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The photo of early unofficial LDS leaders in West Africa is part of the BYU L. Tom Perry Special Collections. It was included with the letter.

With an underlying peace and dignity that ground them to the gospel of Christ, Elder Christopher N. Chukwurah and his wife, Florence, are literally as far from home as they can get, yet the embrace of fellow believers has provided a home for them in Salt Lake City.

Busy this week with responsibilities connected to the 173rd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which begins today at 10 a.m. in the Conference Center, the couple embody the rapid spread of the faith in their native Nigeria. They are among a new generation of leaders, many of them first-generation Latter-day Saints, who are taking on increasing responsibilities and helping to bridge cultures in a church whose "greatest challenge — and greatest blessing," according to President Gordon B. Hinckley, is growth.

Elder Chukwurah was sustained as an area authority seventy in 1997, and Sister Chukwurah was recently named to the Relief Society General Board — the first African woman to be so appointed.

While their service to the world-wide church has taken them temporarily away from home, the couple are well aware of the fellow church members they will one day return to. There are now more than 70,000 Latter-day Saints in Nigeria, comprising 14 stakes, 11 districts and five missions. Elder Chukwurah said he spoke Thursday with a friend who had just arrived in Salt Lake City from Aba, Nigeria, who told him the church's temple there "is at the roofing stage" now and that the projected completion date is the third quarter of 2004.

Announced during General Conference in April 2000, the building and its sister temple in Accra, Ghana — announced in February 1998 — have been long awaited by West African members, who now comprise less than one percent of the population in the region. Yet the church is "very well known in most places" there, Elder Chukwurah said. "They see our buildings because they stand out.

"It's not difficult to introduce the church to people in our part of Nigeria because it's already well-known" for the quality of its facilities and the rising temple, he said.

Yet it was not always so.

In fact, a little more than 30 years ago small groups of Nigerians had independently organized themselves into unofficial "branches" of the church after LDS literature had convinced several thousand of the faith's truthfulness. Letters from the "unofficial Saints" had been written to LDS headquarters, beginning as early as the mid 1940s, requesting that missionaries and additional resources be sent to various areas of West Africa.

'Unofficial Saints'

As word spread and the number of believers grew, so did the stack of mail directed to the LDS Missionary Department. A Time Magazine article in 1965 noted the "Black Saints of Nigeria," numbering some "7,000 Ibibio, Ibo and Efik tribesmen in eastern Nigeria who have gone ahead to organize their own branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Because the church banned black men from holding its priesthood until 1978, no proselyting missionaries were sent to the region until that year, as official church units require local priesthood leadership. But top church leaders dispatched at least three men to the region during the early 1960s to meet with the "unofficial Saints."

One representative returned to Salt Lake City to report that when he first visited a Nigerian group, many in attendance had walked up to 25 miles — one way — in order to hear him speak, walking home again after his presentation. According to historian James B. Allen, he found their faith and commitment to LDS principles overwhelming. Packed into the equivalent of "an old sheep shed," they listened intently as long as he would talk. "They already understood and lived the Word of Wisdom, and personal chastity was high among them."

Other visits followed, but two months after church leaders called their representative back from Nigeria in 1965, a military coup ensued and was shortly followed by the Biafran War. Political instability in the nation lasted until the mid-1970s, according to Allen's 1991 article, "Would Be Saints: West Africa Before 1978."

The church's first two missionary couples were sent to Nigeria in November 1978, and by the time they returned the following year, there were 1,700 Nigerian Latter-day Saints. The rapid growth of the church there since is a testament to the fundamental spirituality Africans possess, the Chukwurahs said, noting that most African names have some reference to deity.

A search for truth

The couple first learned of the LDS Church in January 1983, when they began looking in earnest for a new faith. Married in the Catholic Church during their college years in Chicago in the 1970s, the couple said they had long searched for truth, and on Dec. 31, 1982, they held a "traditional family fast" whose objective was "to ask the Lord to show us a church where we (could) raise our children completely in the care and service of the Lord."

Nine days later, Sister Chukwurah was fixing dinner and told her husband she felt they should visit a family friend. He had the same impression, and they visited the man, who began talking about a new church he had found. When he told them it was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "the name seemed too long, but we felt immediately that it was an answer to our prayers."

That same night, they went with their friend to the home of the LDS branch president, and three weeks later they were baptized in a stream on the same piece of property where the new Aba Nigeria temple is now under construction.

Neither knew of the church's priesthood ban before their conversion, but they agree that learning of it didn't make any difference to them. "No one hardly even talked about it. . . . It was not a problem for me at all," Elder Chukwurah said.

Having served as a general authority in Nigeria since 1997, Elder Chukwurah said "saving the people and changing their lives for the better" has been not only his mandate but one of his greatest joys. Affordable transportation still hampers the church in many areas of the country, where members have joined in outlying areas but can't travel the great distances required to the nearest meetinghouse. Missionary efforts are now focused within a reasonable distance of LDS buildings.

Sister Chukwurah hopes her new assignment will provide the Relief Society General Presidency with an African perspective she believes can help build bridges between cultures. "I want to sensitize them to what is happening and the struggles the sisters have," many of them with basics that members in other parts of the world take for granted. For instance, she said, a Relief Society manual mentions a shopping mall and talking on the phone — concepts that are foreign or unavailable to many Nigerian Saints. Still, "they love the Lord so much."

Both say they don't have words to express their gratitude to God for what the LDS Church has done for them, their three sons and so many others in their native country.

"We joined essentially because we were looking for A church, but we found THE church," Elder Chukwurah smiled. "The only true one."

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