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LDS Church
Elder Joseph W. Sitati.

SALT LAKE CITY — The LDS Church is using a previously unreported self-reliance program in Africa that is yielding positive results on a continent where the church is seeing "close to exponential" growth, Elder Joseph W. Sitati said Friday.

A Kenyan who is a member of the Quorums of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Sitati shared the information during the lunch plenary session of the "Black, White and Mormon" conference at the University of Utah.

He also said African Mormons know about but "are largely unaffected" by the past restriction on blacks of African descent receiving the LDS priesthood, in part because the restriction ended in 1978 on the heels of the end of colonialism in Africa.

Since then, LDS Church membership on the continent has grown rapidly. In 1978, there were 7,567 Mormons in Africa. At the end of 2014, there were 448,487.

Among them was Elder Sitati, who joined the church in 1986.

Another 45,000 African immigrants have joined the church elsewhere, including 15,000 in the United States. In fact, over the past five years, more than 50 percent of new members baptized in Europe are immigrants from Africa.

"The rate of growth has been close to exponential," Elder Sitati said, adding that it is accompanied by some of the highest new-member retention rates in the church.

"This underlines the fact that pre-1978 temple and priesthood restrictions on black people have not impacted church growth in Africa to any extent that requires church leaders to address them specifically," he said.

Challenges of growth

The church is growing faster than it can train new local leaders or build meetinghouses.

"It is easy for missionaries to find converts almost everywhere," Elder Sitati said.

The church adopted a principle of establishing and growing centers of strength in urban areas where literacy is high and there are fewer languages.

Other challenges include terrorist activity or internal conflict in some nations, and governments that impose limits on the number of foreign missionaries.

Poverty also restricts the participation of many Latter-day Saints.

Senior couples often can't finance even stay-at-home service missions. Most young Mormons can't afford to serve as missionaries without church assistance — the cost of serving a mission in some cases exceeds the per capita GDP.

"All who want to serve are given the opportunity to do so," Elder Sitati said.

In 2012, in a previously unreported move, the church's First Presidency began to expand on the Perpetual Education Fund to create "Self-Reliance Services," which Elder Sitati called "a doctrinally based, fully supported initiative providing resources to support members in international areas in their efforts to become self-reliant."

The initiative opened the PEF — which provides loans for higher education — to all adults, no matter their age, and opened more routes to self-reliance by adding options for self-employment, accelerated job searches and learning marketable skills and trades.

New program

African Mormons who undergo 12 weeks of self-reliance training in the program are more likely to take the sacrament weekly, become temple worthy, save money, pay tithing and become debt-free, according to a July survey of more than 1,000 Africans from nine countries who graduated from the program.

"This priesthood-led initiative is already having a significant positive impact on the African Saints who are taking advantage of it, and their lives are being transformed," Elder Sitati said.

The survey showed a 106 percent increase in those who saved money and a 38 percent improvement in the number who were debt free. It also captured a 32-percent increase in weekly sacrament observance, a 14-percent boost in tithepaying and 11-percent jump in the number of members who were temple worthy.

American Mormons can get access to much of the program in the Gospel Library app on their phones or tablets, said Jermaine Sullivan, president of the church's Atlanta Georgia Stake.

"These programs were created for the international church, but we're doing the same thing in Atlanta," he said.

Sullivan called a stake welfare specialist in May and launched one part of the program called "My Job Search," which he'd found on his tablet app.

"We began with seven people and had amazing results," he said. "At the beginning, none of the seven were employed. At the end, five had one job (each), and the other two had two jobs each."

The overall program includes both temporal and spiritual self-reliance tools.

Differing perceptions

Elder Sitati, 63, served in Kenya as an LDS branch president, district president, stake president, mission president, Area Seventy and as the church's international director of Public Affairs for Africa.

He became a Seventy and general authority of the church in April 2009 and now lives in Utah, where he is an assistant executive director in the Temple Department and a member of the Perpetual Education Fund Committee.

His talk at the "Black, White and Mormon" conference at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts was set amid panels of African-American Latter-day Saints discussing race and Mormon women, race at Brigham Young University — there are no African-American faculty, a panelist reported — and how race affects LDS fellowship, proselytizing and teaching in congregations.

Most LDS leaders in Africa are black, and Sitati said he surveyed a number of them before his talk. He said most active adult African Mormons who have joined the church since the end of the priesthood restriction in 1978 know about it.

"The work of the church is largely unaffected by concerns about the past," he said. Moreover, the Saints in Africa are not preoccupied by these issues."

They find understanding and peace in gospel teachings and the past restriction in the context of African colonialism, when "long-established foreign-based mainstream Christian churches" placed limitations on their African members.

The LDS Church is not seen as any more American, white or racist than other churches that originated in the United States, he said.

African LDS sensitivity may arise when something suggests "they belong to a status that in some way makes them less than fellow citizens with North American Saints."

Sullivan, who is the online learning advisor at Clayton State University and was one of six Mormons highlighted in the 2014 documentary film "Meet the Mormons," was a panelist at the conference.

"I thought it was powerful to hear the perspective of Africans," Sullivan said of Elder Sitati's presentation. "It's quite different from the African-American experience, but I really appreciated it."

The entire conference will be available to stream online at www.thc.utah.edu by next week.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com