In the December 2013 Ensign magazine, an official publication of the LDS Church, there is an article titled: “Africa: Continent of Bright Hope” by staff writer Richard M. Romney. From a reader’s perspective, it is poorly written. It is nothing more than a lazy attempt at writing. Romney just strings together a collection of General Authority quotes. The 4-page article, which is largely photographs, has 17 quotes, 9 are from one article by Elder Jeffery Holland. There is no research past GA quotes. I doubt Romney has ever been to Africa.
There are so many additional things wrong with the article that I really don’t know where to start. But here goes.
First, the photographs are terrible. Why must the LDS Church insist that its members all dress like American businessmen, lawyers, and morticians? Africans have a very colorful way of dressing, particularly the women. But there is none of that in the photographs. The photographs make it look like colonialism has been reborn in LDS Africa. Is this really the image that we want to promote?
Second, is a quote attributed to Elder Holland:
One key to the Church’s success in Africa, Elder Holland said, is that “we don’t get involved in conspicuous, sociopolitical issues. We preach the gospel. We are concerned about justice, and we are concerned about social opportunity and equity. But we think [the answers are found in the gospel], so we just preach the gospel. And it has been true elsewhere and it is true in Africa, that people get that insight, blessing, and light in their lives, and suddenly things start to change and their lives are blessed.”
I’m not totally sure what Elder Holland means by “sociopolitical issues,” but if has anything to do with helping to raise members and their neighbors out of poverty, then I’m extremely disappointed. I understand the use of the word “political,” but the “socio-” prefix is a little disconcerting. It borders on sounding like Glenn Beck.
The statement that “we just preach the gospel,” is factually inaccurate. There are humanitarian and senior missionaries all over Africa who are doing a lot more than just “preach[ing] the gospel.” And their work should be commended. But more than that, the LDS Church needs to do more for its members and their neighbors than just bringing them the gospel. We have a Christ-like responsibility to help lift people out of poverty.
Third, the article is ridiculously optimistic. Preaching the gospel–and fighting poverty–in Africa is difficult. But few of the real issues and problems are discussed. One exception, there was brief allusion to past civil wars in the Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. In a beautiful blog post on bycommonconsent.com, Julianne writes:
I want to end in telling you about the Relief Society in the branch I lived in in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the last year. With less than 10 regular members, it was a small group of women, but was led by President Yewinshet, an amazing woman whose dedication and faith were truly inspiring to me. Like most Mormons in Ethiopia, Yewinshet was the only member in her family. Inactivity in the branch was exceptionally common–every week there were at least two baptism, but the number of people who continued to come to meetings remained small . . .
Julianne goes on to describe the wonderful work being done by Yewinshet, who was born blind.
Below is a graph which shows a decline in extreme poverty in the world. Note that all the dramatic improvements have occurred in Asia, while little has happened in Africa:
So things are not all rosy in Africa. There is disease, famine, war, and poverty. And the LDS Church has a large problem with membership retention. As many of you know, I spend my free time in Uganda. And, based on my discussions with senior missionaries, retention is a problem there.
Fourth, and most importantly, the article fails miserably to provide any suggestions as to how Americans and Europeans should help their African friends. Many LDS Church members would love to help, but could use suggestions and guidance. But instead they get empty platitudes and ridiculously optimistic assessments on the condition of the church in Africa. The LDS Church is growing rapidly in Africa. The Ugandan mission, for example, is one of the fastest growing in the Church. But a much broader vision is required if the Church is going to survive as a viable institution.
The Ensign article by Romney is embarrassingly inept. The magazine needs to meet a much higher standard. For example, let someone like Julianne write the article.
The article–“From Mzungu to Friend”–that follows Romney’s, while sugary, is much more interesting. The story of Roland and Janet Harris and their experience as senior missionaries in Uganda, I greatly appreciated.
Please everyone, consider reaching out to your African neighbors.
Note: For more about the faceless portraits click here.