Editor's note: Deseret News and Church News writers are chronicling the ministry of LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson as he and other church officials travel to Europe, Africa and Asia during the next two weeks. Tad Walch reports today from London.
LONDON — The aroma of roast chicken and the rich seasonings of Nigeria's famous Jollof rice whirled out the window, puncturing Wednesday's otherwise wet air on another gray day here.
While his delicacies cooked inside his east London flat, Paul Omo-Bamawo beamed broadly as he considered the prospect of meeting LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson in 24 hours.
"It’s my first time meeting the prophet," he said. "It’s something that will stay with me the rest of my life."
Omo-Bamawo, 51, is scheduled to say the opening prayer Thursday night when President Nelson speaks at a meeting on the first leg of a tour that will circumnavigate the globe over the next 11 days.
"It’s quite symbolic for me in the sense that we talk about Christ all the time," said the native Nigerian who moved to England 21 years ago. "We preach about him, we think about him, but we don’t really get to meet his mouthpiece here on earth. Yes, we listen to him, but we don’t really get to see him in person. That’s one reason I envy the people in Utah; they get to see him all the time."
President Nelson and Sister Wendy Watson Nelson will speak at the historic Hyde Park Chapel on Thursday night in an event that will be broadcast to meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.
They will find a melting pot of Mormons.
The Hyde Park 1st Ward, one of three congregations that meet in the chapel on Sundays, has members from 45 different countries of birth.
"It's a huge mix of diversity from every continent," Bishop David Hooson said.
That medley of people also is reflected in the missionaries who serve in the area. The 170 missionaries in the England London Mission come from 67 different nations, mission President Mark Stevens said.
President and Sister Nelson will be joined by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quourm of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Pat Holland, as they speak to those missionaries on Thursday afternoon in the Hyde Park Chapel, a few floors below the mission offices. Many of the missionaries said they will come prepared for instruction on how to be more effective in England and to receive answers to personal questions.
"I want to find out why I would be called as an England visitors' center missionary," said Sister Jo-Ya Hsu of New Taipei City, Taiwan, who has been in London for six weeks. "I want to find myself and understand why I'm here at this time."
The Hyde Park Visitors' Center is an important nerve center for the LDS Church's online missionary work because of its time zone, President Stevens said. Hsu and others like her are the only Mormon missionaries in the world answering questions from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. London time — or from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. Mountain Time in Salt Lake City, Utah. That means they respond to people in dozens of countries each day.
"We're reinventing ourselves," President Stevens said. "We've become effective at giving lessons on Facebook Messenger and Skype. Some of our missionaries record lessons and send them to people on graveyard shifts so they can watch the lesson in the middle of the night when they get home from work."
Work to do
President Stevens said he feels a deep sense of responsibility. Outside his office on the Hyde Park Building's third floor are photos of past presidents of the England London Mission, including six former LDS Church presidents — Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Joseph Fielding Smith, Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith and David O. McKay.
England also once was the lifeblood of the early church — in 1850, nearly three times as many Mormons lived in the United Kingdom than in the United States. Today the 185,000 members here find themselves part of a Europe that is losing its connection to organized religion.
"I see the British people not going to church," said Richard West, a Mormon patriarch in the Chelmsford 2nd Ward. " I see people busy with their lives and their business. Religion really doesn't play a part. The mainstream churches are really struggling, because people aren't going to church any more. I'd think that'd give us an opportunity, and it does, but it's getting worse.
"The church is strong here," he added, "but gosh, there's a lot of work to do."
Stevens said Elder Holland and the acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, M. Russell Ballard, have visited recently and "told us that there's yet a great work to accomplish here. There are people seeking truth, and we feel that."
"The British are wonderful, good, proper, hard-working, respectful people, and they love their families," he added. "Many times they really respond to the missionaries' message, but they are concerned by a troubled world, war and disadvantaged people. When you start connecting them back to the Savior and help them know God loves them and is interested in them, many times that message fills those gaps in their lives."
One of Stevens' missionaries drew a colorful picture.
"The English people are like M&Ms," said Sister Kristiina Kai Kõiv of Taillin, Estonia. "They have a hard cover, but inside they are really soft. Some are afraid to answer questions like, 'Is there a God?' That is a big question. But if you get to know them, they do have a lot of questions about God."
Between 20 and 30 people a month join the church through the mission's efforts. President Stevens said his missionaries find most of the people interested in learning about the church online, where "they coming in asking questions of us."
The missionaries hope President Nelson's visit compels more Brits, who President Stevens said want to raise their children in a world with values and morals, to take another look at what Mormons have to offer.
"The prophet's visit is just a part of the energy we're feeling about looking to the future," he said.
Some say the visit already has had an impact.
Uchay Omo-Bamawo recently turned 18. She is preparing for exams she hopes will qualify her for a spot studying English Literature and writing at the University of Birmingham. She and her brother, Osaro, 14 — both born in England —are the only Mormons in their school. That isn’t as hard as some might think because the school has many Muslim students, who share a belief in God and many of the same values.
"I’m quite happy," Uchay said. "It’s an opportunity to share the gospel. I told my friends the prophet was coming, and they said, 'What’s a prophet?' They wanted to know more."
Local LDS bishops distributed the limited number of tickets to Thursday night's event. The bishop of the Whitechapel Ward gave much of his allotment to the youth in his congregation, so Uchay and Osaro will attend.
The bishop of the Brittania Young Single Adult Ward gave a ticket to an Asian learning more about the church from Elder Patrick Diener of Bonn, Germany, and Elder Mason Peters of Draper, Utah.
But after their afternoon meeting with President Nelson, Diener and Peters and Hsu and Kõiv and the other missionaries will skip the evening meeting. They won't watch the broadcast.
"We'll be knocking on doors," Diener said.
West hopes LDS members and missionaries can help Brits make a connection with God.14 comments on this story
"I feel like we could potentially see a great surge," he said. "If people would just listen to what President Nelson had to say, I think the work could really take off. It would transform their lives, if they felt there really was a prophet and he was speaking to God and connecting them to answers to life's problems. That's what the world needs."
Omo-Bamawo first learned about the church when his cousin knocked on his door in Nigeria to say goodbye to his grandmother as he left on a Mormon mission. He remembers his own baptism, 32 years ago last week, like it was yesterday. As a high councilor in the Hyde Park Stake, he now helps oversee congregations in a region of London.
"I’ve come to love President Nelson," he said. "I love his enthusiasm, his energy, his drive. It’s really quite unique at this time."