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Former missionaries rejoice for India's first stake

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 4:54 p.m. MDT

Jake Willie, left, with a family in New Delhi, India, during his LDS mission. (Jake Willie) Jake Willie, left, with a family in New Delhi, India, during his LDS mission. (Jake Willie)

There were times when Joel Bottom wondered how long it would take for India to get its first Mormon stake.

For instance, when then-20-year-old Elder Bottom was detained in 1995 and he was the first of more than 50 other American missionaries forced to leave India, he wondered.

The good news was only 17 years away.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve officially created the first stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hyderabad, India, on May 27.

There church in India now consists of one stake, six districts, two missions (Bangalore and New Delhi) and about 10,000 Latter-day Saints.

"Hyderbad is the most populous in church membership, with a mature leadership base," Elder Oaks recently told the LDS Church News. "It is ready for a stake."

Jake Willie, front center, with other missionaries and members of the church in New Delhi, India. (Jake Willie) Jake Willie, front center, with other missionaries and members of the church in New Delhi, India. (Jake Willie)

Bottom, now an insurance salesman in Idaho, celebrated the news by calling old missionary friends and sending a flurry of emails and text messages.

“I was excited. For so long, we put forth hard efforts and long days. Missionaries want to see the blessings right away, but you don’t see them right away,” he said. “I always knew there would be a stake. It’s great to finally see the fruits of your labors.”

Despite several attempts to establish the church in India beginning in the mid-1800s, it wasn’t until 1981 when government relations allowed an LDS missionary couple to establish a Mormon branch there. While most missionary teaching at the time was done in English, the Book of Mormon was translated into Telegu the same year.

LDS missionaries in the India New Delhi mission. (Jake Willie) LDS missionaries in the India New Delhi mission. (Jake Willie)

The first mission in India, the India Bangalore Mission, was created in 1993 with a president who was a native of India and joined the LDS Church as a student in California and who later taught mathematics at Brigham Young University. At that time there were 1,150 Latter-day Saints in India in 13 church branches. Within five years, that number grew to 2,000 members in 18 branches.

In 2007, a second mission was organized in New Delhi.

Bottom was among the first called to the Bangalore mission in 1993.

“It was a service mission, but we were allowed to do some proselytizing,” Bottom said.

In 1995, the Indian government requested that all missionaries for Christian denominations leave the country, including the LDS Church’s missionaries who were in the country on tourist visas. Bottom, who was detained because of this request, was among 52 missionaries reassigned to other missions. He finished serving in Hong Kong.

Jake Willie sits next to a boy during his mission in India. He served there from 2008 to 2010. (Jake Willie, Copyright 2008) Jake Willie sits next to a boy during his mission in India. He served there from 2008 to 2010. (Jake Willie, Copyright 2008)

“It was unfortunate, but it forced members to step up and learn the gospel, the doctrines and practices of the church,” Bottom said. “The members all stepped up in their callings and took an active role in guiding the church to where it is today.”

Kyle Christensen, of Clifton, Idaho, is another missionary who served in India before he was reassigned to Jacksonville, Fla. He was disappointed to leave because he had been there for about six months and was finally “getting into the groove of India.”

“It was an adventure,” Christensen said.

At that time, missionaries were given tourist visas and were classified as service missionaries. They could teach through member referrals, but no proselytizing was permitted. Amid the scorching 100-plus degree temperatures, Christensen said the missionaries did a lot of service projects, taught English classes at schools and put on basketball camps. Christensen was always flattered when kids asked for his autograph.

Jeff Grant with a family he baptized in India during his mission. (Jeff Grant) Jeff Grant with a family he baptized in India during his mission. (Jeff Grant)

Jeff Grant, who works in Salt Lake City, was thrilled to hear about the new stake. He served in Hyderbad for six months during his mission from 1999-2000. At that time, the city consisted of four branches and one was presided over by future stake president John Gutty, Grant recalled.

“He’s an amazing man,” Grant said. “His first counselor in the stake presidency, Suresh Natarajan, was a companion of mine, and I’ve never met a missionary quite like him since. Absolutely nothing could break down his cheerful attitude and optimism.”

Rajaratnam Bushi, the second counselor in the stake presidency, was one of the district leaders in Grant’s missionary zone.

“He was one that I could count on to always be doing what is right,” Grant said.

Jeff Grant, second from the right in the green tie, and his companion take a picture with an Indian family. (Jeff Grant) Jeff Grant, second from the right in the green tie, and his companion take a picture with an Indian family. (Jeff Grant)

Grant taught and baptized Prasad Rao, the man who was called as the stake patriarch. Prior to his calling as patriarch, the nearest LDS patriarch was in the Philippines.

“It’s amazing that this man just joined the church 12 years ago and is already a patriarch,” Grant said.

Terry and Erma Niederhauser, of Powell, Wyo., served as Church Educational System missionaries in India from 2004-2006, training teachers and priesthood leaders. Young adults they mentored as students are now serving as bishops and in other leadership positions.

The Niederhausers recalled meeting a man named Appa Rao from a village near Hyderbad who had an incredible story. Despite suffering from polio in his youth, he served a mission, married his sweetheart and they started a family. He made a living as a school teacher and could only afford the bus fare to church once a month. With some help from the church's special temple fund for patrons who live long distances from a temple, the family was eventually able to travel to the Hong Kong Temple to be sealed.

Jeff Grant and his companion, Suresh Natarajan. Natarajan was called to be the first counselor in the stake presidency. (Jeff Grant) Jeff Grant and his companion, Suresh Natarajan. Natarajan was called to be the first counselor in the stake presidency. (Jeff Grant)

With stalwart families like the Raos, missionary work has flourished in recent years. Jake Willie, of Pocatello, Idaho, served in the New Delhi mission from 2008-2010. He and other missionaries taught and baptized numerous families and individuals. The New Delhi mission baptized 100 people in 2008 and nearly doubled that in 2009.

“Missionary work became New Delhi’s mantra. I had never seen people so willing and eager to share the gospel despite cultural difficulties,” Willie said.

Another couple, Duane and Cynthia Tanner, of Saratoga Springs, served as humanitarian missionaries in New Delhi from 2008-2010. For the Tanners, news of the first stake was “thrilling.”

Idaho native Joel Bottom served an LDS mission in India from 1994-1995. (Joel Bottom) Idaho native Joel Bottom served an LDS mission in India from 1994-1995. (Joel Bottom)

“We’re thrilled for the church, but also for their country,” Cynthia Tanner said. “They are wonderful, humble, dedicated people. The culture is not Christian at all, so the members are very special individuals. Our hearts are there with them.”

Despite a language barrier, service and kindness helped Cynthia Tanner develop friendships with several women. She remembers seeing one grandmother helplessly watching over a sick grandchild. One of her most cherished activities was holding terminally-ill babies.

“My heart just broke for them,” Cynthia said. “We couldn’t speak to each other, but spirit to spirit and heart to heart, that’s how I felt about the women we were interacting with.”

The Tanners, who blogged and posted photos from their mission, as well as those from other former missionaries, could talk for hours about their great memories of India and the growth of the church there. Incredible things are happening, they agree.

Missionaries serving in India during the mid 1990s take time for lunch. Left to right, Tim Wier, Ben Hennick, Joel Bottom, Adam Bowler, Elder Singh and Elder Householder. (Joel Bottom) Missionaries serving in India during the mid 1990s take time for lunch. Left to right, Tim Wier, Ben Hennick, Joel Bottom, Adam Bowler, Elder Singh and Elder Householder. (Joel Bottom)

"The church is moving forward in India and it won't stop," Grant said. "There are so many people there with an amazing amount of faith, and more and more are hearing the message of the restoration and believing."

The Niederhausers agree.

“Our little branch has grown into two or three wards,” the couple said. “There are literally millions of people who could be taught the gospel."

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