“When I was baptized into the LDS Church in March 1986, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of love,” Joseph Sitati recalled. “I loved everybody and everything. It invigorated me.
Some 23 years later, Sitati, a Mormon superstar in Kenya, has now arrived where Carmack was–in the First Quorum of Seventy. He is the first black African to join that august body, the church’s second most important tier of leaders.
“The calling is quite intimidating,” Sitati said last week before returning to Nigeria, where he is currently supervising a corps of Mormon missionaries. “I never thought of being a member of this high council. I consider it a great honor, but heavy responsibility.”
The appointment is also symbolically important.
After all, the LDS Church did not allow men of African descent anywhere to be ordained to its all-male priesthood until 1978. Missionary work did not begin among black Africans until after that.
Now there are more than 250,000 African members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints across 27 countries.
The forgotten continent » Mormon missionaries arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, as early as 1853, but only preached to the British colonists. After all its converts emigrated to Utah, the mission was closed until 1903, when it once again approached only whites. The church slowly grew there and in Johannesburg, until then-President David O. McKay visited several thousand members in 1954.
Meanwhile, Mormon pamphlets and magazines were circulating through Nigeria and Ghana, causing many people to adopt what they knew of this American faith and create congregations on their own. None of this was approved by church leaders in Salt Lake City. Representatives from Utah had to be sent to Ghana to excommunicate members who were dancing and drumming and, on occasion, being led by a woman prophet while calling themselves Mormon.
Some stayed, though, and were ready for real baptism after the 1978 revelation opening the LDS priesthood to “all worthy men.” In the following decade, membership took off in Ghana, Nigeria and the countries of East Africa.
During his two decades in the LDS Church, Sitati has seen explosive church growth in his home continent, including the building of temples in Accra, Ghana, and Aba, Nigeria. The Nigerian missionaries he supervises are baptizing someone every three weeks, with 60 percent retention.
“The people of Africa actively seek to know the truth,” he said. “This is very fertile ground for Mormonism.”