The trip was his first outside of Utah since the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the earth in March 2020. I asked how he felt to be among the people again.
He leaned forward with intentionality.
“I’ve really never left them,” he said.
At a time when the pandemic dramatically limited travel and when large gatherings were impossible to hold, President Nelson looked forward.
Certainly, a silver lining of the pandemic was learning to engage with Latter-day Saints without getting on an airplane. But it was obvious to me that President Nelson was not only talking about reaching out to Church members via technology — but also with constant prayer, concern and attention.
For example, as protests, riots and violence swept across the United States in May and early June 2020, President Nelson posted a statement on social media condemning racism and pleading for peace.
“We join with many throughout this nation and around the world who are deeply saddened at recent evidences of racism and a blatant disregard for human life,” he wrote. “We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin. We are also saddened when these assaults on human dignity lead to escalating violence and unrest.”
A few months later, when a series of record-breaking wildfires hit the western United States in fall 2020, President Nelson promised members who lost much that their “brightest days are yet ahead.”
“The Lord will perform some of His greatest miracles,” he said in a Nov. 15 video message. “And some of those miracles will be in your lives. If you wonder if happy days will ever return, I assure you that they will.”
And as a pandemic-weary world wrestled with the reality of the continuing COVID-19 crisis, President Nelson offered “a fast-acting, long-lasting spiritual remedy.”
“I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems,” he said in the Nov. 20, 2020, worldwide video message.
President Nelson’s messages carried power of peace.
For example, as President Nelson’s thoughts turned to strife-torn Venezuela in early 2020, he shared comfort, encouragement and eternal perspective with members of the struggling South American nation.
“When we face challenges and afflictions, we may feel discouraged or perhaps forgotten,” said President Nelson in his Feb. 2, 2020, Venezuela devotional, which was broadcast across the country. “I assure you that God has not forgotten you.”
And just weeks before armed conflict erupted between Russia and Ukraine, he assured Latter-day Saints in 48 countries in Europe that the area has an “unparalleled future” because of their faith. “You have access to the power — God’s power — that will literally change the future of Europe,” he said in a devotional broadcast on Jan. 23.
Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Europe Central Area, said the Prophet’s message brought “unity, a unified vision, and new enthusiasm” during a time of discouragement and worry.
President Nelson’s messages were timely and important.
He also sent a special message to Latter-day Saints in California, offering three invitations to help Church members “gain the elevating influence” that God is counting on them to have.
“First: Seek truth. Second: Make covenants with God and keep them. Third: Help gather Israel,” he taught.
And just two weeks before the Washington D.C. Temple rededication, he pleaded on Aug. 1 with Latter-day Saints to “take charge of your testimony of Jesus Christ.”
“Work for it. Own it. Care for it. Nurture it so that it will grow. Then watch for miracles to happen in your life,” he shared.
He even extended the reach of his message at the Washington D.C. Temple rededication by posting a short video about temples on his social media accounts.
He recorded the message during that special interview in the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center.
It was during that interview that he had been clear. He will celebrate his 98th birthday on Sept. 9, but his choice to avoid travel for two and a half years had little to do with him.
While he loves being out among Latter-day Saints, President Nelson said he had to make a difficult choice. “We really wanted to protect the people,” he said. “And when the President of the Church goes anywhere, there are a lot of people who want to come hear what he has to say.”
I thought his sentiment was beautiful. Of course, his decisions would be guided by a desire to bless, strengthen and support people — the Latter-day Saints he has not seen in person for many months, but whom he “really never left.”