One big tradeoff of serving a mission in the Area Offices is we don’t go through many of the routine activities typically associated with missionary work; finding, teaching and baptizing, visiting and befriending less-active members, getting immersed with local Church members and residents in your own little village or town and dealing with Spartan living conditions. For those called to serve in West Africa, the cultural changes and the foregone creature comforts make the experience like warping into a parallel universe, knowing that the ship slated to take you back home to your comfort zone won’t show up for eighteen months.
Those experiences, the stuff missionary memories are made of, are the daily bread for the easily-recognized young missionaries and describe the exciting lifestyle of missionary couples serving in far-flung wards and branches across the world. In West Africa, we call those couples the “Green Beret” missionaries. They are the salt of the earth and they do absolutely amazing things.
Many people back home assume that is what Michelle and I are doing, but that really doesn’t describe our situation or what we do here in Africa. We are the self-described “Cupcake Missionaries.” We live, along with several other missionary couples, in a comfortable, secured western-style apartment complex with a back-up generator and a pool, work five days a week in an air-conditioned building and interact primarily with local Church employees and seasoned priesthood leaders.
Yes, we jump into the bumper-car circus they call the Ghana highway system each day and head out into the bush once or twice a month to visit and train leaders in remote units. On Sundays, we worship and teach temple preparation classes in local wards and branches and love taking our newly minted graduates for their first temple trip. We also spend Tuesday afternoons and evenings helping in the temple. Those evenings and weekends are marvelous chances to work closely with the wonderful saints who are changing their own lives and sacrificing much of their time and means to prepare for and attend the temple. Members from Cote d’Ivoire travel ten hours each way to spend a week at the temple, often twice a year, and many from Liberia and Sierra Leone have scrimped and saved for what may be a once-in-a-lifetime temple trip to be sealed as families. They all have radiant spirits, gracious manners, powerful testimonies and infectious smiles nearly as broad as this massive continent.
But we to manage to get some indelible “mission” memories in our day job as well. The African saints are wonderful people and we interact constantly with the experienced but humble Area Seventies, newly called stake and district presidents, finance employees and our own auditing team. We also meet, work and socialize regularly with other Western couples serving here as missionaries, mission presidents, temple presidents and with Elder and Sister Curtis, Vinson and Stanfill, the three General Authority Seventies serving here. It has been particularly fascinating to get to know these three brethren better and getting a small grasp of the responsibility that they shoulder.
The Area President for Africa West, Elder LeGrand Curtis and his wife Jane just got word that they are being assigned back to the states this coming August, five years serving in Ghana in the Area Presidency. That is on top of the three years they spent leading the Italy Padova Mission. He is a retired attorney from SLC, they are just a couple of years older than us, have five kids, a bunch of grandkids, but unlike us, they have put their lives on hold and given themselves to the Lord for most of the past couple of decades, as well as for the next seven or eight years.
As one of the fifteen Area Presidents for the Church, Elder Curtis is the local face of the Church in the seven West African countries where the Church is organized and works on getting access into the nine primarily Muslim countries north of us where there are no currently organized congregations. Until I got here and had the chance to get to know him, I had no appreciation for the scope or the level of detail that this calling entails. There are currently 275,000 members of the Church here, organized into 1,000 congregations within a hundred stakes and districts. Elder Curtis is responsible for training and overseeing all of them, including approving or recommending any leadership changes impacting any of those units. He also oversees fourteen (going on fifteen) missions, which have over 2,000 proselyting missionaries and the Ghana MTC which trains all missionaries called to those missions, plus all French speaking missionaries assigned anywhere in Africa. He oversees the two operating temples in Ghana and Nigeria and one in the planning stages in Cote d’Ivoire. He has responsibility for the roughly 375 Church employees supporting all aspects of the Church here, including finance, legal, publishing, humanitarian services, physical facilities, seminaries and institute and other support services. And he is loved and revered by each of those groups.
There is also the dynamic that Africa West is no ordinary area. In the past year, we created 120 new congregations to accommodate the 27,000 new members, which amounts to about one-third of the growth in the Church, with just over one percent of the base. This growth creates monumental leadership training challenges and also means a non-stop scramble to secure properties for new congregations, outfit rental properties and construct new chapels in countries where property rights are confounded by a maze of arcane tribal agreements and nothing remotely similar to a centralized title database.
To coordinate all this, the Area Presidency is on the road constantly. With over half of the congregations and members in Nigeria, Elder Curtis recently commented that if he isn’t actually in Nigeria, it usually means that he either just got back or is soon headed out there again. He has regular calls to report progress to the Presiding Bishop’s office, the Presidency of the Seventy, the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency.
Catching a glimpse of all that his calling entails, it amazes me how much time Elder Curtis takes to engage personally with us regular folks here. In addition to regular work-related interactions, he and his wife are regular attendees at our twice monthly senior couple Family Home Evenings and every month or two, they host a Zone Conference for the ten couples assigned to the Area Office. In that meeting, we have one or two couples give a brief read out on what they are doing, then Elder Curtis takes an hour or so to brief us on what is happening across the Area and provide fascinating insights from his constant meetings and interactions with the senior leadership of the Church. Last Christmas, they invited “Team Cupcake” over to their house for an evening of caroling and sharing Christmas memories. We are going to seriously miss Elder and Sister Curtis, but we are personally excited that Elder Terence Vinson, the counselor in the Area Presidency whom we work with regularly on all auditing issues, has been named to take his place.