Editor’s note: This is part nine in a series of counsel from members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during the COVID-19 outbreak. Read counsel from President M. Russell Ballard, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Elder David A. Bednar, Elder Quentin L. Cook, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, Elder Neil L. Andersen, and Elder Dale G. Renlund.
Reflecting government pandemic guidelines, the conference sessions included only the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the program, all sitting 6 feet apart.
Still, Elder Gong was clear about his experience.
“I wasn’t speaking to an empty auditorium,” he said. “I could see in my mind friends and neighbors, members and leaders, and others across the world.”
For Elder Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the image of the near-empty auditorium for general conference is a metaphor. “There might be some physical distancing,” he said, “but it doesn’t mean we are spiritually distant.”
Contemplating a world changed by coronavirus distancing, Elder Gong and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, spoke to the Church News via telephone. “One of the things I have felt deeply during this time is that the Lord is close to us and we can be close to each other,” said Elder Gong.
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For example, the apostle said he has held frequent video conferencing sessions with priesthood and sister leaders, members in many different circumstances, mission leaders and missionaries, in many places. He said he has felt very close to each one.
“We have been in member homes via technology — it is as if we are visiting homes and families individual by individual. We share deep spiritual feelings and how we are doing. We are not speaking to an empty auditorium. We are speaking to each other, and we are deeply connected, even while we have some physical distancing.”
Unity of purpose
As the world was reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elder Gong said the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have taken time to counsel together — including with social distancing and via technology — on questions impacting the Church and our members, neighbors and friends, across the world.
“As President [Russell M.] Nelson said, we all want two things,” Elder Gong noted. “We want to know the will of the Lord, and we want to know how to bless His children.”
That unity of purpose and the time and ability to reflect together — to counsel in council — has been “very sweet and very important.” There has been harmony and clarity in feeling the direction of the Lord for these times, and knowing the Lord’s watchcare and blessings for His Saints and children everywhere.
“The Lord is aware of [God’s children] and blessing us and helping us in the things that are happening each day,” he said.
In coming days, Elder Gong said Latter-day Saints will reflect with new perspective about the sacrament and temple work and what it means to be good neighbors and to feel closeness within families.
Moving forward, “we can have confidence that as things continue to change the Lord will continue to guide us,” he said.
Sister Gong acknowledged that required social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for everyone. “We love each other. We belong to each other. We have covenanted to bless and help each other,” she said. “Typically that happens face to face and in groups. Not being able to be together has been a challenge for everyone.”
This is a time, she said, for Latter-day Saints “both to seek personal revelation and to follow the counsel that has been given to us by wise, inspired leaders about how to connect with and to act on inspiration received.”
Elder and Sister Gong said they think about and pray for those who have been impacted by the virus physically, emotionally and economically.
“It behooves us all to reach out to people not just in our immediate circles, but beyond our circles, to see how we can best help them,” she said. “Especially in this circumstance, ministering is a really critical attribute of a follower of Jesus Christ.”
That might mean “calling people you have not talked to in a long time or making contact with people you have known only casually.”
One of the things the Gongs have tried to do is to make a list of people to reach out to every Sunday. Even if they can’t visit, they have found there are things that can be done to cheer them up and help them. “This is a small thing,” Sister Gong said, “and so many others are doing so much more.”
“You don’t have to be in each other’s homes to be in each other’s hearts,” said Elder Gong.
A corollary to that is that there are some people who could fall between the cracks. “In our gospel, in our Church, it is OK to let people know we need help — that we need a little attention, that we need a little support,” said Sister Gong. “Ask your ministering sisters or ministering brothers for things that you really need. … When we love and trust each other we can do that.”
This time of isolation is a “heart, might, mind and strength opportunity” during which members have to “engage your imagination and your intelligence and your energy” to minister in the Savior’s way, said Sister Gong.
“We are going to come through this, and we are going to be able to be together again and show each other love and appreciation, face to face, again,” said Sister Gong.
When the pandemic is over, she also hopes members will all remember “the need for meaningful interaction we have all felt during this time and continue to cherish our relationships with each of God’s children.”
‘Bloom where you are planted’
Latter-day Saints not only honor, obey, and sustain appropriate governmental guidelines during the pandemic, but also “keep the work of the Church moving forward,” said Elder Gong. “This includes essential ordinances, blessings, ministering and carrying forward other Church functions to bless families and individuals in appropriate and needed ways.”
Elder Gong said that on a personal level, one of the things which has been “most tender for me,” is “I have experienced spring in a different way this year.”
Because he has not been traveling on Church assignment on the weekends, he has been learning to garden with Sister Gong. “Sister Gong loves gardening,” Elder Gong said. “When I am in the garden with her, I grow in love for gardens and for her. I’m learning about plants, mulch, and how you mix the soil. I have gotten to smell the flowers and hear the birds in a different way.”
Sister Gong said time has been a positive outcome of the pandemic. “Time with each other is a gift — time to meditate and to pray and to study things that are important.”
There is much to be grateful for and “so much to learn and experience — even in situations like this,” she said. “I hope we will remember the lessons we had here and will remember to cherish the time we had together and the time not rushing around.”
Elder Gong recalled with a smile how members supported missionaries and seminary graduates among many others.
When a local stake held a drive-by greeting for six missionaries who had come home, the Gongs made a sign for their car that said “bloom where you are planted.”
“You don’t have to be in each other’s homes to be in each other’s hearts.”
Elder Gong said the sign symbolizes missionaries’ faith and flexibility. He spoke of a missionary who was reassigned four times because of COVID-19. The young Sister from outside the United States was called to California, then Cambodia and then the Philippines, and could not go each time. She is now serving in her home country.
Similarly, a home stake held a seminary graduation where graduates and their families socially spaced in their own cars, but the stake found a way to broadcast a short graduation program, complete with a musical number, to the cars by FM radio.
“The hearts of all of us across the Church go out to all who have been so full of faith and determination to find ways to accomplish the Lord’s purposes and to serve and bloom where they are,” said Elder Gong. “We are not going to go back to something old. We are going forward to something new. We are learning things that will help us keep the best of what we do person to person while learning to use technology and other means in effective and appropriate ways.”
One of the great lessons of mortality is to experience person-to-person communication, said Elder Gong. “These times remind us of how much we cherish the things we can do person to person, face to face, need to need — in each other’s hearts, homes, and in Church together.”
This has also been a time of learning of the blessings and opportunities of home-centered, Church-supported patterns of gospel living.
For example, the Gongs have used technology to have frequent contact with their children. Sister Gong has helped her granddaughter study Mandarin each afternoon as part of her school.
“There are new patterns, new ways to think about what it means to be connected,” said Elder Gong. “I think we’re all going to be grateful to be back in Church again. But we don’t want to lose the feelings and the thoughts and the patterns we have had while we have been at home.”
The Church, he emphasized, will not return to the old pattern; “we are creating new and better patterns which will bless us now and in the future.”
Elder Gong said that “‘by small and simple things, great things are brought to pass’ (Alma 37:6). As old patterns break, we can create new ways to think and do.”
It is an opportunity to realize the Father and the Son are in the details, said Elder Gong. “Sometimes we may feel alone or lost or isolated or separate, but we are not.”
In reading Luke 15 about lost sheep, lost coins, and the prodigal son, Elder Gong recently noticed the passage: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24).
“I realized the Father could be saying, ‘My Son, the living Jesus Christ, was dead and is alive again. And because He lives — because He is the living Jesus Christ — each of us is never lost. Each of us can be found.
“We should always remember our Lord Jesus Christ knows us. He loves us. And we are never lost to Him. He is aware of us in the darkest hours and in the brightest days.
New patterns and new ways of doing things are “a new opportunity to feel the Lord’s love and to have faith that all things will work together for our good.”