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Swiss baptisms planted gospel seed in the Congo

By Ernie Shannon

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Dec. 29 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

Junior and Phillippe Banza with their families.

Dickson Call

In 2007, 28 years after baptizing a young Congolese couple, Mucioko and Mutombo Banza, in Geneva, Switzerland, Dickson Call and Todd Clement learned that the baptisms had assisted in the establishment of the church in the Congo and the conversions of thousands in the years since. At the time of the baptisms, however, the young missionaries feared the Banza family might never live their newfound religion.

On a warm August evening in 1979, the decision to contact residents in one more Geneva apartment building placed then-Elders Call and Clement at the doorway of the Banza family, which had come from their African home to pursue an education. The Banzas were among hundreds of Africans in Switzerland seeking additional schooling that was lacking in their native lands.

In 1977, the Banza family arrived in Geneva and Mucioko began his studies. In August 1979 when Mucioko Banza was nearly two years into his studies, Elder Call had come within days of being transferred away from Geneva when his mission president, Owen J. Stevens, changed his mind and decided to keep Elder Call and Elder Clement together in Geneva. President Stevens’ explanation to Elder Call was, “You have more to accomplish here.”

On the evening of Aug. 30, the elders introduced themselves to the Banzas and Mucioko invited them in. According to Elder Call's account, “We taught them a (first discussion) and they said we could teach them all the discussions. They were incredible, very kind, warm, and they are Christians.”

Elder Call continued, “The father was outgoing. They have two boys who are 7 and 5 years of age. We are going back on Tuesday to teach. There is a great feeling there — we’ll see.”

A week later on Sept. 7, the elders stopped to see the Banzas again and Elder Clement wrote:

“Tonight we passed by the Banza family and had a real good discussion. They are coming along great. They are looking sincerely and they are coming along really well. They said the whole family would be coming to church Sunday. They have two little boys. … Mr. Banza says that he wants to take the gospel truth back to Africa with him. So he is really studying hard. He and his family could very well be some of the first pioneers in the African country in which they live. They are from Zaire (as the Congo was known by for a period of time). They are a beautiful family and we’re really looking forward to their progress. I love it here in Geneva because you get the chance to teach people from all over the world. It’s a great experience.”

The elders didn’t teach the Banzas for another 12 days, but in the interim, the American missionaries made a banana cream pie and delivered it to the family. The effort solidified a warm friendship already developing. When the elders and the Banzas met again on Sept. 19, they taught about the Book of Mormon.

“We planned on teaching the commandments, but they had a friend there so we ended up teaching a 'C' … the First Vision and the re-establishment of the gospel, and presenting the Book of Mormon,” Elder Clement said. “It was neat. Mr. Banza asked us if he could tell his friend about it and we agreed. He did a pretty good job and then we explained it in more detail, but it was neat to see that he was excited enough about the re-establishment to tell his friend about it.”

Eight days later, the elders crossed the threshold with the Banza family and arranged a tentative baptism date.

“We fixed a partially good date for the baptisms of the Banzas — this coming Tuesday or Wednesday,” Elder Clement said. “He can’t say right now because he has to give some kind of presentation to the public for his schooling. We sure have been blessed with finding people. The Banza family wants to go to BYU. Hopefully things work out for them. They are going to be pioneers back in their home country of Zaire. They are excited about it too. They want to return and spread the gospel to their people.”

What the elders didn’t realize was that the Banza family’s residence and schooling in Geneva was sponsored by another church in the Congo. When that church's leaders learned that the Banzas had been receiving Mormon missionaries, they threatened to revoke the sponsorship. If the Banza family continued their contact with the missionaries and were baptized, they would be forced to leave Geneva and return to the Congo.

The Banzas had a decision to make. A critical decision. To join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meant forsaking their father’s education in Switzerland and returning home. But the family had been touched by the light of the gospel and the spirit had borne witness to them of its truthfulness. It only remained for the Banzas to exercise their burgeoning faith.

On Oct. 2, Elder Clement exclaimed in French and English in his journal, “Incroyable! Nous avons eu un Bapteme merveilleux! The Banza baptism was amazing and there were a lot of members and missionaries there to witness it. This has been such a blessing to be a part of and I thank God to have had a part in teaching and testifying to this family."

Only a few days later the elders learned the Banzas' sponsorship had been rescinded and they were preparing to return to Zaire. The day of the Banzas' departure at the Geneva airport was a sad one for Elders Call and Clement, but Brother Banza, sensing the elders' concern, assured them he and his family would remain faithful to their baptismal covenants. They would seek to build the church in their native land. Those were the most worthy of intentions, Elder Call thought, but how likely when so much would be arrayed against their determination and for how many years?

Elder Call returned home to Columbus, Ohio, in October 1979, and Elder Clement followed him back to the United States a year later.

“I have always said that my mission was the most spiritually intricate time in my life,” Call remembered. “The growth in my testimony was remarkable. I knew it was the Lord’s work and that I had been a part of that work. I had great companions, saw amazing things and had moderate success. I would not have traded those two years for anything."

Yet, in terms of conversions in which people remain actively engaged with the church throughout their lives, Call felt some disappointment.

“I have always said that I felt a little empty in that I received so much personally from serving but that I did not accomplish very much as far as moving the work forward. I wasn’t sure that any of the converts that I had been a part of were still active in the church and certainly not the Banzas who lived in a country devoid of the gospel. Still, the memories were incredible. As far as the Banzas, I pretty much resigned myself to the comforting fact that they were awesome people who the Lord loved, and that at least they were baptized and that some day, even if in the life hereafter, they would be back in the arms of the Lord’s church. This did bring some comfort.”

During general conference weekend in October 2005, Brother Call attended the 25-year anniversary reunion of the Switzerland Geneva Mission. His former mission president, Stevens, delivered a slide presentation that explored his and Sister Stevens’ missionary service in various countries, including Africa. Stevens spoke of the tremendous growth of the church there and it reminded Call of the Banza family.

In May 2007, while preparing for a sacrament meeting talk on the church’s worldwide missionary program, Call came across a Deseret News Church Almanac from 2003. While thumbing through the pages, he came to the Congo.

Having known the African nation by the name Zaire and not the Congo, and having fruitlessly looked for information about the church in Zaire, “I saw the Democratic Republic of Congo and my eyes immediately fixed on these words: ‘renamed Zaire in 1971 and the Congo in 1979.’ My heart began to pound a little. Then I totally lost my emotions when I next read, ‘The first baptisms in Zaire were on 1 June 1986, they were Banza Mucioko Jr., and Banza Philippe, sons of Banza Mucioko Wa Mutumbo. Banza Mucioko was baptized in Switzerland on 2 October 1979.’

“I reread those lines over and over again just to be sure. I immediately called Todd. He answered the phone and without mentioning the reason for the call I just started reading from the Church Almanac. It was hard to breathe — for both of us. All I can say is that for the next hour, he was not Todd and I was not Dickson, but we were Frere (the French term for brother) Clement and Frere Call and we were companions again — back in Geneva.”

Discovering the reference to the Banzas was only the beginning for Brothers Call and Clement. Contacting the Banza family was now a priority, and it proved to be very difficult.

Neither of the former missionaries could remember the Banzas' complete names or knew the nation or stake of the church in which they now resided. After calling church headquarters, they were told they would need more information. The former companions decided to contact the Stevenses through an old email address that Call had saved. In the email to the Stevenses, Call shared their story, recent discoveries and their goal of finding the Banzas. The Stevenses responded from Brussels, Belgium, where they were on another church assignment, that they would forward the email to several contacts in Africa.

On the morning of Oct. 29, 2007, Brother Call arrived at work.

"As I sat down at my desk at work, I pulled up my email messages and saw a message from the Stevenses which said, ‘trying to find convert … FOUND!!!' The message said that someone who was contacted from all these people searching on our behalf actually knew the Banza family very well. They said that Frere Banza was a bishop there in Kinshasa, Congo, and that their two sons were living in Utah.”

Brother Call immediately found a listing in West Valley City, Utah, for a Banza Jr., and called the number and left a brief message about his relationship to the Banzas. The next day, Brother Call received a call from an 801 number and thought, “this could be it.”

It was, in fact, Brother Banza, and they were both thrilled. Brother Call said, “We spoke for an hour and he told me all about his parents and their story. It was an incredible story and very inspiring. We rejoiced mightily. I learned that he and his brother married returned missionaries from the Congo and that they now lived a block apart in Salt Lake City. I assured him that I would be calling Todd Clement that evening and would arrange for a meeting between us all.”

The next day, Brother Banza wrote Brother Call and told his family’s story. “We have spent the last 30 years wondering if we would ever hear from you again. My parents have always talked about you and the impact you had in their lives."

Ernie Shannon served as a missionary in the Switzerland Geneva Mission during the time the Banza family was being taught.

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