Rugby-playing Mormon family from Zimbabwe relishes reunion in Utah

Published: Thursday, July 5 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Zimbabwe's Andries Van Heerden (3) grabs Canada's Connor McCann in a headlock during a rugby match in the IRB Junior Rugby Trophy tournament at Murray Park Rugby Stadium on Tuesday, June 26. Canada won, 66-45. Van Heerden is a member of the LDS Church and plans to serve a mission.

David Brinton

MURRAY — Although Zimbabwe trailed Canada by a large deficit and the rugby match was almost over, one small group of loyal supporters continued to wave their nation’s colorful flag and cheer with enthusiasm last Tuesday, June 26.

For the Van Heerdens, the 36-hour trip from Africa to Utah was mostly about seeing their son, Andries, compete for Zimbabwe in the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy tournament. It was also about reuniting with family, friends and feeling closer to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“It’s been wonderful,” Kathleen Van Heerden said. “If more Africans could come here and see what’s going on with the church, it would strengthen them.”

The Van Heerdens' story begins in 1983 when the elder Andries Van Heerden, then a 29-year-old farmer, accompanied a friend to LDS Church services in Zimbabwe and felt the Holy Ghost. He began meeting with the missionaries and was baptized. One of the missionaries who taught him the gospel was Jeff Flake of Snowflake, Ariz., now serving his sixth term in Congress.

In 1984, Van Heerden started dating Kathleen, a Methodist. At her boyfriend’s invitation, she began meeting and learning about the gospel from a missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rex Ottley from Utah. Kathleen was baptized on June 23, 1984, and the couple were married that September. The Van Heerdens were eventually sealed in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple in 1987.

Andries and Kathleen Van Heerden journeyed to Utah in 1991 to visit the Ottleys and Temple Square. Over the past two decades, the Van Heerdens have raised four children and served in the local LDS congregation. The couple's oldest son served a mission in Johannesburg, South Africa; a daughter served in Leeds, England; and the third son, Dirk, is currently serving in Johannesburg.

The youngest son, also named Andries, wears No. 3 for the green and white and plays on the front line for Zimbabwe's Under-20 squad. He plans to submit his mission papers when the rugby season is over. If possible, he’d like to go to a Spanish-speaking mission.

But the younger Andries has already been a missionary in some ways. Like his brothers before him, he has maintained a commitment to never play sports on Sunday.

“Rugby has allowed me to be an example to my peers, teammates, and I’m proud to be an example to them by not practicing on Sundays,” Andries said following the team's 66-45 loss to Canada. “It’s the right decision for me, and thankfully, they (the team) respect that.”

Andries later suffered a broken arm in Zimbabwe's 22-10 victory over Russia on June 30. He was taken to the hospital and underwent surgery. His family says he is recovering and doing well.

Willem, the oldest son, is studying agricultural technology at BYU-Idaho. After reluctantly admitting his little brother was the best rugby player in the family, he credited his parents and the missionaries who taught them for the happiness and opportunities in his life.

“I can’t say enough for how grateful I am to my parents for listening to the missionaries and for accepting the gospel,” Willem said. “I’ve seen the changes in people’s lives that I served and I can imagine what it was like for my parents. Having this knowledge helps me every day. It’s a process I never want to forget.”

In addition to watching his brother play rugby, Willem was able to go with his parents to meet Rex Ottley, now 92, on June 23, the 28th anniversary of Kathleen Van Heerden's baptism. Willem said it was an honor to meet the man who taught his mother the gospel on such a special day.

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