Even amid the sadness and struggles caused by the ongoing pandemic and other challenges of the day, Native Americans can find “renewed hope in the Savior and His marvelous gospel.”
That was the comforting message Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared Friday, Feb. 26, in a special devotional for Native American Latter-day Saints in the Chinle, Arizona, region.
The Navajo Nation and other native tribes in the U.S. Southwest have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
“I know many of us in this audience are feeling the sobering health and economic effects of COVID-19,” said Elder Soares in a live broadcast originating from the Conference Center’s Little Theater. “We are aware that many of our dear people in the Navajo Nation tested positive for COVID-19 and, unfortunately, some have passed away. Maybe some of you in this audience lost family members during this pandemic. We feel so sorry about it.
“From what I have heard from your local leaders … you are very resilient and very faithful as you continue to follow Christian impulses to look out for others.”
The Apostle said he was uplifted learning that many Native American members had been distributing gospel messages, videos, testimonies and personal conversion stories to help strengthen the faith of fellow members at a time when regular Church gatherings were impossible.
“I know we are very anxious to get back to normal life and continue our discipleship, and we will,” he said. “This pandemic will pass as any other trials and challenges we have faced in our life have passed. And we will come back stronger in our faith and desire to live this marvelous gospel.”
Nephi’s opening sentence of the Book of Mormon reveals that he and his people knew many afflictions. Hardship continues today. It has always been a part of the human experience.
Elder Soares invited his audience Friday to follow Nephi’s example and view disappointment and discouragement “through the eyes of faith.”
“I want to assure you that Christ is always aware of the adversities we face in mortality,” he said. “He understands all of the bitterness, agony and physical pain, as well as the emotional and spiritual challenges we face. He has a heart full of mercy and is always ready to help us, because He Himself went through all this in the flesh.”
The past year has been fraught with challenges — including the pandemic, economic difficulties, racial and political divisions and violence. There has been fear and uncertainty. Eternal values, for many, have become uncertain.
“The world is forgetting who Jesus Christ is and what He did for us,” said Elder Soares. “I think this is part of the reason why the world is becoming more confused about our divine identity. In addition to that, the adversary is taking every opportunity to create confusion in the minds of people through his attacks on faith, on us and on our families at an exponential speed.”
The pain and the challenges of mortality are a certainty for all — including those keeping their lives in line with the Savior and His commandments, he added. It is part of life and one’s eternal progression. There is opposition in all things.
The Lord once told Joseph Smith that if we never had the bitter, we would not be able to know the sweet.
“I know that even being acquainted with these important principles, it is still difficult to understand why these things happen, isn’t it? And I guess we won’t understand it perfectly until we cross to the other side of the veil. When we get there, I believe that our eyes will be opened to many things we can’t see now.”
Elder Soares noted the importance of caregivers during one’s recovery from illness. The Lord is our ultimate “spiritual caregiver.”
“We must surrender ourselves to Him. In doing so, we give up whatever is causing our pain and turn everything over to Him.”
The Apostle then recounted Joseph Smith’s pain and isolation while locked in Liberty Jail in 1839. The Prophet likely felt abandoned, rejected and misjudged — causing him feelings of diminished self-worth. The adversary likely tried to take advantage of that moment to prompt Joseph to forget his divine potential as a child of God.
“I believe that all of us, in less or more intensity, have already experienced those types of feelings, especially when we feel discriminated against for whatever reason,” said Elder Soares. “If this is the case for any of us, let us remember the Savior’s teachings: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it’” (Matthew 16:24-25).
For some struggling with those feelings, taking up “one’s cross” and following the Savior means striving to lay aside negative feelings and turning to the Lord for freedom and peace.
“Unfortunately, if we hold on to these negative feelings and emotions, we may find ourselves living without the influence of the Lord’s Spirit in our lives,” he said. “We cannot repent for other people, but we can forgive them by refusing to be held hostages by those who have harmed us.”
Elder Soares added that he has learned, from personal and family experiences, that healing comes in the Lord’s time and in the Lord’s way.
“The Lord took care of us and our hearts were healed when we surrendered to the Lord. We decided to renounce our pain and give everything to the Savior Jesus Christ. He gave His life not only for our sins, but for all the sufferings and agonies that we face in this mortal life. Therefore, He expects us to turn to Him and surrender to Him.”
As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, joy comes from Jesus Christ and His gospel.
Elder Soares concluded his remarks Friday with his testimony of Christ the Healer.
“He will give us rest to our souls and make our burdens light to bear.”
The language of the Father
Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy, expressed gratitude that he could spend Friday evening “among people to whom the Lord has made great promises and about whom the Lord has expressed great love and concern.”
Elder McKay taught the importance of Native American children learning the languages of their fathers. He too has drawn strength, stability and direction from the language of his own fathers, who hailed from the fertile valleys and rugged highlands of Scotland.
“My name is MacKay,” he said. “In the language of my fathers, the name means ‘son of fire’. Our tribal or clan motto is manu forti, which in the language of my fathers, means ‘with a strong hand’. It was a war cry, intended to inspire my fathers to fight with crushing strength in defending family and freedom. Our clan slogan, bi trein, means ‘be true’ for strength is strongest when it is wielded in defense of truth. I pray that the language and lessons of my fathers will ever be preserved.”
One “language,” declared Elder McKay, eclipses all others: the language of the Father — He who the Father of all. During his full-time mission over four decades ago, he learned to recognize the Father’s language as it spoke to him in his mind and heart. The young missionary discovered it was the most important language he would ever learn.
“And from that time until now, I have strived to become ever fluent in the language of the Spirit, which is the language of the Father.”
Elder McKay testified that the Native Americans are a covenant people of the Lord.
“You are known to God and will be made mighty in Christ,” he said. “The Book of Mormon was written for you and to you. You are the children of Lehi, by lineage or heritage or both.
“You should always be proud members of the Navajo or Apache or Hopi tribes, or whatever tribe you belong to, just as I am a proud member of the clan Mackay. But I remind you that the greatest blessings you and I will ever receive come to us because we are all members of a tribe of Israel; we are the children of Abraham.”
Christ is the remedy for addiction, abuse
At the beginning of her remarks, Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, introduced herself as a Nicaraguan from the Nicarao tribe — a branch of a larger group of indigenous people from the north.
“We are cousins,” she said, “and more than that, we are all sisters and brothers in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The past year, acknowledged Sister Aburto, has been difficult. The world “has been turned upside down” and some have lost loved ones to the pandemic. “However, I know that our Heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ are sustaining us through this hard time. They are also tutoring us, so we can become stronger and wiser. They empower us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.”
As President Russell M. Nelson has taught, all can draw upon God’s power, through their covenants, to receive the strength needed to make a difference in the lives of those around them.
Barriers may prevent some in the Native American communities from reaching their divine potential. There are issues with addictions and abuse, and the adversary may tempt some to believe they are powerless against such maladies.
“However, that is not true,” said Sister Aburto. “Addictions and abuse can be stopped, and they can be prevented. Each of us can make a difference. It takes all of us — especially adults who must act on behalf of and to protect youth and children. Abuse of any kind is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as well as the laws of man.”
Talk to “the rising generation” about the temptations that can trap them in addiction or abuse, she counseled.
“Let us break the cycle of harm by building places of security,” she said. “Let us ‘make [our] homes true sanctuaries of faith, where the Spirit of the Lord may dwell’. Let us ‘unleash the power of families’, as President Russell M. Nelson has invited us to do.”
Sister Aburto testified that Jesus Christ weeps for all who have been abused. The Lord knows their pain.
“He wants you to know you are of infinite worth to Him,” she said. “He will heal you — not because of anything you have done, but because you have been wounded by another. He sends angels to encircle about you.”
Sister Aburto said someone who has been abused might feel shame, guilt, unworthiness and separation from God. But don’t hesitate to pray and ask for God’s inclusive love.
“Acknowledge and grieve your loss. Share your burden with others. Seek a priesthood blessing. Read and ponder your patriarchal blessing. Get professional counseling to help you. Your experience of abuse does not define you. You are much bigger than that experience. Trust in Jesus’s capacity to heal you through His redeeming Atonement.”
The Atonement of Jesus Christ can provide healing and peace, she said, “because we are all in need of His soothing healing. I testify that with God, nothing is impossible, and that Jesus Christ has perfect empathy for us.”
Through Christ, broken hearts can be healed. Anguish can become peace.
The promised gathering of Israel is happening in individual lives
Elder Todd S. Larkin, an Area Seventy, conducted the devotional and also shared remarks. His wife, Sister Laura Larkin, also spoke.
Elder Larkin testified that the scattering and gathering of Israel is the story of everyone who, as President Nelson teaches, “lets God prevail in their lives.”
“Every one of us present in this devotional tonight — regardless of our heritage or ancestry — is here because God prevailed in the lives of someone in your family, and He is prevailing in each of your lives today. You are all scattered Israel.”
Now is the time for all to unite together and continue with the gathering of Israel, “so that the blossoming of Lehi’s children will continue and expand exponentially. And so the glorious day may come when we will usher in the return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Sister Larkin spoke of the impact missionaries had in the lives of her family. The gospel, she said, helped her grandparents, Raymond and Lydia Cornelius, understand their identity and purpose. “[The missionaries] taught them that there is a God in heaven who loves them, and that they are His children. … They taught them about Jesus Christ and His atonement.”
The new converts’ lives were forever changed. They lived in the same home. They still had the same job. They still earned the same amount of money.
“But now they were happy,” said Sister Larkin, fighting back emotion.
As President Nelson has taught, joy has little to do with the circumstances of one’s life — and everything to do with the focus of one’s life. “When the focus of our lives is on God’s Plan of Salvation, and Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening, or not happening, in our lives.”
Sister Larkin’s own Native American ancestors (Oneida) knew well the pain of rejection and humiliation. But they found strength and resolve through their testimony of Christ.
The Book of Mormon promises uttered by Samuel the Lamanite — that His people will be brought to the true knowledge of the gospel — are being realized.
“We are numbered among His sheep. We are letting God prevail in our lives. Israel is being gathered,” she said.