TOKYO, Japan — As the G20 Interfaith Forum entered its final afternoon, the "Ideas to Action" discussion — what I viewed as the critical session — was about to begin. It was time for some “therefore, what?” questions and answers. But as is often the case in large conferences, such sessions are easy to get lost in lofty ideas and academic exercises.
An impressive line-up of world religious and political thinkers took to the stage. I anticipated a litany of more big visions and grand plans. Instead I was treated to a view of the soul of servant-leadership where “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.”
The group introduced Azza Karam, senior advisor to the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development. She described those on the stage as “being leaders not because of their religious or political knowledge but because of their service to humanity.”
Her Excellence Graça Machel, Mozambique stateswoman and the nation's first minister of education, electrified the capacity crowd by showing how a miniscule investment of money and time would transform the lives of countless young girls in Africa and around the world through education. She concluded her keynote challenging not only the Interfaith Forum participants but also the G20 economic and political leaders who meet later this month in Osaka, Japan.
“Do we have the will to make it so?” she asked. “Do we have the will?” Small and simple things begin with will.
Sir John Key, former prime minister of New Zealand, took the podium and picked up on what can be done, saying “it is human nature to help our fellow human beings.” He continued to lay out the imperative that things that can and must be done — by people of all faiths partnering with one another and with governments.
Sister Sharon Eubank, director of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Relief Society general presidency, was up next. She masterfully synthesized the learning of the conference while galvanizing the participants to act.
It was clear the Church and Sister Eubank have earned credibility among religious and governmental leaders for the far-reaching humanitarian, education and self-reliance efforts around the world. I was surprised at how many at the conference had had personal experiences with such services in their home countries, often implemented by individual members and congregations in conjunction with others in their local communities.
It is interesting to experience when a feeling of gratitude is expressed, not for a leader or a church, but for millions of individual members who minister to those in need in the Savior’s higher, holier way.
In a most extraordinary presentation, Sister Eubank drew on practical, tactical and “small and simple” strategies that were being applied by a number of faith-based and religious organizations. She challenged participants to overcome any feelings of “them” and cited a Lutheran Church who had not only provided a plot of ground for a much-needed mosque but also, in the end, established an interconnected social hall between the adjoining churches. In a small and simple way, “they” became “us.”
Sister Eubank discussed the importance of powerful questions and critical communication. She cited Elder Gerrit W. Gong’s comments from a previous session where the member of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles referenced how a simple but pivotal question from the emperor of Japan — “Where are the butterflies in my garden?” — spurred a nation to address pollution.
Sister Eubank challenged faith leaders to explore better questions and strive for a better, more sophisticated use of media and messaging.
Citing the need for laser-focused action, Sister Eubank shared an experience she had in a subcommittee meeting in the House of Lords where a recently rescued Yezidi woman, who had been in bondage and abused, testified before law makers. Members of the House of Lords had countless questions for the woman.
“What will you do now? Do you want to pursue an education? Where do you want to live?”
This brave woman was singularly focused and returned their questions with a question of her own: “Will you rescue my 3,300 sisters?” She would not be distracted or deterred.
Questions may seem like small and simple things, but such questions are often the catalyst for mighty change in individuals, communities and nations.
David Moore, a member of the panel and general counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development and a former BYU law faculty member, would later draw a finer point on the service imperative by paraphrasing King Benjamin, the Book of Mormon prophet-leader: “When you are in the service of your fellow-beings you are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17)
The audience clearly felt the power of the principle.
The small and simple commitment to service was a clarion call to cooperation, across religious communities, countries and government agencies. Then, as the session ended for a much-anticipated lunch break, there came a moment of instant application.
The hall was packed in tight rows of seating filled by the more than 2,000 participants, and I expected a mad dash to the exits. The instruction — an invitation really — was given for people to please remain in their seats as a Japanese “bento box” lunch would be passed to each participant.
I watched in amazement at the cooperation of the Japanese citizens who clearly know how to come together for the good of all. Boxes were passed, one by one all the way down each row (which were easily 100 chairs long). Growing up in a family of 11 children, we often struggled to pass the food down to the end of the dinner table without a bit of chaos and frustration.
In a matter of moments, 2,000 bento boxes had been distributed in a most dignified way. I had a deep feeling that the Savior feeding the 5,000 was done in a similarly simple, yet powerful, manner.
In a fitting end to her stirring and strengthening message, Sister Eubank paraphrased the Prophet Joseph Smith’s 1839 letter of encouragement to the persecuted and struggling Saints:
“Let no man count [these] as small things, for there is much … in futurity which depends upon these things. You know…that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm being kept workways with the wind and the waves. So … let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power, and then may we stand still, and with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God and for His arm to be revealed.” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:15-17).
Sister Eubank concluded: “This G20 Interfaith gathering in many ways is a small helm, and we are definitely in a storm, but may we keep 'workways with the wind and the waves' and plead with Almighty God for His strength as we try to safeguard our people, planet and peace.”