The ironies were not lost on Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf during his two weeks in the Europe and Europe East Areas. He walked on streets steeped in Church history in London, England. The next day he made historic stops in Gdansk, Poland, and Kaliningrad, Russia.
With his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, they revisited locations dear to their hearts and their souls in Frankfurt, Germany. They also passed by painful reminders of tragic losses. And to the Church volunteers and members in Moscow and throughout Russia who face legal limitations, he invited them to return to the basics of the gospel while serving others.
No matter the past or present circumstances and challenges, though, the underlying principle for Church members and missionaries is to focus on the core message of the gospel, says the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“Whatever has happened, with the wonderful sacrifice of the Savior and our willingness to accept it and move forward, we can change our life and the lives of generations to come in our own families and those around us,” he said, reflecting on his mid-September European assignment.
Joining him were his wife, Sister Uchtdorf; Elder Patrick Kearon of the Presidency of the Seventy; Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric; and Sister Carol Waddell.
From London to Moscow
President David W. Checketts of the England London Mission watched as his 244 missionaries hailing from more than 50 countries waited in front of the iconic Royal Albert Hall, their quiet anticipation of a mission photo with the visiting Church leaders meshing with the hush of London’s early Saturday morning hours.
As he walked up, Elder Uchtdorf — who chairs the Missionary Executive Council — loudly exclaimed, “Hey, I just saw the new Ferrari out in front; President Checketts, is that your new mission vehicle?”
The missionaries’ grins of the moment carried over to the mission photo — the ice was broken, just as it had from the first two months of merging the England London and London South missions, the latter one of 19 missions worldwide consolidated this summer.
As the missionaries moved from the Royal Albert Hall backdrop to a conference held in the Church’s chapel in historic Hyde Park just a couple of blocks away, Elder Uchtdorf saluted that difficult mission merger. He also underscored how missionary work and conversions in England in the late 1830s helped to breathe new life into Church communities in Kirtland, Ohio, Nauvoo, Illinois, and Missouri, continuing as the Saints relocated to the Salt Lake Valley.
“Missionaries learned so much from Elder and Sister Uchtdorf, but they were especially touched by the personal ministry of shaking the hand and hugging every missionary,” said President Jacob L. Boyer of the Sept. 11 conference with his Germany Frankfurt Mission. “Taking this personal, one-on-one time will never be forgotten and has lifted our mission spiritually in a remarkable way.”
In Moscow, Elder Uchtdorf complimented how volunteers in Russia are adapting to legal limitations, including the prohibition of name tags and the use of term “missionary” in public outside of meetinghouse settings. Volunteers have returned to the basics — the gospel’s core message coupled with service.
“When you serve people you are interested in, they are interested in you,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “This opens the door there and they can teach people in our chapels.”
Bringing others unto Christ
Member interactions ranged from large, multi-stake leadership conferences in London and Moscow with local auxiliary sister leaders joining their priesthood counterparts to smaller branch meetings with members and volunteers in Kaliningrad and Gdansk.
“Especially important for the members were Elder Uchtdorf’s teachings about unity, charity and forgiveness,” said President Mateusz Z. Turek, whose Poland Warsaw Mission missionaries all attended the Gdansk meeting. “Whatever differences there might be between us, they don’t matter. The gospel is what matters and what unites us.”
Leaders in London mirrored the ethnic and social diversity of the multi-national missionary force there. “When I look at the membership there in England, it is a cross-section of the world’s population,” Elder Uchtdorf said.
There and elsewhere, he taught how the Reformation five centuries ago helped bring the world out of the dark Middle Ages and put the Bible and gospel topics in the hands, conversations and understandings of the masses, in turn setting the stage to make the Restoration possible.
“Elder Uchtdorf told us that as a people ‘we are still in the middle of the restoration of all things — the Restoration is still moving forward,’” President Checketts said. “I have never heard that said, but as I contemplated what President Russell M. Nelson is doing and the changes and progress in the true and living Church, it made sense. The Restoration is still taking place.”
Ministering served as a common thread of the member meetings. “Elder Uchtdorf expanded everyone’s understanding of the breadth of the concept,” said Elder Paul V. Johnson, president of the Europe Area, of the London conference. “The brothers and sisters who attended the meeting came away with a better picture of what it means and a determination to personally minister more effectively and to help others do the same.”
It carried into Moscow, Kaliningrad and Gdansk. “He taught practical ideas of how to be more caring to one another, and he continued to emphasize that the temple will come to Russia when the Saints are more committed in their hearts to reaching out and bringing others to Christ,” said Elder James B. Martino, president of the Europe East Area.
The Apostle encouraged members to look to where they can be of service, Elder Martino added. “Ministering is not something that comes by commandment, it comes by ‘anxiously engaging’ in wanting to help our brothers and sisters.”
Elder Uchtdorf had looked forward to his first visits to Kaliningrad and Gdansk — previously known by their German names of Konigsberg from the former’s Prussian era and Danzig from its “Free City of Danzig” period between the First and Second World Wars. Both cities were home to thriving Church units of several hundred members each in the first two decades of the 1900s, among the largest branches of the Church at the time outside the United States.
And both suffered extensive demolition, decimation and devastation during World War II bombings, with the Soviet Union moving in residents to turn Konigsberg into Kaliningrad in the Russian enclave wedged in between Poland and Lithuania.
With his visit, Elder Uchtdorf became the first Apostle to visit Konigsberg/Kaliningrad in some eight decades since just prior to WWII, and it was the first time a member of the Twelve had been to Gdansk.
Revisiting childhood memories
The Uchtdorfs’ return to Frankfurt resulted in a wave of emotions while revisiting memorable locations — most pleasant and uplifting. They passed by Sister Uchtdorf’s home where he would stop by on his bike, hoping to catch a glimpse of her and invite her to attend Church meetings (“she never did, but her mother did occasionally,” he quipped), the site of the old branch building where he saw her for the first time, and the spot where her grandmother and her aunt rushed into a cellar during an air raid, only to have a bomb make a direct hit.
With the mission conference held in their old stake center, the group photo was taken in the same cultural hall where they attended events and dances, with Elder Uchtdorf speaking from the same pulpit he did as a stake president.
“It was wonderful for Sister Uchtdorf to share her testimony there, only walking distance from where missionaries found her and her family in 1954,” he said, adding “these memories in Frankfurt were very sweet and tender — but it’s really not the location so much, it’s more the people.”
The meeting was conducted all in German — “a blessing for us to hear Elder and Sister Uchtdorf express the feelings of their hearts in their mother tongue,” President Boyer said.
Sister Uchtdorf told the story of the missionaries who found and taught her and her mother and sister, while Elder Uchtdorf told of watching the conversion of his wife’s family and the difference that has made in his life. Said Elder Johnson: “The missionaries were inspired to see how sweet the fruits of their labors can be as they share the gospel with others and help them come to the Savior.”
One of the key elements of the trip was to conduct annual reviews of the Europe Area, headquartered in Frankfurt, and the Europe East Area, in Moscow. Reviews include meeting with the area presidency and staff to review progress and procedures and set direction and goals. Doing that in person and in conjunction with leadership conferences helps provide the in-person perspective.
“We are to listen and to learn,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “That is really the purpose — to listen.”
Said Elder Martino: “He acknowledged we have certain challenges in Europe East, but every challenge provides opportunities. We must constantly look for the positive and see what we can do to grow, both spiritually and numerically.”