A historic milestone was reached Sunday, Dec. 2, with the creation of the 3,000th stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve organized the Freetown Sierra Leone Stake, the first stake in Sierra Leone, a West African country of about 5.6 million people.
"It is part of the latter-day miracle, evidence of our 'marvelous work and a wonder,' that the Church has grown to the point where its 3,000th stake is in far-off Sierra Leone," Elder Holland told the Church News.
"What is particularly poignant for me is not only that this historic stake is created in a distant land for a people who have only relatively recently had the gospel brought to them but it is also created in a war-torn and tragic land where there has been so much bloodshed, so much violence and vice in an earlier time."
Elder Holland traveled to Sierra Leone with his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, and was joined by Elder John B. Dickson of the Seventy and president of the Africa West Area and his wife, Sister Delores Dickson; Elder Freebody Mensah, Area Seventy from Takoradi, Ghana; and Sierra Leone Freetown Mission President Richard P. Roggia and his wife, Sister Cathy Roggia. Upon leaving Sierra Leone Sunday afternoon, Elder and Sister Holland visited members of the Church in Rabat, Morocco. (Please see report on page 10.)
Elder Holland said the creation of the Freetown Sierra Leone Stake signifies the impressive way in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is spreading worldwide, "particularly to a place where it is so dearly needed, where they have so little and have had so much of tragedy. It's a wonderful statement about what the gospel does in a wounded world, why we take the Church to all people, what it means to them to find it, embrace it and see it change their lives."
He said it is remarkable that a stake — regardless of its status as the 3,000th worldwide — has been created in Sierra Leone. "The Church is relatively new in this country," he noted.
The Church's official beginnings here trace back to 1988 with the formation of the Wellington Freetown Branch. However, its roots in Sierra Leone reach back further. Several people played key roles in bringing the gospel's message to the country, among whom were Michael Sumalia Samura, Bai Sama Sankoh, Christian L. George, Elizabeth Bangura and Monica Orleans.
A Sierra Leonean, Brother Samura was living in the Netherlands when he learned of the Church and was baptized in 1981. He returned to Sierra Leone a few months later and found that the Church was not in his home country. "I decided … I better start doing something about it," he said in a recording made by Sister Jill Johnson, who served as a missionary in the Africa West Area from 2010-2011.
He maintained contact with missionaries serving in the ward he had attended in the Netherlands and wrote letters to Church headquarters asking for the Church to be established in Sierra Leone. He was referred to the International Mission; its presidency — Elder Carlos E. Asay, Elder Jacob de Jager and Elder William R. Bradford of the Seventy — sent a newsletter each month as a guide to what topics to discuss with the group he had established in Wellington. Brother Samura spoke with and taught "a lot of people who would come to know about the truthfulness of the gospel."
Brother Sankoh, who was baptized in 1986 in Spain, also returned home eager to have the Church in Sierra Leone. "I was going out, preaching the word of God, telling people about the Church," he told Sister Johnson.
In 1987, Moses Will was a member of a Protestant church in Goderich. After some controversy, 42 members of that church broke away and held their own worship services. During that time, Elizabeth Bangura and Monica Orleans, who had been baptized in Ghana, settled in Sierra Leone and told him and the people about the Church. Sister Bangura gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, Gospel Principles and other LDS literature "so we could get first-hand information."
Brother Will related, "Sister Bangura said, 'I am a member of this church, but [it] is not here.' I said, 'Let's see what we can do about it.' We decided to contact the authorities in Salt Lake City. ... We wrote our first letter in June 1987. … We wrote a second letter (on Jan. 17, 1988), and had a reply sent to us that we should seek out … Christian George, who had been baptized in Germany. [After] about a month, we found him. … We had already gathered ourselves … at Sister Bangura's house [in Freetown]. Every Sunday … Christian George [would] come and teach us the discussions and also the Book of Mormon and some of the songs."
Brother Samura, Brother Sankoh and Brother Will were unaware of what each was doing to get the Church established in Sierra Leone.
"They would preach and share the gospel together," said Samuel A. Browne, who was baptized in September 1988, and served as president of the Wellington District in Freetown from 2000-2005, and has most recently served as district Sunday School president. "It was preparing investigators for any time the Church would come to Sierra Leone."
Brother Sankoh said the first reply to the letter he wrote was, " 'Wait, the Church will come to Sierra Leone, but we don't know yet when.' After some time, I received a letter from Utah telling me they are prepared to establish the Church in Sierra Leone. I was so happy that for the rest of the day I could not eat anything, [I was] just singing. My parents met me in my room, dancing alone. ... I said, 'My dreams have come true.' "
On May 6, 1988, Liberia Monrovia Mission President J. Duffy Palmer and his wife, Sister Jocelyn Palmer, arrived in Freetown to welcome two days later the first missionaries called to serve in Sierra Leone: Elder Claire J. Fisher and Sister Ilene Fisher, and Elder C. Erwin Waite and Sister Colleen Waite.
As President and Sister Palmer decided to take a walk downtown, they prayed that someone would recognize them as missionaries. Their prayer was answered: Sister Orleans saw them, introduced herself and took them to Brother George at his office.
The missionaries started teaching Brother Will and others. A group was established at Lower Pipe Line, Goderich, in West End Freetown. The first converts, 14 in number, were baptized on June 11, 1988, at Lumley Beach.
The Goderich Freetown Branch — the first branch in Sierra Leone — was established on Aug. 7, 1988, with Christian George as branch president, Michael Samura, first counselor; Joseph P.E. MacAnthony, second counselor; Bai Sama Sankoh, branch clerk; Elizabeth Judith Bangura, Relief Society president; and Joyce Orleans, first counselor in the Relief Society presidency.
The Wellington Freetown Branch was organized on Nov. 13, 1988, with Michael Samura as branch president; John Banya Sivalie, first counselor, Theophilus Cole, second counselor; Samuel A. Browne, clerk; and Hilda Quaye, Relief Society president.
While the Church was becoming established in Freetown and its nearby areas, it began to take root in Bo, about four hours east of Freetown. Mohamud and Abibatu Turay, who were baptized Dec. 17, 1988, in Liberia, fled that war-torn country and settled in Bo in 1989. By that time, Sierra Leone had become part of the Ghana Accra Mission, presided over by Miles H. Cunningham, who counseled Brother Turay to remain in Bo and help establish the Church there.
"We started the Church [in Bo] with my wife and three children," he said. "We started talking to other people. … [The mission] gave us four missionaries. ... The first baptism we had, [there were] 34 people baptized in the River Sewa. ... It was a wonderful and marvelous thing, seeing the people joining the Church."
Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve, traveling with his wife, Sister Jeanene Scott, visited Sierra Leone and dedicated the land on Mount Aureol from its highest point, Leicester Peak, on May 18, 1989.
Brother Browne described how a small group of members gathered and listened as Elder Scott blessed the land that it would be opened to missionary work, that the Church would expand "and that our children and children's children will learn the gospel. ... That particular day, when we had an apostle here for the first time, I was so happy… it was a great day for us in Sierra Leone. It was a wonderful moment for us because every one of us present … felt the Spirit."
Another member with a similar name, Samuel O. Brown, was present when Elder Scott offered the prayer upon the land. "We had an apostle here for the first time," he said. "I was so happy because it was a great day for us in Sierra Leone."
The Church has been a blessing and source of peace for members in Sierra Leone; many endured extreme hardships as a 10-year civil war swept their land, beginning in 1991. The Church provided much humanitarian relief to Latter-day Saints and others during the turmoil.
Tommy Asi Abu, who served as a president of the Kissy 2nd Branch during the entire war, was recorded by Sister Johnson, saying: "By keeping the commandments, there is nothing you cannot get. There is nothing you can ask for which you will not receive. There is nothing that mankind can plan that will prevail against you and there is nothing the Lord cannot do in your life as long as you keep the commandments."
The blessings pronounced by Elder Scott have been, and continue to be, fulfilled. The new stake, which has a membership of about 2,250, is made up of eight wards: Belliar Park, Congo Cross, Dwarzak, Freetown, Goderich, Hill Station, Lumley and Mount Aureol.
At the time of the creation of the stake, there were four districts in Sierra Leone: Freetown, Freetown East, Bo and Kenema, the latter of which was formed on Nov. 25 as a division from the Bo District. (Bo remains a separate district in which reside some 3,000 Latter-day Saints who look forward to the day when Bo will become its own stake.)
Patrick Swarray Jr. was called as president of the Freetown Sierra Leone Stake. Abibu S. Charles and Theophilus Minah were called as first and second counselors, respectively. Mohamed Sahid Kamara was called as stake patriarch.
Elder Dickson described the members in Sierra Leone as "a very faithful, friendly people that have great capacity. They love the Lord and have no trouble expressing their belief in God, no matter what their religious affiliation might be. The Church is growing very rapidly, but carefully, under the direction of Sierra Leone Freetown Mission President Richard P. Roggia."
Elder Dickson said when the members learned the first stake was to be created in Sierra Leone, they were "very excited and many were moved to tears."
Elder Dickson added, "This has been much more than just having sufficient numbers to have a stake. They have worked very hard to be a consecrated, covenant-keeping people.
"I am reminded of Elder Holland's visit to Freetown last February when he was in a media event with a dozen or so newspaper and TV reporters. The first comment by a reporter was that they were very grateful that an apostle of the Lord would visit and bless their country. We are all pleased that he has returned to create the first stake in Sierra Leone and the 3,000th in the Church."
After the stake was created on Sunday, Mariatu Browne reported on the enthusiasm exhibited by local members.
Brother Will, who is mentioned above, said, "As a pioneer, I feel so good and I pray that the priesthood will continue to be strengthening in this part of the world."
Bishop John Titus Oneil of the Dwarzak Ward, said, "As a bishop, I feel so excited. Above all, this is a joyous moment in my life to see the transformation of branches into wards. This is going to increase testimonies." He said the stake will bring more blessings and opportunities for service.
"It has always been our dream and prayer to witness the creation of a stake in Sierra Leone," said Emanuel Jones of the Godreich Ward.
"The country has been blessed with the visit of an apostle twice in the same year," commented Pieh Shiaka of the Dworzak Ward.
Harrison Weah of the Belliar Park Ward said, "We have been yearning to see this day. It happened not at our own time but God's due time when Sierra Leone [has become] the 3,000th stake."
Elder Holland said, "As with everything in the gospel, there are blessings layered on top of blessings in such a day as this. It is wonderful for the institutional Church that we are spreading to ever-more distant frontiers. But it is also wonderful for individual people in those individual countries where the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is being so cherished and so revered. In this latter-day light everything is seen more clearly, more hopefully and more beautifully."
Summing up the experience of having created the Freetown Sierra Leone Stake, Elder Holland said, "As I sat on the stand looking at a standing-room-only audience — an audience of almost entirely black, very beautiful faces — I saw the future of Africa. It is a continent of both rich resources and terrible problems. But the answer to all of the problems is the greatest resource of all — the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have never sung more fervently the great latter-day anthem, 'The day dawn is breaking, the world is awaking, The clouds of night's darkness are fleeing away.'"