Faith and Determination:​Building the Church in Tongo, Sierra Leone

Faith in Jesus Christ results in miracles

Home where the baptisms were performed in Tongo

In December 2012, Messie Senesie moved from Kenema to Tongo and brought with her 2 of her three children, after landing a job with the local mining company as an assistant administrative clerk.  This new job would allow her to provide for herself and her children as well as be closer to her parents who lived in the nearby village of Ngiehun.  It had been her friend Fatmata that had called her attention to the job posting.  The mine was looking to fill the position, but they knew that unless they hired someone locally, or someone who was originally from Tongo and wanted to come “home”, it would be difficult to retain them.  Since Messie was qualified, had grown up near Tongo and had parents still there, she was an ideal candidate for the job.

Solomon Amara Jendy Kongoley

During the same general timeframe, Solomon Amara Jendy Kongoley joined the church in Kenema in October 2011.  Ten months later he began working in Tongo as a lab technician at the local hospital.  In early 2013, shortly after his wife gave birth to a baby girl, his family joined him in Tongo, staying there until 2016, at which time his wife and the children returned to Kenema so she could finish school.

Messie Senesie
Messie Senesie

Messie missed her church terribly that first year, but she couldn’t afford to travel to Kenema each week so she and her children did the best they could to pray and read the scriptures at home.  In the fall of 2014, she met Solomon Kongoley when Alfred Sesay, a member in Kenema told Solomon about Sister Messie. Early in 2015, both Messie and Solomon met Ansumana Mustapha Koroma, a young single adult who had started working at the radio station in Tongo using the on-air name of “Nanopee”.  Together, the three of them began meeting together and discussing the gospel and praying.  Sister Messie and Brother Solomon both report that these meetings were successful and made them feel more at home in Tongo.

In that same year (2015), Sister Messie advocated for and then delivered a gospel radio program at the local station.  Each Sunday morning, she would arrive at 6 am and deliver what could be termed a non-denominational gospel message for up to as much as four hours.  She would also take phone calls and answer questions about gospel topics.  “Nanopee” taught her how to operate the soundboard and she became a one-person radio show each Sunday morning.  While the show was not based on Latter-day Saint doctrine, Messie’s background and conversion to the church naturally influenced her presentations.  She continued this for nearly two years and found great satisfaction in sharing the message of Jesus Christ to the surrounding villages.

Near the end of 2017, Messie, Ansumana, and Solomon met Aniru Conteh and Milton Abdulai Sidnie Gbassa.  Aniru lived in Tongo but had been unable to maintain his activity due to the distance to the nearest branch.  Sidnie was an older member who had once been a Methodist preacher in Kenema and now lived in Kpandebu, a village about 1.5 miles from the center of Tongo.  Brother Gbassa and his family invited the others to come to his home each week so they could worship together (which they did for a few weeks), but due to the time, distance and cost this gathering was not sustainable and soon faded.

After Solomon’s family returned to Kenema in 2016, he began traveling back to Kenema every two weeks to see his family and worship in Burma Branch. On the other hand, Messie and her daughters remained in Tongo each week and continued to miss regular gospel fellowship.  Members of an evangelical Christian church in Tongo would often invite Messie to their meetings, and she and her daughters would attend on occasion in order to enjoy some degree of fellowship with other believers. 

On one such Sunday in July 2018, she attended this evangelical church where it was announced that they would be packing up that very week and leaving Tongo.  They were not able to sustain the operations of the church on the offerings being collected, so decided to give up the lease on the building and leave Tongo.  Immediately Messie thought to herself, “This could be an opportunity to bring these people together with the few Latter-day Saints in Tongo and hopefully teach them the gospel in order to create enough interest to bring my church to Tongo”.   After the service that day she spoke to the congregation and asked them to come back the next Sunday so that she could speak with them.  They agreed.  She also spoke to the owner of the building requesting its use for just one more Sunday.  She agreed.  Events were in motion and she realized she would need some help.

Community Center in Tongo

She spoke to Brother Solomon about the opportunity and he agreed to accompany her to the meeting the next week and join her in speaking to the people.  On Sunday, they were pleased that many from the old congregation attended and many agreed to begin meeting together with the Latter-day Saints every Sunday morning for a worship service at the Community Center not far from where they then sitting.  From then on, each Sunday at 9:00 am, the handful of members and numerous interested non-members began attending with between 25-40 in attendance each week.

Members and non-members traveled from Tongo to attend District Conference. The mission president, Kevin Clawson is in the center front

Between July and the end of September, the members and friends of the church continued to meet each week at the Community Center.  Sister Messie continued to reach out to friends and neighbors and invite them to join the group.  Brother Solomon became the gospel teacher, helping those who were attending to learn about the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and teaching the doctrines and commandments, both at church on Sunday and individually, one on one.  Together, they became an inspired team in the effort to establish the church in Tongo.

On September 24, 2018, the Kenema District held their semiannual District Conference.  Elder Richard J. Ahadjie of the Seventy was the presiding authority.  The group from Tongo was prepared to make an impression and wanted the mission president, the district president, and the area authority to know they were serious about their desire to bring the church to Tongo.  They hired a driver and a small Toyota pickup and piled more than 20 people into it to come to conference.  It was amazing to see this group of people, primarily non-members of the church, make the long trip from Tongo to say, “We want the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to come to our town!”.  After the meeting, they gathered for photos and to meet Kevin Clawson, the mission president; Jonathan Cobinah, the district president; and the full-time MLS missionary couple, Elder Thomas & Sister LaDawn Kunz.  They were happy, enthusiastic and pleased to have made the trip.  President Clawson agreed to look into forming a homegroup in Tongo and later sent the Kunz’s to make an assessment.

Meeting members and some of those desiring to join the church on Oct 13, 2018. Sister Messie is on the front right with Solomon Kongoley directly behind her

The Kunz’s first trip to Tongo was on Saturday, October 13, 2018.  Two members, Thomas Kallon and James Foday, both from Kenema, went with them as they were familiar with the area.  It was there that they met Messie Senesie, who they later named as the “best member missionary in the church”.  Every time they met a person who was learning about the gospel, they would ask them how they first heard about the church, the answer was always, “Sister Messie!”.

Meeting Ishmael Bockarie on Oct 13, 2018

It was on that day that the Kunz’s first met Rebecca and Grace Koroma, John Charles, his mother Kadie James, Aniru Conteh, and the young single adult Ishmael Bockarie.  After that first visit, a recommendation was made to President Clawson to form the home group with Solomon Kongoley as the group leader and for the missionary couple to begin taking the missionaries once a week to Tongo to begin teaching those expressing interest in the church.

First Sacrament Meeting in Tongo held Oct 21, 2018

The next visit by the Kunz’s was on October 21, 2018.  President Clawson had authorized the partaking of the sacrament and the missionary couple brought sacrament cups, trays, and hymnbooks.  Thomas Kallon from Kenema again made the trip with the Kunz’s.  Most memorable that day was the talk on the sacrament by John Charles, a non-member, especially since it was the first day that the sacrament had been administered in Tongo.  According to the Kunz’s, “It was as good talk on the sacrament as we had ever heard!'

First visit of full-time proselyting missionaries as well as the District President, Jonathan Cobinah on Nov 25, 2018. Rebecca and Grace Koroma are on the front right just to the right of Ishmael

On November 25th, the Kunz’s again returned to Tongo and this time, the District President, Jonathan Cobinah and the two-zone leaders, Elder Dunn and Elder Adjetey came with them.  After a wonderful sacrament meeting, a second hour “Sunday School” class was held.  The topic was on tithing.  It was during that discussion that President Cobinah reflects often on the comment made by Rebecca Koroma in regards to her desire to pay tithing, even as a non-member investigating the Church.  “If I know the church is true, but am not paying tithing even though I am not yet baptized, am I not robbing God?”  There was not much left to be said after that.  Having proselyting missionaries in Tongo for the first time that day was also something for which the people had been praying for many months.  November 25, 2018, will go down in the history of the Church in Tongo as a truly important milestone.

It was three days later on November 28, 2018, that the Area Presidency in Ghana approved the formation of the Tongo homegroup.  Because Brother Solomon was currently serving as a counselor in the Burma Branch Presidency, it made sense to attach the homegroup to that branch.  At the time, Solomon was returning to Kenema every other week to fulfill his priesthood responsibilities, but it was not an ideal situation for either himself or the Burma Branch.  Now that approval had been granted, two things needed to happen.  First, the mission wanted to get a place for the homegroup to meet as they were already too many in number to meet in a home, and the community center had limitations.  The building where the Christian church that left Tongo had been meeting was an ideal location and still available, but a lease needed to be procured and the building needed to be painted inside and out.  Second, Brother Solomon needed to be released and replaced in the Burma Branch and then called as the new homegroup leader.

Elder Wallentine and Elder Adjetey walk to their next appointment in Tongo

While work started on getting these two things done, Elder Kunz began taking the zone leaders and eventually two branch missionaries to Tongo each week to begin teaching investigators.  That started on December 19, 2018, with Elder Wallentine and Elder Adjety.  On Tuesday, January 22, 2019, President Cobinah and Solomon Kongoley signed a one year lease with the building owner and by the following Sunday, under President Cobinah’s direction, the building was painted, furniture and a signpost was brought from Kenema and the very first sacrament meeting in the new chapel was held. It was at that same meeting that Samuel Fomba, first counselor in the District Presidency, sustained Solomon Amara Jendy Kongoley as the official group leader. Another great milestone for members and friends of the Church in Tongo.  Sister Messie’s dream was now a reality!

Freshly painted Tongo Chapel
Freshly painted Tongo Chapel

Over the next 6 weeks the zone leaders, branch missionaries and Elder Kunz continued to drive to Tongo each week and teach those who were investigating the church.  It became obvious very quickly that there were three who were going to be ready for baptism before the others.  Rebecca Koroma, John Charles and Bockarie Konuwa then began to be taught 

First baptism in Tongo. (Left to Right) Lansana Massaquoi, Elder Lunga, Elder Roche, John Charles, Aniru Conteh, Rebecca and Grace Koroma, Peter Kamanda, Bockarie Konuwa, Solomon Kongoley, George Kongoley, Hannah Brima, Messie Senesie and Sahr Lahai

separately and by March 8, 2019, were interviewed for baptism.  A week and a day later, on March 16, 2019, the first baptisms in Tongo took place on the shores of a beautiful body of water at the lake home of Messie Senesie’s boss who was kind enough to allow us to use his property.  A portable swimming pool had been set up the previous day and water had been pumped from the lake into the pool and then treated with chlorine.  On Saturday morning, March 16, 2019, shortly after 10:00 am the first Latter-day Saint baptismal service in Tongo was underway.  Rebecca was the first to be baptized, followed by John and then Bockarie.  All three were baptized by Elder Francis Lunga, a full-time missionary from South Africa.  It was as if the heavens parted and the light shone especially bright that day on this small, but growing group of Latter-day Saints.

Baptism held May 18, 2019. (Left to Right) Kadie James, Mary Brima, Hannah Brima, John Charles, Peter Kamanda, Daniel Lahai, Sahr Lahai, Lansana Massaquoi

Since that day in March, Tongo has continued to grow.  On May 18, 2019, a second baptismal service was held at the same location.  Baptized were John’s mother, Kadie James; Lansana Mansaray; Hannah Brima; Peter Kamanda; Sahr Lahai and his 15-year-old son, Daniel (the first youth aged convert); and Mary Brima.  Baptisms were performed by John Lowell Charles and Solomon Kongoley.  It was another magnificent day in Tongo.  The next day, on Sunday, May 19th, all seven were confirmed during sacrament meeting.  That day there were 54 people in attendance including Elder & Sister Kunz and the missionaries who had replaced Elder Adjety and Elder Wallentine, Elder Logan Roche from Utah and Elder Melokuhle Nigel Dube from South Africa.

elders 2
Third baptism in Tongo occurring on Aug 17, 2019. (Left to Right), Elder Allen, Ishmael Bockarie, Adama Mansaray, Joseph Kanu, Elder Matchowa

After each baptism, the interest in being taught by the missionaries and joining the Church has grown.  With consistent teaching each week, more and more people have desired to be baptized.  On August 17th, three more individuals entered the waters of baptism, with John Lowell Charles baptizing Joseph Kanu, Ishmael Bockarie and Adama Mansaray.

The hope and expectation are that the Tongo home group will soon become a branch and that full-time missionaries will be assigned to the town to accelerate the growth in the surrounding area.  Sister Messie Senesie is an example to church members throughout the world as a member missionary determined to speak to as many as she can about the joy of finding and embracing the true gospel of Jesus Christ.  Her faith and determination have definitely made a difference for the people living in Tongo – both member and non-member alike.  Solomon Kongoley has also been a sterling example, that of a caring, compassionate and committed priesthood leader.  His ability to teach the gospel simply and completely as well as his nurturing style has blessed every single person that has walked thru the door of the Tongo chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Faith in Jesus Christ results in miracles.  Boldness and determination, when directed by the Spirit of the Lord, will move mountains.  Perhaps even Sister Messie is a bit surprised by strength of the tree that is rapidly growing from the seeds she continues to sow!

Full-time missionaries serving in Tongo (November 2018 – August 2019)

Elder Brady Dunn – Idaho, USA

Elder Adjei Adjetey – Ghana, Africa

Elder NIkalus Wallentine – Idaho, USA

Elder Francis Lunga – Zimbabwe / South Africa, Africa

Elder Logan Roche – Utah, USA

Elder Melokuhle Nigel Dube – South Africa, Africa

Elder Bryson Allen – Arizona, USA

Elder Elvis Matchowa – Malawi, Africa

Elder Conner Hansen – Idaho, USA