Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was standing just a short walk from the towering This Is the Place Monument on Monday when he delivered a pioneer-themed message.
But he didn’t need to wander over to the iconic granite structure to enjoy the company of pioneers. Seated in front of him, in an audience of young and old alike, were plenty of 21st century pioneers who were claiming their place among the ongoing, unbroken “chain of pioneers” connecting people from all places and cultures.
Pioneers hail from diverse places and backgrounds, said Elder Gong in his evening devotional, hosted by This is the Place Heritage Park foundation chairman and CEO Ellis Ivory and Heritage Park First Lady Katie Ivory as part of SUPer-DUPer Day.
The recently called Apostle’s own pioneer forefathers came to the United States by ship across the Pacific from China. His wife, Sister Susan Lindsay Gong, descends from Utah pioneers with European roots.
The Gongs may trace different ancestral backgrounds, but their respective families found their new homes to be, in pioneer fashion, “the right place.”
With Pioneer Day just days away, it’s an apt time to consider and remember the many types of pioneers.
First, said Elder Gong, are the pioneers such as Brigham Young and many others “who entered this beautiful [Salt Lake Valley].”
Second, are the many pioneers who have come from “every nation, kindred and tongue.” This Is the Place Monument, for example, appropriately salutes the Mormon Pioneers. But it also celebrates the Native Americans, the explorers and the religious leaders of other faiths who played essential roles in the settling of the Salt Lake Valley. They too called this place home.
And don’t forget the third type of pioneer — the type of pioneer that, perhaps, “we most celebrate and that we most hope we can each be,” said Elder Gong.
“This third kind of pioneer not only crosses oceans, plains, deserts, cities and towns — but maybe most importantly, this third kind of pioneer crosses school playgrounds, parking lots and cultural halls. This kind of pioneer crosses any fence or wall of separation to build bridges of understanding, compassion, friendliness and good neighborliness.”
Elder Gong invited his audience to be that type of “bridge building” pioneer. “Look for those who still need a helping hand. Who need a friendly smile. Who sometimes need some help.”
Elder Gong said his wife’s Mormon Pioneer ancestors entered the Salt Lake Valley after walking 1,200 miles.
“They were greeted by new friends and new neighbors who offered them juicy, luscious, perfectly ripe Utah peaches,” said Elder Gong with a smile. “Can you imagine anything more wonderful than coming into a new place and having someone offer you a Utah peach?”
It’s important that all remember their own “this is the right place” heritage with gratitude. “And may we always offer a warm smile and a genuine, open hand — and maybe fresh peaches — to those who come from every nation, kindred and tongue, and every state of heart and hope.”
Elder Gong recognized the significant service This is the Place Heritage Park, Sons of Utah Pioneers, and Daughters of Utah Pioneers provide in helping to preserve and instill pioneer heritage and values in each succeeding generation.
California resident Barbara Bell said she was moved by Elder Gong’s tender memories of his Chinese grandparents, who established a pioneer legacy for his own family.
“[Elder Gong] invited us to be that ‘third pioneer’ — the kind in some ways we most celebrate,” she said. “To look back with gratitude and most importantly to look forward to those who still need a helping hand, a friendly smile or some help.
“We honor every pioneer, past, present and future. We are all part of the same heritage.”