In the campus opening devotional two years ago, BYU President Kevin J Worthen spoke of the need to physically gather.
Citing the Prophet Joseph Smith’s observation that “compact society is absolutely necessary” to educational enterprise, President Worthen declared in 2019, “there is something about physical proximity — about gathering in a compact society — that is essential to … the kind of education that is most important.”
In his opening devotional for fall semester on Tuesday, Sept. 7, President Worthen reflected on his past address and remarked, “Talk about a statement that did not age well.”
Just six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic caused his message of gathering to be replaced with a plea to scatter and socially distance.
While his address on Tuesday might have been an opportunity to confess error, instead President Worthen decided to “double down on the concept of gathering and proximity.”
“While we need to temporarily adjust some features of our educational endeavor until the pandemic abates, it is, in my view, more important than ever that we be with one another during this educational process — that we be part of a community,” President Worthen said.
There is a deep-seated, dual desire, President Worthen explained, for man to associate with others and create communities as well as to be individually unique, free to act independent from external constraints.
Political scientist Robert Putnam wrote about how humans seem to vacillate between wanting to belong and wanting to be left alone.
“This is, in part, a reflection of the fact that, depending on their definition and composition, communities can lead to ends that are either desirable or deplorable,” President Worthen said.
Overly narrow and distorted definitions of community can have devastating effects, while inclusive communities can become powerful forces for improving the human condition.
With that in mind, President Worthen then shared his vision of the kind of community he hopes can be created in coming years, as students and faculty gather together “in this compact society at BYU.”
Referencing the school’s mission statement, President Worthen pointed out that BYU’s ultimate mission is to “assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life.”
Those within the university community have a distinct, educational role to play in that process. “In the community we hope to build, students will be stretched and challenged intellectually in ways that may not always be comfortable — but should always be faith-filled — to help them realize their full potential as children of God,” President Worthen said.
BYU’s mission statement notes that “To succeed in this mission, the university must provide an environment enlightened by living prophets and sustained by those moral virtues which characterize the life and teachings of the Son of God.”
Those within their educational community at BYU are blessed by the guidance of prophets, seers and revelators, President Worthen said. “We must take full advantage of that blessing if we are to create the kind of community we seek.”
One challenge currently faced by the university is that the pendulum in society is swinging in the direction of individualism as opposed to community, President Worthen explained.
“Our sense of community has lessened, and our sense of loneliness and isolation has increased. Despite an increase in the number of people with whom we have contact through social media, our innate need to deeply be connected with others is increasingly unfulfilled. Moreover, those same social media tools increasingly direct us away from any personal contact with those who disagree with, or are different from, us. So, our society becomes increasingly polarized and increasingly angry, and more and more people feel marginalized — even on this campus.”
There is a need to more specifically focus on creating and enhancing a community of belonging “in which all members realize the full blessings that come from gathering together in a vibrant and determined community of learners and lifters,” President Worthen said.
At the Annual University Conference a few weeks ago, President Worthen introduced a Statement of Belonging based on the work of the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging.
During his devotional address, President Worthen pointed out that the statement begins with two key principles that unite. “Any community must ultimately be defined most fundamentally by what its members have in common. If they don’t share anything in common, there can be no community. And on this topic at this university, the two points that most unite us may distinguish and differentiate us from many other universities.”
Quoting the statement, President Worthen said, “We are united by our common primary identity as children of God and our commitment to the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“That common understanding is more powerful than many may appreciate …,” President Worthen said. “Our understanding of our relationship with God and His plan for us enhances not only our confidence and self-worth, but more importantly, our ability and desire to love all with whom we come in contact, as we recognize their infinite worth and potential.”
United by understanding those truths of the gospel, “we strive to create a community of belonging composed of students, faculty and staff whose hearts are knit together in love,” he said, again quoting the statement.
The phrase “hearts knit together in love” is interesting and significant, President Worthen noted.
The heart represents the core of an individual. In a community of belonging, “a portion of this central existential self must be willingly sacrificed to the group in ways that enlarge both our individual and community abilities.”
Knitting, President Worthen explained, is a process where fabric or yarn is used to make a product that consists of many consecutive rows of connected loops. “Thus, knitting involves multiple, reinforcing connections, as the different loops are brought together to create one single product.”
Whereas products that are woven can typically only be stretched along the bias, knitted garments can be stretched in all directions. “We will need that kind of flexibility in our efforts to create a community of belonging because knitting hearts will stretch us in ways that will challenge and test each of us,” President Worthen said.
Just as the loops of a knitted garment will come undone when the yarn is pulled if they are not secured, “if our hearts are not secured to God and His truths and commandments, the entire knitting project may quickly and completely unravel.”
President Worthen then shared three things individuals can do to secure the knitting that has already occurred and to accelerate the pace of the knitting that remains to be done to create a community of belonging in which hearts are united in love.
First, view others first as children of God. “Our initial inclination as fallen individuals is to view those in front of us primarily by their gender, race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, economic class, or other distinguishing features. Those identities can be important from time to time, but all of them are secondary all the time. Our failure to constantly remember that is the cause of many unnecessary wounds — and tears in the knitted product.”
President Worthen said if individuals would view those with whom they disagree through this lens, “it would not only elevate the tone of the discussion, it would also improve the quality of decisions that are made. More importantly, it would change the overall environment and soften hearts in ways that would make them more suitable for knitting.”
Second, think more in terms of “we” and less in terms of “I.” This will take conscious effort, he said. “If we strive to think more in terms of ‘we’ and less in terms of ‘I,’ we might more often take into account how our words and actions impact not only us, but also those around us. We might profitably ask ourselves, ‘Does this action really contribute to the creation of a belonging community or does it simply create more divisiveness?’ The answers to that question will not always be easy. But consideration of that inquiry will help create a belonging environment in which all feel welcomed and loved.”
President Worthen’s third suggestion was to “trust God.”
“Because knitting hearts requires molding into one the individual wills and hearts of each member of a community, it requires abilities beyond that of the most skilled human surgeon. In the end, it is a task that only God can perform,” he said.
Because of the experiences of the followers of Alma, whose hearts were knit together in love, in a place called Mormon, the scriptures record that “the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer” (Mosiah 18:30).
“I hope that because of our efforts to create a community of belonging, we may one day say, the campus of BYU, the mountains of BYU, the buildings of BYU, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer as their hearts were knit together in love,” President Worthen declared.
Sister Peggy Worthen also addressed students and encouraged them to never be afraid to ask for help, especially from the Savior Jesus Christ. “It is my prayer, during this time of uncertainty, that you will not be afraid of the challenges that are inevitable,” she said. “Prepare yourselves by endeavoring to stay on the covenant path. Remember to pray always in order to stay in tune with our Heavenly Father who is mindful of each one of us and wants us to be happy and successful. Also remember that you are not alone in your journey. So be prepared to ask for help — we need Heavenly Father and each other.”