HONG KONG — Several families stood in a small room at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, having just participated in a large-group photo opportunity with President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson.
It was obvious many in the group hoped to greet President and Sister Nelson individually.
Prompted by a tight schedule and the need to conclude press interviews in a very short time, however, many guests of honor would have turned their attention to the next task.
But as President and Sister Nelson turned back to see the waiting members, they quietly motioned them to come forth.
Each of the families represented the faithful and diverse membership of Hong Kong, Asia’s crown jewel. A city defined by skyscrapers, bridges, trade markets and shipping docks, Hong Kong is home to numerous multi-generation families who have built the Church — which now includes six stakes and a temple — during the past seven decades.
Moments after quietly ministering to the individuals and families, President Nelson redirected the attention he was receiving from Latter-day Saints during his worldwide ministry tour.
It’s the love of the Lord that motivates Church members to show him such kindness, he said. “They love the Lord. They love the Lord’s work. And they have a natural desire to be close to the Lord’s leaders.
“It is not about us. It is about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”
Then he entered the convention hall, stood before 4,200 members — the largest Latter-day Saint crowd to ever gather in Hong Kong — and said, “You are making a memory for us that we will never forget.”
Global ministry tour
The final leg of President Nelson’s world ministry tour included three countries in the Church’s Asia Area, home to half the world’s population.
Meetings in Bengaluru, India; Bangkok, Thailand; and Hong Kong marked the largest gathering of Latter-day Saints in each city in Church history.
“The future of the Church is bright here in Asia,” President Nelson said.
President Nelson and Sister Nelson, accompanied by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, had visited seven countries in the past 10 days, addressing members and missionaries in Europe, Africa and Asia.
“This has been a journey of joy,” said Elder Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
In Asia, the visits to three countries in three consecutive days marked the end of the lightning-pace tour, with only one stop in Hawaii left as the Nelsons and Hollands returned home.
The 93-year-old prophet continued to demonstrate good health, energy and the ability to minister in the moment — picking up children or kneeling down to their level, learning the names of journalists or local Church employees, and greeting members, often placing his free hand over the hands connected to his in a traditional hand shake. Never looking rushed, he almost always made eye contact with those he greeted. Despite the grueling schedule, he never looked tired.
“We don’t have time for jet lag,” said Sister Nelson.
“It’s a luxury we can’t afford,” added President Nelson.
In fact, President Nelson seemed to be energized by the tour’s tight schedule and opportunity to be with Church members in different countries, said Sister Nelson.
“He is doing so well,” she said of the trip’s long hours, flights, and his addresses to multiple congregations, adding “I just watch him getting happier and younger as the trip goes on.”
Since January “the man that I greet at the end of that day is different, just a little bit different, than the man I said goodbye to in the morning,” said Sister Nelson of President Nelson.
But on this trip, meeting with congregations across the world, the difference was jaw-dropping, she said. The “man at the pulpit” spoke with profound clarity, boldness and focus.
“I watch him even become younger at the pulpit,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Do you realize that you shed about 20 years there?’ That was just amazing. I saw him 63, 73, never 93,” Sister Nelson said. “I watch the Lord move upon him in a most remarkable way.”
It is fitting that President Nelson would conclude his tour in Asia, where the Church has a rich history and multi-generational families as well as areas young in Church growth and development, said Elder Randy D. Funk, General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Asia Area. The cities of Bengaluru, Bangkok, and Hong Kong each has or will soon have a temple and each has many faithful members.
In Asia “the cultures and people are very diverse,” said Elder Funk. “The Church has been in some countries for 40 to 60 years and there are now many multi-generational families and experienced leaders. In other countries, the Church is very new, and members are learning and growing in the gospel. Regardless of differences in cultures and experience, we see faithful members who love their families, desire the blessings of the temple, and act with faith in striving to live the gospel in their daily lives. We see how the gospel blesses them in every way and notice the joy and peace they feel in knowing the plan of salvation.”
Clad in bright clothing showcasing the energy and beauty of this nation, Indian Latter-day Saints lined up, hours before a scheduled meeting with President Nelson on April 19.
Collectively they spoke of two things: President Nelson and the temple he recently announced for their nation.
Weeks earlier, in the closing moments of general conference, President Nelson said the Church would build seven new temples — including one in Bengaluru.
But it almost wasn’t so, he told the members.
“Our plans were to announce six new temples at conference time,” said President Nelson. “The Lord told me on the eve of conference: ‘Announce a temple in India.’ … That was the Lord’s doing.”
The new temple is proof of “how much the Lord thinks” about members here and “loves them,” said Elder Robert William, an Area Seventy in India.
It has been 52 years since President Nelson first visited India in 1966 to participate in the Fifth World Congress of Cardiology in New Delhi. A young stake president and experienced cardiac surgeon, he met with other world-class doctors and shared information. He returned to the country to teach and operate on patients.
In 1992, he returned again, this time as an LDS apostle. “I felt something special here,” he said. “They love God, and I love them.”
Experts predict that India — home to 17 percent of the world’s population — will soon be the world’s most populous nation with 1.35 billion people, including some of the world’s most poor.
President Nelson said Church leaders worry about members in every country.
“Our approach is to take the poverty out of the people, not the people out of the poverty,” he said. “As we teach them that God loves them and as they keep His commandments, they will have joy in their life and they will be liberated from the bondage, not only of sin but of deprivation. The gospel of Jesus Christ has only one purpose, really.
“Bottom line: That is to make life better for people. That is what we are going to do.”
Elder Holland said the gospel energizes its members. “We have seen it all over the world and we see it in India. We have seen it in the generation of the Church here. … We don’t try to attack the social or cultural issues so much as we bless the people and they rise above it.”
Elder Holland said President Nelson hadn’t stopped smiling since he announced the temple for India.
During his first trip to Thailand in 1966, President Nelson traveled by boat through the canals and klongs of Bangkok.
He watched women gather water for their daily needs from the same river as their children bathed. He shopped at floating markets. And he visited the home of a medical colleague, spotting geckos on the walls controlling the insect population.
He did not meet another member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Greeted by highways and skyscrapers 52 years later, President Nelson returned to Thailand on April 20 as part of his world ministry tour, reflecting on the city’s past half-century of growth.
It’s hard, he said, to believe the transformation that has taken place “in the space of one man’s lifetime.”
A capacity crowd filled the Queen Sirikit Conference Center in anticipation of President Nelson’s visit. Some 30 minutes before the leader’s arrival, the crowd of more than 3,000 grew silent.
Entering this scene of profound respect, President Nelson looked across the room and said he felt the “love and faith” of the Church’s Thai members.
The meeting marked the largest gathering ever of Latter-day Saints in Thailand, said Elder Funk.
Known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand today is home to more than 20,000 Church members in four stakes and two districts.
“The Church has been in Thailand for nearly 50 years and continues to grow in strength,” said Elder Funk. “The Thai people are very warm and gracious and our members are exemplary in their goodness and service.”
President Nelson said the Saints of Thailand will not be passive.
“These people are energized. They are inspired. They want to do something about their faith,” he said. “They are going to get ready for their temple.”
Standing at the pulpit during the Thailand member meeting and taking in the powerful scene, Elder Holland looked across the Queen Sirikit Conference Center and said: “I wish that every missionary who has every served in Thailand could be here tonight, especially those in the early years when there were virtually no members, little tiny branches, very few who really knew the language — and now this.”
The audience is the miracle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, he added. “You are a stunning sight.”
Speaking of the growth of the Church in Thailand, Elder Holland said: “We are sometimes so close to history, so close to miracles, that we don’t know we are making history, that we don’t realize we are experiencing a miracle.”
To have President and Sister Nelson with the group is another miracle, he said. The Lord has made President Nelson “a spiritual physician to this vast, wide, wonderful Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” he said. “We are as happy as you are to be with him … and hear his testimony.”
The date of President Nelson’s visit and the Bangkok member meeting had a special significance for Larry R. White, a former missionary and mission president in Thailand.
Called to labor in the Southern Far East Mission, White was one of six young missionaries sent to Thailand in 1968. Their mission president told them “to learn the language and get the Church started.”
On April 20, 1968 — 50 years ago to the day of President Nelson’s visit — the missionaries knocked on the door of Srilaksana Suntarahut. She was baptized on July 4, 1968, only a few months after the first missionaries arrived in the country.
“Her testimony came powerfully, after reading just a few verses, from the English Book of Mormon,” recalled White, who presided over the Thailand Bangkok Mission from 1991 to 1994.
She helped the missionaries translate the name of the Church. Ultimately, Suntarahut, who died in 2013, became the primary translator of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price into Thai.
It is very tender to think about knocking on her door 50 years to the day that President Nelson would visit, White said, noting the emotion of the moment. “Things have really changed in 50 years.”
After addressing the 4,200 members in Hong Kong, President Nelson waved goodbye by lifting both hands high in the air.
Most of the vast congregation returned the gesture.
Moments earlier, in an effort to get to know them, President Nelson had asked them to stand in groups — Latter-day Saints from Hong Kong, from Macau, and from other cities in the People’s Republic of China.
Since the creation of the Hong Kong Mission in 1949, “missionaries have been actively teaching the gospel to the people of Hong Kong for 69 years,” said Elder Zeno Chow, an Area Seventy in Hong Kong. “We now have six stakes and two districts in the Hong Kong/Macau region with over 25,000 members.”
“I think Hong Kong is one of the remarkable cities of the world,” Elder Holland said. “It has been an anchor spot for so much of the Church in Asia.”
Still, Church leaders noted the challenges that exist for the multi-generational Latter-day Saint families who make Hong Kong their home.
“Hong Kong is a beautiful, exciting city, but it is an expensive place to live and the members work very hard,” said Elder Funk. “The young people are remarkable, often speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Many leave for education and it is expensive for them to return to live here. Despite this, the Church continues to grow.”
One example of the gospel taking root in Hong Kong is the number of two- and three-generation LDS families from the region, including Peter and Christine Ko.
Missionaries knocked on the Kos’ door in Hong Kong in 1976 and didn’t stop coming.
“They kept coming on rainy days, on windy days,” said Christine Ko, who finally wondered, “What makes them so enthusiastic to have us come to their church?”
She gained understanding and, with two of her three sons, was baptized.
Soon afterward she was diagnosed with pemphigus, an immune system disorder that causes the skin to blister. That prompted her siblings to suggest the disease was the result of joining a new religion.
As she was contemplating leaving the Church, she received a call from her bishop. He asked how she was, expressed the love of the ward for her and hung up.
She never considered leaving the Church again. Because of that call, “I understood God knows where I am and who I am,” she said.
Years after her baptism, her husband followed her into the Church.
When the Hong Kong China Temple was dedicated in 1996, the couple and their three sons were sealed in the temple.
Today, this three-generation family in Hong Kong includes four grandchildren. All three of the Kos’ children work for the Church in the Asia Area office.
The prophet visiting Hong Kong demonstrates “the Lord’s love to all people, including the Chinese,” Elder Chow said. “To be able to be instructed at the feet of a prophet is a great blessing to the local members.”
Addressing the congregation in Hong Kong, President Nelson said “things have been a little different for me in the past four months.”
“I have always been a praying person,” he said, “but answers are coming in the middle of the night, usually when I am fast asleep. Now my phone doesn’t ring, but I still get calls for me and for [God’s] children.”
Speaking to the members from the area, Elder Holland said whatever the disappointment, heartache or deprivation, “God can turn every disadvantage to your opportunity and advantage.”
President Nelson said the global ministry tour had two objectives: First, to “start in Jerusalem and get the love of Christ in our minds and then take that love of Christ around the world. Second, to acknowledge the worldwide membership of the Church.”
With a worldwide membership now exceeding 16 million, there is no way to reach every country, he said.
But President Nelson emphasized he will go out again on another tour, noting that the Church is established in more than 170 countries of the world.
“We will get around to the other countries in time,” he said.