What a week it has been! We have been fortunate enough this week to have Sister Jean B. Bingham, the general Relief Society president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with us here in Kenema.
Sister Bingham is very interested in helping to move Gospel Literacy forward in West Africa and in other places around the world where literacy rates hold members back, and especially sisters, from achieving their potential. To her credit, she came to see for herself what it takes to implement Gospel Literacy in a ward or branch in an underdeveloped nation. Sierra Leone was the perfect choice and Kenema, where much of the early work on Gospel Literacy has been piloted, the perfect city. We also want to give credit to Melissa Hawkley who is spearheading much of the infield rollout of the program in West Africa, for selecting Kenema as the place to bring Sister Bingham. It has been an absolutely wonderful week with still more to come!
The literacy effort started on Monday with a meeting with President Jonathan Cobinah (District President), President Paul Aruna, 2nd Counselor in the District Presidency, Melissa Hawkley, Cason Curriden and LaDawn and me. In that meeting we discussed the plans for the week including the roll-out of Gospel Literacy in the Kpayama Branch on Sunday, teacher training on Monday, home visits to learners on Friday and Wednesday, a trip to Tongo on Tuesday and a visit to Charles David’s family home evening on Tuesday evening.
The next day Melissa and Cason returned to Freetown after a stop in Bo. Their purpose was to make sure everything was prepared for Sister Bingham’s visits to Kenema, Bo and Freetown.
On Wednesday, we met with the newly called District Literacy Specialists, Favour Tucker and Emmanuel Yambasu. The purpose was to take the next step in training them in their responsibilities. We introduced them to the new teacher training guidebooks and associated teacher workbook as well as walk them through the assessment process following a 2nd hour gospel literacy Sunday school lesson. President Paul Aruna was also with us which was helpful. The meeting lasted an hour.
On Thursday, Melissa, Cason Curriden (former missionary here), Melissa’s co-worker Will Harvey and her friend Andrea Jacobs along with Brother and Sister Bingham arrived from Freetown.
We met them at the District Center at 4 pm for a meeting with the District Presidency, the District Relief Society President, the District Sunday School President and the new Literacy Specialists. The purpose was two fold. First to bring the District Relief Society president into the circle of leaders responsible for moving Gospel Literacy forward in the district. Second was to further provide context and understanding of the work to the new literacy specialists, and third, to model the entire roll-out process for Sister Bingham, which starts with a meeting with the District Presidency and the aforementioned leaders.
The Gospel Literacy team has developed new videos which not only explain the process, but also provide real-life examples of learners whose lives were changed by attending Gospel Literacy classes. We also went over the detailed schedule we would be following as we trained the branch council as well as the actual rollout of the experience on the following Sunday during the 2nd hour.
On Friday we met with the Branch Presidency of the Kpayama Branch as well as those in the aforementioned meeting the prior day. The purpose of this meeting was to provide understanding, context and awareness of the program in an effort to build commitment.
On Saturday morning, we trained the Kpayama Branch Council. There are multiple purposes to this meeting as well. The first is that it provides training to the branch council so they can effectively facilitate a gospel literacy Sunday school lesson to identify gospel learners in the branch who struggle to read and write.
Second, the whole process elicits commitment from the entire branch leadership to both helping those in need of literacy as well as model for them how to effectively teach in the Savior’s way. Gospel Literacy is important because without the ability to read the word of God, we can never fully understand the doctrines, ordinances and covenants that will lead us to exaltation in the celestial kingdom (see D&C 98:11-12). This is training they can use at home with their own families as well as within their own organizations during Sunday meetings. We had a very fulfilling meeting with excellent participation, learning and discussion.
In the afternoon, we attended an amazing training session with Sister Bingham at the District Center. The gathering was for all Relief Society, Young Women and Primary presidencies of each of the branches.
Priesthood leaders were also invited to attend. We had over 75% of the sisters who were invited who attended! Not bad for a Saturday afternoon. Cason was invited to help translate Sister Bingham’s training into Krio so that those in attendance could better understand what she was teaching.
It was amazing to hear feedback after the meeting about how this was the first training some had attended that they had understood sufficiently to actually implement and do something different when they returned to their branches. Cason did an amazing job. While Sister Bingham taught out of Handbook II, the lack of a reading culture or even access to the Handbooks because of lack of internet access, meant that for many this was the first time they had heard these important principles.
On Sunday morning, we were back in the Kpayama branch for the actual rollout. The sacrament meeting was extraordinary as first Brother Bingham spoke, then Sister Bingham followed with concluding remarks by President Cobinah (district president).
Brother Bingham spoke about the blessings of having a living prophet and how it is like having God with us to tell us what we need to do. Sister Bingham had been holding a young boy that had come up to her earlier in the meeting. When she went to the pulpit, she took this child with her and spoke of the great blessing that children are to our families. “Children are a heritage of the Lord” she said, then explained that the word “heritage” means “gift”. She talked about becoming like little children because children are forgiving and desire to constantly learn. She then explained how we all need to be more like children. What was most powerful was how the Lord had provided the perfect object lesson as this young boy had voluntarily come to her (which is unusual as small children are often afraid of white people). President Cobinah then spoke about forgiveness, working together, unity and love. It was masterful!
When sacrament meeting ended we broke into family groups. As always, it was chaotic as we tried to get families into circles and then make sure each circle had a trained facilitator.
In the end, we had 13 circles and over 100 members in attendance. Brother and Sister Bingham both sat in circles and experiences the lessons firsthand. At the end, two sisters who want to learn how to read and write were asked to share their testimonies about their experience. It was a glorious day!
Following the 2nd hour, the facilitators re-gathered and Cason and Melissa led a discussion about who the learners are in the branch that could benefit from this program. Because of the lesson that had just been taught, it was easy to identify those who struggled with reading and writing. As a branch council they agreed on who could be considered “beginners” and who could be considered “intermediate” learners. It was wonderful to see how the council worked together to also identify “helpers” for each of these learners. Implementations are always hard work and this was no exception, but it was so rewarding to see the level of understanding and desire by the leadership of the branch to help those in their midst who need help in the area of Gospel Literacy.
After a quick lunch back at our apartment, we drove over to the Catholic Pastoral Center, a beautiful orchard of palm trees not far from the Kpayama chapel.
It was there that both Cason and Sister Bingham were interviewed as part of what we hope will be a short clip in the next “World News Report of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” generally shown immediately after morning general conference sessions.
From there we traveled to Dauda Town to the home of Blessing Kamara. Blessing’s mom, Fatu Gamanga is one of the early gospel learners here in Kenema. It is interesting that it is now her daughter Blessing that has become a teacher to help others learn to read and write.
When we first arrived, we were met with a downpour that lasted about 10 minutes. Then the clouds parted and we had beautiful weather for filming Sister Bingham participating in a gospel literacy class facilitated by Blessing. LaDawn had stayed home from these last two experiences so that she could fix an amazing dinner for the Bingham’s, Melissa, Andrea, Will, Cason and Houston (the wonderful kind security guard accompanying the Bingham’s) and ourselves. “Heavenly Chicken” with scalloped potatoes. The name says it all!
There is still more to come this next week as we already mentioned. Teacher training on Monday, Tongo and attending a FHE at the David’s on Tuesday and a couple more home visits of learners and to the Opportunity Training Center to meet Eku on Wednesday. What a wonderful experience this has been to spend time with Brother and Sister Bingham and to meet Melissa’s friend Andrea and co-worker Will. This has certainly been one of the pinnacle experiences of our mission.
On Monday, in addition to the numerous literacy discussions, we had also taken two of our sisters, Sister Senoane and Sister Apiahmata, to the bus station at 5 am. A couple of weeks ago when we took Rebecca and Grace to catch a bus at 5 am, the bus was there waiting. On Monday, the bus was already full and pulling out. They later texted us and told us they were able to catch a later bus that left at 6:15. Hard to know the schedules and availability of buses to Freetown, so we just pray and we go.
On Tuesday, we made a return trip to Kailahun to do family history with members of the branch who had filled out their pedigree chart and needed help inputting it into FamilySearch.
We had a wonderful experience. We worked with Elder Shill, one of the missionaries there, as well as Tobechi Inmpey who is the mission clerk and resides here in Kenema. We started the work at 10:00 am and finished right at 3 pm, entering 214 temple ordinances for 44 people. It was such an amazing and satisfying experience. We drove home with smiles on our faces, tired but grateful for these good people and the love they have for the gospel, the temple and for their ancestors.
On Wednesday we had Peter Ngekia and David Gbow come to our apartment to help us clean the outside of our apartment, especially around the windows. With the dry season over and regular rain the norm, the dirt and spider webs and bugs that had collected were in need of banishment. Especially with our guests who would arrive the next day we wanted to spruce the apartment up a bit on the outside. Peter and David worked for 4 hours – late into the evening on Wednesday and then returned bright and early on Thursday and spent another 6 hours cleaning. The windows were immaculate, the porch was beautiful and the bars on the porch and windows were white again instead of dirt brown. We were so happy to sit inside and look out the windows and feel the joy of “clean”. Such a simple blessing but one we appreciated so much!
We also spent some time on Wednesday finishing up some of the Kailahun family history work. We had requested permission for about 10 individuals where the member submitting the name was not a direct descendant and/or the person had been born within the last 110 years. Here in Africa we find it is easy to receive approval, but it does require an email be sent for each person. When we submit the request, we put the member’s information but our email address. That way when the approval comes back we can submit the names for them without further delay. In the request we explain that as MLS Senior missionaries we are helping the members to receive approval. Without exception, approval has been granted. Once those names were approved, we needed to go back into their accounts as “helpers” and submit the names to the temple.
Right before the aforementioned meeting with the district literacy specialists at the Hangha Road building, we drove to the district center and picked up 6 small tables and took them to the Kpayama branch building for the gospel literacy roll-out that would occur on Sunday. Afterward the literacy meeting we came back to our apartment and met Dassama and went over once again to his home.
His mother had returned from the village, and though we had spoken to his grandmother, aunt and sister previously about his desire to serve a mission, he wanted us to meet his mom. She is a lovely woman with a great desire for her children to be successful. When we explained a little bit about a mission, she said she wants Dass to do what God wants him to do. Such faith!
On Friday we made a visit with the Bingham’s to the Sakila’s. This is a family in the IDA branch where both the mom and the dad are attending the Gospel Literacy class. The baptism that we attended 3 weeks ago when 10 people were baptized included Sister Sakila and her teenage son. In fact, it has been her attendance at the Gospel Literacy class that helped her to gain a testimony of the gospel and develop a desire to be baptized.
Being with them in a dirt floored, dirt block structure was classic Africa. It was a special moment in time, and being there with the Bingham’s, Andrea, Will, Cason and Melissa made it even more special. This is a family where the husband, Tamba, joined the church about 18 months ago. Through the gospel literacy roll-out in the IDA branch late last year, Sister Sakila began coming to church and is now a member. Several of their children have also joined them in church and they say they still have more work to do with their family.
From the Sakila’s we went to the Jabaty’s, another gospel learner and recently temple-sealed family. Unfortunately, Sister Jabaty has been ill and was still not feeling well so we decided to leave and let her rest. From there the group went to the small women’s clinic in Burma.
A baby had been born the previous night and was there with its mother, so a special treat. It gave Sister Bingham a glimpse into the low quality of medical care available for women in some of the communities bordering Kenema. Next, we went to a vocational school called “The Foundation Institute for Gender Empowerment”. The Relief Society president in the Burma Branch works there and Melissa was familiar with the work they do and thought Sister Bingham would enjoy seeing their initiative to help women, and especially unwed mothers. It was actually quite amazing to see a room full of mostly women not just sewing with treadle sewing machines, but actually doing embroidery work on them.
A pretty impressive feat if you ask me! They have recently expanded the school to include a small furniture making business, where young men are learning to make wooden chairs.
Saturday and Sunday were completely filled with Gospel Literacy meetings. We didn’t mention it earlier, but after the training session on Saturday, Sister Bingham, Melissa, and Andrea met with significant number of learners who have benefited from Gospel Literacy. Brother Bingham and Will also attended but did not participate in the circle. This was an opportunity for them to hear their stories first hand about how Gospel Literacy is blessing their lives.
On Saturday evening we all went to Unique Grill for dinner. The food was not great and even though we had ordered ahead, the delivery of the food was slow. However, despite that, we had a marvelous evening. We were upstairs in their nice banquet room so we had complete privacy and no distractions. They tried to turn on music and the TV’s two separate times but were gracious when we asked them to turn them off. President and Sister Clawson joined us as they had come to Kenema to preside at the Leadership Training Meeting where Sister Bingham spoke. With that group of people, we had an absolutely amazing discussion about how to take Gospel Literacy forward and what would be required to make it successful. It was a revelatory meeting!
That is a pretty complete summary of our week. Perhaps it is worthwhile to step back and make a few comments about what it was like to spend a week with the General Relief Society president of the Church, Sister Jean B Bingham, and her good husband, Bruce. First of all, it has been absolutely delightful. Not surprisingly, Sister Bingham is gracious, energetic, perceptive and filled with charity. She came here with purpose to understand from the bottom up what it takes to make Gospel Literacy a reality in West Africa and eventually the entire developing world. We experienced her energy and ideas about how to move this work forward with a greater sense of urgency and purpose. We witnessed a tireless collaborative effort (after a very long day) on a document Sunday night at our kitchen table that we think will have a profound effect on the future of Gospel Literacy.
We have witnessed her special love for the children here in Africa. Wherever she went, she was like a magnet for young girls. It is no surprise of her love for children as she spent 6 years on the Church’s Primary general board and a portion of that as the first counselor in the Primary General Presidency. She is genuine and kind. There is no pretense or superiority. She is simply a disciple of Christ who is committed to discovering and following Heavenly Father’s will for his beloved daughters.
What a joy it has been to have a front row seat to this week’s events as we continue to work in hand with the wonderful people here in Sierra Leone to prepare the world for the second coming of Jesus Christ. There is a spirit moving across this land that is undeniable. Things are changing, they will continue to change. We remain grateful to have the opportunity to be here and work with these amazing people!