Something is different this week in Tongo. It has been just over a year since we made our first visit there and this week, something significant happened as 6 more amazing people made a covenant to follow Jesus Christ. That which is different is that 5 of the 6 baptized have family members who are already members of the church, meaning that the Church in Tongo is now growing within families as well as outside of existing connections to the Church. Everything about the gospel revolves around families, so this is exciting as we begin to see these close relatives united in their faith, hope and direction.
Sam Charles, son of John Lowell Charles; Messie and Mamie Senesie, nieces of Messie Senesie (they live with her); Sarah and Marie Kanu, sister and mother to Joseph and Jelius Kanu. Jelius has been a member now for over 4 years and lives here in Kenema. Joseph was baptized in August. The only convert that had no prior connection was Iye Dennis. Sister Iye was one of the very first people we met and began teaching when we started going each week last December, but for the longest time was lukewarm, even though she attended church every week. After the baptisms in August, she made a decision to be baptized and made it a top priority. She is absolutely on fire right now with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The baptism on Saturday was extraordinary. We didn’t have enough baptismal clothes for everyone, so there was bit of a tag team on a couple of pairs of pants, but it all worked out great. We were able to start shortly after 10:00 am and by 11:30 am we were on our way back to Kenema. Such a wonderful way to start a Saturday, despite the harsh road conditions to get there and back.
Friday morning Elder Hansen, Elder Tenney and I drove to Tongo, leaving at 7:00 am so that we could get the swimming pool from the chapel and take it over to Gert Van Der Westerhuizen’s (Sister Messie’s boss) lakeside home and get it all setup and filled with water for the baptism the next day. We wanted to have it setup and still have time to meet all of the teaching appointments. One of the disadvantages of the zone leaders changing every two transfers is that neither Elder Hansen nor Elder Tenney had experienced a baptism in Tongo before this past weekend. Fortunately, Brother Kongoley, the group leader was able to come with us to get everything setup. The pump worked really well this time (there was a new hoseline connected that really helped) and the pool went together quickly. The weather was also beautiful which helped not to have to fight the rain. Once our mission is complete and we have left Sierra Leone, it will be a bigger challenge to transport the pool, rent a pump and have enough chairs, but we are confident that the Tongo saints along with the missionaries will figure it all out.
The Church is moving forward in big ways here in Sierra Leone and specifically in Tongo. We are amazed at the strength within this homegroup – not yet a branch. Even the zone leaders have mentioned how much strength they see in Tongo and how it is more than some of the branches they have served in. It is a credit to the quality and the spiritual acumen of the saints there. Truly there is a firm foundation that is being laid that will continue to blossom. We have said it before, and will say it again: Brother Solomon Kongoley and Sister Messie Senesie have made a huge difference as they have quietly gone about sharing the gospel with their friends, who are now sharing it with their friends and more importantly, their families.
After setting up the pool, we were only able to teach 7 people, but there is already a list of those that are rapidly progressing and should make it to the waters of baptism before we leave at the end of December.
Perhaps the highlight of Friday was the lesson with Augusta Steven. Sister Steven is married to the head of police in Tongo, Brother Bob Steven. She has been working to join the church for a number of years, but the timing and the location just wasn’t right. Last week, the missionaries taught her twice. Once on Sunday and once on Friday. After the lesson she fed us Cassava Leaf and fish sauce on rice. It was absolutely wonderful. She is bright, articulate and such a joy to teach, soaking up doctrines and scriptures like a dry sponge.
On a sad note, Rebecca Koroma’s good friend Moinya, (whose family is currently being taught by the missionaries) lost her 15 year-old daughter this week. The daughter was living in Freetown with family. We don’t know the whole story, but she had some sort of growth on her liver or kidneys that eventually led to her body shutting down. We have said it before and we will say it again, death is simply too common an occurrence here and we are saddened by the loss and feel great sympathy for Sister Moinya and her family who mourn the loss of this daughter of God.
On Monday, Momoh Swaray came by for one last time. Peter and David left for Freetown on Monday, so they came by on Sunday. Momoh left on Tuesday so he came by on Monday and Dassama left on Wednesday so he came by on Tuesday. All four of these young men that we have worked with since the day we arrived in Kenema are now in the Ghana MTC. David and Dass were to go to the South Africa MTC since they are headed to Botswana/Namibia Mission, but their visas were delayed so they went to Ghana instead.
Sister Pack was kind enough to send us this picture at the airport of our four young men along with Sister Sesay from Kissy Stake who traveled together to Ghana. Until we meet again!
Also on Monday, Sonny Cobinah, nephew of President Cobinah (but really more of a son), came over because when they checked online, it said Sonny had been accepted into BYU-I. Unfortunately the email that Sonny had on his application was no longer working or accessible, so we have all been waiting on an email that was sent, but never received. Once he found out he was accepted, there were several important steps to take. First, he needed to accept his admittance and begin the process for obtaining a student visa to the U.S. Once that was done, we all agreed that he needed to defer his start date from Winter to Spring. This would buy him a bit more time to get everything done required for travel to the U.S. The biggest need that he has is help from a Hall Foundation Scholarship.
The Hall Foundation is a family scholarship program started by Brad and Andrea Hall that helps international young men and young women who are returned missionaries and wish to study in the U.S. – primarily at Brigham Young University-Idaho. They currently sponsor 200 students from 17 countries, 100% of which are returned missionaries. The commitment that each of these students makes is that once they have earned their degree they will return to their home country and make a difference for themselves and others. Without help from such a wonderful program, the cost of a U.S. education is out of the reach for practically everyone from Sierra Leone. Sonny returned to our apartment on Tuesday and completed the application for the scholarship and put everything in place so that once he hears from the Hall Foundation he can apply for the U.S. visa and hopefully make it to BYU-I in April. This is a great young man and we hope all of the loose ends will come together for him to go.
Monday afternoon, we went over to Elizabeth’s shop (we call her Queen Elizabeth). This is the woman that has the contact with the China manufacturer where we are purchasing some spare compressors and controllers for the solar freezers that we have in the mission. While there, we met her sister, Zainab, who first took her to China to “learn the ropes”. Elizabeth and her husband have a shop in Blama and now one in Kenema. We went to see her to make payment arrangements for the items we purchased. Elder Pack was kind enough to arrange for a check to be written, which her brother who lives in Freetown picked up on Tuesday morning and delivered to her later in the week.
Tuesday also had Dennis Samai working with Anthony to fix the Sister’s oven next door. The bottom burner has not been working for a very long time, turns out it was a simple fix as the gas nozzle had become plugged from spilled food and the gas could not escape. The sisters love to cook, so having a working oven is important to them.
Junior Bendu finally made it back from Kailahun on Sunday evening, following a trip there last week to fix the wiring on the solar installation in the Elders’ apartment. He ran into problems going up on Saturday and ended up in the ditch. After arriving in Kailahun he discovered a problem that he needed to have fixed before he could return to Kenema. After getting his car repaired late Saturday evening, he started back on Sunday afternoon, only to lose a wheel bearing in Daru on the way home (about an hour out of Kenema). On Monday, he purchased the part and returned to Daru to fix it, and then came back home. We share this because it is indicative of the reliability of most of the 20+ year-old vehicles here, most which came from Europe when they were considered to be “end of life”. It is quite amazing how many more miles and years the mechanics here can squeeze out of a car way past its prime! Junior came to our apartment to bring the rest of the roll of wire that we purchased for the Kailahun repair to keep in inventory for future needs. It is so much less expensive to buy rolled wire than a few yards at a time that we felt it made good sense to have some on hand.
Wednesday took us back to SierraTel to refresh our internet for another month and to EDSA (Electricity Distribution Utility) to charge the generator battery for Dauda Town as it appears that the charger on the generator there has given up the ghost. EDSA has a small shack out in front of their building where people will bring their batteries to charge. For 10,000 Le (about $1) they will charge a battery – it takes about 4 hours. It is no surprise that most of what they deal with is motorcycle batteries. Late last week we had taken LaDawn’s hand hair dryer over to Eku to fix the small circuit breaker that stopped working. While he had some trouble getting the breaker apart (the screws had triangle heads requiring a special screwdriver unavailable here) he managed to get it fixed and we picked it up on Wednesday. One other item to note. Since Ghana Distribution has taken over labeling and delivering the Liahona’s each month, new subscriptions in Freetown stopped going to the mission and instead went directly to the person in charge of distribution. Unfortunately, the names of those new subscriptions never made it to Dennis to put into the database from which the labels were printed each month. I think we have it straight now, but it took us a bit of time on Wednesday to sort all of that out and get the missing subscriptions into SimplCirc.com. The rest of the day, we worked on the Grace and Rebecca Story which we decided to call “Amazing Grace” for the online site for the Africa West Area of the Church. We went over it and over it in an effort to make it more concise and crisp and managed to tighten it up a bit, but it is still a long story – filled with miracles. The story has now been published to the africawest.churchofjesuschrist.org homepage by Samuel Agyei Amankwah, the Public Affairs director. Putting the end-to-end story together has been difficult, but very rewarding, as we have relived every moment of this amazing experience allowing us again to see God’s hand so prevalent in this little girl’s life. We hope you might find the time to read it.
On Thursday, we attended the Hangha Road District Council where Elder Kennelly is the District Leader. The discussion focused on working with members both from a “why” and a “how” perspective. In regards to “why”, here are 4 of the items mentioned: 1) They will fellowship new converts 2) Members’ faith needs to be strengthened 3) Members can teach the missionaries many things 4) Can help to strengthen the branch. On the side of “how”, here are 4 items as well: 1) Look with our spiritual eyes to discern their needs 2) Help the members be clear about what we need from then when they go with us to teach a lesson 3) Let him who is strong take him who is weak (D&C 84:106) 4) Build a strong relationship of trust with members by doing what we say we will do when we say we will do it. It was a good meeting. We love these good elders and sisters who are so faithful and working so diligently to do what the Lord expects of them. The spirit that we find in these district councils also uplifts us.
The Kenema District was meeting in the room next door, so we snapped a picture of them as well.
In the afternoon we went to Bo as the Milton Margai House indicated they would have a new PET (personal energy transportation) ready for Ibrahim Morison. Although I had asked Ibrahim to confirm with Mr. Lasana before we went, it turned out that they delayed the distribution of the PET’s until this week. We also took 4 empty Afrigas canisters back to the Moomey’s and picked up a case of Book of Mormons. Probably not the most effective trip to Bo we have made, but we salvaged getting a few things accomplished and spent 30 minutes or so visiting with the Moomey’s. Always a good thing.
After returning from Tongo on Friday, we quickly made our way to the Hangha Road branch where we met with the branch presidency for an hour to discuss the rolling out of the literacy program in their branch over the weekend. Unfortunately, President Jusu had an emergency come up and was unable to attend. We did meet with both counselors (Br. Lansana and Br. Laundeh) and the branch clerk, Br. Freeman. We had a great meeting and it was clear that they all understood well the purposes and methods of the program. The meeting lasted one hour.
On Saturday morning we again went to Tongo for the baptisms mentioned above. It was a glorious day. After returning, we drove back to the Hangha Road branch for a 4:00 pm meeting with the branch council to train them on how to be facilitators for the rollout of Gospel Literacy the next day. We ended up with 13 people, but since a couple of them came so late, they missed too much of the training to be able to help on Sunday. We spent 2 hours with them and they really seemed to understand the objectives of gospel literacy. We were so impressed with the unity that we felt among the branch council and branch presidency. Ever since the boundaries were changed, adding new strength, progress has accelerated in the branch. Our hearts were warmed by the renewed vigor and spirit we felt all weekend as we were with them.
On Sunday morning, the sacrament meeting at Hangha Road was excellent. Topics were: The Sabbath Day, Service and Missionary Work. We will only include one comment from the excellent service. “We should serve as Jesus Christ served. He did it with love and willingly served all people, regardless of their station or status in life”. Such a powerful statement!
After sacrament meeting, we gathered into 7 circles, consisting of about 60 members of the branch. We are not sure why there were not more who were there, but those who stayed had a great experience, learning more about how to teach a “Come Follow Me” lesson to their families.
After completing the lessons, we gathered back together and Sister Monjama Saidu and Mustapha Dauda (aka, “Professor”), shared their testimonies about the experience and the importance and power of gospel literacy for the branch.
After the closing prayer, the branch council gathered into a room where we went through the assessments of the learners with the facilitators to understand who might benefit from the gospel literacy classes in the branch. We ended up with the names of 8 members who will now be invited by the branch presidency to attend a class.
The firm foundation that is being built in Tongo is but a microcosm of what is happening in the entire Kenema District. As the gospel begins to sink deeper into the hearts of the members, the desire they have to share it with family and friends increases. The first stanza of the hymn by the same name says it perfectly: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he has said, who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior, who unto the Savior for refuge have fled.” More than ever the members of the church are fleeing to the refuge of the Savior of the World, even Jesus Christ the Son of God. The great news is that they are bringing their families with them. We joy in the opportunity we have to work with the wonderful and amazing people and leaders who naturally want to do what God wants them to do. We count it a privilege to work hand in hand with them on this journey.