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Mormon Kenyans jubilantly await President Nelson, hope visit helps reduce persecution

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NAIROBI, Kenya — Warning: Everything in the next paragraph is phony.

For baptism, Mormons immerse people in blood. They sacrifice children to the devil. They conduct church services naked.

Kenyan journalists have begun to debunk those fabrications over the past year, including one story published Sunday. But an end to what one bishop characterized as persecution can't come soon enough for the 13,600 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who live here.

They are jubilant that President Russell M. Nelson will visit them today. After all, he is only the second LDS Church president to visit their country.

"For the last few weeks, we have been elated about the news," Athi River Ward Bishop Stephen Kasue said during the church's sacrament meeting on Sunday. "It doesn’t happen always that we have the prophet visit our country. He has a busy schedule."

He stood before 72 members of the faith, holding a microphone in his hand in a chapel with a corrugated tin roof, maroon cement floor and yellow, heavy, plastic tent fabric for walls. A cooling breeze, aided by six cooling fans hanging from the ceiling, blew through netted windows.

Kasue, 36, from one of Kenya's pioneering Mormon families, encouraged his congregation never to forget what they hear on Monday.

“We have a prophet who receives revelation for our time," he said. "In real time, we are able to learn about these revelations and let them be a guide in our lives."

Afterward, he told the Deseret News the Mormons here also hope that President Nelson's stop — expected to draw more than a dozen journalists from Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda — will help them puncture hurtful myths.

Global Missionary Tour

Follow the Deseret News as we chronicle President Russel M. Nelson's travels through seven countries around the world.Inflection point

Kasue and others believe that would help their numbers grow faster here, maybe something just a little bit more like the staggering LDS growth in Nigeria.

"We have more than 500,000 members" in Africa, President Nelson said in London on Thursday during the first leg of his initial international tour as church leader.

The 93-year-old said that fact led him to do some research.

"I looked up how many members of the church we had in the world when I was born — a little less than 600,000," he said. "In one man’s lifetime, the church has grown from less than 600,000 to more than 16 million."

Africa now has 152 stakes, he said, nearly 60 more than existed in the world at his birth.

Kenya has two stakes, which are geography-based groupings of congregations. One formed in Nairobi in 2001 and split in 2016 into the Nairobi East and West stakes. Growth could require the creation of a third stake in the next couple of years, said Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, the church's Africa Southeast Area president.

"This has been a long process, but I think we've reached an inflection point," Elder Hamilton said.

Kasue, who has been a bishop for six months and said he is still learning, does see a time when Kenyans will say fewer "nasty, crazy" things about his church.

"When the missionaries teach a family," he said, "the neighbors say, 'Don't let them come to your place. Your kids will die. Your kids will be sacrificed."

When the youngest daughter of Consolat Ochieng, 48, missed her mother's baptism in 2008 because she was away at boarding school, it led to a problem the following year that the family laughed about over dinner near the rough slums of Kayole in eastern Nairobi on Sunday.

When 13-year-old Rebecca Ofwete decided to be baptized in 2009, having never seen the ceremony, her boarding schoolmates told her she was joining a devil-worshipping church, she would be immersed in blood and that there was a hole in the bottom of the baptismal font.

Rebecca's anxiety grew so much she hid briefly on her baptism day. Eventually she agreed to bring two friends from another church, which made her feel safe enough she wouldn't be baptized in blood.

Checking growth

There are other challenges for Mormons in this country of 47 million. Language can be one for some. Kenyans belong to one of 47 tribes, each with its own language. While most also go on to learn English and Swahili, the official languages, in school, some are more comfortable with Swahili.

The church operates in English, widely used in education, government and business. Kasue and his wife, Mercy Kaleso, and everyone else who participated in church services on Sunday, spoke British-accented English. Still, Swahili often filled the stone hallways of the classroom building adjacent to the tent chapel. Especially among the young children who haven't started school or still are in the early grades and lack confidence.

That's why Elder Austin Latta is learning Swahili during his morning study time.

"We're an English-speaking mission," said Latta of Calgary, Canada, "but we have the option to do language training in Swahili. Even if we don't learn a ton of Swahili, it gains the trust of people."

The bespectacled 21-year-old stood in the doorway at 9:45 a.m. Sunday with three other missionaries, two native Africans, and welcomed people in easy, conversational Swahili ("karibu" means welcome) and with the culture's common, three-part handshake.

English acts as a unifier, Elder Hamilton said, and it benefits church members in multiple ways.

"When I joined the church I hardly talked," said Ongata Rongai Ward Bishop Peter Ondigo, 33, a local entrepreneur who served an English-speaking mission in Zimbabwe. "The church taught me English."

One other restraint on growth is an effort by church leaders to grow the church responsibly.

"Under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles," Elder Hamilton said, "we have focused on centers of strength like Nairobi" — a city of 3 million — "rather than expanding to rural areas."

"That has limited growth," said Matt Martinich, who monitors LDS expansion globally, "but they are making good progress."

One example is the Athi River Ward. It began in the late 1980s in the living room of the home of Kasue's late grandfather, Gideon. Missionaries began to arrive not long after.

Kenya granted the church legal recognition in February 1992. The Athi River Branch was organized in 1997. It became a ward in 2013. Its continued growth has spawned two other wards.

Bishop Stephen Kasue said one thing the church can do in the future to improve its standing is to build relationships with other churches and their leaders, who often see the Mormons as competition.

Changes afoot

Kasue has not been to an LDS temple for eight years, unusual for a Mormon bishop. But in Nairobi, where some members cannot afford transportation to church for Sunday services, traveling 2,500 miles to a temple is a monumental feat.

Kasue said several members of the Athi River Ward have qualified for and received the recommends required to enter an LDS temple, but they have never been.

For 30 years, the Africa Southeast Area — which stretches from Sudan to South Africa, includes 34 countries and is larger than the entire United States — has had a single temple on one end in Johannesburg.

However, a temple will be completed this year in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. That will be revolutionary for church members in the region, Elder Hamilton said. More is to come. Temples for Harare, Zimbabwe, and Nairobi were announced in 2016 and 2017.

No temple site or groundbreaking for the Nairobi Temple has been announced.

In an area that has seen the number of stakes jump from 14 in 2007 to 56 today, the new temples may accelerate the growth, Elder Hamilton said.

"The two stakes in Nairobi will never be the same with the new temple in DR Congo and then Nairobi," Elder Hamilton said. "The members will see the church differently and they will see the temple differently."

The temple in Nairobi, he said, will change everything in Kenya.

In fact, a press conference about the temple announcement seems to have sparked some of the recent publicity about the church.

Thoughtful girl

That publicity is revolutionary, and it has helped, Kasue said.

"People here are very superstitious. They hear it and believe it," he said. "But people my generation are more open-minded and question statements like those: 'No, that's not true.' Some members have been ashamed, but they are gaining courage and we are progressing from what I've seen. I'm very positive with what is happening. This publicity is new."

One reporter visited a congregation on a Sunday about a month ago, then lampooned Kenyans who “crucify” Mormons for being devil worshippers.

"That particular article helped a lot of people learn about the church," Nairobi 1st Ward Bishop Alex Omole said.

President Nelson's visit may be another boon. The late President Gordon B. Hinckley is the only church president to visit Kenya previously, in 1998 and 2005.

However, this will not be the first time Kenya has seen President Nelson. He visited as an apostle in 1992 and 2011.

This isn't the first visit either for Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who is on the trip along with Sister Wendy Nelson and Sister Patricia Holland. Elder Holland visited Kenya in 1996.

Kasue laughed at himself in front of his congregation as he spoke on Sunday. As he told a story, he stood under a long flourescent bulb while a small round clock hung on hanger wire from the tent's steel frame to his left. Two small pieces of paper skittered across the floor.

He said his 9-year-old daughter, Abigail, had asked him what the initial in President Nelson's name signified. He told her he didn't remember.

"You are the bishop, you should know," she said.

He googled it (answer: Marion), but said the girl's earnestness was warranted.

"She wanted to know the full name of the living prophet we have," he said, before sounding a theme President Nelson and Elder Holland have repeated on their tour so far in both London and Jerusalem.

"Russell M. Nelson is not only a prophet of the church but is a prophet of the whole world," Kasue said. "You know, God has called him at this time to serve the whole world. When he comes tomorrow, he’s not coming to address us as members but the address he is giving will be to the whole world."