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