Episode 20: Former editor Gerry Avant shares memories of the Church News as the publication celebrates 90 years

Gerry Avant, the former editor of the Church News, joins the Church News podcast to talk about the 90-year history of the publication and recount her nearly 48 years reporting for this unique living record of the Restoration. 

Avant, who continues to write a Church News column, has spent decades recording the words and travels of the last seven presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, documenting Church growth, temple construction, important announcements and significant events.

From following every Tabernacle Choir tour from 1991 to 2015, to witnessing the Church’s first stake created in Brazil and the first two temple dedications in Africa, to snapping the now-iconic photo of President Gordon B. Hinckley and Sister Marjorie P. Hinckley’s historic visit to China, Avant looks back at her career covering the growth of the Church and shares her testimony strengthened through her unique experiences.   

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Transcription

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question: “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast, and this is what I know now.”

Sarah Jane Weaver: The Church News started on April 4, 1931, and has published weekly since then, becoming a living record of the Restoration for the past 90 years. I am so excited for this Church News podcast, which celebrates the past nine decades of writing about the news of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the ministry of its leaders. Church News stories mark Latter-day Saints anniversaries, such as the 100th anniversary of the Word of Wisdom revelation that was celebrated by members in 1933, or the 200th anniversary of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s birth celebrated in 2005. Articles have recorded important dedications, including the dedication of the Hill Cumorah Monument in 1935, and the dedication of the 21,000-seat Conference Center in the year 2000. 

Today, I am joined by Gerry Avant, former Church News editor, and my mentor and friend to talk about this important history. Gerry, who continues to write a Church News column, has worked for the publication for almost 48 years, recording the words and travels of the last seven presidents of the Church. She has traveled throughout the United States into numerous foreign countries, and she participated in every Tabernacle Choir tour from 1991 to 2015. She was present when the Church’s first stake was created in Manaus, Brazil, when the Church’s first two temples were dedicated in Africa, in South Africa and in Ghana, and when President and Sister Hinckley entered mainland China, and when President and Sister Monson met with the king and queen of Sweden. Welcome, Gerry, to the Church News podcast.

Gerry Avant: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Sarah Jane Weaver: During your career, you have seen remarkable Church growth. Talk about how the Church is different today than when you started in 1972.

2:36

Gerry Avant: That would be hard to put in a little capsule for a brief podcast like this. But some of the things, the technology for one thing, when I started, I mean, there was no thing such as podcast, or online, or Zoom meetings, or conference broadcast. The conferences were held in the Tabernacle, and tickets were extremely dear. People stood in line for hours to get in, and now they can seat over 20,000 people in the Conference Center when the Conference Center is opened again.

Sarah Jane Weaver: We’ve also noted so many Church milestones, some that occurred while you were working for Church News. Some that occurred before then — you know, the Church reached its first million member mark in 1947. It reached the 5 million mark in 1982. So you’d been covering the Church for a decade then. And then the 10 million mark in 1997. And we celebrated 15 million members in 2013.

3:41  

Gerry Avant: And we’re now at, what, 16.5 million members? That is incredible growth. And it’s really hard to imagine. When I started working at Church News, there were many places in the United States that did not even have one stake. My home state of Georgia had one stake in Atlanta. And now there are several stakes in the Atlanta area, as well as a temple. And my little hometown, I grew up in a town that had about 800 people called Uvalda, and my mother and I were the only Latter-day Saints in the entire county. And my home branch was in Hazlehurst. And now the Church has grown a little bit and if I should move back to Georgia, my home ward would be in Vidalia. The members there looked forward to being able to go to a temple, which meant traveling many, many days, before interstate highways, to come to Salt Lake City, that was the nearest temple. And I remember hearing people talk about their experiences of going to the temple. And now as I look around at how many temples there are throughout the world, and most members live within 200 miles of a temple. That is an incredible marker that indicates the growth of the Church. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know I have been working for the Church News for the past 25 years. I remember when I first started, there was a day when the power went out. And I was trying to write a request for a photo assignment on a typewriter and I had never used a typewriter. My family got its first computer when I was in seventh grade. And I had never typed anything on a typewriter to that day and till that day and you did not have much empathy for me.

5:29  

Gerry Avant: I had no empathy. I started my career in 1972, and we wrote our stories on typewriters. And sometimes I sound like a really old bogey, when I say these kids today don’t know how good they have it. You know, you cannot imagine how hard it is to sit down at a typewriter and compose a story. You can’t just go back and move a sentence or move a paragraph. And if you have major rewriting, you have to just retype the whole thing, you know,  just start over. And that was one of the challenges. And I look back at some of those articles, and I wonder, “How did I write that?” And especially when traveling. Before laptop computers would go to an event, you know, travel to another country, go to the event, go to the hotel room, get to the hotel about 10:30, 11:00  at night, and you have to sit down and compose a story. And sometimes it would be writing longhand. And sometimes the hotel would let me borrow a typewriter, even inviting me to go into an office and use the office typewriter. And then this challenge was to get the story back to Salt Lake in time for deadline, and I was writing for The Daily as well as the Church News. And there were many times in a foreign country, I would be in a taxi at midnight, go into an airport to put film and a story in the airport-to-airport post office so it could get to Salt Lake within 24 hours. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: That had to be a little unnerving to be sending film back to an editor that you had not yet reviewed.

7:01 

Gerry Avant: I know. And you couldn’t review it because it was 35 millimeter film. And you never knew if you had the picture, that was one of the stresses of traveling was worrying, “Do I have a cover photo? Is it good? Is it in focus? Are their eyes open?” Because you’re shooting with a 35 millimeter camera, not a digital camera. And so there are many things that could go wrong. And then you worry also about losing a roll of film. And there were times, before the international concerns about security, there were times that I couldn’t go to an airport that if it did not have an airport-to-airport post office, and I would hang around and I would see a pilot: “Are you going to the US?” “Yeah.” “Where?” They would say where they’re going to sit. “Would you mind taking this and putting it in the mail when you get to the States?” I would have an envelope addressed with a stamp on it. And this pilot would say, “Sure, be glad to.” How far we’ve come.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And at the time you started your career, there probably weren’t very many women in the newsroom either. 

8:08

Gerry Avant: No. When I started, there was one woman on City Desk, and that was Maxine Marts, and she was an incredible woman. She was a great rewrite. I started back in the days when reporters would go out on news breaking assignments, and they would literally go to a payphone and dial City Desk, and say, “Take a story.” And Maxine would come on the line, and that reporter would stand there and compose the story in the mind, and Maxine would sit at her office, at her desk and type it and it was an incredible thing to watch.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you not only became sort of a pioneer in the news industry in this market, but you had the opportunity to associate with some really strong women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Can you talk about some of them? 

8:59

Gerry Avant: Well, the first one that comes to mind is Belle Spafford. You know, if there is one woman beyond Eliza Snow who has had a great impact on the Church, it would be Belle Spafford. She was the Relief Society president for nearly 30 years I guess. Not only was she an influence in the Church, but also on the national scene. She was an officer in women’s organizations and highly respected. She was released just a few years after I started work at the Church News. So I didn’t have a long career association with her. But we became friends and after she was released, this friendship lasted until she died. She was released in 1974, I think, she was released in October of 1974. And we had this friendship that lasted until her death in 1982. And I remember one time going to her home and seeing a table set with a nice tablecloth, and the table settings were for one. She had nice china and nice glasses, I guess, I don’t know if they were crystal, but they were nice glasses, and silverware and linen napkins. And she had this table set for one. That just really impressed me. And she had made a comment that said she might be dining alone, but she could do it in style. And sometimes when I’m shoving aside the newspaper or a book on my kitchen table to make a little bit of space to hold my plate, I think about Sister Spafford and her elegantly set table. And another thing that Sister Spafford had a great sense of humor. And she was also direct, she could say what she meant to say without you having any doubt of what she was saying. At one time during our visit, we were talking about growing old, she was talking about her aging years and her work among senior citizens. And I made a comment, and I was 36 at the time. And I said, “You know, I hope when I’m old. I will be known as a sweet little old lady.” And Sister Spafford leaned forward in her chair, and she pointed a finger at me and she said, “If you want to become a sweet little old lady, you’d better start working on it now.” She gave the message that you don’t just grow old and become sweet. It’s a characteristic that you have to develop. And she talks a lot about being prepared. And not just in food storage, but preparing to live and preparing to be happy and preparing to be comfortable to arrange your life so that you could have these things. And she said that people needed to work on maintaining their mental as well as their physical health. And as they grow older, they need to keep in step with the world and the current life about them. And she said that she always tried to stay close to young people, that they had a perspective that would help her understand life and help her sharpen her own point of view.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in addition to working with remarkable women like Sister Spafford, you’ve also had the opportunity to observe the last seven presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You have interviewed President Lee, President Kimball, President Benson, President Hunter, President Hinckley, President Monson and President Nelson, I’m really interested in all of your impressions of all of these really remarkable men who have led the Church and actually ushered in part of this ongoing Restoration.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, middle, with his counselors, President Thomas S. Monson, left, and President James E. Faust, right, in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Mar. 11, 2005.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, middle, with his counselors, President Thomas S. Monson, left, and President James E. Faust, right, in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Mar. 11, 2005. Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News

12:45

Gerry Avant: Yes. And it has been a remarkable experience to have that association because like I said before, coming from a very small town with no Latter-day Saints in the town or the county and to now be associated with prophets is sometimes hard for me to believe. And just to set the stage for this, I want to tell about an experience that I had in Lakeland, Florida in 1980. There was an area conference and I went to the hotel. When I got to my floor, I saw a man walking in the hallway. He was just sort of pacing up and down the hall. And I was in my room for just a few minutes and I came out and he was still walking. And I left the hotel and came back about an hour, maybe an hour and a half later. And the same man was still walking in the hallway. And I made a comment, sort of, “Hey, you’re getting your exercise.” And he said, “I’m walking in the Prophet’s shoes.” And I thought, “What?” And then he said that President Kimball was wearing a new pair of shoes. And when he started out, they felt okay, but by the end of the day, his feet were hurting. And so President Kimball’s secretary, Brother Haycock, asked if there was anybody that could go to a shoe store someplace and get a shoe stretcher, but by that time, everything was closed. And so this man that was a local member, asked what size shoe President Kimball wore. And they told him the size and he says, “Oh, well, I wear a half size larger.” He said, “Let me put President Kimball’s shoes on and I will break them in.” So he had to squeeze his slightly larger feet into the shoes that President Kimball’s smaller feet would go in and so he said that he was going to spend the night wearing those shoes and walking up and down the hall, and he said it was a great honor. And he said, “How many people can say that they walked in the Prophet’s shoes?” And so I thought about that over the years and thought, well, I’ve never walked in the Prophet’s shoes. But I’ve walked in prophets’ footsteps. And I’ve tried to keep pace with them. And it hasn’t been easy, because they set a quick pace. And hours after I feel like I’m wilting on the vine, they are still going strong. And that’s just sort of is a testament to how the Lord lifts and strengthens His prophets.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You were traveling with prophets long before Church security, or the way we have senior Church leaders travel today. You were on the same planes with them, on the same layovers with them, interacting with them in a much more personal way than many members of the Church ever get the opportunity to do.

15:34

Gerry Avant: Yes. And quite often, I rode in the same car with them. And there were times that President Kimball would knock on my hotel room door and invite me to go in and have prayer with him and Sister Kimball. And that was a unique and a very special experience. And one time that I rode in the car with, I was with President and Sister Kimball as they went to Adam-ondi-Ahman in Missouri, and we were all in a van. There was the driver and Brother Haycock, and I think a local stake president and his wife. So there were not many of us. We were driving along. And I was thinking, anticipating going to Adam-ondi-Ahman. I had been there before, but to be there with a prophet, I thought, “Oh, this is an incredible experience.” And as we were driving along, we came across a bus that had stopped alongside the road. And there was a group of people standing in a semicircle. And the stake president said, “Oh, that’s,” he called out the sister’s names, (and) said, “She’s a local tour guide, and she takes Latter-day Saints on tours of historic sites.” And President Kimball said, “Well, let’s stop, I’d like to meet them.” So we got out of our van and walked up behind this group of tourists. They had their backs to us. They were unaware that we were approaching and the tour guide, all of a sudden, the look on her face, just sort of an astonished look. And of course the members of the tour turned to see what she was looking at, and there stood President Kimball in their midst. And so he told them that we were on our way to Adam-ondi-Ahman. And they said they had just come from there. And he says, “Well, if you don’t mind turning around, you’re welcome to come there with us.” And of course, nobody hesitated to get on the bus. They were all very anxious to go. So we had this wonderful experience of going to Adam-ondi-Ahman and had sort of an impromptu devotional where some scriptures were shared. And one of the women in the tour group sang the hymn about Adam-ondi-Ahman. And just a wonderful personal experience.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains this site at the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman in Clay County, Missouri.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints maintains this site at the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman in Clay County, Missouri. Credit: Deseret News Archive

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I remember shortly after I started working at the Church News, you accompanied President Gordon B. Hinckley and Sister Hinckley into mainland China and took a picture that became very iconic of their ministry. Can you talk about that day and those memories? That was a long trip. I think he dedicated the Hong Kong Temple and another temple in Spain and was on several continents.

17:58 

Gerry Avant: Yes. After the dedication in Hong Kong, we went across the border into China, into the city of Shenzhen. And that trip was very special because the officials there, they had a cultural center that they patterned after the cultural center that the Church has in Laie Hawaii. And so President Hinckley was invited there as a dignitary, because the Church had worked so closely with them in developing this cultural center —, at least representatives of the Church from BYU–Hawaii. So we toured all of these cultural villages that were set up to show the different areas of China. And then we were going to a place that they call “Windows on the World.” And we were transported by golf cart-type machine conveyances and I was in one of the last carts and by the time I got out, President Hinckley and Sister Hinckley were already walking toward the steps and the walkway was lined with hundreds of people in costumes representing different parts of China, and also musical groups that were performing. And I thought, “Oh, I could only get in front and go up those steps, that would make a great picture.” And I had to grab my camera bag and run behind everybody to go up, get to the top of the steps, and I got there in time to shoot three frames. And the second picture was the one that worked because President Hinckley looked up just as confetti was shot out of a cannon. And that’s probably the best picture that I’ve ever shot in my life.

President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, visit mainland China in May 1996. He was the first Church president to visit mainland China.
President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, visit mainland China in May 1996. He was the first Church president to visit mainland China. Credit: Gerry Avant, Church News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you ended up winning awards for that picture,

Gerry Avant: Yes, I did.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Besides that moment, tell us some other moments that sort of stand out as highlights of your career.

19:49

Gerry Avant: Well, some of them have nothing really to do with the gospel or preaching the gospel. But one of them that is a great experience that I had was going horseback riding with President Kimball. And this came about just really a great, great little experience. It was after the conference in Lakeland, Florida. And Brother Haycock came to me and said, “Well, they’re going out to the Deseret Ranches, which are owned by the Church. Would you like to go along?” And I said, “Sure.” And so I called the editor that time was Dell Van Orden, because I was supposed to be on a plane that night, and told Dell that I had a chance to go out to the ranch. And Dell says, “Well, yeah, go.” So we went out and there were several people. We went out to the ranch house. And the Dahls were a couple that managed the ranch. And we had supper, which consisted of bread and milk, which was one of President Kimball’s favorite meals. And so I was sitting at the table next to President Kimball and he said, “Are you going to go horseback riding with us tomorrow?” And I thought, “Oh, you know, this is a joke.” Because he had had two hematomas. And there’s no way he was going to get on a horse. And he said, “Yeah, I’m gonna ride.” And so I thought, it’s a joke, but I’ll go along with it. I said, “If you’re going, I’ll go.” So the next morning at breakfast, President Kimball says, “Well, are you ready to go riding?” And I said, “Are you sure you should go riding?” and he looked at me with a very stern expression, and he says, “Don’t you think I know how to ride a horse?” And I said, “I’m sure you know how to ride a horse. But I don’t think you should.” And he says, “Well, I’m going and Camilla, Sister Kimball is going with us.” And so Brother Haycock says, “You may as well go and enjoy it.” So we went down to the stables and there was horse saddles for each one of us. And the horse I was on had this really mean spirit of trying to brush up against the other horses. So I was trying to keep my distance, you know, from them. And so we’d been out maybe half an hour and Sister Kimball decided that she wanted to go back to the ranch house. And so Sister Dahl, who was the ranch manager’s wife, and Brother Haycock went with her to help her. And so we rode on and then after a while, President Kimball turned to Brother Dahl and said, “Maybe you should go see if everything’s okay”. And so that left President Kimball and me alone in this pasture, riding horses, and I was just absolutely stiff with worry. You know, what if the horse stumbles? What if it steps in a hole? And so I kept making comments, you know, like, “President, you know there are rattlesnakes up in this area,” and he says, “Yeah, I know.” And I said, “And there are alligators.” And he says, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, you know, one of them might startle the horse and could cause him to rear up,” and he says, “No, I don’t think so.” So he rode on. I kept making comments, like, “It’s certainly getting hot. Do you think we should go back” “ No, I think we’re okay.” And so then I said, “Well, I wonder how Sister Kimball’s doing,” and he stopped his horse, reined the horse in and then turned around in the saddle and looked at me. And he said, “Do you want me to get off this horse?” And I said, “Oh, I would feel so much better if you did.” And he says, “Well, I’m ready to go back. I’m through riding.” And so we rode back. We got to the stables and Brother Haycock said, “Well, President, did you enjoy your ride?” And he says, “Yes, I did. But you know, if Gerry had been put in charge of activities for today, the most exciting thing would have been a quilting bee. And I doubt she would have let me hold a needle.”

President Spencer W. Kimball, center, with President N. Eldon Tanner, left, and then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks, enjoy a moment together while in Arizona for the 1974 Fiesta Bowl where BYU played Oklahoma State.
President Spencer W. Kimball, center, with President N. Eldon Tanner, left, and then-BYU President Dallin H. Oaks, enjoy a moment together while in Arizona for the 1974 Fiesta Bowl where BYU played Oklahoma State. Credit: Deseret Morning News file photo

Sarah Jane Weaver: I will say this. In the year 2010, I traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia with Gerry. And I learned there what President Kimball had already articulated years earlier, which is, Gerry is typically always right. And on this trip, we had just covered the dedication of the Vancouver British Columbia Temple. And we were driving, and it was raining and we were headed back to the hotel, and Gerry said to me, “You need to slow down, you’re driving too fast for the conditions.” And I ignored her. And then within 30 seconds, I don’t know if you remember this, Gerry, a policeman pulled me over. He came to the window of the car and he said, “You’re driving too fast for the conditions, you need to slow down.”

24:41

Gerry Avant: So I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying I told her so.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Gerry also taught me another important skill, and that that was to parallel park. But she served as my editor for more than 15 years. Most everything that I know about writing and editing I learned under her leadership, and everything I know about travel, I learned under her leadership. She taught me very early to pack light and to be prepared. Of all the places you’ve been, of all the trips you’ve taken, are there some that stand out in your memory today, Gerry?

25:24  

Gerry Avant: Oh, it’s hard to differentiate. That said, I don’t have children. But I imagine that would be like somebody asking me which is your favorite child. But some of them stand out. And we talked about packing light — I went to the anniversary of the Church in Samoa. And we, President Monson, who was then a counselor, and President Faust, (who) was also a counselor in the First Presidency divided up the areas of Samoa to go to for this anniversary. And we went to the island of Savai’i, where they had this little parade, probably, I think, four floats. And they were all decorated with native materials, of leaves and flowers and things that they could make on their own. They had a little band that had come over from the Church College of Samoa to perform for them. And we were there for about eight or nine hours. Each ward, each unit of the Church on the island of Savai’i performed and some of them performed three or four times. So after about eight or nine hours in very hot weather, we were just exhausted. So we started back to the hotel. And as we got there, the regional representative asked President Faust if he would like to go swimming. And President Faust said, “Well, we don’t have any swim trunks,” and they said, “That’s okay, we can get you a lava lava,” which is a rectangular cloth that you wrap around your waist and tie in a knot. And President Faust said he would go, but he wanted a safety pin. So they scrounged up a safety pin for him to pin up his lava lava. So we went swimming. And it was beautiful, moonlit night. It’s just this typical scene that you think of the South Seas island with the palm trees and the full moon. And the water was so clear, you can see your toes and it was wonderful. Well, everything was fine. And we got out of the out of the ocean and went back to the hotel. And we discovered that while we were gone, a hog had rooted up the water line to the hotel, so we had no running water. And for years, President Faust would laugh about that, and talk about how he stood in the shower and Sister Faust used a cup to dip water out of the cistern that was mounted on the wall above the toilet. And she would pour that water over him to wash off the salt from the ocean. And so, I have said many times over the years that I traveled with just carry-on bags. I have made the comment, “I have yet to go to a place in the world where I could not wash my clothes.” So my standard was, wear one outfit and pack two, you can always wash your clothes and have clean clothes. But on the island of Savai’i, I came to a place where I could not wash my clothes. And so that was one of the things. But still, I carried everything. camera bag in one bag and clothes in the other bag. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you’ve certainly seen meetings where you’re in places where there’s lots of members gathered together. And then obviously some of the most remote islands around the world. Talk to me about all the good the Church can do and what you have learned from members, both in big countries and small countries, and in stakes of Zion everywhere, and in the littlest branches.

28:52

Gerry Avant: One of the things that comes to mind is just how kind and compassionate and caring the people are. They are thrilled to see the leaders of the Church, to see the Prophet and the Apostles and their wives. But they’re also thrilled to meet anybody from Salt Lake City, or anybody from the States who is a member of the Church, and just want to take you in and they all want to take you home and feed you. And it’s just been wonderful. I think of the many faces and I wish I knew everybody’s name. I wish I could call them by name. The people that have been so kind over the years, and how thrilled they are to be in the presence of a leader of the Church. And one of the memories that comes out was, we went to, well, to (the) Dominican Republic. We had a meeting in a hotel ballroom, and there were maybe 300 or 400 people in that meeting. And so after the meeting, I went up to my room and put my stuff away. And then I was going back down to get something to eat. And I ran into Arthur Haycock in the lobby. And he says, “Oh, President Kimball is going to come back down. There was a busload of people who missed the meeting. And President Kimball is going to come speak to them.” Well, President Kimball had already gone to bed. But he got up, got dressed and went back down to meet with this little group of Saints that had started out on a bus early that morning. And the bus had broken down two or three times. And these people had saved their money to rent this bus. And some of the men had bought suit jackets. They’d never owned a suit in their lives. But they wanted to be presentable to be in the Prophet’s presence. And they were so disappointed when they got to the hotel and the meeting was over. And this was about maybe 10:30, 11:00 at night that President Kimball came back down. And he met with that busload of Saints so that they would not be disappointed that their trip would not have been in vain. And I thought, “You know, this is going the extra mile.” And when President Kimball said “Lengthen your stride,” he gave the example.

President Spencer W. Kimball attends the 1975 São Paulo Area Conference in São Paulo, Brazil.
President Spencer W. Kimball attends the 1975 São Paulo Area Conference in São Paulo, Brazil. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, that is the thing that has always amazed me as I have observed the ministry of prophets, is this ability for them to minister to thousands or hundreds, and at the same time, minister to the one and lift and strengthen individual members. Certainly I was delighted at the beginning that you noted that one of the signs of the growth of the Church is temples. Certainly temples are exactly that —they bless communities, they bless cities, and yet they also bless individuals. What are some of the most profound temple-related experiences that you’ve had, as you have covered so many temple dedications as the Church started building more temples in the 1980s, early 1990s, you would have been at all of those. You were the editor of the Church News in the year 1999 and 2000, when President Gordon B Hinckley was dedicating temples almost every weekend, and then you’ve continued to observe the construction and growth of temples all the way down to the groundbreaking of 21 temples this year.

32:12  

Gerry Avant: Yeah, it’s an incredible experience. And each one of them has this very special feel to it. When I went to the dedication of the temple in Taipei, Taiwan, I was there the day before the temple dedication was to begin. And I met this woman who was over 70 years old. And at that time, I was just a young 30 something. And I thought, “Oh, this old woman.” And I think now people are sitting looking at me and saying, “Oh, this old woman.” She had come from the States to serve in the temple. Because there were very few people in Taiwan who had ever even been to the temple, let alone who’d had any experience of serving in the temple. And this woman has served many, many years in the temples in the States. And so she wanted to go and help. She did not speak any of the language. But she said, “I can do something, I can point, I can show people.” And so I thought, “Well, that kind of dedication.” And then during the dedication when they sang the Spirit of God and the Hosanna Shout, the anthem, the Hosanna Anthem, I guess is what it’s called. And all of a sudden, I was hearing many different languages, you know, the dialects of Chinese, and then English. And then there were other countries that people had come from, and to hear all these different voices, different words, were being sung together. And I thought, “You know, this unity, this is the gospel for everybody. And this is an incredible experience.” Another temple dedication experience that I had, I think most of us have been in meetings where the person conducting the meeting, recognizes people who are visiting, you know, “We have a member of the stake presidency here,” or “The stake Relief Society president is here,” or “We have a former missionary who’s come home, who’s come back to visit.” And then they go on with their meeting. And then later in the meeting, this person conducting will stand up and say, “Oh, I forgot to acknowledge this other person who is here.” Well, something like that happened at the dedication in Mexico City. President Hinckley was a counselor in the presidency, and he had been speaking for several minutes. And then he paused and he explained not only was the temple filled that day to capacity, but there were people from the other side of the veil who were also in attendance. And he began naming them off. Specifically, he named them individuals who had key roles in the Church in establishing the Church in Mexico, beginning with Brigham Young, who sent the first missionaries to the country. And then he named the names of several of the missionaries and the first mission president. He named the first Mexican who was baptized, and he pronounced the names of several others who had occupied a place in the history of the Church in Mexico. And President Hinckley then proceeded to give the talk that he had prepared now, then there comes this moment where he pauses. He’d been speaking for several minutes, and he paused. And he explained that there was another person from the other side of the veil, whose presence he had failed to acknowledge. And then a very strong voice, but one that was still filled with emotion, and joy, President Hinckley exclaimed, “Welcome, Father Lehi. Oh, how your heart must rejoice.” Well, I was seated on the front row in the Celestial Room. And I wanted to turn around and look in the direction where a late comer might have entered the room. And that moment felt, seemed so real that I felt, surely I could see what Father Lehi looked like. Well, I didn’t see that great Book of Mormon prophet. And I can’t affirm that President Hinckley saw him with his physical eyes. But I have no doubt that the Spirit let President Hinckley know that Father Lehi indeed was present that day in the temple.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow. Well, you were with President Hinckley during other really important temple dedications, including the Nauvoo Temple. This is a temple that so many had sacrificed for in the early days of the Restoration, and that President Hinckley who loved history had efforted to rebuild, and as well at some other pretty historic temple dedications. Is there one more that stands out to you?

View of the Nauvoo Temple.
View of the Nauvoo Temple. Credit: Kenneth Mays

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Gerry Avant: Well, being able to go back to the rededication of the Atlanta Temple, I was there for the groundbreaking of that temple with President Kimball. And that was on that same trip where we went to Puerto Rico and to the Dominican Republic, and then to be able to go back years later to my home state, for the rededication of the temple. And that was a wonderful, wonderful experience, just to be there, and to see how the Church had grown. And then there were those faithful members whose names I remembered, you know, like the local Church history, and to see their descendants, their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, who have grown up to be leaders of the Church in Georgia. And another temple dedication I was at, I was called on to speak, which completely rattled me. I had gone out with the temple presidency, and the matron and the assistant to the matron, and President Faust and others that were going out for the cornerstone laying, and I came back in with them. And I had my camera bag with me. And so I had leaned over to put my bag under a chair. And I heard my name. And I looked up: “Gerry Avant will then speak to us.” And I had no idea when I was supposed to speak. And I sat there and I thought, “What am I going to say?” You know, I’m trying to figure out what to say, and then when am I supposed to say it. And then finally, you know, remember the Twelve that was sitting up at the front of room, nodded and sort of winked at me like, now it’s time to stand for you to get up. And that was quite an experience, to be able to bear your testimony, you know, in a temple dedication, and to be able to talk about the Saints, and it was a dedication in the South. So that made it really special.

Arriving for the rededication of the Atlanta Georgia Temple on May 1 are President Thomas S. Monson, left; Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Walter F. Gonzalez of the Presidency of the Seventy who has supervisory responsibilities in the North America Southeast Area, and Elder M. Keith Giddens, an Area Seventy who served as the local coordinator for the open house, cultural program and rededication of the temple.
Arriving for the rededication of the Atlanta Georgia Temple on May 1 are President Thomas S. Monson, left; Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Walter F. Gonzalez of the Presidency of the Seventy who has supervisory responsibilities in the North America Southeast Area, and Elder M. Keith Giddens, an Area Seventy who served as the local coordinator for the open house, cultural program and rededication of the temple. Credit: Photo by Gerry Avant

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, we are going to have to have you back for the Church News podcast when we celebrate 91 years of the publication, because we’re out of time, but we’re not out of content. But we do have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we give our guests the last word. And so today is as I contemplate nine decades of Church News, I’m personally so grateful for every single editor that came before me who laid the foundation for what we are able to accomplish today. For the growth that we’re experiencing today, for the way we’re able to take the messages of the Church, not just through a printed publication, but through expanded mediums. And we can do that because the people who came before laid a very, very strong foundation. And so, Gerry, I’m grateful for all of your work and sacrifice and time and expertise that allowed us to get to where we are today for Church News. And at the end of that journey, after 48 years of writing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can you tell us what you know now that you didn’t know before you started working for Church News? And then I hope you’ll share your testimony of this work as it continues to roll forth across the globe.

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Gerry Avant: Well, I think I’ve always known, but I can sort of re-emphasize that I know more now than when I started, and I’ve had testimony ever since I’ve been baptized a member of the Church. But that testimony has certainly deepened. And one of the experiences that helped that deepen, very interestingly, did not come with association with any of the general authorities, with the prophets or apostles or any of the other leaders. I had the opportunity to go to the island of Molokai and visit a colony that had been established for the victims of leprosy which has become known as Hansen’s disease. And over the years, many members of the Church had been sent to that colony. And there was a cemetery there that had over 200 graves, I would guess, of Latter-day Saints who had died on that colony. And when I arrived, there were only three Latter-day Saints remaining in the colony. And one of the lessons that stands out, when I think of people going the extra mile, the bishop from the top side of Molokai and two missionaries hiked down the trail in order to preside over the sacrament meeting, and to bless and pass the sacrament, and also to teach a lesson in Sunday school, for those three members, and when requested, to give a blessing. And this went on week after week after week, that Melchizedek Priesthood brethren would come down that trail, and sometimes Relief Society, sisters would come with him. And several times, the Relief Society sisters would go during the week, to have to sort of a special little meeting with the sisters. So this one Sunday, it was the first Sunday in December of that year, and it was a testimony meeting. And we had sung some Christmas songs. And I looked at these two sisters, there were two sisters and one brother that were there, members of the Church. And both of them had met and married men who were also in the colony. And they had children. And those children were taken away from them at birth, they never even held their children. And so we were singing these Christmas songs, and one of them was “Silent Night.” And I looked over at these women and I thought, “You know, we’re singing about silent night, holy night, and we’re talking about a baby being born.” And I thought, “You know, what are they thinking?” I wondered what they thought as they sang about a mother and her baby, a woman who eventually would have to give up her son, would have her son taken from her. And the spirit of that meeting just really came to a highlight during the testimony meeting. And this place had been called a living tomb, people came to that colony to die. Nobody was going to leave it. So during this testimony meeting, Sister Lucy stood up and with a sweetness in her voice, and she very haltingly said, “I know that Heavenly Father loves me, because he has been so good to me.” And that has stuck with me. That testimony, that with all her afflictions, with her hands and her feet being ravaged by this disease, and her eyelids, almost eaten away. And so I think about Sister Lucy and her testimony, and we can know for a certainty that our Heavenly Father loves us, because He has been so good to us. And so I think about the prophets and apostles that have been called to bless our lives. And I think about the inspired leadership that that we’re now receiving from President Nelson, as he counsels us and lifts us up and gives us hope and courage, especially during this time of pandemic and worldwide calamities and things that are going on, that I can actually echo Sister Lucy’s words, that when I think of President Nelson, I remember all the things that Heavenly Father has given us And I remember thinking about Lucy, and I can agree, yes, Heavenly Father loves us because He has been so good to us.

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Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor, Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you’ve learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast, and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others.Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.