend of the Cobinah’s and he now wants to join the church. His wife is not quite there yet, so the missionaries continue to teach them both. Their young son, Leonard, was also with them. We had a
wonderful discussion about how keeping the Sabbath Day holy has blessed our family for many many years. Because the wife is Catholic and having a hard time leaving her catholic faith behind for something new, I shared a very brief story about my conversion. Since the power was out in Kenema the room was completely dark except for the small table lamp by Joseph. I tried to snap a picture, but instead I managed a screen shot, but I think you still get the idea. It was a wonderful visit with them and we so appreciated being invited by the missionaries to share our testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sunday was a great day because it was General Conference. We watched all of the sessions on Sunday with the exception of the 2nd half of Saturday morning. We started at 8:00 am and finished at 10:00 pm. What a glorious day! Right before we left Houston I
had bought a small Viewsonic projector that works with a USB-C connection, which is all I have on my MacBook Pro. It also works with an HDMI port. Thanks to the Clawson’s who were able to get an RCA to HDMI adapter in Freetown and brought it to Zone conference, we were able to use our projector to show conference from the existing satellite connection. The District has a projector but it was being used in the District Center. President Cobinah wanted to show it in the building next to our apartment since there is also a satellite there. It took some effort on Saturday to get all the connections repaired and tested, but it worked flawlessly on Sunday. That little projector ran straight for 10 hours and didn’t even sneeze. Because it is an LED projector, the picture wasn’t very bright, so we took some old curtains, had some “curtain rods” made out of wood and hung them over the first 4 windows. It made a big difference. It was hot, but still a great day! The communication from the area presidency indicated that we would have the Saturday afternoon session at 8:00 am, the woman’s session at 11:00 am and the Sunday morning session at 4:00 pm. As it turned out the woman’s session was at 9 am, the Saturday afternoon session was at 12 noon and the Sunday morning session was at 4 pm. So a bit of confusion but everyone who came certainly enjoyed the women’s session as the building was packed. The other two sessions had fewer attendees.
I started this blog today about the pains of poverty. They are real and they effect every single person who lives here. However, while the people are poor when it comes to the things of the world, there is no poverty when it comes to spiritual wealth. The African people are naturally spiritual and are very sensitive to the things of the spirit. I think if I had to choose between spiritual poverty or material poverty, I would choose material poverty. That’s what Jesus did, and perhaps in a pre-mortal world, the African saints did as well.