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The power of ministering: How the enduring faith of members overcame 'The Freeze' in Ghana

ACCRA, Ghana — Wielding machine guns in the midday summer sun, the soldiers invaded the mission home.

The automatic weapons added fear to the bewilderment felt by mission leadership and staff. Minutes earlier during a lunch break, they learned from a radio broadcast that Ghana’s government had frozen all activities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We couldn’t understand what that meant,” said John Buah, the office finance clerk.

Whatever it meant, it seemed impossible. After all, the Church had a direct connection to Ghana’s leader, Lt. Jerry Rawlings, who had taken power in a coup eight years earlier. Rawlings’ older brother, Isaac Addy, worked in the Ghana Accra Mission home. He was there when the soldiers arrived. Addy had joined the Church in England in 1976 and was serving as a district president and the regional manager of temporal affairs.

Rawlings considered Addy a mentor and hero. That Rawlings would shut out his brother and accuse the Church of undermining his sovereignty seemed doubly bizarre. Addy, along with everyone else in the mission home, couldn’t understand why Rawlings hadn’t conferred with his brother before taking this drastic step.

“He couldn’t believe it,” said Buah, 60, who retired this month as the Church’s Africa West Area welfare manager. “He thought he would have had a hint. He didn’t know what was going on.”

The radio broadcast and mission home invasion happened on June 14, 1989. The situation would grow worse. Over the next few hours and days, the government expelled the mission president and the rest of the American missionaries, suspended all missionary work and Church meetings, jailed some members, chained the doors to all 50 LDS meetinghouses and confiscated Church property. At the end of the first week, a government leader announced the Latter-day Saints would be banned from Ghana for good.

Ghanaian saints and "the Freeze"
Ghanaian saints and "the Freeze" Photo: Heather Tuttle

What became known among Ghana’s Saints as The Freeze had begun.

In the minutes after the machine guns arrived, one couple faced two major problems.

First, how would a branch president minister to his congregation when the government forbade it? How Richard Ahadjie’s resolved that issue is an example of the Church’s new emphasis on ministering one by one, say Church leaders and those who witnessed it.

Second, how would the mission secretary maintain communication with Salt Lake at a time in Ghana when it took two weeks to book a landline to make a phone call? Emelia Ahadjie’s courageous, self-sacrificing solution soon would stun the soldiers she was about to defy.

Still, the Ahadjies and 9,000 other Ghanaian Latter-day Saints had no idea they would have to endure without a functioning church for 17 months.

“We felt like we’d been orphaned,” said Kweku Ghartey, 76, then a district president in Cape Coast, a city on the Atlantic Ocean.

‘Take care of the Saints’

As soon as he heard the radio report, Richard Ahadjie jumped on a trotro, one of the country’s omnipresent minibuses, and headed for the mission home in Accra, the capital city of more than 1 million. His wife worked there as the mission secretary. And as the president of the Koforidua Branch about 60 miles outside Accra, he needed to consult with Ghana Accra Mission President Gilbert Petramalo.

Ghanaian saints and "the Freeze"
Ghanaian saints and "the Freeze" Photo: Aaron Thorup

He found the mission home, and President Petramalo, surrounded by military. The gates to the compound were padlocked, and he could not enter or see his wife. When he saw President Petramalo leave one building to go to another, he called to him. President Petramalo turned, saw Ahadjie and motioned for him to leave. “President Ahadjie,” he said, “go take care of the Saints in Koforidua.”

Concerned for Emelie but unable to reach her, Ahadjie went straight home. When he arrived and took out his key on his doorstep, three policemen arrived. One of them was his first counselor in the branch presidency.

They arrested him for being Mormon.

“I’m here,” his loyal counselor told him, “to keep you safe.”

Ahadjie, 64, today an Area Seventy after his call at general conference six weeks ago, spent eight days in jail. On the first night, a clear impression came during a dream in the dirty cell he shared with five criminals at the Koforidua Central Police Station: “Go take care of the Saints.”

Elder Richard K. Ahadjie and his wife Sister Emelia Ahadjie, walk in Accra, Ghana, on Friday, April 20, 2018.
Elder Richard K. Ahadjie and his wife Sister Emelia Ahadjie, walk in Accra, Ghana, on Friday, April 20, 2018. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Finally, the police commissioner ordered him released but told him to report to the police station by 7 a.m. each day until an investigation was complete. One day, he took Ahadjie to the branch’s meetinghouse and requested the metal box with the membership records. He didn’t find in it what he’d been looking for.

“Where is the gold you distribute to the Church members every Sunday?” the commissioner asked.

After Ahadjie corrected his misinformation, the police commissioner confiscated a Book of Mormon and the priesthood leadership manuals known as Handbook 1 and 2. He set them on top of the TV in his office.

“As an investigator, a policeman, he went through Handbook 1 every day,” Elder Ahadjie said. “He became a friend. He said, ‘This is a whole book on good government.’ He started reading the Book of Mormon. He was converted by the Book of Mormon as a police officer. After about a month he said, ‘You can stop coming to the office every day.’ ”

Forest sacrament and ministering on foot

As soon as he was released from jail, Elder Ahadjie organized his counselors, clerks, executive secretary, high priest group leader and elder’s quorum president for a small, secret meeting.

Church meetings were illegal, but the Europe Area Presidency had instructed Ghana’s Church leaders that they could hold small sacrament meetings in their homes.

Elder Ahadjie’s group decided to have a small sacrament service each week in a dense forest of mature, African trees on a farm where a Church member grew maize and plantains.

Every Sunday, the priesthood leaders and their wives woke between 3:30 and 4 a.m. and walked through the dark, cool night past chickens, goats and sheep to their hideout in the forest. They arrived before sunrise. The farmer, with money provided by Elder Ahadjie, brought a loaf of bread in a plastic bag and bottled water. Elder Ahadjie supplied small, reusable plastic drinking cups, each one a different color. They broke the bread on a ceramic plate and placed the sacrament on a white cloth on a small table and covered it with a second cloth. After the sacrament, they read a chapter together from the Book of Mormon.

The service ended before the sun came up. Then the wives returned home, and the priesthood leaders paired up in four or five companionships, walked back past the animals and to the road. Their day had just begun.

They walked more than 20 miles each Sunday, eating nothing but the sacrament, and visited each of the branch’s more than 200 members, one family at a time.

“The members waited for members of the branch presidency to arrive and had the sacrament in their homes,” Elder Ahadjie said. “We gave blessings. We took people to the hospital. Whatever their need, we administered to them. We were able to visit all the members on a Sunday.”

Each weekday during The Freeze, he also visited families as he biked on his way home from work.

“We were strengthening their faith,” he said. “We told them they should not go anywhere else. ‘This is the Lord’s Church,’ and He would bring it back. That was the meaning of the word ‘ministering.’”

To avoid a conflict of interest, the first counselor did not join them.

Sleeping at the office

Sister Ahadjie is tall and bright, with a commanding presence. Soon after The Freeze began, she stood up to the soldiers. They gave Ghana Accra Mission President Gilbert Petramalo, his wife and 17 other Americans one week to leave the country and demanded everyone leave the mission home.

Sister Ahadjie refused.

“I had to stay and communicate,” she said.

While the rest of the staff was laid off, because no work was allowed, or fled because of the danger, she hid in the mission office. When the soldiers returned and found her, they marveled. They called her stubborn.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m stubborn because of you. If I wasn’t here, how would you communicate with Church leaders in Salt Lake?”

The soldiers needed to be able to direct questions at Church leaders and make demands, but at the time, homes didn’t have phone service. Ghanaians had to book phone calls two weeks in advance and travel to the telephone office to place them.

Sister Ahadjie was the only one remaining who understood how to use the telex machine, which was connected to a dedicated point-to-point telephone switch. It was capable of quickly printing text-based messages from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City or Europe Area headquarters in Germany.

The soldiers knew she was right.

“They thought it was wise,” she said. “After that, I was the boss.”

Once Elder Ahadjie was released from jail, the couple reunited. She came home on the weekends, but slept on the floor next to the telex machine in the mission home during the week.

She kept dialogue open between the government, Addy and acting mission president Emmanuael Kissi in Ghana and general Church leaders overseas, including Europe Area President Richard P. Lindsay and his counselors, Elders Alexander B. Morrison and Robert E. Sackley.

Emmanuel Abu Kissi and his wife, Benedicta Elizabeth Kissi, pose for a photo at the Accra Ghana Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints in Accra, Ghana, on Friday, April 20, 2018.
Emmanuel Abu Kissi and his wife, Benedicta Elizabeth Kissi, pose for a photo at the Accra Ghana Missionary Training Center of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints in Accra, Ghana, on Friday, April 20, 2018. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Addy and Kissi dictated messages she typed and transmitted.

“I was the only employee who could use the telex machine,” Sister Ahadjie said. “I had to sleep in the office because of the time difference with Salt Lake City. I slept in the mission office for many months.”

Today, Sister Ahadjie, now 56, is the Africa West Area Director of Public Affairs.

Pioneers sang as they walked

The Freeze took a toll on everyone.

The day after the ban was announced, all 76 missionaries reported to the mission home. Within a month, all were honorably released.

“Those were days I wept,” said Sister Monica Ohene-Opare, 57, of Accra. “Our children asked, ‘Mom, why can’t we go to church any more?’ I cried every Sunday. I couldn’t see why somebody should stop me from going to church.”

Emmanuel Ohene Opare and his wife, Monica, are interviewed in Accra, Ghana, on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
Emmanuel Ohene Opare and his wife, Monica, are interviewed in Accra, Ghana, on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Her two oldest children were upset when they turned 8 during The Freeze and could not be baptized. Her husband, Emmanuel Ohene-Opara, who became a stake president in 1991 and an Area Authority Seventy in 1998, helped to bail members out of jail when they were improperly arrested for holding sacrament meetings in their homes.

“If you met someone from church by accident,” she said, “you had to look around and make sure no one would report, ‘The Mormons are meeting.’ ”

William Acquah was visiting families when he learned of a member who had been arrested for praying in her home in Cape Coast. Acquah and her husband went to seek her release. A guard asked if they were Church members. When they said yes, the guard said, “You go in there, too.”

“I wept the whole night,” said Charlotte Acquah, 60. “I couldn’t sleep.”

Her husband’s family, all Methodists, felt disgraced and demanded he leave the Church.

Back in Accra, Elder Ahadjie used music to lift spirits.

At the start of The Freeze, he was inspired to learn Hymn No. 135, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” On his long, ministering Sundays, he sang the song with his companion as they walked.

“The pioneers sang as they walked and walked and walked and walked,” Sister Ahadjie said.

They taught the hymn to the members, home by home.

“When The Freeze was over,” Sister Ahadjie said, “it became an anthem of the Church in Ghana.”

Ministering’s results

Rawlings finally lifted The Freeze on Nov. 20, 1990. Addy told Church leaders his younger brother had cleared the Church of wrongdoing. At the Koforidua Branch’s first sacrament meeting, Elder Ahadjie’s clerk recorded 120 percent attendance.

That wasn’t typical. Most wards and branches experienced losses.

“Those of us who were members at the time of The Freeze, not all of us are members now,” said Joseph Dadzie, 79, who joined a congregation in Takoradi that followed the teachings of the Book of Mormon in 1970, eight years before Church missionaries arrived in Ghana. “After The Freeze, many members didn’t come back.”

Dadzie and others said The Freeze refined the Church. Former members included some had who come looking for food and other help during famine and difficult economic times but hadn’t been converted.

Elder Ahadjie’s branch was an outlier.

“We did not lose a soul during The Freeze,” he said. “Those 20 percent were people who saw us ministering to our members. They had come to see what the Church was all about.”

“They marveled that for 18 months, nobody wavered and led good lives without attending church,” Sister Ahadjie added.

Many joined the Church.

“The Freeze became a missionary tool for the Church throughout Ghana,” said Richard Samche, 65, a former branch president, bishop and stake president in Kumasi, a large city in central Ghana. “Many people joined the Church because of what was said about the Church then and many remain members today.”

Of the 76 missionaries released at the start of The Freeze, five chose to resume their missions when it ended.

“The Freeze was a blessing to Ghanaians,” said Harry Sarpong, 70. “It was The Freeze that helped spread the gospel. Many people wanted to find out about the Church after that, after all the news reports on TV and the radio. It was a blessing in disguise.”

“All that misinformation propagated the Church,” said Samuel Antwi, 70.

Lessons learned

Ministering had been critical everywhere. Without it, Ghartey said, the results would have been catastrophic. As a district president during The Freeze, he visited homes throughout his area, often spending the entire day.

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said. “That was true ministering.”

It was fellowshipping that went beyond assigned home teaching families, said Joseph Larbie, who was arrested in his home and jailed over a false accusation that he had joined an illegal meeting at a Church meetinghouse.

“If you close our meetinghouses, you can’t come and lock up my home,” Larbie said in a 2016 Church video. “And if you close my mouth, you can’t close my heart.”

“The Church was a baby at that time,” said Larbie, now 69 and a high councilor in the Teshie Ghana Stake in Accra. “The gospel was still new in Ghana. The Freeze brought us closer because we had to do more than make a monthly visit as a home teacher. The prophet has had a real revelation. Real ministering is needed today. It’s high time we had a second look at it.”

Within six months of The Freeze’s end, the first two stakes in Ghana were organized. Today Ghana is home to 20 stakes — Accra alone has nine — 78,000 members, 303 congregations and the Accra Ghana Temple, announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley when he visited the country in 1998.

“We shouted that day,” said Marian Esiape. “We shouted and were happy we finally were going to get a temple. We really looked forward to it.”

Previously, Ghanaians traveled to England or South Africa for temple ordinances. Today the Church is growing rapidly in Nigeria, Ghana and other west African nations.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” said Esiape, 43, human resources director for the Africa West Area. “When you work in the area office and see all the growth, it’s mind-boggling.”

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