Sarah Jane Weaver: What I have observed about President Nelson’s greatest quality

Preparing to write a profile on President Russell M. Nelson days before he was sustained as the 17th President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I learned as much as I could about his life and legacy.

He had graduated first in his class from medical school at age 22, helped develop an artificial heart-lung machine that made open-heart surgery possible and performed thousands of life-saving operations.

He had served 34 years as an apostle, visited 133 countries, and been chairman of each of the Church’s three governing committees — the Missionary Executive Council, the Temple and Family History Executive Council, and the Priesthood and Family Executive Council.

And at the time, his large and growing posterity included 10 children and 57 grandchildren and 116 great-grandchildren.

Still, in an interview with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, the Apostle gave his assessment of President Nelson with one simple word.

First and foremost, he said, President Nelson is kind.

Other leaders echoed Elder Holland’s sentiment. For example, President M. Russell Ballard, also of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said that when he had heart-bypass surgery in 1995, he awoke to learn that President Nelson had “stood over the surgeon” during the entire procedure.

President Ballard also recalled President Nelson checking on the late Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He would come over and feel his pulse and look him in the eye and get a report as to what happened overnight,” said President Ballard. In that capacity “he was a physician filled with love for those whom he could serve.”

After observing and writing about President Nelson’s ministry for the past three years, “kind” is also the word I choose to describe this prophet.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, talk with children while meeting with a three-generation family in Singapore on Nov. 20, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, talk with children while meeting with a three-generation family in Singapore on Nov. 20, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Before addressing a crowd of more than 15,500 Church members in Orlando, Florida, on June 9, 2019, President Nelson quietly greeted Barbara Poma, the owner of PULSE nightclub, where 49 people lost their lives in a mass shooting in 2016. He acknowledged her loss and, with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, asked her about her brother, who had died years earlier of AIDS.

On May 21, 2019, he stood arm in arm with Dr. Mustafa Farouk, the president of the Islamic Associations of New Zealand, after announcing a $100,000 donation from the Church to help rebuild and renovate mosques damaged two months earlier in a deadly attack. As he left the reception that day, President Nelson told mosque victim Ahmed Jahangir — just released from the hospital — that he would pray for him and his doctors.

And as he met with members of a three-generation family in Singapore on Nov. 20, 2019, he picked up 3-year-old Tate Chan. It didn’t surprise anyone that several hours later, after an evening devotional, Tate broke away from his parents and ran again into President Nelson’s arms.

He is also reaching out with kindness to those at home.

During the First Presidency Christmas Devotional on Dec. 2, 2018, President Nelson asked a young girl from the audience, Lydia Terry, to stand with her parents.

Stephen Terry, left, Lydia Terry, 12, and Kellie Terry stand up and are recognized during President Russell M. Nelson's speech at the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Lydia, of Bountiful, suffers from a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer.
Stephen Terry, left, Lydia Terry, 12, and Kellie Terry stand up and are recognized during President Russell M. Nelson’s speech at the First Presidency’s Christmas Devotional in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018. Lydia, of Bountiful, suffers from a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Credit: Qiling Wang, Deseret News, Deseret News

President Nelson met Lydia — who is suffering from a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer — a few weeks earlier in his office. “As we talked about her life and what lies ahead, she was calm and at peace. When I asked if she had any questions, she quickly replied, ‘What is heaven like?’”

For Lydia, meeting President Nelson and attending the devotional was literally a wish fulfilled. “It is so amazing just to know the prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” she said after the devotional. “It was probably the greatest experience of my life.”

And in May 2019, in her final days on earth after a six-year battle with cancer, Ashtyn Poulsen of Sandy, Utah, 17, received a visit from President Nelson.

Her family published the interaction on their Facebook page.

“Did you come to the hospital to visit sick people?” Ashtyn asked.

The Prophet responded: “I came to the hospital to visit you.”

Said Elder Holland, in 2018: “He is a consummate gentleman. He may be the man for whom the word ‘gentleman’ was created. He is very, very kind.”