Africa's 'Mormon superstar' is LDS Church's first black African general authority

The Salt Lake Tribune/April 16, 2009

Joseph Sitati grew up as a Quaker in Nairobi, Kenya, but felt no great affection for the faith. Its sermons were too political, he felt, leaving him thirsty for spiritual satisfaction.

When Sitati attended his first Mormon service in 1985, something new stirred in his soul.

"There was a very good spirit there," Sitati said. "That was something I was unfamiliar with."

John Carmack, a visiting LDS general authority who is now retired from the First Quorum of the Seventy, impressed him.

"The words that he spoke sent the spirit right through me," he told his friend. "This kind of held me spellbound."

He believed he was feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.

"When I was baptized into the LDS Church in March 1986, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of love," 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.

Sitati's calling was big news among African members, said Andrew Zillale of Tanzania, who is a leader in Salt Lake City's LDS Swahili Branch.

"I got an e-mail from a new stake president in Nairobi asking if it was true," Zillale said. "They were not expecting it."

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-Apostle David O. McKay (later church president) 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.

In 1986, when Sitati, his wife, Gladys, and their oldest son were baptized, the LDS Church faced stiff opposition. It had not been recognized by the government, and proselytizing was strictly forbidden. As a respected mechanical engineer who worked for the oil and mining industries, Sitati was instrumental in helping the church gain acceptance in the country. He was Kenya's first LDS district president (like a bishop), and first stake president. He later served as an Area Authority Seventy, public-affairs representative for the whole continent, and, for the last two years, LDS mission president in Nigeria.

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."

But Sitati has also seen firsthand the unique challenges that new members face.

In 1989, for example, Ghana expelled all American missionaries and expatriate leaders and shut down the church's buildings, claiming the faith was challenging the government. Some of the antagonism may have been coming from other churches, especially since the anti-Mormon film "The Godmakers'' was shown in the country at that time. Some members were jailed, but others continued to meet in small groups in members' homes. Some left the church.

Those who held on until 1991, when what they called "the freeze" was lifted, became leaders.

"You are Latter-day Saints of great faith,'' then-church president Gordon B. Hinckley told Ghananians when he visited in 1998. "You are a testimonial to this work.''

Cultural challenges » Most of the current anti-Mormon attacks are imported from America, Sitati said. "Some people who are trying to protect their own faith spread bad stories about Mormonism. There is no indigenous hostility to the church."

The bigger problems are unemployment, poverty and illiteracy, which make it tough to be completely involved in Mormonism's all-volunteer organization.

"Because of poverty, most Africans are highly interdependent, they tend to share the little they have," Sitati said. "That obliges them to adopt social norms that might not fit with church practices."

It does not bother him that the church barred blacks from the priesthood until 1978.

"Christ came only to the Jews and not until the end of his mission did he commission the apostles to go to all the world," he said. "Different communities are invited to participate in the plan of salvation at different times. What is important is that the salvation to which they are invited is the same. It doesn't matter that the Jews were the first, if you like, and the Africans are the last."

Sitati's position as a Seventy may help other leaders to recognize the unique gifts of the Africans and help those from his continent feel more connected to what is becoming a global faith.

"When he was called, I felt a change in myself. Seeing a general authority who looks like us makes me feel like we are part of the church," Zillale said. "The gospel is for everybody. Even outsiders say there's something going on."

Church service

Sitati had been serving as president of the Nigeria Calabar Mission when the church called him to the First Quorum of the Seventy. Since joining the church in 1986, he has been a branch president's counselor, branch president, district president, mission president's counselor, stake president, area Seventy and mission president.


Sitati earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Nairobi and a diploma in accounting and finance from the Association of Certified Accountants and has also done course work for an MBA degree.

Work experience

He has worked as an executive for a nongovernmental organization and in several positions with a large oil and gas company. More recently, he served as the LDS Church's international director of public affairs in Africa.


Sitati and his wife, Gladys Nangoni, have five children.

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