Elder Gong addresses ‘faith, hope and goodwill’ at G20 Interfaith Forum in Japan

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo, Japan, on June 8.

Addressing the conference theme, "Peace, People Planet: Faith, Hope and Goodwill in Pathways Forward," Elder Gong delivered the following address titled, "Seven Ways Religious Inputs and Values Contribute to Practical, Principle-Based Policy Approaches." Following is the full text of Elder Gong's presentation:

Introduction

Excellencies, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, at this G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo, we deeply congratulate the ascension of His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. We join in prayers for the prosperity of the Imperial family.

Some years ago, Emperor Showa (Hirohito), grandfather of His Majesty and a well-known biologist, asked: “Why have I not seen butterflies recently in my garden?” That famous question galvanized Japan to address serious environmental pollution.[1] It is a powerful example that focused questions and recommendations can have significant impact.

This G20 Interfaith Forum including this session on “Action Agendas: Testing Ideas with Experience from Field Realities” provide us with a significant platform to ask impactful “butterfly” questions and to raise the level and effectiveness of religious inputs and values relating to global policy issues.[2]

The philosopher Mencius offers hope: "山径之蹊间,介然用之而成路"[3] — that is, a mountain path can widen to a road if it is often used. Or, paraphrased, imagine hope as a countryside path: originally there was no path — yet, over time, as people walk over the same area, a way appears.

Human dignity plays a foundational role in “forming, guiding, and sustaining consensus on core human rights values despite tensions in a highly pluralized world.”[4] A plenary theme is that “because a just and sustainable world is possible, working together to achieve it is an imperative.” We ask: how can global agendas include the yearnings of the 80% of the world’s population who are religiously affiliated?[5]

In pursuit of a just economy, a significant input is our human ability to unite in imagining, working, and sacrificing for a shared, brighter future. Throughout history, religion has provided inspiration, discipline, and transcendence, as well as moral wellsprings of faith, hope, and goodwill. They have helped define what is just, right, and in the common good.

Attendees listen to a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Attendees listen to a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

Each of our ideational weltanschauung draws on four inter-connected realms of I-It-We-Thou — that is, the self; natural world; society; and faith and values.[6] In my faith tradition, a global Christian religious community with congregations in 191 countries and territories, we are committed to synergies of faith and effort that improve standards of living and life through productive investment in each element of I-It-We-Thou. Such strengthens families and individuals; it promotes peace, builds people, and preserves our planet.

I offer my religious organization’s experiences as part of the broader picture of field realities and look forward to hearing from our esteemed other panelists about their ideas and experiences. Accordingly, I will discuss peace, people, and planet using illustrative examples and principles from Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Specifically, I will reference three initiatives within Latter-day Saint Charities we call Humanitarian Services, Self-Reliance Services, and JustServe.[7]

Let’s begin with peace and humanitarian service.

Peace

There is no peace when we are in conflict with ourselves, the earth, or our neighbors. There is no peace when we are in conflict in the name of religious belief.

In our post-9/11 world, some argue religion inherently leads to violence. However, historical and empirical analysis dispels the “myth of religious violence” — the notion that religion ipso facto is somehow responsible for violence.[8]

We promote peace when all voices seeking the greater good participate, where none is disparaged or denied, even if the inevitable disagreements of healthy pluralism persist.

For example, the 2017 Beirut Declaration with its 18 Faith for Rights commitments recognizes “religious or belief convictions as a source for the protection of the whole spectrum of inalienable human entitlements — from the preservation of the gift of life, the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion, belief, opinion and expression to the freedoms from want and fear, including from violence in all its forms.”[9]

We promote both personal peace and societal peace when we look beyond our narrow selfish selves in compassionate service to those around us. Whether on an individual or mass scale, peace through human understanding and service comes one person at a time.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivers a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivers a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

Here’s one example, among hundreds.

For many, reflecting our deep desire to preserve at-risk rainforests, trees symbolize hope for peace, people, and planet.

Many in Japan revere the hibakujumoku, 170 “survivor trees” which weathered the Hiroshima bomb. These “survivor trees” represent the regenerative miracle of deep roots and strong resilience.[10]

Another example is Haiti, which suffered massive deforestation even before its devastating 2010 earthquake. On Agriculture Day, the national holiday when Haitians often do volunteer work, local community members gathered to plant nearly 25,000 trees for future generations.[11]

Among those planting trees were 1,800 local members of my faith community, which donated the trees. Planted on riverbanks and mountainsides, these trees are not just shade trees; nor are they just trees for soil conservation; these are fruit trees. If you ask the Haitians who will harvest this fruit, they say, “whoever is hungry.”

The multi-year reforestation project anticipates a total of 400,000 fruit trees in nine areas of Haiti. Beyond the planting of trees, this project nurtures united, community partnerships. Haiti’s prime minister and senior government official applaud the reforestation. Communities welcome volunteers working side by side, planting sapling tree by sapling tree. These tree-planting efforts reflect all facets of “peace, people, and planet” and symbolize the broader religious contribution in each area.

No single group can address the totality of global needs. Our faith community’s humanitarian services arm (created in 1985) works with many partners while focusing on nine core programs. These include food production (through the Benson Food Initiative), clean water and sanitation, community projects, emergency response, immunization, maternal and newborn care, refugee response, vision care, and wheelchairs.[12]

Our Humanitarian Services also sponsor diverse welfare and self-reliance programs, including vocational, rehabilitative, counseling and other services. Our well-known “Helping Hands” programs mobilize volunteers to help with disaster relief. We work with a broad range of interfaith partners and other established agencies, absorb our own overhead costs, and draw on a global network of volunteers who contribute their time and expertise.

Attendees listen to a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Attendees listen to a speech during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

Known world-wide as part of Latter-day Saint Charities, our humanitarian services have worked in 141 countries and territories on 2,885 projects with over 1,900 partners. Please find further details at ldscharities.org.

Second, we promote peace and planet when we build people.

People

Around the world, we meet individuals who have changed and improved their lives. Many say, I know better who I am. I am more confident. I can shape my future with new attitudes and better skills. They say, I am more responsible and accountable … because of my religious beliefs.

As the Buenos Aires G20 Interfaith Forum Policy Recommendations declared, “Macro goals cannot succeed without micro-implementation, and religious communities are often optimally placed to facilitate advances in reduction of poverty, hunger, provision of health care and education, promotion of decent work and equal treatment, and so on through the list of SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. Firm protections for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) are essential.”[13]

In 2001, my religious organization launched a “Perpetual Education Fund.”[14] The principles reflect our history. Fleeing religious persecution, our early pioneer ancestors planted crops as they crossed the American plains so those coming after would have food to harvest.[15] These pioneer seekers of religious freedom also established a corpus of funds to assist those buying passage for their journey. Those who borrowed from the funds later repaid them.[16] These rotating perpetual funds illustrate a familiar principle and pattern — that each individual can receive, multiply, and return.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center right, poses for a photograph during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center right, poses for a photograph during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

Today, our perpetual education fund helps tens of thousands of individuals in approximately 75 countries to gain an education otherwise beyond their reach. As they become self-reliant, they lift themselves, their families, and their communities. As they repay their modest educational loans, the fund continues to generate opportunities for future generations. These initiatives, principles, and programs represent sustainable investment in human identity and capacity development.[17]

We have developed and authored self-reliance courses that build on three simple steps: Discover Needs; Choose a Path (for example, starting and growing a business; finding better employment; education for better work; personal finances); and Act in Faith.

These Self-Reliance courses work. To date, they have helped 691,000 individuals in 130 countries. Small groups of about 8 to 10 people meet each week for up to 12 weeks. They are led by facilitators who seek to empower each participant. This creates a network of daily accountability, encouragement, and personal growth. This self-reliance approach builds individual identity and commitment to new patterns of thinking, acting, and growing. This core learning strengthens confidence, practical skills, and measurable accountability for results. Further details on Self-Reliance principles, procedures, and results can be found at lds.org/self-reliance.

We come third to planet.

Planet

In today’s cluttered, noisy, polluted world, we need places and ways the human spirit can be refreshed, inspired, and edified.

Bright spots occur when I-It-We-Thou converge in synergistic ways.

Here’s an example.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is the world’s coldest major city. It also has the world’s most severe winter smoke pollution.[18] Mongolia’s government and international organizations have identified this significant environmental challenge as a priority.[19] Eighty percent of Ulaanbaatar’s smoke comes from coal burning stoves used to heat gers, [20] the familiar round Mongolian homes made of wooden frames covered with pressed felt.

Recently, a small Capstone team of bright young engineering students from Brigham Young University (BYU) was challenged to see whether they could sufficiently insulate a ger so it could be kept warm with a small electric heater. This innovative approach could dramatically and economically reduce Ulaanbaatar’s winter air problem by replacing the burning of polluting coal with existing electric grid and night, off-peak electric capacity.

After analyzing and testing many options, the team developed a way of using Mongolian-sourced materials to add insulation between the layers of felt in the ger wall and under the ger floor. For less than US $300, conventional ger insulating R ratings jumped from 1 to 6. This allows a single 1300 watt electric heater to warm a ger during even the coldest -40C winter nights.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center left, is surrounded by attendees after a session during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, center left, is surrounded by attendees after a session during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

These BYU students are applying engineering, respecting Mongolia’s proud past, and expressing their religious commitment to fellow human beings and planet earth. The Prime Minister of Mongolia and Mayor of Ulaanbaatar met the Capstone team to congratulate their local partnership and international inputs.

Similarly, this spirit of strengthening communities by identifying service opportunities and inviting wide-ranging participation motivates an initiative we call JustServe.[21]

JustServe is a community service initiative designed to provide a platform where interested individuals can find volunteer opportunities to relieve suffering, care for the poor and those in need, and enhance the quality of life in the community. To help organizations find volunteers willing to help, we developed and provide without cost or obligation the website: JustServe.org

New JustServe volunteers are added each month. Current JustServe registered volunteers now number 434,500. Since 2012, cumulative JustServe projects posted number 69,835. There are 14,846 JustServe projects currently posted.

Conclusion

We have considered how faith, hope, and goodwill contribute to peace, people, planet, including as illustrated in Latter-day Saint Charities initiatives my faith community calls Humanitarian Services, Self-Reliance Services, and JustServe.

We conclude by reviewing seven ways religious inputs and values can contribute in practical, principle-based policy approaches to address sustainable development goals and advance peace, people, and planet.

First, religious communities help inspire and sustain the essential human freedoms, aspirations, and core values attendant to human dignity.

Second, religious communities offer important spiritual, philosophical, and moral experiences and capacities related to human potential and development on which societies and communities can draw to achieve sustainable development goals.

From left, Gunnar Stalsett, Denise Coghlan, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Ganoune Diop and Jonathan Duffy take part in a session during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019.
From left, Gunnar Stalsett, Denise Coghlan, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Ganoune Diop and Jonathan Duffy take part in a session during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Chiba, Japan, on Saturday, June 8, 2019. Credit: Tomohiro Ohsumi, For the Deseret News, For the Deseret News

Third, religious communities are an important practical source of volunteers, professional resources, motivation, training, and funding for international development.

Fourth, religious communities have both surge capacity to respond to immediate needs such as arise with natural disasters and also staying capacity to help address long-term human needs, e.g., refugees, chronic needs for food, shelter, education, and employment training, and support for those needing water, sanitation, handicap mobility, vision care, and so on.

Fifth, religious communities offer unique connection between international and local organizations.These allow macro sustainable development priorities to be addressed in effective micro solutions, sometimes one village, one person, one tree at a time.

Sixth, religious communities offer important diversity in interfaith expertise and capacity. These wide-ranging, pluralistic religious experiences and faith add to the cumulative storehouse of wisdom and determination for human problem-solving.

Finally, each religious and philosophical tradition offers its own, unique experiences to the rich human storehouse of practical, principle-based approaches to sustainable development.

In my now-global religious community, our experience includes the spirit of “making the desert blossom as the rose.”[22] Across the earth in manifold diverse circumstances, members of my religious community promote inner and collective peace; protect and treasure precious natural resources; foster harmonious social cooperation; and invite mutual respect for religious freedom and core moral values.

May this G20 Interfaith Forum process achieve its lofty goals of creating hopeful pathways forward as we together offer and seek peace, people, planet through faith, hope, and goodwill.

Read more about the G20 Interfaith Forum here.

[1] Max Singer, Passage to a Human World: The Dynamics of Creating Global Wealth (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1987), 163, Google Books, last accessed May 15, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=5zCwUjYyeNkC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[2] See “Forum 2019,” G20 Interfaith Forum, https://www.g20interfaith.org/forum-2019/. See also “G20 Interfaith Forum: Forum Concept Paper,” 1, G20 Interfaith Forum, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.g20interfaith.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/G20-Interfaith-Forum-2019-Concept-Paper-1.pdf, which describes the G20 Interfaith Forum as offering “an annual platform where a network of religiously linked institutions and initiatives engage on global agendas” that “builds on the vital roles that religious institutions and beliefs play in world affairs, reflecting their rich diversity of institutions, ideas, and values”).

[3] This is what Mencius told his student Gaozi, who came from Qi during the spring and autumn period. See Mencius, trans. Irene Bloom, ed. Philip J. Ivanhoe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 160, Google Books, last accessed May 15, 2019, https://books.google.com/books?id=4tDaS1WfJwoC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[4] “Punta Del Este Declaration on Human Dignity for Everyone Everywhere: Introduction,” International Center for Law and Religion Studies, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.dignityforeveryone.org/introduction/; see also dignityforeveryone.org.

[5] See “The Global Religious Landscape,” Religion and Public Life, Pew Research Center, Dec. 18, 2012, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/; this “comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories . . . estimates that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84% of the 2010 world populations of 6.9 billion.”

[6] However we individually define such, and allow others to respect, reverence, or worship how, where, or what they may.

[7] See information on these initiatives at www.ldscharities.org, https://www.lds.org/self-reliance?lang=eng, and www.JustServe.org.

[8] See William T. Cavanaugh, “Chapter 1: The Anatomy of the Myth,” The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[9] The Beirut Declaration and its 18 Commitments on Faith for Rights, 6th edition (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission, April 2019), English version, 8, emphasis in original, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Press/Faith4Rights.pdf,

[10] See Ariel Dorfman, “The Whispering Leaves of the Hiroshima Ginkgo Trees,” New York Times, Op-ed, Aug. 4, 2017, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/04/opinion/the-whispering-leaves-of-the-hiroshima-ginkgo-trees.html.

[11] See Jason Swensen, “LDS Church Celebrates 30 years in Haiti by Planting Thousands of Trees,” Deseret News, May 1, 2013, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/765628515/LDS-Church-celebrates-30-years-in-haiti-by-planting-thousands-of-trees.html; see also “Church Donating 400,000 Trees in Haiti,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Philanthropies, May 2013, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.ldsphilanthropies.org/humanitarian-services/news-features/church-donating-400000-trees.

[12] See “Summary of Initiatives,” which describes the nine core programs of LDS Charities, in the 2018 LDS Charities Annual Report, 6–7, last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.ldscharities.org/bc/content/ldscharities/annual-report/2018/LDS_Charities_2018_English.pdf.

[13] “Policy Recommendations for the 2018 G20 Summit,” G20 Interfaith Forum: Buenos Aires, Religious Contributions for a Dignified Future, forum on September 26–28 2018, section 9: Religious Freedom, Religious Vitality, and Religious Contributions to the G20 Agenda, last accessed May 13, 2019, http://s3.amazonaws.com/berkley-center/181129G20InterfaithForumPolicyRecommendations2018G20Summit.pdf.

[14] See “The Perpetual Education Fund,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, available at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/self-reliance/pef-perpetual-education-fund. Note that since 2001, the Perpetual Education Fund has “touched the lives of more than 90,000 individuals around the world” (“Learn More,” last accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/self-reliance/pef-perpetual-education-fund/learn-more?lang=eng).

[15] See “The 1846 Trek,” a United States National Park Service publication on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, available at https://www.nps.gov/mopi/learn/historyculture/the-1846-trek.htm. This brochure describes the creation of a farm settlement in Iowa called Garden Grove where pioneers planted crops to feed the second wave of emigrants already on their way across the plains from Illinois to Utah.

[16] See Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Perpetual Education Fund,” Ensign, May 2001, 52–53, available at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/2001/05/the-perpetual-education-fund. This article describes the Perpetual Emigration Fund’s principle, which is at the core of the current Perpetual Education Fund’s program).

[17] See “Self-Reliance Services,” available at https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/self-reliance.

[18] See Sophie Cousins, “Air Pollution in Mongolia,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 97, no. 2 (Feb. 2018), 73–168, last accessed May 14, 2019, doi: https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/2/19-020219.pdf; Beth Gardiner, “Kids Suffer Most in One of the Earth’s Most Polluted Cities,” National Geographic, Mar. 2019, last accessed May 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/mongolia-air-pollution/.

[19] See World Health Organization “Air Pollution in Mongolia,” available at https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/2/19-020219/en/. The Asian Development Bank lists a $130 million loan to help the Mongolian government address air pollution; see https://www.adb.org/projects/51199-001/main#project-pds; also, https://www.adb.org/news/adb-loan-help-improve-air-quality-living-conditions-ullanbaatar.

[20] Mongolians prefer their word “ger” instead of the Russian word “yurt.”

[21] See www.JustServe.org.

[22] See Isaiah 35:1, Latter-day Saint edition of the King James Bible, ChurchofJesusChrist.org, last accessed May 15, 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/scriptures/ot/isa/35.1?lang=eng#primary.