Sound a trumpet and Praise the Lord: two simple, three-word phrases aptly capturing the spirit that lifted the Conference Center on Friday, June 1.
In the waning moments of the historic “Be One” event, President Russell M. Nelson’s eyes twinkled as he stood on the Conference Center stage and saluted the many performers. Perhaps he was also envisioning people across the globe clasping hands, literally and metaphorically, commemorating a latter-day priesthood revelation that continues to bless legions.
“I wish we could hug and thank everyone one of your for your wonderful performance,” he told the cast members.
All are equal to God, he declared. All have the same opportunities in the gospel.
“On every continent and across the isles of the sea, faithful people are being gathered into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said at the conclusion of the “Be One” — the First Presidency-sponsored celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the 1978 revelation on the priesthood.
“Differences in culture, language, gender, race, and nationality,” he said, “fade into insignificance as the faithful enter the covenant path and come unto our Beloved Redeemer.”
The world is largely defined by division and violence. But “Be One” was both a call and a recommitment to unity and love. The event’s wide-ranging offerings of festive music, dance and faith-promoting messages doubled as reminders of the transcendent power of togetherness through Christ.
“We realize that only the comprehension of the true Fatherhood of God can bring full appreciation of the true brotherhood of men and the true sisterhood of women. That understanding inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation,” said President Nelson.
The Church’s 17th president concluded his brief remarks invoking a blessing “that we may overcome any burdens of prejudice and walk uprightly with God — and with one another — in perfect peace and harmony.”
The event championed the possibilities of such harmony with colorful musical and dance. The night’s performing artists included Gladys Knight, Alex Boyé, the Bonner family, a missionary choir, and the Be One Choir consisting of members of Saints Unified Voices, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Unity Gospel Choir International.
Events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the attacks of 9/11 forever persist in one’s memory, said President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency in his message at the beginning of Friday’s event.
“For Latter-day Saints who were adults at that time, the 1978 revelation on the priesthood was an event of such magnitude that it is also etched in memory.”
President Oaks was working in the yard of his mountain home with his two sons when the phone rang, unexpectedly. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was on the line.
“He told me about the revelation on the priesthood, which was just being announced. We exchanged expressions of joy, and I walked back to the hillside. I sat down on the pile of dirt we had been moving and beckoned to my sons. As I told them that all worthy male members of the Church could now be ordained to the priesthood, I wept for joy.
“That is the scene etched in my memory of this unforgettable announcement forty years ago — sitting on a pile of dirt and weeping as I told my sons of this divine revelation.”
As a student and, later, a young lawyer, President Oaks lived in the U.S. Midwest and the East. The restriction on the ordination and temple blessings of persons of African ancestry was the subject of frequent conversations.
“I observed the pain and frustration experienced by those who suffered these restrictions and those who criticized them and sought for reasons. I studied the reasons then being given and could not feel confirmation of the truth of any of them.”
Prayerful study taught him that the Lord rarely gives reasons for His commandments and directions.
“I determined to be loyal to our prophetic leaders and to pray — as promised from the beginning of these restrictions — that the day would come when all would enjoy the blessings of priesthood and temple. Now that day had come, and I wept for joy.”
He wasn’t alone. Many Latter-day Saints felt joy upon learning of the revelation. The number of members of African descent was relatively small at the time. So many of those who rejoiced were Anglo-Americans “who witnessed the pain of black brothers and sisters and longed for their relief.”
Counted among those who “wept for joy” at the priesthood revelation were Dr. Russell M. Nelson and then Deputy Commissioner of Education Henry B. Eyring.
“In 1978, both of these men had lived outside the somewhat isolated environment of the Mountain West for more than a total of 40 years,” said President Oaks. “They had also witnessed the pain of this restriction among their associates.”
Institutionally, the Church reacted swiftly to the revelation on the priesthood. Ordinations and temple recommends came immediately and membership records continued to make no mention of race or ethnicity.
Meanwhile, “the reasons that had been given to try to explain the prior restrictions on members of African ancestry — even those previously voiced by revered Church leaders — were promptly and publicly disavowed.”
Changes in the “hearts and practices” of individual members did not come suddenly and universally, he said. Some accepted the effects of the revelation immediately. Others accepted gradually.
“But some, in their personal lives, continued the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including the past 40 years,” he said. “Others have wanted to look back, concentrating attention on re-examining the past, including seeking reasons for the now-outdated restrictions.”
But most in the Church, including its senior leaders, have concentrated on the “opportunities of the future” rather than the “disappointments of the past.” They have trusted the Lord’s timing and wisdom while accepting the direction of His prophet, he said.
“In doing so, we have received new impetus to fulfill the command that we are to teach the everlasting gospel unto all — to “all nations, kindreds, tongues and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:58).
Focusing on what has not been revealed or past explanations by those operating with limited understanding can only result in speculation and frustration, he added.
“To all who have such concerns, we extend our love and this special invitation. Let us all look forward in the unity of our faith and trust in the Lord’s promise that ‘he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female’ ” (2 Nephi 26:33; emphasis added).
One of the most important effects of the revelation on the priesthood is a call to abandon attitudes of prejudice against anyone.
“As servants of God who have the knowledge and responsibilities of His great plan of salvation, we should hasten to prepare our attitudes and our actions — institutionally and personally — to abandon all personal prejudices,” he said.
President Oaks said celebrating the 40th anniversary of the revelation is about looking forward. “As we do, we express special appreciation for our marvelous members of African descent, especially our African-American members, who have persisted in faith and faithfulness through a difficult transition period of fading prejudice.”
Then it was time to sing and dance.
Traditional African dances and soulful gospel music were kept in step by musicians manning electric guitars, keyboards and drums.
Cast members also delivered dramatized histories of key Latter-day Saints figures such as Mormon Pioneers Jane Manning James and Elijah Abel and Brazilian-born Elder Helvécio Martins, the first General Authority of African descent.
They recounted key figures in the African nations, Brazil and the Caribbean who would build the first foundations of the gospel in their native lands. Prolific missionary work and temple building can now be found in many lands with large populations of African descent.
Count the “Be One” audience as part of the night's cast. They rose to their feet, clapping and cheering on the performers delivering heartfelt renditions of gospel songs and familiar hymns such as “Let Us All Press On.”
Gladys Knight, a convert and the so-called “Empress of Soul,” performed an unforgettable and apt rendition of “Somewhere” before leading the Be One Choir and an on-its-feet congregation in “Love One Another.”
Even after Odeh Ondoma delivered the benediction, cast and audience members lingered, not wanting to call it a night.Counted among the many who helped stage Friday’s “Be One” event was choreographer Yvonne Baraketse, a convert and a native of Rwanda. She knows much of division. She lost her father and other loved ones to genocide in her homeland. She has witnessed racism on three different continents.
But the Church, she said, has offered her a community presided over by Christ. “The gospel is what unites us and removes barriers of culture or skin color.”
The historic celebration, she added, “[gave] me an opportunity to perform for God.”