As a child, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson listened to annual sermons highlighting the Old Testament account of Nehemiah — who rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem in 52 days.
Over time he came to learn that the sermon wasn’t just about rebuilding a physical wall, but also reflected the spiritual matter of rebuilding the religious lives of people.
The sermon, said President Johnson, was about joy. It was about “building a wall of love, building a wall of inclusion, building a wall to prevent the distractions of the world from allowing us to truly appreciate God’s experience.”
President Johnson — joined by Elder Ronald A. Rasband and Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — spoke during a sacrament meeting held in downtown Salt Lake City on Sunday, June 13.
Hosting President Johnson in his home ward, Elder Rasband called NAACP leaders “dear friends.”
Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the NAACP leaders plan a joint announcement during a press conference Monday about future collaboration, said Elder Rasband.
During his sacrament meeting remarks, President Johnson recalled a day his pastor combined a sermon on Nehemiah with a sermon about love — “build a wall of inclusion, build a wall of love, build a wall so that you are not distracted by the outside forces trying to pull people apart, but included in the space of love that we are all intended to be in.”
President Johnson said the sermon concluded with a plea to be open enough to love despite differences “because our uniqueness is actually our genius.”
“I believe the Lord truly wants us to bring all of our genius together … so that we can truly experience His blessings.”
In brief remarks, Elder Rasband quoted Mosiah 18:21, noting that the Lord has commanded His children that they should avoid contention and that all should have “their hearts knit together in unity and love.”
“We’ve experienced that sense and that feeling here this morning,” Elder Rasband said, noting that the Church, the NAACP and other partners plan to announce “wonderful new initiatives.”
The Church has a four-year history with the NAACP. In 2017, local Latter-day Saints helped refurbish the NAACP offices in Jackson, Mississippi. The next year, in May 2018, the First Presidency and NAACP leaders released a joint statement calling for greater civility and racial harmony. Two months later, the Church announced a historic collaboration between the two organizations and launched a self-reliance initiative. The NAACP and BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School have also worked together on joint projects.
President Russell M. Nelson spoke at the 110th NAACP annual convention in July 2019. “Arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder, may we strive to lift our brothers and sisters everywhere, in every way we can,” he said.
And last year, in a joint opinion piece published by the online platform Medium, President Nelson and NAACP leaders called for racial reform, asking “people everywhere to join us in a journey of understanding and overcoming.”
The Savior “looks over the world and rejoices when people speak like Brother Johnson speaks of unity and putting down contention and trying our very best, as President Nelson and President Oaks have taught, to root out racism and prejudice.
“These are truly our initiatives and our goals and accepted teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Also speaking during the sacrament meeting Sunday, Elder Gong said there are things God’s children need to do that they do not have the strength to do on their own. “And that’s why the Lord gives us the opportunity to come to Him and come to each other by covenant,” he said.
“We’ve just been blessed to be reminded that we are connected to God and we’re connected to each other by the great commandments,” Elder Gong said.
Elder Gong said if he had a key to the ward in downtown Salt Lake City he would give it to President Johnson “because we hope he and each of our friends will feel like this is home, this is family, this is community.”
Tracy Yeulande Browning of the Relief Society general advisory council also spoke during the sacrament meeting. Introduced to the Church of Jesus Christ at age 16, she said she came to understand that the “Lord was very interested in who I was becoming and that becoming was vitally important.”
Quoting 1 Samuel 16:7, she said the Lord “seeth not as man seeth,” for the Lord “looketh on the heart.”
She asked herself an important question: “What qualities and attributes of my heart does the Savior look for, and expect for me to acquire?” Her searching revealed 130 scriptures about the “conditions or expectations” of the Savior for the hearts of His followers.
She found the Lord wants “a heart that will be a storehouse for His word, a sincere heart, an understanding heart, a hopeful heart, a softened heart, and — one that was particularly meaningful to me — a heart that was steadfast in keeping the promises and covenants that I’ve made with the Lord.”
Lately as she has looked around at things happening in the world, Sister Browning said she has “seen the hearts of men failing at times.
“We have become a little less harmonious, a little less unified,” she said. “What is the remedy? The remedy continues to be about our refinement of our hearts, and continuing to do the individual work that we need to acquire these attributes.”
In the process the “beat of our heart” and the “beat of the hearts of God’s children” will become harmonious.
Following the meeting, President Johnson attended a second sacrament meeting with Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Communications Department.