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President Uchtdorf speaks at inaugural John A. Widtsoe Symposium at USC

LOS ANGELES, CALIF.

Love of God and fellowmen is not merely the goal of religion, it is also the path of true discipleship. It is the destination.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf made this declaration as he delivered the John A. Widtsoe Symposium's inaugural address at the University of Southern California on Friday evening, April 24. President Uchtdorf was the keynote speaker at the first of four symposia to be held in conjunction with the proposed John A. Widtsoe Chair in Mormon Studies at USC’s School of Religion.

Held in USC’s reception center, Town and Gown, the symposium brought together people from varied backgrounds, professions, cultures and beliefs, including educators, religious leaders, consuls general, business, civic and government leaders, and members of the Widtsoe family.

President Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, titled his address “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God.”

He gave a brief account of the Church’s growth over the years since Elder Widtsoe, who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1921-1952, taught about Mormonism at USC 80 years ago. Church membership then was fewer than 850,000, with most living in the western United States; today it is more than 15 million, with most residing outside the United States and Canada.

President Uchtdorf spoke of the Church moving from being “insular, concerned primarily with the well-being of its own members” to its expanded reach to help people worldwide through its welfare and humanitarian efforts.

“Today, the LDS Church connects cultures, nationalities, languages, and people of every socio-economic status,” he said. “It encourages people to be good citizens, to care for those who are in distress, to be kind to others, and to nurture and build loving, respectful families.

“Today, Church members seek to create goodwill among people of all religious beliefs, political persuasions, and of every race.”

He quoted the 11th Article of Faith: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

President Uchtdorf said: “We Mormons know what it means to be a minority — throughout our history we have been discriminated against and persecuted as a result of our religious beliefs. More recently, we are experiencing the growing pains of becoming a majority in some areas — which creates its own challenges. In both cases, we understand that the rights of all men — whether they are in the minority or the majority — must be preserved and safeguarded.

"Although we do not know what the coming years and decades will bring, we trust that because of our sincere beliefs and strong faith, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be numbered among those who are a force for good and advocates for peace and brotherly love among all nations.”

President Uchtdorf gave a stirring account of growing up in Germany and hearing about the Holocaust all his life. He was born in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, near Upper Silesia from which came the first Jews to be executed at Auschwitz. “I am troubled to know that at the very time and at the very place when I was taking my first steps, soldiers from the Gestapo were rounding up terrified families and transporting them in railroad cars to that horrible place where they were destined to take their final steps,” President Uchtdorf said.

“Although I was only a small child during the war, I still recognize that the actions of my people affected me and the entire world. They left an inexpressible sorrow and an inextinguishable agony that is still felt to this day throughout the world.”

He said that he and his wife, Harriett, visited Auschwitz. “As Harriet and I walked away from that place which has been hallowed by the blood of so many innocents, we felt changed. We were different,” he said. “We had learned and relearned important lessons that we must never forget.”

President Uchtdorf then spoke about three insights that forcibly entered his heart and mind that day.

1. “We hate those we do not really know.” He said, “I am convinced that one of the major reasons these atrocities happened is because it is human nature to be suspicious, envious, distrustful, and even hateful of those we do not really know.

“I suppose we are all guilty of this to one extent or another. Do we really know even our neighbors and colleagues — people we greet daily? It is one of the most disconcerting qualities of being human to distrust or dislike those who are different from us in a variety of elements.

“The great tragedy is, if only we could take the time to truly know another person we would discover that perhaps we are not so different after all.”

2. “We must speak up.” President Uchtdorf said, “We all have a responsibility to speak the truth. To stand for what is right. To lift our voices in support of that which is good. Too often evil rises in the world because good men and women do not find the courage to speak against it. And sometimes terrible, preventable events happen because we fail to open our mouths.”

President Uchtdorf said, "In a world where intolerance, meanness and hatred are so easily accessible, we have a responsibility to speak up and defend what is good and right. We have all heard the profound statement attributed to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

“This applies to us today. We have a responsibility to speak up for goodness, virtue, kindness and understanding. We have an obligation to defend the weak and stand up for the downtrodden.

“In this age, perhaps more than any other since the beginning of time, we are exposed to bullies and braggarts — people who belittle others and preen themselves in prideful arrogance.

“We can and must stand and let our voices be heard. We don’t need to be provocative or belittling, but we must not allow our fears to prevent us from lifting our voices in defense of what is right and good and true.

“I wonder how history might have been changed had the people of Germany spoken with one voice against the evil that rose around them? Perhaps future generations will ask the same of us today."

President Uchtdorf added, "It is not easy to stand in defense of what is right. We will likely face insult and ridicule. We will likely risk opposition and discomfort. Nevertheless, we must have the courage to do so.”

3. “Divine love is the answer.” President Uchtdorf said that as he walked along the paths of Auschwitz he wondered if mankind was destined to re-enact the same tragedy over and over.

“I so desperately wanted to hope it wasn’t true that we learn from history that we cannot learn from history. The question that struck deep into my heart was, ‘Is there hope?’ I believe there is. I know there is.”

He said there is one virtue — one quality — that can solve all the world’s ills, cure all the hatred, and mend every wound.

“If we only learned to love God as our Father in Heaven, this would give us purpose in life.

“If we only learned to love our fellowman as our brothers and sisters, this would give us compassion. After all, these are God’s great commandments — to love God and to love our fellowman. If we distill religion down to its essence, we nearly always recognize that love is not merely the goal of religion, it is also the path of true discipleship. It is the destination.”

President Uchtdorf said, “My esteemed friends, my brothers and sisters, I am convinced that had my countrymen felt and applied the power of divine love and compassion, the holocaust never could have happened. The evil that befell the world could have been prevented. Such heartache could not have descended upon the planet. …

“We must love all of God’s children because they are our brothers and sisters. Even — and perhaps especially — we must love those who are different and appear strange. ...

“It is the essence of pure religion. It may not be an easy thing to do. But it is worth doing and we can do it.”

Concluding, President Uchtdorf said, “We must try to really understand and to really know one another. We must raise our voices in defense of what is just and good. We must increase our genuine love for God and our fellowman.

“This is our greatest hope of preventing the ever-repeating catastrophes that have plagued this planet since its earliest days.

“It is my hope that we will look past our differences and, instead, see each other with eyes that recognize who we truly are — fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, pilgrims walking the same path that leads to becoming more enlightened and more refined as our Father in Heaven intends us to become.”

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