A full weekend itinerary awaited Elder Ronald A. Rasband in New Zealand in mid-November — a Friday devotional at the New Zealand Missionary Training Center, site visits for the announced Auckland and under-renovation Hamilton temples, a training meeting with local Church Communications staff, a pair of Saturday leadership sessions and a Sunday stake conference in Hamilton, and a Sunday evening devotional with Auckland young single adults.
And tucked into that busy weekend schedule for Elder Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Melanie Rasband, was what was listed as “a light luncheon” on Saturday, Nov. 16
For about an hour in Hamilton, the Rasbands met with Dr. Mustafa Farouk, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, and his wife, Bilkisu Farouk, and Tim Macindoe MP, the New Zealand Parliament member who represents West Hamilton. Other participants included Elder K. Brett Nattress, a General Authority Seventy and counselor in the Auckland-based Pacific Area presidency, and his wife, Sister Shawna Nattress.
The interactions included introductions, exchanges of greetings and gifts, and messages of shared interest and mutual collaboration. More than a mere courtesy visit, the meeting served as a “building bridges” moment — a phrase used by Elder Rasband and other Church leaders, including President Russell M. Nelson, as evidenced by a recent Church News video bearing the same phrase as the title.
Such meetings with national and local government, religious, educational, charity and community leaders regularly dot the multi-event travel schedules of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Ironically, the New Zealand gathering was being held on the same day that President Nelson began his seven-day Southeast Asia ministry in Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Indonesia — the latest in a two-year line of his global trips to gather with the Saints and conduct similar meetings with prominent local leaders.
Sometimes these “building bridges” interactions are starting points; on the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes these meetings are reunions among long-time acquaintances. And other times — like in Hamilton last month — the meeting is simply the latest moment in a sustained cooperative relationship.
“They were already great friends of the Church,” said Elder Rasband of Macindoe and Mustafa Farouk. “Both of them had met our senior leadership, so I didn’t have to do much bridge-building. Not only did they have high-level contacts in the Church, but their day-to-day relationships with local Church members could not be better.”
And so, the Hamilton meeting wasn’t so much of a start-and-stop, singular moment of history meriting an individual report itself. Rather, it can be seen as the latest interaction in an ongoing relationship that has a past, a present and a future.
Few of these “bridge-building” opportunities have a catastrophic catalyst like that which has drawn the Latter-day Saint and Islamic communities together in New Zealand — the March 15 shooting deaths of 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch.
The Church was recognized as one of the first organizations to publicly condemn the terrorist attack as its Pacific Area presidency released a statement of condolences and support for the Muslim community and others impacted by the shootings.
Soon after, Latter-day Saints united with Muslims and others in multi-denominational services held in Auckland, Hamilton, and elsewhere throughout the island nation, grieving, praying and sharing faith together. When devotional services overlapped the 6:35 p.m. time for Islamic prayer, Muslim brothers and sisters left the meetinghouse chapel to conduct their evening prayers in rooms Church members had prepared for them to use.
At one such service, Elder Ian S. Arden, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Pacific Area, said the interfaith devotionals were “an outward demonstration of our inward commitment to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.”
He added: “We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper, and we must act accordingly.”
In Christchurch specifically and throughout New Zealand, Latter-day Saints joined Muslims and people of other faiths and interests to serve families impacted by the shooting, including providing donations of money and food.
Soon, a cooperative effort between Church members and Muslims were preparing “Boxes of Love,” which contained ethnically appropriate food and items — such as dates for the Ramadan period of fasting, prayer and reflection — and organized in a family-specific manner.
“Local members have embraced, served and loved their Muslim neighbors and friends during and following the tragic events that occurred in Christchurch,” said Elder Nattress. “This has strengthened our communities and has blessed our members with the sanctifying spirit of love and peace.
“It has deepened the understanding of all involved that God loves all of His children.”
From what started at the grassroots level of local members reaching out to their Muslim counterparts then went to the pinnacle of a prophet’s involvement, when President Nelson met with Muslim leaders in Auckland on May 20 as part of his ministering in the South Pacific that month.
Dr. Mustafa Farouk led the day’s contingent of Islamic representatives, which included Iman Alabi Lateef Zirullah, leader of the Linwood Mosque, one of the two mosques that were attacked. During the meeting, President Nelson announced a $100,000 donation on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the mosques’ rebuilding efforts.
“We’re brothers,” President Nelson said. “It’s so touching when you think of what tragedy [for] those innocent people in a mosque worshipping to be gunned down like that. It’s incomprehensible anybody could do that to another human being.”
But not all of the Church’s relationships are the result of tragedies, catastrophes or challenges. Tim Macindoe MP has saluted his long history of friendship with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that dates well before the Christchurch shootings earlier this year, although he did attend the subsequent Hamilton interfaith services.
Over the years, Macindoe has participated in numerous interfaith events with the Pacific Area presidency and local Church members and leaders. Such include an annual church service of the Waikato Justices of the Peace Association held at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Hamilton in 2015, the visit of an interfaith young adult group to parliament in 2014, and the annual Christmas lights festivals at the Hamilton New Zealand Temple and Visitors’ Center.
Macindoe said he particularly remembers the kindness of President Henry B. Eyring, the second counselor of the First Presidency, whom he met when President Eyring went to New Zealand to dedicate the David O. McKay Stake and Cultural Events Centre in June 2017 — the same building where the Nov. 16 meeting with Elder Rasband was held.
Of the dedication and preceding cultural celebration, Macindoe posted on Facebook: “It was a privilege to join huge audiences at both and we appreciated the warm welcome and happy atmosphere.”
“Tim Macindoe was always so receptive to our ideas and so cooperative in everything we tried to accomplish in Hamilton,” said Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy who served in the Pacific Area presidency from 2014 to 2017. “We could count on him to help us at anytime. He was a friend of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Nielsen said he remembers the joy as the area presidency and local leaders in New Zealand reached out to their counterparts in other religious and governmental organizations to form “a strong partnership with these people who have such great influence.”
“We found out that as we connected with these wonderful leaders, we could do extraordinary things together,” Elder Nielsen said. “We became not only allies to make our communities better places to live but also great friends.”
In the Nov. 16 meeting in Hamilton, Elder Rasband presented a small Christus statue to Macindoe and “The Reformation of Morals” — a book in English and Arabic by Yahya Ibn Adi — to Farouk, who said it was an honor and pleasure to meet the Church elder and share some thoughts with him.
“When he was handing the book to me, he said ‘This book explains some of our values,’ ” Farouk said. “On reading the book later, I realized it was written by a Christian hundreds of years ago (893-974 CE) who worked hard through his writings and translations to bring Christians and Muslims closer together during his time.
“Without saying much, I believe Elder Rasband was telling me that our communities need to work together today as much or even harder as were the communities during Yahya Ibn Adi’s time.”
Elder Nattress linked President Nelson’s ministering visit in May to Elder Rasband’s interactions as “examples of pure, undefiled religion” and acknowledged Farouk as “a great advocate of peace, forgiveness and love.”
During the meeting, “we discussed the need to serve one another, to bear one another’s burdens and to comfort those who stand in need of comfort,” Elder Nattress said, adding “These are our neighbors and our friends. They are loving fathers, loving mothers and devoted brothers and sisters.”
Elder Rasband returned to the “building bridges” theme as he summarized the meeting. “Part of what we do is bridge-building with these people — and it was already there,” he said. “For me, it was just adding to an already wonderful relationship, thanking them and establishing further ties for when we call on each other in the future.”
Just as the relationships’ past help set the stage for the recent reconvening of Church leaders with Farouk and Macindoe in Hamilton, that same November meeting helps advance future cooperation and collaboration.
Farouk said he and the Muslim community look forward to working on many more projects “and in strengthening our relationship for our mutual benefit and the benefit of humanity at large.”
“Currently our two communities are working together on projects of national interest, including petitioning New Zealand Parliament to declare 15 March every year as a day of prayer and reflection in memory of the 51 victims of the attack at Christchurch,” he said.
Farouk, too, has his eye on the future — and concluded his summary by using a recognizable phrase.
“So it was a great pleasure to pick up from our conversation with Elder Rasband that the [Latter-day Saint] Church is keen to further strengthen relationships with our community and that the Church places great importance on bridge building and cooperation with other faith communities.”
Said Elder Rasband, whose Nov. 16 efforts nurtured the existing relationships with two of the Church’s friends in New Zealand: “It is a challenging world there, and they are facing the same kinds of issues we are here.
“And so it was nice to just reaffirm, reconnect and reposition for the future — and that was done.”