SALT LAKE CITY -- A leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued another plea Saturday for members to be welcoming to people of all faiths and ethnicities on the heels of recent attacks on Asians and following a recent reckoning over racial justice around the world.
The remarks came during a twice-annual church conference that is being held without attendees for a third consecutive time as the faith continues to take precautions amid the pandemic.
“The Lord expects us to teach that inclusion is a positive means towards unity, and that exclusion leads to division,” said Gary Stevenson, a member of a top governing panel called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino, or of any other group. Prejudice, racial tension, or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities, or within the church.”
He also called on young members to stop cyber-bullying, which can lead to anxiety and depression, and for adults to model “kindness, inclusion and civility.”
Stevenson's plea is a continuation of a push in recent years by church leadership to strike a more strident tone against racism.
Fellow church leaders urged members to root out racism and make the faith an “oasis of unity" at the last church conference in October. Two months later, the church added to the faith’s handbook new language demanding members root out prejudice and racism, adding significance and permanence on one of the most sensitive topics in the church’s history.
The faith’s past ban on Black men in the lay priesthood, which stood until 1978, remains a delicate issue for members and non-members alike. The church disavowed the ban in a 2013 essay, saying it was enacted during an era of great racial divide that influenced the church’s early teachings, but it never issued a formal apology — a sore spot for some members.
Church leadership grew a bit more diverse in 2018 when it selected the first-ever Latin American and person of Asian ancestry to an all-male top governing panel. But there are still no Black men on the panel. Black members make up a tiny percentage of church membership.
Members of the Utah-based faith known widely as the Mormon church are watching speeches during the two-day conference this Easter weekend on TVs, computers and tablets from their homes around the world. Church leaders are giving the speeches from inside a building at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, where they are sitting socially distanced and wearing masks.
Before the pandemic, the two-day conference would bring about 100,000 people to the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City to listen to five sessions over two days. The conference was held virtually in April 2020, marking the first time that occurred in more than 70 years.
The conference comes as people around the world get COVID-19 vaccines and cases decline. Church leaders this week reiterated the faith’s support for vaccinations in an update of the church handbook, which is a guiding document for the faith's 16.6 million members around the world.
Church President Russell M. Nelson, now in his third year leading the faith, traveled extensively around the world to visit church members before the pandemic grounded him.
He said during a brief, opening speech Saturday morning that the past year has been “one for the record books” that has reassured him that has accelerated a push already underway to bolster at-home worship among church members.
Nelson and several speakers focused on the importance of repentance. Comparing self-growth to ongoing renovations at the church's flagship temple in Salt Lake City, Nelson told members to find “debris you should remove from your life so you can become more worthy.”
Dieter Uchtdorf, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, added: "The cleansing gift of repentance allows us to leave our sins behind and emerge a new creature. Because of Jesus Christ, our failures do not have to define us. They can refine us.”
Church members also heard from longtime Quorum member Jeffrey Holland, one of the faith's most well-known orators, who lamented a world filled with conflict, contention and incivility and delivered an impassioned plea for members to be kinder and follow what he called the “principles of righteousness."
Holland warned members that compromising those principles leads to broken covenants and broken hearts.
“When the dance is over, the piper must always be paid and most often the currency is tears and regret,” Holland said.
Joy D. Jones, president of the faith’s children’s ministry program called “Primary,” urged parents to treasure their children and “never harm them physically, verbally, or emotionally in any way, even when tensions and pressures run high.”
She called on parents to avoid allowing the increasing use of electronic devices get in the way of having “caring conversations” and looking into their children’s eyes as they teach gospel lessons.
“As children learn and progress, their beliefs will be challenged,” Jones said. “But as they are properly equipped, they can grow in faith, courage and confidence, even in the midst of strong opposition.”