Inspired leaders, Christ-like service helped Latter-day Saints endure 2020’s trials

Just days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a Church News Viewpoint posed a hypothetical question: “What would we give to live Sept. 10, 2001, again?”

For most Latter-day Saints living in the United States, that forgettable Sept. 10th was a Monday filled with Monday’s rituals: the beginning of a new work week, family home evening, and maybe an hour or two watching the football game.

“Who knew,” the Viewpoint author asked, “that Monday would be the day before a new generation would suffer its own day of infamy.”

The ongoing COVID-19 tragedy did not arrive with 9/11’s noise and suddenness. Outside of China, where the virus was beginning to claim headlines, most began 2020 with little association with pandemics outside of a few doomsday flicks and perhaps vague recollections of the 2003 SARS or 2009 H1N1 global outbreaks.

President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the Sunday morning session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 4, 2020.
President Russell M. Nelson speaks during the Sunday morning session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Oct. 4, 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

But within weeks, the virulent coronavirus was altering how the world functions – including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Almost all defining elements of the Latter-day Saint experience — temple work, Sabbath-day worship, missionary service, the biannual general conference, even the weekly ‘Music & the Spoken Word’ broadcast —were dramatically impacted by COVID-19.

Now 2020 is closing, and Latter-day Saints have perhaps pondered what they would give to return to the pandemic-free days of early January when few owned protective masks, managed Zoom accounts or fretted every time someone coughed.

But perhaps they are also asking what lessons they have learned from a year no one cares to repeat. And how will they live their lives when COVID-19 is relegated to its own chapter in Church history?

Servants on the watch

In early March, a Church News reporter reached out to a General Authority Seventy and asked how he would be observing home-centered Sunday worship after the Church announced that all Sunday gatherings would be temporarily on hold.

The Seventy had always found time to answer the reporter’s queries. But on this day, he asked for a pass. He was simply too busy helping to manage the Church’s ongoing effort to keep missionaries safe during the early days of the pandemic.

Like a dutiful sailor, he was “standing watch” and protecting those in his stewardship. 

Such relentless focus was emblematic of the unified, steady leadership his fellow Brethren — and countless other priesthood and Relief Society leaders — have demonstrated since the beginning of the health crisis.

COVID-19 is exacting a heavy toll on Latter-day Saints. Many have lost their lives, and the grief being felt by their surviving loved ones won’t be eradicated by a vaccine. Others have lost jobs and businesses. Meanwhile, Primary and Mutual-aged members and their families have missed out on graduations, games, proms and other traditional activities that cannot be replaced. 

But hopefully none have felt forgotten by the Lord or His servants.

Since the early days of the pandemic, President Russell M. Nelson and his fellow leaders, both general and local, have stepped forward to pray and uplift Latter-day Saints and their loved ones.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during the women’s session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during the women’s session of the 190th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

They know that gospel-anchored hope is immune to all viruses.

“I bless you with an increased desire and ability to obey the laws of God,” said President Nelson at the close of the 2020 October general conference. “I promise that as you do, you will be showered with blessings, including greater courage, increased personal revelation, sweeter harmony in your homes and joy even amid uncertainty.”

For decades, prayers of gratitude for the technology of the day have been offered at general conferences or other worldwide broadcasts. Never before has that blessing been more relevant than during 2020.

President Nelson and others shared frequent messages of hope and gratitude on social media channels. And rank-and-file members connected across Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms as they joined together in Church-organized worldwide fasts.

Want to see a mission president, bishop, Relief Society leader or MTC president shudder? Ask him or her how they would be fulfilling their sacred calls during the pandemic without reliable, inexpensive and ubiquitous electronic equipment.

Every priesthood or Relief Society leader has surely witnessed the Lord’s hand through technology that was not widely available even a decade ago. Their experiences are legion,

Elder Mark A. Bragg, a General Authority Seventy, for example, was serving in the South America South Area presidency in early 2020 before COVID-19 surged across the Western Hemisphere. 

He and others in the area presidency were instructed by a visiting Apostle, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, to immediately place smartphones in the hands of every missionary serving in the area. At that moment, the threat of a global pandemic seemed relatively minor.

“But we took Elder Uchtdorf’s counsel as a prophetic direction,” Elder Bragg told the Church News. “By the time the pandemic really impacted the area, almost all the missionaries had smartphones so they could communicate with their president, their families and the members and the people they were teaching. 

“It was a miracle.”

The pandemic physically separated Latter-day Saints. Temples and meetinghouses were closed for a period before reopening, incrementally, with social distancing protocols. But, years from now, members will likely remember 2020 as a unifying time. 

Championing respect, care for all God’s children

While many of the clinical and long-term aspects of  COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be determined, one thing is certain: pandemics do not happen in a vacuum. Besides the coronavirus’ multi-layered challenges, 2020 also witnessed historic civil and political division and a seemingly unending string of natural disasters across the globe.

And, once again, Latter-day Saints mourned, persevered, prayed and looked to their leaders for divine direction and assurance.

Repeatedly in 2020, Church leaders at all levels spoke out against racism, prejudice and bigotry. 

“I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,” said President Nelson during the recent general conference. “I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”

Weeks later, President Nelson’s first counselor in the First Presidency, President Dallin H. Oaks, reaffirmed at a Brigham Young University devotional that the scriptures and the words of the prophets declare that personal and official racism are not consistent with God’s revealed word.

“I was thrilled to hear President Nelson include a powerful doctrinal condemnation of racism and prejudice in his talk at general conference,” said President Oaks. “He said, ‘I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice.’

Bishop Darren L. Harline and his wife, Cherilyn Harline, and their six children observe the Sabbath at home on March 15, 2020, after the Church suspended all meetings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bishop Darren L. Harline and his wife, Cherilyn Harline, and their six children observe the Sabbath at home on March 15, 2020, after the Church suspended all meetings in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Photo by Alan Gibby

“That was [President Nelson’s] focus, but he expanded its impact by teaching this principle: ‘God does not love one race more than another.’ Thus, we condemn racism by any group of God’s creation toward any other group, worldwide. President Nelson emphasized that point by saying, ‘Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments, and not the color of your skin.’”

Established Church-sponsored service initiatives such JustServe also demonstrated the unifying, illuminating power of Christ-driven service — even during 2020’s darkest days. 

“When we serve together,” said President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “we realize that our similarities are stronger than our differences.”

Time and again during 2020, uncertain and anxious Latter-day Saints tapped into reserves of strength and calm by caring for their neighbors.

Perhaps that impulse of selflessness allowing many members to emerge from 2020 fortified and refined is best illustrated by the early August experience of  Nick D’Amico, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Days after a disastrous “derecho” storm felled pine trees across his backyard, D’Amico stepped out of his front door and unexpectedly made a few new Latter-day Saint friends wearing yellow Helping Hands T-shirts.

The Helping Hands crew was clearing up debris from a neighbor’s front yard. D’Amico, who is not a member, wished the volunteers a good morning. They returned his greeting with wide smiles.
“When we finish,” one man offered D’Amico, “we can help cut out the trees in your yard, if you want?”

“Absolutely,” replied D’Amico.

In the aftermath of a frightening storm, an Iowa Helping Hands volunteer crew — along with their new friend — discovered joy.

President Nelson teaches that joy is never a condition of one’s circumstances. Throughout 2020, his shepherding guidance has continually provided clarity and assurance at a moment heavy with fear and uncertainty. There is no need, he said, “to wander or wonder.”

As 2020 concludes, the Church president’s message remains timely and timeless: Let the Lord “prevail in your life” — and the Savior “will heal your broken heart.”

“Are you willing to let God prevail in your life?,” he asked at the October 2020 general conference. “Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life? Will you allow His words, His commandments, and His covenants to influence what you do each day?

“Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other? Are you willing to let whatever He needs you to do take precedence over every other ambition? Are you willing to have your will swallowed up in His?”