Boyd Matheson: ‘The power of gathering’ and how it relates to President Nelson’s Pacific tour

Gathering is a good thing. American chef and author Alice Waters said, “This is the power of gathering: It inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: In a word, more alive.” Humans have a need to gather.

People gather at the obvious places like coffee shops, parks, playgrounds, reunions and family funerals. They also come together in unique ways at sporting events and symphonies. In times of tragedy, nationally or locally, people gather at vigils to grieve, mourn and collectively heal. There is simply something magical to gathering. Even the most introverted of introverts are profoundly stirred emotionally when they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Read all of the stories from President Nelson’s Pacific Ministry Tour.

That longing to connect, to be part of a story, a movement or a family is hardwired in humans. Researchers Shira Gabriel, Jennifer Valenti, Kristin Naragon-Gainey and Ariana Young shared, in a 2017 paper, their research showing how gathering, or collective assembly as they framed it, contributed to a sense of meaning to the lives of those they studied.

The internet and digital devices have, in many ways, short-circuited gathering. It’s easier to just post a picture than to drive across town to interact or assemble. While getting “FaceTimed” into a child’s recital or soccer game is great for those far away, it can never replace the power of being there.

University of Houston research professor Brene Brown wisely challenged her readers to “show up for collective moments of joy and pain so we can actually bear witness to inextricable human connection.” Collective human connection through gathering, in celebration or sorrow, is the fabric that binds individuals to each other, to their communities and to important institutions.

President Russell M. Nelson understands the sense of sacredness and connection that is found in coming together. Over the past 10 days he has gathered with members of the Church: 1,450 in Hawaii; 8,150 in Samoa; 10,000 in Australia; 8,150 in New Zealand; 5,620 in Fiji; 6,690 in Tonga and an expected 10,000 in Tahiti.

The gatherings were held in large stadiums and outdoors where members braved rain and wind for the opportunity to be together and hear President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, Elder Gerrit W. Gong and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, along with Elder O. Vincent Halleck and his wife, Sister Peggy Haleck.

As the nearly 95-year-old crisscrosses the globe to bring members of the faith together, there is a profound sense that these gatherings are a homecoming. In Samoa, members lined the street for miles. In Tonga, there were signs of “Welcome Home” and “Thank you for remembering the isles of the sea.” In Fiji there was a soul-stirring moment at the end of the devotional when the crowd stood to sing a traditional Fijian song, “Farewell, dear friend.” It was a most extraordinary moment of gathering and personal connection. It proved that even large gatherings are designed to minister to the one.

President Nelson has a most unique gift to unite a crowd in meaningful moments that produces a sense of the sacred that forever connect them all. Brown, in her book “Braving the Wilderness,” posited, “Crying with strangers in person could save the world.” That seems to be a driving force of President Nelson’s exhaustive global travel schedule.

Some may question a 94-year-old going to such lengths to be with members of a church. As a world religious leader, President Nelson demonstrates a principle shared by poet John O’Donohue, “The work of holiness in not about perfection or niceness; it is about belonging.”

Gathering is an ongoing necessity for human flourishing.

The world continues to isolate individuals more and more through technology and the breakdown of families and communities gathering. The “lonely crowd” is real as people focus on smart phones and their own social media feed rather than interacting with those sitting next to them. Meaningful, purposeful gathering is the solution.

Youth sing during a Tahiti cultural program in Papeete, Tahiti, on May 24, 2019.
Youth sing during a Tahiti cultural program in Papeete, Tahiti, on May 24, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Prior to the devotional in Tahiti, Elder Gong commented, “I have been so deeply touched at how the prophet of God ministers to 10,000 people, and a single family that’s grieving over the loss of their mother. At the same time there is a sense of connection and covenant belonging together. That makes each one feel as though this is for them individually, for their families and for large groups and countries at the same time. That’s a remarkable thing to do.”

The result of gathering will be a society of connected individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities, “more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: In a word, more alive.”

Note: Portions of this article were included in a Deseret News editorial October 2018