Guest Post: Elder Bednar in Rwanda

Kirsten M. Christensen is Associate Professor of German at Pacific Lutheran University, where she directs the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program. 

kigali_bednar_080416On Thursday, August 4, 2016, Elder Bednar and his wife Susan visited saints in Kigali, Rwanda. Accompanying him were Elder S. Mark Palmer of the Seventy and his wife Jacqueline, Elder Kevin S. Hamilton of the Southeast Africa Area Presidency and his wife Claudia, and President Stephen Collings of the Uganda Kampala Mission and his wife Tracy Ann. I happened to be working in Rwanda at the time and had the chance to hear them speak.

There are a few scattered members of the church but no organized branches outside of the capital, so the meetings with Elder Bednar and the others were comprised almost exclusively of members of the three Kigali branches.

Earlier in the afternoon the men had assembled in the Kigali 1st Branch building in central Kigali for a priesthood session while the sisters gathered in the Lemigo Hotel for a Relief Society session. The final meeting was a general session, also held in the ballroom of the Lemigo Hotel. I estimate that the crowd for the general session was 150-200 mostly Rwandans, with a few expat members in the mix.

I offer this summary with little commentary or analysis, in the spirit of sharing a bit of the content of and a few impressions of a kind of meeting most of us don’t have the opportunity to attend every day.

Elder Bednar began his remarks with a report on President Monson’s health: “He doesn’t walk as fast, doesn’t work as long. But he still walks and he still works.”

He then directed the remainder of his remarks to any non-members gathered with the saints. He offered a detailed, clear and powerful review of the restoration of the church. “By what authority does anyone say that God does not speak? God speaks. He has always spoken,” he assured.

He then turned to the audience and warmly invited questions. He reminded all that this was not a regular church meeting and that he could thus take the opportunity for dialogue with his listeners. He encouraged questions “that general or area authorities and their wives can answer.” He discouraged complaints or “questions about mysteries.”

The first question came from a sister who said that people visit their wards from elsewhere and seem to speak of and have a great deal of love and humility. She asked: “What is the secret to this love?” Elder Bednar asked his wife to respond. Her answer was to describe different ways she tries to be an instrument of love for others.

Elder Bednar added that love, faith, and hope are spiritual gifts that we never receive as a result of wanting them for our own benefit; rather, they are intended to bless others. “When God can trust us to be in the right place at the right time, He knows it [presumably His love] will bless others.”

The second question came, in French, from a very earnest young man. (Although English replaced French some years ago as one of Rwanda’s official languages, French remains widely spoken.) The questioner asked about the history of our church, in particular about Joseph’s claim to have been a prophet. He mentioned William Branham, a mesmerizing and polarizing prophet figure of the 20th century and asked: “Which is the true prophet?” Elder Bednar answered that by their fruits we will know them.

The young man then asked about baptism, about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going. Elder Bednar referred him to the missionaries, which brought a soft chuckle from the audience. The young man answered with some urgency that he is from Congo and only in Rwanda for a short time. It was clear that he really wanted answers. Elder Bednar assured him that the missionaries would get a good start on providing the answers he sought.

The third question began with an observation that the room was not as full as it could have been and a lament that bringing more people into the church is difficult without church materials, including the Book of Mormon, in Kinyarwanda. He asked if Elder Bednar could help expedite the translation process.

Elder Bednar asked area authority Elder Hamilton to respond. Elder Hamilton said that similar questions are frequent in his travels across Africa. He announced that the translation of the Book of Mormon into Kinyarwanda has begun but that it is a careful, long process that will take some time yet. He then reminded listeners that the official language of the church in Rwanda is English. Throughout Africa, he explained, the church is deeply concerned that the church could become “fractured.” The directive to hold meetings in English will allow, he suggested, a “strong and solid foundation.” Things will be easier in a generation, he acknowledged, but we must be loving in the meantime.

This same young man asked the fourth question: “We are one people but [have] many customs. Can we be allowed to worship our Lord according to our traditions?” In his response Elder Bednar encouraged members to focus on the “culture of Christ,” a gospel culture that has universal reach. Members cannot and should not be influenced [in their gospel lives] by “other cultural things.”

The fifth question also came from a young man who reminded that in biblical times the Sabbath had been celebrated on Saturday, which was later changed to Sunday. He asked Elder Bednar how this change could be explained. Elder Bednar referred to modern-day revelation and the spirit of the Sabbath.
The sixth question came from a sister who declared that members come from many churches, but the Spirit declares that this one is true. She then explained that she is touched by LDS church history, by Nauvoo, by the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith. She movingly asked how saints in Rwanda can access the spirit and blessings of these historical places.

Elder Bednar’s answer was equally moving: “Nauvoo is here.” The history of the early church, he told her, mirrors what is happening in Rwanda and that she and her fellow members are pioneers in Rwanda.
The seventh question was asked by a young man on behalf of his wife, who wanted to know why “Hallelujah!” is not used in our church. Elder Bednar responded emphatically that “We do use that word!” — in the refrain of several hymns. (As it so happened, the closing hymn included the word, to the obvious delight of both Elder and Sister Bednar.) We don’t use the word ritually, he explained, but it is used in both song and speech.

The eighth question came from a very animated sister who had the crowd laughing frequently. She never managed to articulate an actual question, but her concern and heartache were nevertheless evident, and in spite of her lively demeanor. Her husband, her kids, her neighbors, her co-workers all believed that the church is the anti-Christ, and more disturbingly, that she is the anti-Christ. Elder Bednar listened patiently and intently as she told of repeated indignities. At one point he asked: “What is the question?” Even with his prompting she was only able to tell her story rather than ask a question. But Elder Bednar heard the question that seemed to underlie her tales—how do I live the gospel in the face of such hostilities? His response seemed aimed to both encourage and soothe her. It would not be her words, but rather: “Ultimately you will love them into knowing that you are not anti-Christ. The atonement not only cleanses from sin,” he reassured her, “but strengthens us to do hard things.”

The ninth question came from an older brother who explained that he was a visitor from a Bible church, there because his son is a member and he has seen the changes in him. He asked which church will take us to heaven. Elder Bednar answered emphatically, “No church!” A church is necessary to administer the authority, but following Christ leads to heaven. The church provides the means to most effectively follow Him.

The same brother asked how we can know true apostles among the many who call themselves apostles. “I could wake up and call myself an apostle,” he said in dismay. Elder Bednar deferred to Elder Hamilton, who referred the questioner to John 15:16—“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”

The final question came from an older brother who expressed gratitude for the church and said that leaders have said that the church will spread to towns and villages. He wanted to know more about how this will come about. Elder Bednar pointed to the need for good soil.

This Q/A session was followed by testimonies from all of the visiting authorities and their wives. Elder Hamilton’s testimony must have resonated particularly with the assembled saints. He described Rwanda as a fruitful part of the vineyard and prophesied that wards and stakes will be established there, that the children and grandchildren of these first-generation members will grow up in the church. “We will see the church prosper in Rwanda. One of a family, two of a city we will build the church,” he promised.Elder Bednar’s concluding testimony echoed these sentiments. “I look forward to coming back…to observing the growth of you as individuals and of the church.” He invoked upon the Rwandan saints “a simple blessing—that faith will grow, that roots will go deep, that blessings will shower down upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” in Rwanda.

12 comments for “Guest Post: Elder Bednar in Rwanda

  1. I looked up William Branham on Wikipedia, and it sounds like Branhamism has a bit of a following in the Congo (perhaps 25,000 people).

  2. Thank you. This was very interesting to read.

    I understand why English is the official language in many wards and branches in different parts of Africa (and other parts of the world) and see some major institutional benefits to that policy, but it is so hard to stay active when you’re not able to use your native language to worship. It is far more difficult to learn another language fluently than many US Mormons realize, and even then it might not be the language of your heart.

  3. Elder Bedinar did a similar performance last time he was in Australia. He was in Sydney, and it was televised to the whole east coast. We were invited to send in questions, but all the questions answered were from people in the room, and appeared to br vetted as none were difficult. Almost a set of dorothy dixers.
    I came away with the impression that it was an easy way to spend 90 minutes, with out having to do any preparation, and appear to be consulting with the members, but only those who don’t ask difficult questions. And he the Apostle contributed very little, though 60 or 70 thousand members, made an effort to hear an Apostle.

    For those members who see GAs regularly, this was as close to an Apostle as I have been since our temple was open 13 years ago. It was promoted as come listen to a Prophets voice, it was a big disapointment.

  4. Amira: I couldn’t agree more about the complexities of the language issue. It is clear that it simplifies things institutionally, but, as you say, it also makes activity very difficult, not to mention makes outreach to or conversion nearly impossible for vast swaths of the population.

    And then there’s the issue of the missionaries not having the opportunity to approach these people on their own linguistic foundation. Any of us who had to learn a language for our missions know that some of the most profound and humbling experiences we had were a direct result of not knowing enough to do what we were asked to do and thus having to rely on the Lord and others in ways we never do in our mother tongue. Not to mention the fact that the missionaries are denied the chance to learn the beauties of another language and what that can teach us about approaching God and one another.

  5. True Blue: this was definitely a much smaller affair then the Australia event you describe. The questions, as you can probably tell from my write-up, we’re definitely not scripted. Elder Bednar responded to all of them thoughtfully, but also directly and succinctly, as is his usual style.

    I was surprised that there was no formal opportunity to greet Elder Bednar afterwards, especially given the relatively small number of people in attendance and the great rarity of an apostle in Rwanda. A few listeners did go up to speak to him, but most just left. I’m sure if he had invited them to come shake his hand, most would have.

    I was told that he was only in the country for about 5 hours, so he might have had a plane to catch.

  6. Thank you. It was interesting to hear about the types of questions that Elder Bednar was asked. It seems like a lot of the concerns center around the types of issues that members face where there is a lot of competition among Evangelical Christian denominations for members. So you have the question about Saturday vs. Sunday, the other prophetic figure, being called an anti-Christ, and being an apostle.

    The two questions that really stuck out to me were about language and about worshiping according to local culture and traditions. And the response to both was basically the same: correlation. The church is focused on consistency, building from centers of strength, and avoiding fragmentation. I can see why, from an institutional perspective, the church chooses this approach. But it also stifles individual spirituality and makes it more difficult for families to pass on their local languages and cultures, traditions that have been passed down for hundreds of years. Instead, you rely on some 19 year old from Utah to tell you how to connect with God. The church is just a small piece in this process, but the cumulative impact from Christianity on local traditions and practices and cultures is devastating.

  7. I’m struck by the “children and grandchildren” promise. We’ve seen it happen before, despite how unlikely it has seemed at one time. Maybe those children and grandchildren will hear the gospel in their own languages.

  8. Joel and Keepapitchinin: Those two questions definitely stood out to me, too. It is hard to know that investigators and members alike desire more materials in their language and do not have that understandable desire met because it is not part of the overall vision. Elder Hamilton asked the members to have patience and look forward a generation or two to an all English-speaking church. That perhaps some members would like to look forward to an all-Kinyarwanda-speaking church is apparently not part of the discussion.

    The need for linguistic unity makes some sense in a country like Rwanda’s northern neighbor Uganda, which, in addition to English, Swahili and Ugandan Sign Language, has a staggering 42 indigenous languages from four different language families.

    But Rwanda is different, and a rarity in Africa, with over 90% of Rwandans speaking the same language, Kinyarwanda. Unity would be possible for the Rwandan members of the church in Kinyarwanda, it would seem. But it appears that the church is thinking of linguistic unity on continental rather than national terms. In fact, Rwanda is part of the Uganda mission, along with Ethiopia. And Rwandan saints need to travel to South Africa, Ghana or Nigeria to attend the temple.

    Interestingly, the Kigali branch meetings are currently held in both English and Kinyarwanda. Members are asked to give their talks in English (sometimes perfectly, others almost unintelligibly, depending on their proficiency level), and another member, usually a returned missionary who served in an English-speaking mission, translates. Accommodating members and visitors who don’t speak English well or at all by offering the meeting in both languages seems an important compromise in these still early years of the church there.

  9. “He announced that the translation of the Book of Mormon into Kinyarwanda has begun but that it is a careful, long process that will take some time yet. He then reminded listeners that the official language of the church in Rwanda is English. Throughout Africa, he explained, the church is deeply concerned that the church could become “fractured.” The directive to hold meetings in English will allow, he suggested, a “strong and solid foundation.” Things will be easier in a generation, he acknowledged, but we must be loving in the meantime.”

    I’m scratching my head here. There are already complete translations of the Book of Mormon into Fante, Shona, Swahili, Amharic, Ibo, Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Lingala, Twi, and Yoruba, and partial translations into Efik and Kisii. Plus, as mentioned before, the overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) of Rwandans speak Kinyarwanda as a first language and conflict along ethnolinguistic lines is highly unlikely to emerge there. Did Elder Bednar not fully understand the ethnolinguistic homogeneity of Rwanda?

    Also, a question to anyone who might know. Are LDS church meetings in Ghana and Nigeria held in English? Are they held in French in the DRC? I’m assuming that that is the policy in those countries because of ethnolinguistic diversity and that Elder Bednar was assuming that a like standard should be applied to Rwanda. Also, about Ethiopia, where English and French never really gained widespread usage?

  10. I should say, the linguistic homogeneity (and exclude the ethnic- prefix) of Rwanda, since Rwanda had been deeply polarized along ethnic Tutsi and Hutu lines for decades prior. Yet the Hutus and Tutsis both spoke Kinyarwanda.

  11. When Bednar said that English could provide a “strong and solid foundation” for the Church in Rwanda and prevent fracturing, I don’t think he is actually talking about lingual fractions; it seems you all are thinking of units that operate in x, y, and z local languages and cultures. When the Church materials are only available in a colonial or foreign language, that ensures that the early converts, and likely leaders, are both educated and established. They will likely have jobs, and perhaps transportation. They will be the kind of people who the Church trusts to take on heavy and influential callings. Unlike the kind of people who may have a less worldly formal education. Or who may only be able to attend Church once a month or so because they live outside the city and travel in for meetings. I think the foundation they are building is not linguistic, but one of class.

    I am not defending it, it just seems to be the philosophy of expansion in the modern church.

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