Church members were both emotional and awe-struck as President Gordon B. Hinckley arrived in West Africa Saturday, marking a historic and significant hallmark in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
President Hinckley's visit is the first by a church president to West Africa. His arrival in Port Harcourt was regarded by Latter-day Saints here to be of equal import to the impact of the ancient prophets in their day.President Hinckley addressed a priesthood leadership session of the Port Harcourt regional conference Saturday. He will speak during the regional conference today, at meetings in Ghana Monday and later in the week in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
The church leader was accompanied by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder James O. Mason of the Quorum of the Seventy and president of the church's Africa Area.
"This is the first time I have been in Nigeria," President Hinckley said. "I had no idea that we would have as great an honor as this. Thank you."
He encouraged leaders to stay abreast of new developments in church policy and curriculum. "You can't stay in the past and be a good leader of the church," he said.
Leaders should also build on the strength of their associates, President Hinckley said. They should "starve the problems and feed the opportunities. Deal with problems and get them behind you.
"Think of the great opportunity we have in building the kingdom of God in this part of the world. Help the kingdom grow and shine in this land of Nigeria," President Hinckley said.
He also suggested that leaders find a quiet place and meditate about their responsibilities. "And there will come into your lives a great sense of satisfaction.
"The church will grow in Nigeria as you grow," he said. "If you don't do anything, nothing very much will happen with the church. But if you are anxiously engaged in assisting those for whom you are responsible, the church will grow and blossom in strength.
"Bless your people," he counseled. But all blessings are not formal, President Hinckley said, and loving leaders who are kind to the people will help the church grow and progress. "You must be out in front in the cause of righteousness."
The president then charged them to give every new convert a responsibility, and to be kind and bless the converts with love. "Are you kind to your wives? Are you kind to your children?" he asked. "Go home and tell your wives you love them."
President Hinckley concluded by saying that "the great nation of Nigeria needs the gospel."
"Everybody was praying President Hinckley would come," said Ndvka B. Ojaide, president of the Port Harcourt Nigeria stake and a member of the regional conference planning committee.
"When I read the letter saying President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder Jeffrey R. Holland were coming, I was so excited," Ojaide said. "As I drove through a junction on the way home, I almost (crashed) because of my happiness. When I broke the news to the children, everybody was happy and jumping around. We felt the Lord had answered our prayers."
Bishop Kalu I. Kalu of the Rumueme ward, Port Harcourt stake, commented, "I never thought in my lifetime I would ever see the face of the prophet. This is historic - something we never dreamed of."
"Seeing President Hinckley is just as if we saw Moses, Abraham or Elijah," said Boniface Essien of the Ogha ward, Lagos Nigeria stake.
Nigeria is to Africa what the United States is to the world, Nigerians are fond of saying. One of every four Africans is a Nigerian, and this country has the highest level of industry on the continent, aside from South Africa. The nation is about half Christian and half Muslim and is peopled by some 250 tribes who speak mostly Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo.
Nigerians are "doers" who fill the roads early in the morning on their way to work. Assertive, they insist on their right of way as they drive cars and motorbikes, weaving in and out of traffic.
Yet, Nigeria is a spiritually active nation with more than three-fourths of its population attending religious services on a weekly basis; the highest attendance rate in the world.
Signs advertising churches cluster the roads, and new congregations spring up overnight. One such congregation promoted itself as the "sweatless" way to get to heaven. Clapping, singing and drumming are part of a typical worship service, and people attend some denominations every eve-ning.
In this environment, quiet Latter-day Saint meetings stand in stark contrast.
In earlier days, letters arrived from Nigeria inquiring about the church as early as 1946, but it was impossible for church leaders to visit until 1966 when plans were approved for Nigerians to have Sunday schools. However, the bloody Biafran war of 1967-70 dispersed those interested in participating in these groups.
Additional groups formed in the 1970s and, following the revelation on the priesthood in 1978, missionaries came to Nigeria and church units were organized. At first, people didn't join the church simply because they didn't know about it. Now, with the addition of buildings, people come in from the streets asking about the church. Missionaries are constantly teaching.
LDS membership is skyrocketing in the area as congregations can double in a year's time. One ward with attendance of about 350 divided in November to an attendance of 150, and regained its attendance of more than 300 by February, although not all are members.
Another ward recorded 84 convert baptisms last year. Church membership in Nigeria today stands at more than 31,000 people.