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. Tad Walch reports today from Kenya.
NAIROBI, Kenya — To listen Monday to an LDS Church president's voice in person for the first time, East African Mormons traveled hundreds of miles in dust-covered buses, bouncing and swaying over dirt roads, broken streets and omnipresent speedbumps that keep speeds under 50 mph.
They received a message tailored for eastern Africa, where many tribes continue to insist that grooms or their families provide a dowry or pay a price for a bride.
"That's not the Lord's way," President Russell M. Nelson told about 2,000 Kenyans and other Africans Monday night inside a large, oval, wooden event center styled after traditional huts in Nairobi, Kenya. "The Lord's way is to be married in the temple, for time and all eternity, with your children sealed to you."
He added that if he'd had to pay for his wife, "I would have missed five children, because only with my last five was I out of debt."
President Nelson also said tithing can break cycles of poverty in poor nations and families.
"We preach tithing to the poor people of the world because the poor people of the world have had cycles of poverty, generation after generation," he said. "That same poverty continues from one generation to another, until people pay their tithing."
The law of the tithe was followed by ancient peoples as taught by Old Testament prophets. LDS faithful believe God restored the law and its blessings for those who follow it by giving one-tenth of their income to the church.
Many Africans began saving money and planning their travel more than a month ago to attend what was billed here as a special devotional. It also was the third stop on President Nelson's first international trip since he became the church's leader in January.
He set his watch on the podium and spoke without notes, declaring that those in the audience are pioneers.
"You folks are pioneers right here in Kenya. You might not think of yourself as pioneers, but you're just as much pioneers now as Brigham Young and the Saints were, following the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith."
His 35-minute address was worth 16 hours of rough travel, said Palaasi Charles, 49, of Jinja, Uganda.
"Oh, much so. Much so," said Charles, part of a group of 29 Ugandans who left Jinja by bus at 2 p.m. Sunday and arrived in Nairobi at 6 a.m.
They spent the day on a nearby lawn watching and photographing warthogs and baboons and waiting in line to secure seats closest to the podium.
"I wish I'd come with my family," said Charles, a first counselor in the Jinja LDS Stake presidency. He said he will return home and relay the special devotional's messages to his family and the Mormon congregations in his area.
"I will share with them the importance of us having temple recommends," he said, "that tithing is going to break the cycle of poverty, the importance of educating our children and doing away with dowry as part of our culture."
He and others are looking forward to construction of an LDS temple in Nairobi, announced in April 2017. Church leaders have not announced the temple site yet.
"I don't know how long it will take to build that temple," President Nelson said, "but let's have a little contest: See if you can build your lives to be ready and your ancestral documentation to be ready for when the temple comes."
He said it is easier for church leaders to build a temple than it is for them to build a people ready for the temple.
He also emphasized the importance of prophets, the Book of Mormon, the Restoration of the priesthood, family and worshipping Jesus Christ. He said one of the great lessons of his 93-year life is that people are God's children and he speaks to them.
"It's no different for you than it is for me," he said. "You can get personal revelation for your own circumstances, just as naturally as I can for my circumstances. You get it for your family and yourself, and I get it for the whole church."
A total of 67 members of four LDS branches in the Eldoret area 200 miles northwest of Nairobi met at 9 p.m. Sunday, but their bus did not show until 12:30 a.m. They arrived at 7 a.m. and began a 10-hour wait for the meeting.
"We've been planning and preparing to make this trip since we learned he was coming," said Jane Malakwen, a food package maker and second counselor in the Sosiani Branch Relief Society. "We didn't sleep, but we are not tired. We are full of energy to see the prophet.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He is the second prophet to come here in the history of the church."
Late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley visited in 1998 and 2005.
Another speaker on Monday night, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also encouraged east Africans to prepare for the temple. He asked them to qualify, receive and carry the temple recommend required for entrance, even before the temple is built.
He also asked them to begin recording their family histories and to attend the temple in Johannesburg, South Africa "as often as the circumstances and the finances and transportation will allow."
"Nothing will bless you more," he said, "nothing will unite your family more, nothing will bless your children more, nothing will bless your ancestors more. Quite frankly, there is nothing that will bless you in any way more than your attendance at the temple, a place of peace, a place of revelation, a place of joy, a place of comfort, a place of purity, all the best things in life."
Malakwen made the bumpy trip from Eldoret to Nairobi in part to see Sister Nelson, who said, "My experience over the years has taught me that being in the presence of a righteous African woman and a righteous African man is to be in the presence of spiritual royalty."
Sister Nelson also said the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi built a boat, LDS Church founder Joseph Smith oversaw construction of circular Nauvoo Temple windows and President Nelson pioneered heart surgery by living "not after the manner of men," a Book of Mormon phrase.
"We need to live our lives, build our marriages, increase our means of livelihoods by increasing our knowledge and skills according to the way the Lord would show us, not after the manner of men."
Nephi, Joseph Smith and President Nelson instead followed eternal laws, she said.
"Think about something you need," she added. "What would make your life better right now? What are the eternal laws that govern that blessing? What eternal law would you need to live so that you could receive that blessing?"
The eternal law that governs finances is tithing, Sister Nelson said.
Then she said dowry and bride price are manners of men. She relayed a message from one of her African friends, and said "You, the Saints of Kenya, could set an example of joyfully freeing our young people from the chains of this practice and thus begin living 'not after the manner of men.'"96 comments on this story
Sister Patricia Holland paid tribute to the Nelsons. She said Sister Nelson's experience as a nurse and a therapist honed a maternal instinct that bolsters everyone around her.
"In fact, she has more confidence in us than we have in ourselves," Sister Holland said.
She said President Nelson is a strong man, but never harsh: "He is one who is of the Savior's gentleness and the Savior's compassion."
The evening was a dream come true, said Sister Laourich Acii, a 23-year-old Ugandan serving in the faith's Kenya Nairobi Mission.
"In a short duration," added James D'Souza, who lives on the outskirts of Nairobi, "he taught us so much."