Against stuff competition, Mormon missionaries win hearts and converts in West Africa
The Boston Globe, Oct. 27, 2002
By Matt Steinglass, 10/27/2002
Through the three days it took me to buy a used car in the Lebanese-run auto-sales lots of the West African port of Lome, I was pursued by a muscular Togolese fellow with tribal scars on both cheeks, intent on performing any service which would enable him to claim a cut of the transaction. Finally, my would-be assistant accompanied me out of the lot, still trying to build a relationship. ”Let me ask you something,” he said. ”What do you think of the Mormons?”
Baffled, I responded cautiously: ”They’re very honest.”
With a slow grin, he grabbed me around the shoulders. ”You are my friend! ”
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn how many Togolese have joined the Mormons. The Church of Latter-Day Saints runs the most creative international mission of any American denomination. Church members are strongly encouraged to enlist for two-year missionary stints, and 60,800 of them are currently serving throughout the world. The church’s West African wing has branches in 10 countries and claims 114,000 members, with 10,000 new ones joining each year. Full-fledged, consecrated Mormon temples are under construction in Ghana and Nigeria.
But it’s not just the scale of Mormon missionary work that is striking; it’s the quality. There are other American-based churches with successful missions in Togo, but few of them display the Mormons’ dedication to mastering local languages and culture. The Church of God, a Pentecostal faith with thousands of followers here, regularly hosts white guest ministers who preach in Alabama-accented English, using translators. But when a Mormon choir came through last year, they delighted the audience with several hymns in Ewe, the local language.
I heard about this concert from my Ewe teacher, Isidore Mensah, who turned out to be another recent Mormon convert. (There are only about 500 Togolese Mormons so far, but I seem to run into them everywhere.) Isidore is a small, bookish man in his late 30s, an elementary-school teacher. When I met him, he was having a personal crisis. His wife had left him some years earlier, leaving him to raise their two children. His government salary had not been paid in six months. He had been a Catholic choirboy – the Catholics are the most established church in this former French colony – but had moved away from that faith in his teens. ”Even our teachers would come back from Europe and say, no one believes there any more, the churches are are all empty,” he said.
Isidore, searching for spiritual succor, had visited a local charismatic church, Zionto – ”Man of Zion” – but had been discouraged by all the laying-on of hands and fainting, which he found too reminiscent of voodoo. When the Mormons first sent missionaries to Togo in 1999, one of Isidore’s friends, an ex-pastor of a local African church called the Saints of God, took him to meet them. Isidore liked the Mormons. They were well-dressed, hardworking. Their theology was clear and consistent.
”At first I hesitated,” said Isidore. ”I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a cult. I felt in my heart that what the Mormons were telling me was true, but I wondered: Was this a spell someone had cast on me? So I waited five months, and when I was sure there was nothing underneath it, I was baptized.”
If there were a single element of the Mormon doctrine that appealed to Isidore, it was its teachings on the family. ”Those who respect the ordinances, and who complete their duties in the Temple, will live in Heaven with their wife and family, just like here,” he said. It’s an appealing idea in West Africa’s family-centered societies, especially for a single father. Isidore approves of the church’s strict policies on monogamy. (So would anyone with a teenage daughter in a society with HIV-positive rates nearing 10 percent.) He now volunteers as the Lome church’s genealogical consultant. The LDS hold that souls can be baptized even after death and devotes huge resources to researching family trees – another promising belief for Africa, with its traditions of ancestor worship.
Not that the Church’s family doctrines are always easily applicable to African family life. ”You see people here who are married, but they’re never together,” said Brent Atkinson, a 53-year-old missionary from Utah. Part of their role is to ”serve as an example” of American-style marital affection in a society where that is not necessarily the norm. ”It’s like they’re separate people doing their own thing,” he says. ”Often the fathers don’t spend time with their children. And you never see them holding hands. Somebody has to tell you they’re married, or you’d never know.” In Ewe society, children’s relationships with their maternal uncles are often more important than those with their fathers. It’s not clear how far the Mormon vision of the family can bend to accommodate such differences.
Isidore certainly found that vision attractive. And like other Mormons I met, he was encouraged by the spiritual independence he felt as a member of the church. ”If I have a problem, I pray,” he said. ”I don’t have to go call a priest or a pastor.” The church’s clerical system has a can-do American feel: By passing tests and fulfilling ordinances, any male member can attain progressively higher levels of priesthood. ”What the church offers,” said Isidore, ”is perfection.”
”If you live the life of the Evangels, you will be a perfect person,” echoed Dieudonne Attiogbe, president of the LDS’s Togolese branch.
”It’s more than a religion, it’s a way of life,” said Mathias Aduayom, a fellow teacher whom Isidore brought into the church. Aduayom had settled on the LDS after a bit of comparison shopping: ”I did the Rosicrucians, I did Eckankar.” (Eckankar is a Wisconsin-based sect professing a mix of Judeo-Christian and Eastern beliefs, headed by one Sri Harold Klemp.)
There is a lot of esoteric religion out there in Africa, both imported and home-grown. From the Mormon perspective, this has its advantages. The LDS certainly doesn’t have to worry about its doctrines seeming bizarre, as they do to many Americans; by African standards, claiming that the Angel Moroni appeared in western New York in 1827 with a set of gold tablets doesn’t even rate on the humbug charts. Charismatic Christian ministers and voodoo priests claiming to cure AIDS, raise the dead, prophesy a second Flood, or hold the key to success in business are legion here. Just last year the priest of one Lome start-up church was arrested for burying a hunchback’s hump in his yard, as part of a spell to attract worshippers. Isidore himself, like many educated Africans, believes that sorcerers can summon lightning and pass through walls. How he reconciles this with LDS doctrine is unclear.
The LDS in Africa faces fierce competition from an explosion of aggressively proselytizing churches that puts America’s 19th-century Great Awakening to shame. Mega-churches built to accommodate thousands are increasingly common in the suburbs of Lagos, where the highways are plastered with posters for apocalyptic mass revivals: ”Operation Spirit Storm,” ”Total Experience 2002.” Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and dozens of homegrown African churches are all fighting for their piece of the pie. When it comes to religion, Africans are fickle shoppers. The LDS may be the fastest-growing religion in the United States, but in the world of Christian missions, Africa is the big leagues. And in Africa, the Mormons are just getting started.