As Latter-day Saints prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Pioneer Day on July 24th this year, LDS Living recognizes that in addition to the sacrifices of the early pioneers, there are many modern-day pioneers across the globe who have built the Church in their nations or in their families. In this new series of articles, we wish to recognize these present-day pioneers and remember all who have helped make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what it is today.
Nowah Afangbedji remembers finding it odd when his father, who had never been a religious man, came home talking all about a church he’d learned about on a business trip in Denmark. Nowah and much of his family were devoted Catholics but his father had never had much interest. Nowah had never even heard of the church his father spoke of and the whole thing became even more curious when Nowah’s dad told them the church was not yet in their country of Togo.
Nowah thought this might just be one of his dad’s business trip stories—something that would fade with time—but his dad just kept talking about it. In fact, his father, who had been living and working in Denmark for several years, told his family he had already been baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It was suggested that his dad try to find any other members of the Church in his home nation. As luck would have it, there was one other member of the Church in Togo—a man who had joined the Church while working for the embassy in London, England. He was also looking for a way to worship with fellow Latter-day Saints and enjoy the blessings of the gospel in his country. The man’s family and Nowah’s family began meeting together in a small apartment. They were able to use that apartment as a meeting space when the person that lived there wasn’t home—but when the person was home, they canceled church until the following week. Soon, the Church sent a missionary, who had recently returned home from his full-time mission and who spoke Ewé, a tribal language spoken in Togo, to come and teach the two families the gospel.
Nowah’s attendance in the Catholic Church had been very important to him. All of his friends went to church there, so Nowah decided he would attend both churches. He would get up early in the morning to attend mass and then run back to make it to the group meeting at 9:00 a.m. But that changed when he heard the story of the Restoration.
“Learning about the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith was very inspiring to me [because] at that time I was 14 years old, and knowing that Joseph Smith went to the Lord at age 14, I felt really inspired and empowered by his story because I was tired of running between two churches every Sunday. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, the truth that was taught was just plain and simple. It made so much sense to me,” Nowah says, looking back. Like Joseph, Nowah prayed to know which church was true and decided that he couldn’t deny the Spirit he felt as their little group of Latter-day Saints met in a one-room apartment.
About two years later, the first official Latter-day Saint group was organized by Elder James O. Mason, then president of the Africa West Area, with about 25 Latter-day Saints in attendance. During that meeting, Elder Mason presented many of the fundamental aspects of the Church, including the organization of the Church being made up of prophets and apostles. Nowah was intrigued but also a bit confused. Was Elder Mason suggesting that Peter, James, and John were still leading this church? He raised his hand and asked his question. “Not the same people,” Elder Mason said, explaining that God had called latter-day men as prophets and apostles once again upon the earth.
“That was one of the answers that really solidified my knowledge and also my testimony and what I’d been feeling all the while about the Church being the right place to be, having the right organization, the true doctrine,” Nowah recalls.
In September 1997, Nowah was baptized in a hotel swimming pool along with several family members and friends. Ten years later in 2007, Elder David A. Bednar dedicated the land of Togo for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“That was another miracle, because soon after that dedication the outpouring interest from people wanting to know more about the Church just skyrocketed,” Nowah says. The first district was created in Togo in 2009 and in 2013, members from 12 branches in Togo gathered in a recently dedicated chapel to witness Elder Terence M. Vinson organize the first stake in Nowah’s home country.
“Any time I go home and visit, I get excited thinking about that tiny group we were,” Nowah says, adding that it’s interesting to contrast the huge edifice where Latter-day Saints attend now with the tiny group of Latter-day Saints in the apartment where everything began.
“The Spirit that I felt in that tiny room with my family ... was, for me, the seed of my testimony, and that’s where it all started,” he says.
Nowah’s family remain a fixture in the Church in Togo.
Nowah came to the United States seeking education and graduated from BYU–Hawaii in 2015. After graduating, he moved to Washington, DC, where he now lives with his wife, Stephanie, and their new baby. Stephanie is also a pioneer in her own right—the first member of the Church in her family.
She was introduced to the Church 16 years ago when she was invited to have dinner with the missionaries at a neighbor’s home. Prior to that dinner, Stephanie had been experiencing a feeling of stagnancy in her life—she felt stuck. All of her friends were going to college and she didn’t know what was next for her life. She recalled the words of her mother, “Stephanie, if you ever have any problems, call on Jesus.”
“I remember kneeling down and praying and saying, ‘God, if you can hear me, please, I just want to be more.’ … Every place that I could cry from I cried, my tears were pouring and pouring from my whole soul on that floor that night.” But then she met the missionaries—elders who introduced her to sister missionaries.
She was immediately drawn to the sister missionaries and was hungry for answers, but when she began to read the Book of Mormon, she started to lose interest. She was prepared to tell the sister missionaries but then one of them said, “If you’re having such a difficult time, you can ask Heavenly Father for understanding … you can ask Him if it’s true,” Stephanie remembers the missionary saying.
“That just blew my mind, like awesome things that I’ve never heard of, ‘Oh, I can ask and receive an answer?’ My prayers, previous or prior to that, were one-way prayers and you hope something happens— but this was incredible.”
She recalls being so excited that night to pray and ask for understanding. After that prayer, she found herself staying up until the wee hours of the morning turning page after page. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says, “Every word is like sinking into my spirit, penetrating my heart, and I couldn’t stop reading. I felt the scales fall from my eyes.”
From that night forward, Stephanie knew she had to be baptized.
“I remember when I came out of that water, I was new, I was clean. My skin was glowing, my lips were pink, I smelled like shampoo. And I just felt renewed and truly felt reborn, and that was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, which led to more great decisions. It’s so hard to put into words when it’s the most incredible thing that’s ever happened in my entire life,” she says.
Stephanie says revelation is her favorite thing.
“Growing up, it’s always the pastor that you have to wait for to deliver a message but in our church, it’s so beautiful because we all deliver a message on the Sabbath and we all have the right to receive personal revelation, which really can be life-changing if you’ve never experienced it.”
Nowah and Stephanie were introduced by mutual friends in the singles ward. They married in the height of the pandemic. Nearly 5,000 miles separate the land of Togo and Boston, Massachusetts, but Nowah and Stephanie were led to the gospel of Jesus Christ and then to each other.