Why BYU’s president believes unity, perseverance remain remedies to today’s ills

COVID-19 and chaos — these two words seem to compete for the lead spot in each day’s troublesome headlines.

“The good news,” reassured Brigham Young University President Kevin J Worthen at a Tuesday, Jan. 12, devotional, “is that there are things within our individual and collective control that we can do to address both of these challenges.”

His message to the students, who began their winter semester this week, was a call to persevere even while seeking hope and unity.

First, the ongoing pandemic.

“Even though many of the traditional educational routines continue to be  altered because of the coronavirus, there is increasing light on the horizon,” he said. “With the rapidly expanding availability of a vaccine, we can envision a future in which we will be able to gather more often and in larger numbers, and where in-person meetings and classes will become the norm rather than the exception.”

But that day has not come yet. So, he told his audience, remain diligent. Wear masks, wash hands, maintain social distancing and comply with testing protocols.

President Worthen compared the current COVID-19 situation with baseball’s time-honored “seventh-inning stretch,” where spectators take a moment to stand and stretch their legs. But the game isn’t over. A lot can still happen in the final two innings of a baseball game.

“Similarly, the pandemic experience is not over for us,” he said. “The need to adhere to the guidelines is more important than ever. Because of your good work last semester, we are ahead, and if we stay ahead — if we finish strong — we can, like the home baseball team, end the game one-half inning early.

“If, on the other hand, we lose focus and let down our guard, the virus may overtake us, requiring us to go extra innings — or worse, to cancel the game.”

Perseverance, until the game has been won, remains essential.

Brigham Young University President Kevin J Worthen speaks on the importance of perseverance and unity during Jan. 12, 2021, campus devotional.
Brigham Young University President Kevin J Worthen speaks on the importance of perseverance and unity during Jan. 12, 2021, campus devotional. Credit: BYU Photo

For American baseball fans, no “seventh-inning stretch” is complete without singing, as one, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It’s a shared, unifying experience fans relish regardless of their team affiliations or the score of the game.

“There is, as Joseph Smith explained, ‘power in unity’,” he said. “ And we are in more need of that unifying power than perhaps at any time in our  lifetime, not only to weather the pandemic storm, but also to address pressing issues like social justice, poverty, inequities and angry divisiveness and intolerance in political and other matters.”

Unity, of course, extends far beyond baseball. It is an eternal gospel principle that stabilizes communities and determines eternal destinies. “Simply put, we cannot be exalted without achieving a high level of unity.”

In the 38th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord commands His people to “Be one.” And the scriptures are replete with examples of how unity blessed the lives of individuals and societies.

“Some may find a call for unity strange at a time when we are working to promote more diversity on campus,” said President Worthen. “But as Elder Quentin L. Cook noted in the most recent general conference, unity and diversity are not opposite. We can achieve greater unity as we foster an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for diversity.”

True unity, he added, does not come at the cost of individuality.

“While all human beings share a common bond as beloved spirit children of Heavenly Parents, each of us is a unique individual, with individual personalities, experiences and gifts.  And each of these individual characteristics can contribute to greater unity.”

The Church has need of every member, and, as Paul taught, members should “suffer” and “rejoice” as one.

That same principle applies with full force to the university community, he said. “When we welcome and value the gifts, talents, experiences, and perspectives of all of God’s children who are engaged in our common enterprise, we will not only more fully reach our individual potential, but we will also be more united.” 

BYU and its students can achieve its full potential by emphasizing both unity and diversity, he added. Without unity, diversity becomes divisive. Without diversity, unity becomes bland conformity.

A small collection of masked BYU students adhere to social distancing protocols at the Marriott Center prior to the Jan. 12, 2021, campus devotional.
A small collection of masked BYU students adhere to social distancing protocols at the Marriott Center prior to the Jan. 12, 2021, campus devotional. Credit: BYU Photo

The power of combining unity and diversity can be seen in the success of BYU’s 2020 football team. The Cougar squad included Black, Polynesian and white players. As they gathered for summer workouts, they were aware of the social challenges that were dividing communities.

So in an effort to foster unity, they drew upon a  teaching of Christ: Love one another.

The team designed t-shirts with “We are one” on the front and “Love one Another” on the back.

“The message was seen by millions, and tens-of-thousands of dollars were generated in revenue, all of which the players decided to contribute to multicultural scholarships for first-generation college students and others with extenuating circumstances at BYU,” said President Worthen.

“If we strive for true unity by following the Savior’s example to love others, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, or other distinguishing characteristics, we can truly transform both our university community and the larger world with which we interact.”

The school president suggested two ways to enhance unity and diversity.

First, avoid contention.

“This does not mean that we will not disagree with each other, but it does mean we will do so in a way that both focuses on issues and not on ad hominem attacks, and also reflects the truth that each of us — including those with whom we disagree — is a beloved spirit child of Heavenly parents.”

Second, recognize that “perfect unity” can be only through God and Christ.

“If we align ourselves more with God and Christ, we will become more loving, we will see others more for who they really are, and we will draw closer to both God and our fellow human beings,” he said.

God, he added, is the author of diversity and the source of unity.

“As we come closer to Him and His Son, Jesus Christ, we will advance both powerful principles in a synergistic way. As we embrace our true primary identity as children of God, and act as disciples of Christ, they will magnify our individual gifts, while also making us more unified.”

President Worthen’s wife, Sister Peggy S. Worthen, focused her teachings Tuesday on finding gratitude amid chaos.

“In a recent message from President Russell M. Nelson, he shared with us a  ‘remedy’ to help us through the turbulent times we are sure to face,” she said. “That remedy is ‘the healing power of gratitude’. It is a remedy that can truly fill us with hope.”

Sister Worthen shared the true story of Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman who was sent to a concentration camp during World War II. The environment at the camp was dark and wretched.

The discouraged Corrie wondered how she could make it through such circumstances. But she and her sister, Betsie, found comfort and lessons of gratitude from a contraband copy of the Bible. The scriptures taught them to rejoice always, pray constantly and give thanks in all circumstances.

“Being grateful is a commandment and blesses our lives through obedience to it,” said Sister Worthen. “When we express our gratitude to our Heavenly Father for all things, we are humbled as we acknowledge our dependence on Him.

 “And as we acknowledge our dependence on our Heavenly Father and all He does for us, we realize His eternal love for us and His desire for us to have joy in this life.”

President Nelson, she added, has taught that gratitude does not spare one from sorrow, sadness, grief and pain. But gratitude does soothe one’s feelings and provides a greater perspective on the purpose and joy of life.

“Whether we are right in the middle of a global pandemic, experiencing devastating loss and grief, or we are experiencing the joyful moments of life, we must never forget to express gratitude.”

There is much to be grateful for, she concluded.

“Heavenly Father has given us everything. He has given us a Savior who atoned for our sins. He has given us Prophets and Apostles. He has given us the gospel of Jesus Christ. He has given us commandments that bring us blessings and peace. He has given us blessings too numerous for us to count. Why? Because He desires us to return to Him, so that we can ‘be made glorious’ (Doctrine and Covenants 78:19).”