Boyd Matheson: The influence of ‘one of a city’ Saints in Southeast Asia

Margaret Mead powerfully said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As President Russell M. Nelson and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled across Southeast Asia in November of 2019, I witnessed living proof of this principle.

The four countries visited by these Church leaders are home to vast populations. Vietnam is a country of 97 million people, Cambodia has 15 million, Singapore nearly 6 million and Indonesia is home to over 267 million citizens. In each of these nations The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has very small groups of members. 

This trip would be marked, not by large crowds in athletic stadiums but by small gatherings in hotel ballrooms and chapels.

Traveling so many miles, across so many time zones to meet with so few may seem a meaningless exercise in futility by the world’s standards. Society seems consumed with measuring, quantifying and counting everything from internet clicks and social media likes to Twitter followers and video views.

Srey Kia and Srey Nic listen during a devotional with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019.
Srey Kia and Srey Nic listen during a devotional with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The prophet and the Apostle came, not to count audience sizes, but to minister to people. The Brethren and their wives moved about in search of “the one” while striving to strengthen little bands of disciples gathered in the Savior’s name.

On a Sunday my colleagues and I attended a tiny branch of the Church in Hanoi, Vietnam. There were less than 30 members in attendance, most of them very young. As the meeting started, I sat trying to figure out the meaning of the math for Vietnam. I was overwhelmed by the seeming futility of it all — a country of 97 million with a total Church membership of about 700 and these 30 faithful Saints in a city bursting with citizens. It simply did not, and could not, add up.

The members began to sing the opening hymn. The Spirit instantly filled the room. Thoughts streamed into my mind as I beheld these beautiful, powerful and faithful Saints who were clearly not alone.  

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).

“We will not retreat though our numbers may be few” (Hymns, No. 243, “Let Us All Press On”).

“Will he not leave the ninety and nine and go after the one that is lost?” (Matthew 18:12).

With tear-filled eyes and a greater vision for who I was worshipping with, the words of Jeremiah stirred my soul, “and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion” (Jeremiah 3:14).

President Nelson and Elder Christofferson testified that these chosen few would be the “leaven in the loaf” and this faithful group would greatly influence and impact the future of the nation.

I began to refer to the members in these vastly populated areas as “one of a city” Saints.

I watched as these extraordinary souls looked to the prophet and Sister Wendy Nelson along with Elder Christofferson and his wife, Sister Kathy Christofferson, with an earnest desire to be taught, inspired and strengthened. At the end of each meeting you could see that these Saints longed to ask their leaders to tarry with and teach them a little longer.

Over the course of the nine-day Southeast Asia ministry, the “one of a city” Saints were fortified in their faith with words of vision, revelation and wisdom. They were given patterns for living and serving while striving to become better disciples of the Savior Jesus Christ.

President Nelson and Elder Christofferson sat for a final media interview following the devotional in Jakarta, Indonesia. Both spoke powerfully to what they had experienced and things which lie in futurity for the “one of a city” Saints in these countries including the blessings of temples.

Elder Christofferson reinforced his belief that the ministry tour had been a testament to “the worth of a soul” and our Heavenly Father’s love for all of His children.

When asked if he ever got discouraged with the number of members being so small in such highly populated countries, President Nelson responded with an emphatic, “Never.”

He then continued, “I don’t think the Lord is interested really in how many members of the Church we have. What He is interested in is how many of His children choose to come back and enjoy eternal life in His holy presence.” He repeated for effect that it was less about the numbers and more about the souls that would be blessed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Sister Katherine Christofferson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Sister Katherine Christofferson, wave to attendees after a devotional in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As I listened to these inspired and inspiring servants of God the words of Albert Einstein flashed into my mind: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

The overwhelming insignificance of the worldly math that hadn’t added up at the beginning of the tour had been transformed by eternal arithmetic which multiplies loaves and fishes, magnifies the faith of a mustard seed, compounds the value of the widow’s mite and amplifies answers to the humble prayer from a broken heart.

Perhaps, like Elijah of old, President Nelson could see that those who are with these “one of a city” Saints in Southeast Asia are, in reality, a great multitude and include past prophets like President Gordon B. Hinckley, ancient apostles and ancestors on the other side of the veil.

The prophet and the Apostle, who had traveled to the other side of the world, each declared their special witness of the Savior and His work. Together they offered their own version of Margaret Mead’s quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, [‘one of a city’ Saints] can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

—Boyd Matheson is the opinion editor and head of strategic reach at the Deseret News.