During a visit to southeastern Asia in late February, President Boyd K. Packer and Elder David A. Bednar saw devastation in the aftermath of tsunamis they could not find words to describe.
However, President Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder Bednar, a member of that Quorum, saw what they might compare to the cycle of death and resurrection. "This place has been devastated, yet there are the beginnings of new life," Elder Bednar said March 3 during a Church News interview in his office after he and President Packer returned to Salt Lake City.
He was speaking specifically of what they saw during a visit to Banda Aceh, a city on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra that was hit particularly hard by the tidal wave triggered by an earthquake off its coast last December 26.
President Packer was invited to Indonesia by Dr. Alwi Shihab, the government's welfare minister who is acquainted with and has a long-standing relationship with President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Packer. The purpose of the visit was to talk about the Church's involvement in humanitarian aid.
"As soon as the tsunami hit, President Packer called Dr. Alwi Shihab and said, 'What can we do to help?' " said Elder Bednar, who was asked to accompany President Packer on the trip.
The invitation to visit Indonesia was extended about a month before the tsunamis hit. While much aid was pouring in from throughout the world, Indonesian officials told the Church that what was desperately needed were body bags because of the tremendous loss of life. Elder Bednar said the Church
quickly responded by providing them. Then, because of transportation challenges, motor scooters were needed and, again, the Church responded.
"We traveled to Indonesia as an indication of our willingness to continue to provide assistance, to assure them that when others are no longer there to help, we will still be there," Elder Bednar said. He added that he and President Packer were also able to assess how the Church's resources were being used.
President Packer and Elder Bednar left Salt Lake City on Feb. 22, stopping in Guam for a meeting with members there. Then they continued on to Jakarta where they met with government officials, held meetings with Church members, and went to Banda Aceh to observe for themselves the aftermath of the disaster and efforts toward recovery.
Elder Bednar expressed dismay over what he saw. He compared it to scorched earth, everything scraped off. "There are a few buildings and barren trees remaining, but the devastation is indescribable."
He said cars looked like crumpled pieces of aluminum foil, identifiable only by some part, like the rim of a wheel. At one point, Elder Bednar saw a factory a couple of miles inland that he thought had withstood the tsunami well. But upon closer observation, he realized it was a floating power plant built on a barge that had been deposited inland by the tsunami, from its previous location out in the harbor.
What really tugged at his heart, he said, were the countless pictures on posts and walls of people lost in the tsunami being sought by their families.
People were organizing temporary homes, with other resources and facilities getting started, he said.
President Packer and Elder Bednar walked through a hospital where doctors, nurses, and others had worked following the tragedy to clear out two or three feet of mud. The apostles inspected several operating rooms that were being equipped by LDS Charities, according to Elder Bednar. "They were about ready to be fully utilized." During the tour of the hospital, Elder Bednar said they passed the maternity area where women and their new babies were gathered with families, another indication of a new beginning.
The government of Indonesia appreciated that the Church offered help without asking for anything in return, Elder Bednar said. "We affirmed that we really want to help. We believe that they are our brothers and sisters. They had a terrible disaster, and we are in a position to provide some relief. That is why we were there."
While in Jakarta, President Packer and Elder Bednar had a meeting with missionaries, and another with 350 priesthood leaders, "some of whom traveled as long as 16 hours to be there," Elder Bednar said. On Sunday, about 1,200 people attended a member meeting, he said. Following that meeting, they reviewed relief efforts with local Church leaders.
Among the leaders, Elder Bednar noted that Area Authority Seventy Elder Subandriyo "has been the liaison between the Church in Salt Lake and what is happening in Indonesia. He has done an absolutely remarkable job. The government leaders have tremendous confidence in him." At one point, Elder Bednar added, Elder Subandriyo used his ability to speak English in an air traffic control tower to help direct planes carrying relief supplies into the airport.
The Church has steadily increased in membership in Indonesia over the past five years, Elder Bednar pointed out. He said he expects continued growth over the next 10 years from the current three districts and one mission.
On their way back to Salt Lake City, President Packer and Elder Bednar held a member meeting on the Pacific island of Saipan on March 1. Crossing the international date line, they spoke at a devotional assembly at BYU-Hawaii on March 1.
Elder Bednar said traveling with President Packer, the acting president of his quorum was "a great learning experience."
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