Gerry Avant: Recalling Koreans’ tears during 1981 general conference

General conference is a special occasion for Latter-day Saints throughout the world. I count myself among those who look forward to each conference and, after it has ended, I enjoy talking with others about some of its highlights.

As a member of the Church News staff, I’ve helped cover 96 general conferences. If things go according to plan, I will be involved in some way in conference coverage for the 97th time when the Church News reports on the 190th Semiannual General Conference on Oct. 3 and 4.

Each conference has had its memorable moments. One that stands out particularly in my mind is the 151st Annual General Conference, April 4 and 5, 1981. At that conference, President Spencer W. Kimball announced plans to build nine new temples, to be located in Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Guatemala City, Guatemala; Lima, Peru; Frankfurt, Germany; Stockholm, Sweden; Seoul, Korea; Manila, Philippines; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

I did not know that I would be assigned to go to Dallas, Seoul and Johannesburg to report on and photograph events for those dedicatory services. Still, I was thrilled to meet and interview several members from the newly announced temple districts.

A few days before the conference began, President Kimball presided over a meeting of about 250 priesthood leaders, including regional representatives, stake presidents, General Authority executive administrators and others. At that meeting, they were told of plans to build the nine temples.

As the place of each new temple was announced, something akin to an electric stir rippled through the audience. Priesthood leaders from each new temple district turned to face one another, shook hands, embraced. And wept.

I met some of the Korean leaders during that conference’s weekend. It was challenging to conduct interviews with a lump in my throat as I listened to them express in trembling voices attempts to describe the joy they felt — joy obviously beyond words — as they wiped tears of gratitude from their eyes.

I began my report about the announcement: “The Korean heard what President Spencer W. Kimball said, but he took a moment to be sure he understood in his mind what he had heard with his ears. When he had translated the prophet’s English into his native Korean, he burst into tears. ‘Komapsumnida. Komapsumnida.’ ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ ”

Elder Han In Sang, then a regional representative and later a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, told me, “We have been praying and crying for years for a temple.”

He said Korean members were especially grateful for the future temple in Seoul because a national law at that time prohibited a husband and wife from leaving the country at the same time. “We have 20,000 members of the Church in Korea. Only 100 have received their endowments; only 20 couples have been sealed.”

He and his wife were among the fortunate ones to have been sealed. Two of their five children were born in the covenant. “Can you imagine how I feel, as a father, to know that three of my children still aren’t sealed to me?” he asked with tears in his eyes.

Elder Han first went to the Salt Lake Temple in 1971 when he was in the United States on a business trip. “I went inside the temple, touched the walls and the chairs,” he said. “When I went home to Korea, I told the members that I had been to the Salt Lake Temple and had touched its walls and furniture. I told them if they wanted to touch the temple through me to shake my hand. After the meeting, no one went home; they formed a single line to shake my hand. That was as close as they had come to the temple.”

Ko Won Yong, then president of the Seoul Korea East Stake, said he attended the dedication of the Tokyo Japan Temple in 1980 and heard President Kimball instruct priesthood leaders to tell their members to go to the temple. “I wondered how I could deliver the prophet’s message to my people when we had no temple and they couldn’t leave the country to be sealed man to wife,” he said.

For several months before the announcement was made about the new temples, the stakes in Korea had been conducting temple preparation classes.

Kim Chang Sun, another Korean priesthood leader, was born in North Korea. “I escaped when I was young,” he said. “My mother died after we crossed the border. We will be able to do her temple work. Think of all the people whose work can now be done.”

With tears streaming down his face, Lee Bum Tae, then a stake patriarch in Korea, told how he had always been impressed to promise members the blessings of the temple.

“I knew that a temple in Korea couldn’t be too far away because the Spirit prompted me to name this specific blessing,” he said. “I arrived in Salt Lake City two days after the announcement about the temples. I went to Temple Square at night. I looked up at angel Moroni’s trumpet and realized that the sounds of it will now reach my country, from the Paekdoo Mountains in the north to Cheju Island in the south. And because of this, my country, which I love, will be blessed.”

In six sessions Dec. 14-15, 1985, President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Seoul Korea Temple.