Called to Testify: Opening the Church in Estonia

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“Called to Testify: Opening the Church in Estonia,” New Era, July 1994, 47

Called to Testify:
Opening the Church in Estonia

Excerpted from Young Lions, Ordinary Kids with Extraordinary Courage, Deseret Book, 1993.

In a former Communist state, this LDS teen stepped forward with a new banner of freedom.

Jaanus Silla was in his last year in high school in Harjumaa, Estonia, when he started thinking seriously about religion.

Although he lived in a country that frowned upon worship, Jaanus still knew a few things. His mother, a divorcee, had taught him to believe in God. Sometimes, when he was younger, they had attended a Christian church at Christmas, after trimming their tree with candles and waiting for Jôuluvana, the Estonian Santa Claus.

Recently, while trying to decide about his future, Jaanus had even prayed for the first time. He remembered the prayer, short but sincere:

“Father in Heaven, if you exist, then help me.”

He finished high school and went to work in a photo studio, developing film and studying photography while his search for spiritual truth continued. Meanwhile, the tremor of political change had begun to softly shake Estonian life. People began to question the government openly for the first time.

One evening Jaanus and some friends carried the Estonian flag, fluttering over their shoulders, on the way to a patriotic song party. Enraged police saw the flag and chased them down. When they caught them, the police grabbed the flag and ripped it, but Jaanus and his friends were only reprimanded. This treatment by the police was a big change for the better.

“There is a special feeling in Estonia,” Jaanus later explained in an excited voice to his mother. “People are patriotic. We all feel this new warmth and happiness.”

Then a few days before Christmas, Jaanus met Enn Lembit, a 30-year-old bearded man. He stated, “I have a new testimony about Christ and what prophets say nowadays. Come to my house to hear about this wonderful news.”

“Imagine that,” Jaanus thought, “a prophet speaking to people on earth today!” His spine tingled as he and his friends went to Enn Lembit’s apartment for a meeting in November 1989.

At that first meeting, Enn Lembit explained, “My father-in-law, Valtteri Rötsä, was converted to the Mormon church in Finland. He returned to Estonia to his family with his pockets full of literature about the Mormon faith.” Enn’s eyes shone with enthusiasm as he explained the gospel message to Jaanus and others in that small room.

About an hour after the meeting had started, Brother Uusituba, a businessman from Finland, suggested they pray and ask God if this church were true.

Jaanus thought, “I feel really good in this home, and I like what he is saying.” When they prayed, he felt a warm glow and believed that the gospel was true. Jaanus took the news home to his mother, and together they attended the first sacrament meeting held in Estonia.

On December 16, 1989, Enn Lembit was baptized as the first member to join on Estonian soil. Jaanus and his mother were baptized on January 6, 1990.

Excited by their newfound religion, Jaanus and his friend Urmas Raavk decided they must spread the gospel. They spoke with at least 50 people on the streets and knocked on 20 doors. They tried to talk like missionaries, explaining the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. The missionaries later asked Jaanus, “Why did you do that? Who gave you the authority to act as missionaries?”

“We know from reading in the Bible that everybody must be a missionary,” Jaanus answered. “I already have a strong desire to serve. It is hard to wait until I get a mission call.”

The elders smiled, “In opening this new mission, we need to be very careful and only work through referrals to members’ friends,” they explained. President Steven R. Mecham of the Finland Helsinki East Mission said that this proved to be important in getting the Church accepted. Proselyting needed to be handled carefully so as not to offend. From then on, Jaanus and Urmas worked with the missionaries.

Estonia was dedicated by Elder Russell M. Nelson in the spring of 1990. On June 29, the Estonian government officially recognized the Church.

The laws of the land required that an Estonian church member who did not hold a position in the Estonian branch presidency be designated as president of the Church in Estonia. That person must sign the petition for the Church to become recognized.

President Mecham asked Jaanus, “Would you consent to be the Church spokesman to testify before the Minister of Religion and sign the petition as president?”

Jaanus was puzzled. “There are many people who could do that.”

“We would like you, Jaanus, to be the authorized person to sign the document because you have demonstrated such leadership.”

Jaanus testified before the Minister of Religion that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a legitimate church working in the country to help people and that the programs were not contrary to any laws of government.

Then Jaanus picked up the pen, remembering that he had been at the first meeting of the Church in Estonia, had attended the first official sacrament meeting, and was one of the first youth to be baptized. Twenty others signed their names below his signature.

Jaanus served a mission to the Utah Salt Lake City Mission and is now attending school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Photography courtesy of family and Jed Clark

Graphic illustration by Neil Brown

Little did he realize when he joined the Church, Jaanus Silla would take a leadership role in the building up of the Church in Estonia.

Estonia is one of the Baltic states that became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Located just across a gulf from Finland, Estonia is a small country, less than a fourth the size of the state of Utah with a little more than one and a half million people. Just before they were declared a separate nation, one of the ways the people could peacefully demonstrate their patriotism was by attending large gatherings of people who got together to sing national songs. Now, Estonians can listen openly to the missionaries and attend Church meetings.

(Bottom, left) Jaanus worked with the missionaries to help spread the gospel message. (Top) Elder Russell M. Nelson (right) dedicated Estonia in the spring of 1990. (Top, left) Jaanus, home from his full-time mission, is now studying at BYU.