Sarah Jane Weaver: How a Russian-language meeting and a photograph spoke peace to my heart during war, uncertainty

As I walked into the Mount Ensign 4th Branch of the Salt Lake Stake on Sunday, Feb. 27, media images from recent days highlighting the conflict in Eastern Europe flashed through my mind — military troops, smoldering destruction, lines of refugees, a scared little girl in a yellow hat, people praying in a public square.

Days earlier, armed conflict had erupted in Ukraine; the conflict had been front and center in my consciousness ever since.

The Salt Lake Stake was the first stake the Church organized when the pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. The stake now welcomes the world; in the Mount Ensign 4th Branch, meetings are conducted in the Russian language. Branch members are from Ukraine, Russia and other countries where Russian is spoken, including many from the United States.

In an acknowledgment of the conflict, the meeting began with an invitation to continue fasting and praying for peace the following week. The fast would be broken as the branch gathered together to pray and share a simple meal. “We invite all of you without exception,” said Nickolas Couturier, a counselor in the branch presidency.

I am sure members of this branch deal with the same things all of us do as Latter-day Saints. As we worship together, we learn to be humble and faithful and find understanding. We don’t always agree. We have political and cultural differences. 

In the Mount Ensign 4th Branch, those differences were certainly amplified, as members worried about family members in their home countries and wrestled with the personal realities of war.

But we — without exception — can be united by a cause much greater than all of those things: a belief in Jesus Christ and in His restored Church. Each Sunday, we gather together and partake of bread and water in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

On Sunday, in a meetinghouse in downtown Salt Lake City, I listened to those sacred prayers spoken in Russian. United in a single cause, branch members remembered the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and were reminded of the promised blessing of the Lord’s Spirit to be with all who covenant with Him.

During the meeting, Branch President Gregory S. Brinton articulated the Lord’s love and concern for all His children. “Our branch needs to be a place of peace and comfort where everyone is welcome and everyone feels love and acceptance,” he said.

“We need to be unified and full of love and kindness for each other, no matter where we are from, and no matter what our political opinions are.”

He asked the congregation to “be valiant in putting our love of God and discipleship of the Savior” above all other considerations.

“Let this time of heartbreak and deep concern be a time when our branch is a place of peace and comfort for everyone,” he said.

He also shared the First Presidency statement on the conflict. The words seemed to carry more power when spoken in Russian.

“We are heartbroken and deeply concerned by the armed conflict now raging,” wrote the First Presidency. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has members in each of the affected areas and throughout the world. Our minds and hearts have been turned toward them and all our brothers and sisters.

“We continue to pray for peace. We know that enduring peace can be found through Jesus Christ. He can calm and comfort our souls even in the midst of terrible conflicts. He taught us to love God and our neighbors.

“We pray that this armed conflict will end quickly, that the controversies will end peacefully and that peace will prevail among nations and within our own hearts. We plead with world leaders to seek for such resolutions and peace.”

After the meeting, members of the branch — without exception — stood together on the stand and posed for a branch photograph.

The branch had been scheduled to meet in a new meetinghouse the following week, and members wanted a final photograph in the chapel where they had worshipped for years. Still, the photograph took my breath away. This single moment, occurring half a world away from the conflict currently raging, did not erase hurt or squelch suffering. Sadly, it could not heal the fear or the sorrow that is the daily experience of hundreds of thousands in Eastern Europe, or their families here.

But it changed me.

There — without exception — stood Ukrainian, Russian and American Latter-day Saints, sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters, members of one branch who pray together, eat together, worship together and weep together. In that moment, God’s children, divided by war, were united by faith.

It is the image that sustains me now when the images of war consume me.

The message of that sweet photograph is profound: At this time when peace is threatened, there is comfort and hope found in Jesus Christ and His Church. It is the answer to all conflict — without exception.

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