Sarah Jane Weaver: What I learned from President Oaks about the ‘Forgotten Man’

President Dallin H. Oaks said a painting in his office ‘speaks to me and reminds me of things that I need to remember’

During his service as president of Brigham Young University, President Dallin H. Oaks became acquainted with its remarkable collection of art by Maynard Dixon.

Now first counselor in the First Presidency, President Oaks said during a recent interview that one painting in the BYU collection spoke directly to his heart.

It was titled “Forgotten Man.”

The painting depicts a man who’s down on his luck, sitting on a curb, his feet extending into the street. Behind him crowds of people are walking by, paying him no attention.

“And yet,” explained President Oaks, “you see the sun shining on his head. His Heavenly Father knows he’s there. He is forgotten by the passing crowd, but in his struggles, his Heavenly Father knows he’s there.”

As BYU president, he hung the original in his office. Years later, when he left BYU and accepted a position on the Utah Supreme Court, the university had a master’s degree student create an oil-on-canvas copy. It was presented to him as a gift and still hangs in his office in the Church Administration Building. 

“I have been with that painting for close to 40 years, and it speaks to me and reminds me of things that I need to remember,” President Oaks said.

The painting also speaks to my heart. How many times a day do each of us pass by a “forgotten man”? How often do God’s children slip below our notice?

I had the opportunity to observe President Oaks this summer in Rome, Italy, where he offered a keynote address at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit.

President Oaks talks with a man in a white suit.
President Dallin H. Oaks, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks with Notre Dame law school dean G. Marcus Cole during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Not much seemed to fall beneath his notice.

In addition to speaking himself, he took time to listen to other presenters. He also spent time before and after those sessions engaging in conversations with participants. And when he was asked to offer a blessing on the food during a luncheon, he included portions of the Lord’s Prayer in his beautiful heavenly petition — a sweet and powerful acknowledgment of the sponsoring organization and its many members in the room.

For me, the prayer reflected President Oaks’ constant consciousness for those around him, his daily efforts to make sure that no one is “forgotten” in his path.

President Oaks was in Rome to talk about religious liberty. I was touched, however, that during an interview he spoke not only of religious liberty for people of faith, but also for people of no faith. 

“The only way to make progress on religious freedom worldwide is for people who enjoy religious freedom to think about the circumstances of people who are not religious, who are not believers, who haven’t yet seen the importance or can’t enjoy religious freedom in the country where they live,” he said. “We have got to think about religious freedom for all the children of God. And if we don’t, we’re falling short of what our divine Father in Heaven expects us to do.”

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His sentiment was clear. It is not enough for a select few to connect with divinity. In a world where religious liberty is denied to some, all must be able to feel — just as in the painting of the “Forgotten Man” — the Lord’s light.

President Oaks emphasized it again during his keynote address.

From Rome, in what he called “the great cradle of the Christian faith,” he didn’t just advance a singular cause. He called for “a global effort to defend and advance the religious freedom of all the children of God in every nation of the world.”

His talk was a plea for unity and cooperation toward the common goal of religious liberty for all.

It was given in defense of each of us — and every forgotten man.

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