In early March, photographers captured an image signaling a pivotal, unforgettable moment in Latter-day Saint history.
President Russell M. Nelson is seen in the widely-circulated photo beaming with vigor as he walks outside the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Church president’s left arm is interlocked with his friend and fellow priesthood leader, President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. At his right is Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy and a son of Italy. Joining them was Elder Allessandro Dini Ciacci, a local Area Seventy.
The reason behind President Nelson’s smile was deeply significant.
Moments earlier, he had met with Pope Francis, marking the first time a Church president enjoyed a formal audience with the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
“The beauty of the day is no accident,” President Nelson told reporters gathered outside the Vatican. “Here we are in March on a sunny, warm day with everything in our favor. I think our Heavenly Father is pleased.”
The feasibility of a pope meeting (and then sharing an embrace) with a Latter-day Saint prophet in the capital of Catholicism would have seemed unlikely just a generation ago. But the President Nelson/Pope Francis meeting — defined by respect and a shared commitment to ease suffering — reveals the Church’s deepening global footprint of influence.
The year 2019 was replete with many historic interactions between priesthood leaders and prominent civic and religious leaders. Meanwhile, women leaders such as Sister Sharon Eubank and Sister Joy D. Jones represented the Church in prestigious, highly-visible international gatherings.
Traveling Church leaders continue to make time to meet with local civic and religious leaders — relishing opportunities to find common ground, harvest service opportunities and make new friends.
“The whole purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church is to try to lift people. We would love to meet as many of the lifters as we can and offer to work with them when it’s appropriate.”
Fostering cooperation, invoking strength
On April 29, Sister Eubank, the director of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor of the Relief Society general presidency, spoke at the United Nation’s Second Global Summit on Religion, Peace and Security in Geneva, Switzerland.
The veteran welfare leader referenced the Church’s history as refugees and emphasized the importance of reaching out to those in similar conditions. She also spoke of the opportunities of government and religion working together in society.
“The good that religion can do, especially when it comes to … sustainable development goals, is amplified if religious groups work in partnership with each other, and with governments and non-governmental actors,” she said.
A few months later, Sister Eubank hosted the spouses of American governors participating in a National Governors Association gathering in Salt Lake City on a tour of the Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Center. She worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the spouses, assembling hygiene kits for people in need.
On May 2, Sister Jones, the Primary general president, offered a prayer at a gathering of political and religious leaders outside the White House as part of the National Day of Prayer.
Sister Jones prayed for “those in uniform” and their families and government, civic and religious leaders in the United States of America. “Grant them the strength to shepherd their flocks in Thy word,” she prayed for the religious leaders.
Visits with key world influencers
Church leaders enjoyed audiences with several world leaders during their frequent travels around the world.
Highlights included President Nelson’s May 20 visit with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington during the Church president’s sprawling Pacific Ministry Tour. He was accompanied by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Gong’s wife, Sister Susan Gong.
Meeting with President Nelson just two months after the worst terror attack in New Zealand’s history, Prime Minister Ardern has been recognized globally for her leadership following the March 15 attack in Christchurch — including donning a hijab to grieve with New Zealand’s Muslim populations.
President Nelson expressed condolences and promised the prime minister that the Church would donate to the two mosques targeted in the attack. “We will be making contributions to those mosques to help them repair from their damages,” President Nelson explained.
Later during the tour, the Nelsons and the Gongs met Tonga’s king and queen, His Majesty King Tupou VI and Her Majesty Queen Nanasipau’u, in the Royal Palace in Nuku’alofa.
“It’s important for us to be able to thank leaders for the privilege of religious freedom in their country,” President Nelson said after the meeting. “It’s a really precious aspect of governmental relations to allow the people to have the ability to practice the religion of their choice.”
In June, Elder Gong returned to Asia to speak at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Tokyo, Japan.
A generation ago, government leaders in Ghana expelled Latter-day Saint missionaries and essentially disbanded the Church. The country’s so-called Church “freeze” ended in late 1990, when Ghana permitted Church activities to resume.
“President Akufo-Addo was quite aware of the Church’s humanitarian activities over the years in Ghana — and also the kind of people that the [Ghanian] members are, and our emphasis on strengthening families,” said Elder Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
During his travels in West Africa, the Apostle also met with Cote d’Ivoire Vice President Daniel K. Duncan.
On Aug. 26, President Nelson and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke about families and strengthening homes with Colombian President Iván Duque at the presidential office in Bogota.
The recently-elected Duque “made a very strong statement about how the morals and the strength of various religious communities are part of his governmental hope,” President Nelson said. He wants “all the good that he can get” from the Church and from other religions.
President Eyring visited with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Nov. 15 at the historic Maryland State House. He was accompanied by Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Hugo Montoya, a General Authority Seventy.
President Eyring presented the governor with his personal family history and extended an invitation to attend the future open house of the Washington D.C. Temple, which is currently being renovated.
In 2019, the First Presidency also continued its tradition of welcoming world leaders to Church headquarters.
The First President hosted a delegation from Vietnam’s Committee for Religious Affairs on June 4-6.
“We have long standing cooperative relationships with the Committee on Religious Affairs and other government officials in Vietnam,” said Elder Gong, who participated in the visit. “We appreciate those relationships continuing and deepening with the visit of this important delegation.”
On Oct. 23, President Nelson, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Eyring met with José R. Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the United States. The ambassador reaffirmed that the Church is welcome on his island nation and spoke with the Brethren about the importance of solidarity after natural disasters and the Church’s cooperation with social organizations in Cuba.
Fostering diverse friendships
The expanding reach of Church leaders across the globe in 2019 was not limited to government leaders. Several memorable meetings were with people from varied backgrounds who share the Church’s commitment to improving humanity.
On May 21, President Nelson locked arms with Dr. Mustafa Farouk, president of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand, after announcing the Church’s plans to donate $100,000 to help rebuild and renovate mosques damaged two months earlier in a deadly shooting in Christchurch.
Visiting with leaders of New Zealand’s Muslim community in the Relief Society room of the Auckland New Zealand Redoubt Stake Center, President Nelson’s sentiment was clear:
“We are brothers. We are brothers,” he said.
And in a quiet moment prior to a June 9 member devotional at Orlando’s Amway Center, President Nelson spoke with the owner of the PULSE nightclub, a local gay club where 49 people were killed in a mass shooting three years ago.
Barbara Poma, the CEO and founder of OnePULSE Foundation, said she was moved by the Church’s president awareness and concern. “He was so kind to me,” she said.
Perhaps no event exemplifies the Church’s deepening footprint of influence in the world as last summer’s annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Detroit.
President Nelson stood before a vast audience at the Cobo Center and declared, “Arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder, may we strive to lift our brothers and sisters everywhere, in every way we can.”
During his address, the Church leader praised the work of the NAACP, saying the organization has done much “to protect and lift countless individuals.”
Reverend Amos C. Brown, pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, introduced President Nelson to the NAACP audience.
“Although he comes from a different faith tradition and a different race,” President Nelson and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are locking arms with the NAACP to lift God’s children,” Rev. Brown said.
President Nelson’s 2019 travels
Since becoming president of Church, President Nelson has logged well over 115,000 miles to six continents, 32 nations and territories and 49 cities. He has met with members in large and small settings — often addressing them in their own language — and with world leaders. He has also reached out to victims of crime, comforted those grieving and acknowledged dozens of children. Here’s a list of his travels this year:
Rome, Italy — March 9-12: President Nelson dedicated the Rome Italy Temple, met with Pope Francis, and stood with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center for an iconic photograph.
Pacific Ministry — May 16-25: Addressing a total of 94,510 members and calling upon kings, presidents and prime ministers, President Nelson participated in a nine-day, seven-country Pacific Ministry to Apia, Samoa; Sydney, Australia; Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand; Suva, Fiji; Nuku’alofa, Tonga; and Papeete, Tahiti.
Detroit, Michigan — July 21: President Nelson spoke at the 2019 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Convention.
Latin America Ministry — Aug. 24-Sept. 2: President Nelson visited Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina, meeting with dignitaries and addressing large devotional congregations — speaking in Spanish and Portuguese — in each place.
Southeast Asia Ministry — Nov. 17-Nov. 21: President Nelson met with government and religious leaders and addressed members, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Church in Singapore and Indonesia and met with small congregations in Vietnam and Cambodia.