Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Lesa Stevenson walked into a dark Church building in Vietnam. Some 60 missionaries filled the warm chapel, which had no windows and little natural light. The power had just gone out.
“What do we do now?” the apostle thought to himself. Very quickly he heard the plea of the missionaries: “Let’s start the meeting.”
The missionaries serving in Vietnam, currently called “branch builders,” had propped open the door, allowing in a small stream of light in addition to the sounds of afternoon traffic. They eagerly awaited the words of the visiting apostle.
By a light coming from his cell phone, Elder Stevenson stood at the pulpit and pulled out his copy of Preach My Gospel and began to teach. When Sister Stevenson stood to address the missionaries, Elder Stevenson held his phone’s flashlight for her as she read a scripture to the group.
“It was a very unique environment to be teaching them,” Elder Stevenson said. “We felt the spirit of the missionaries and their enthusiasm when the lights were on and when the lights were off. You could absolutely feel every element of the Spirit that we hoped to feel as we conducted this meeting in the dark, in the middle of the afternoon.”
Just two years ago in 2016, Elder Stevenson took part in the creation of the Vietnam Hanoi Mission when the Church was granted official recognition in Vietnam. Since then, he has been a firsthand witness of the growth of the Church in that area. In this short time frame, membership has grown to form two districts, with nine branches.
“It was only two years ago following government approvals I traveled to Vietnam for the formal organization of the Vietnam Hanoi Mission,” he said. “With only 12 missionaries and a newly called mission president, President Lewis Hassell, the work of the mission began. To return and meet with now 60 missionaries and speak to members from branches of the Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City districts is very special.”
Vietnam was only one stop on the Church leaders’ recent visit to the Asia Area. Elder Stevenson and his wife, along with Elder Craig C. Christensen of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Debbie Christensen; and Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé and his wife, Sister Valérie Caussé, visited 10 countries in 10 days from March 9-19. They were hosted by the Asia Area Presidency and their wives — Elder Randy D. Funk and Sister Andrea Funk, Elder David F. Evans and Sister Mary Evans, and Elder Peter F. Meurs and Sister Maxine Meurs.
The framework for the trip began with all three leaders in Taichung, Taiwan, for a priesthood leadership conference and Hong Kong for the Asia Area Review, before each leader separated to visit other countries in the area to include Myanmar, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.
“One overall impression I have of the area is its great diversity,” Elder Christensen said. “There are countries where the Church is multi-generational, strong and mature, and other countries where the Church is still in the early stages.”
The Asia Area of the Church includes 22 countries — incorporating the two most populated countries in the world: China and India. The visits included important meetings with high government officials, as well as priesthood leadership, missionary and member meetings.
Many of the leaders’ visits were to areas where an official Church presence in the country is new. “Wherever we go, we emphasize that we sustain and uphold the laws of the land,” said Elder Stevenson.
“We spent some time in India, where the missionary force is made up of missionaries from other parts of the world with a few local missionaries, many of whom have been members of the Church for one or two years,” Elder Christensen said. Given the need to expand the missionary effort in India, Elder Christensen extended an invitation to every missionary to “replace yourself with a local missionary who isn’t already planning on serving. For the work to really develop, India will have to establish a much larger local missionary force.”
With his responsibilities as Presiding Bishop, Bishop Caussé visited Thailand, where a temple has been announced in Bangkok, and later visited Cambodia and Malaysia.
“It was such a wonderful blessing to visit Church members in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,” said Bishop Caussé. “I enjoyed their friendly welcome, their smiles and happy countenances. They form a joyful array of various origins, cultures and backgrounds — yet they are as one family of brothers and sisters who love God and serve one another.”
Elder Stevenson’s visit to Myanmar was eye opening. In a country with 54 million people, young single adult -age converts are joining the Church and sharing the gospel with great faith.
“Only a few years ago, around 25 people attended sacrament meeting each week and there are currently 130 attending,” said Elder Stevenson. “At the member devotional over 175 members and investigators were in attendance — the most ever gathered in Myanmar.”
Currently there is one branch in the entire country, with eight young missionaries and two senior couples serving. However, each week up to 450 people attend a Church-sponsored English class, with an average of three activities per week.
“Smartphones were introduced in the country only three years ago, and young people in Myanmar all seem to be digitally connected,” Elder Stevenson said. “Outreach efforts by the young single adults come through social media, mainly through Facebook.”
Each week, these young adults message each other, share their testimonies and welcome those investigating the Church, via social media.
“If an investigator attends Church meetings, it seems as if everyone in the branch knows who they are. Members promptly connect with these visitors and start to encourage them in learning the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Elder Stevenson said.
Those efforts are proving fruitful as the Church continues to grow in Myanmar.
“That small branch in Myanmar has nine full-time missionaries who are now serving around the world, with another 20 young adults who are currently preparing to send in their mission applications,” he said. “Even though these members in Myanmar are new to the Church, as well as social media, their success in missionary work via social media is quite spectacular.”
In addition, the Book of Mormon is not yet translated into Burmese. However, members and investigators in Myanmar “have growing and vibrant testimonies of the Book of Mormon,” Elder Stevenson said.
“They gain their testimonies from hearing about the Book of Mormon from others as people share stories,” he said. “Some of them through learning English. They bear strong testimonies in a remarkable way.”
As the leaders visited many countries in just a few days, they felt the faithfulness of the members in every country visited.
“Throughout our travels, there was a high level of optimism, enthusiasm, outreach to others and caring for one another,” Elder Stevenson said. “They live and testify of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Whenever apostolic keys come to the countries of Asia, good things happen — both in the progress of the work and in the lives of individuals,” said Elder Randy D. Funk, General Authority Seventy and president of the Asia Area. “We saw that once again as Elder Stevenson ministered, taught and blessed those in the six countries or territories in Asia he visited. From newer members where the Church is just emerging, such as Vietnam and Myanmar, to places such as Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the Church has multi-generational families and strong leaders, he lifted each of us.”