Sarah Jane Weaver: A lesson in love and understanding from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin

In February 1997 I was working on an article for the Church News about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Mongolia. At the time, there were four branches and a district in Mongolia — located “in the nethermost part of the [Lord’s] vineyard” (Jacob 5:13).

I loved the photographs I received for the project — which featured remote villages, yurts and frozen landscapes. I was excited to show them to Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, who then had responsibility, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for Mongolia.

“What do you think of these?” he asked as he viewed the images. “Don’t you have a photograph of one of the beautiful buildings in the country?”

I explained that while there are beautiful buildings is Mongolia, I wanted to show images of the country that were different and unique to the area.

Elder Wirthlin said nothing for a few minutes, then asked a single follow-up question: “How do you think the Mongolia Saints would feel about that?”

Later that day I found a photograph taken in the heart of Ulaanbaatar that showed a beautiful statue and modern buildings and returned to Elder Wirthlin’s office.

He liked it much better. 

As I left his office, Elder Wirthlin offered one more piece of advice. It is easy to notice things that make people different, he said. “Your job is to see the best in them.”

A few days later, I met a sister missionary from Mongolia on Temple Square. She spoke of the testimonies of the Mongolian Latter-day Saints that burn brightly amid harsh, freezing winter temperatures.

They face opposition — “but are so faithful, so strong,” said Sister Munkgtsetseg, who — following Mongolian tradition — had only one name.

As we spoke I knew that, just as Elder Withlin predicted, she was going to love the beautiful photograph of Ulaanbaatar. 

That’s because Elder Wirthlin had viewed potential coverage of the Church in Mongolia from the perspective of the Mongolian Latter-day Saints. The ability to see the world from their point of view had somehow enriched his own perspectives ­ — and mine. 

In the final pages of the classic novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the narrator, a little girl nicknamed Scout, finds herself on the front porch of her neighbor Boo Radley’s home. As she turns to leave, she discovers she has never seen her neighborhood from this angle before. It looks different. Just seeing the world as Boo sees it helps her understand Boo a little better.

She realized her father — who urged his children to try to see life from another person’s perspective to understand them better — was right. “One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them,” she said. “Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

Having learned the important lessons of compassion, understanding and love, Scout concluded there was really nothing else for her to learn — except algebra.

It is a lesson exemplified by Elder Wirthlin’s life. The love he so freely gave also came back to him.

In October 2007, while at the general conference pulpit, Elder Wirthlin locked his knees while delivering his address; as he spoke he grew increasingly weak.

Elder Wirthlin’s son, Joseph Wirthlin Jr., remembers leaving his seat in the Conference Center to help his father, only to see President Russell M. Nelson quickly move to his father’s side at the pulpit. President Nelson put one hand on the Apostle’s shoulder and grabbed his belt with the other. Because of the lifting and stabilizing effort of President Nelson, Elder Wirthlin was able to complete the address.

Joseph Wirthlin Jr. said President Nelson acted with “quiet humility.” 

“He stood up, and let Dad finish his talk,” he said. “He didn’t make a big fanfare about things. He just stood up and did what was needed.”

I suspect President Nelson did for Elder Wirthin what he would have wanted someone to do for him, had he been in a similiar situation. 

In the talk Elder Wirthlin offered with President Nelson’s sustaining support, he taught that when we reach out to assist Heavenly Father’s children, we do it unto Him.

“Love is the beginning, the middle and the end of the pathway of discipleship. It comforts, counsels, cures and consoles. It leads us through valleys of darkness and through the veil of death. In the end love leads us to the glory and grandeur of eternal life,” he said.

“Brethren and sisters, as you prayerfully consider what you can do to increase harmony, spirituality and build up the kingdom of God, consider your sacred duty to teach others to love the Lord and their fellowman. This is the central object of our existence. Without charity — or the pure love of Christ — whatever else we accomplish matters little. With it, all else becomes vibrant and alive.”

Today there are two stakes, a district and a mission in Mongolia. More than 12,000 Latter-day Saints continue to build the Church in their beautiful nation. 

The gospel of Jesus Christ connects all of us; compassion, understanding and love define our perspectives. It is a beautiful lesson I learned on a quiet afternoon in 1997 in Elder Wirthlin’s office.

His advice  seems to have more meaning today, amid so much conflict in the world. It is easy to notice things that make people different, he had said. “Your job is to see the best in them.”