Episode 63: Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks on how connection helped overcome contempt in 2021

With the continuing coronavirus pandemic and rising political tensions, 2021 has been a unique and challenging year during which many overcame contempt by connecting with those of different backgrounds, faiths and attitudes.

Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, a journalist who serves as a stake president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joins this episode of the Church News podcast to discuss the important events of 2021 and how they impacted Latter-day Saints — as well as the nation and the world.

As many struggle with the rollout and acceptance of immunizations, distrust of institutions and skepticism of social media, Wilks reminds listeners that true healing and light come through the gospel of Jesus Christ and affirms that as God’s children seek ways to help, serve and worship together, they will overcome trials with faith and hope for the year ahead.

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Transcript

Doug Wilks: So it’s been a fascinating year. When you look at world events through the eyes of the gospel, it’s fascinating. If you look at it as simply random events that are occurring and we are flailing about not knowing how to respond, it can be incredibly stressful and depressing. We know the source of healing is the Savior. So offering a helping hand to someone suffering through the pandemic, or who has COVID and has lost a loved one. Certainly, the Church has had to be creative, but the basic message of help, service and hope remains.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News and 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. 

2021 was a unique and challenging year which was defined by political tensions, including talk about vaccines and masks, unique alliances between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the NAACP, and temple growth within the Church. 

Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks, a journalist and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joins this episode of the Church News podcast to discuss the important events of 2021 and how they impacted Latter-day Saints as well as the nation. Doug, it’s great to have you with us.

1:37  

Doug Wilks: It’s good to be here, Sarah, thanks. It’s fun to do this each year.

Sarah Jane Weaver: OK, Doug, as we start this podcast, the year 2021 marked a huge change for you professionally, because the Deseret News went from publishing a daily newspaper, to publishing a weekly newspaper. 

1:52  

Doug Wilks: It’s just a delivery system. You know, we publish news every single day on our website deseret.com. Losing the expense of a daily print newspaper is a good thing. It’s painful to the extent that those who are used to having a newspaper delivered to their door and landing on their coffee table and being able to experience it, that has been an adjustment. But there’s more news now than ever. And there’s an opportunity to continue to grow and develop different ways of bringing, not just news, but also light and truth, which is really what we’re talking about today.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and the print Church News is distributed inside the weekly edition of the print Deseret News, but focusing on a digital daily news was also a great blessing to the Church News, and actually set a tone for the coverage of all the events of 2021 for us.

The Church News, a Living Record of the Restoration, is available on TheChurchNews.com and in a weekly print product, above.
The Church News, a Living Record of the Restoration, is available on TheChurchNews.com and in a weekly print product, above. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

2:44  

Doug Wilks: Look, and in some ways it feels like we’re just getting started, right? And to be able to take the Deseret News and Church News around the world is quite a phenomenal thing.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, let’s go back, and why don’t you take us back to how the year started.

2:55  

Doug Wilks: You know, you talk about this unique and challenging year, and we probably said the same thing last year — every year to some extent is unique, isn’t it? But there was great hope as we began 2021. If you recall, the vaccine against COVID-19 had been developed and approvals were underway. So, health care providers were the first to be getting these shots, and first responders. We went through the holiday season and got to January, and that was the mood on Jan. 1, a hope for a better year, a hope that we could get back to some semblance of normal with the vaccination. 

But by Jan. 6, the world had changed again, and that’s when there was the siege on the U.S. Capitol, and the safe transition of power, of vanguard, of American life was at risk. And I remember that week. We had gone from a daily print edition to a weekly print edition, and I think the siege was on a Wednesday. We had to rip everything up and get it quickly done, and our reporter Katie McKellar put the coverage together. But the thing that was most interesting about that — this was also inauguration week for the new governor of Utah, Spencer Cox. And he and Judge Thomas Griffith, and both the governor and Judge Griffiths are both Latter-day Saints, they came together for a fireside during Gov. Cox’s inauguration week, and we asked a simple question playing off of what they talked about, and the question was, “Can we change the siege of contempt?” And in my opinion, that’s really what 2021 has been about: Trying to overcome the contempt that some feel for institutions, whether it’s the government, or media, or between political parties, but there was such an interesting quote that Judge Griffith gave during that fireside chat, and it was, “The Constitution is built for vigorous disagreement,” he said, “But it cannot withstand contempt.” And that’s the problem that has seeped into our system right now, that contempt. So throughout the year, we’ve been trying to overcome contempt and the Church certainly has played a tremendous, a tremendous part in trying to eliminate contempt and bring people together and build bridges.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, what I like is, as that week was unfolding, days before there was the siege on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., there was an interesting event that occurred at the historic Third Baptist Church in San Francisco. They selected “Come, Come, Ye Saints” as their anthem of the morning during their Sunday worship services, and this actually follows a years-long relationship between the NAACP and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and President Russell M. Nelson and the Rev. Amos Brown, who is the pastor at the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. And so it actually counters what you’re talking about, where amid political strife and tension, we can see what happens when people come together, when groups who may not appear to be alike find things that make them alike, that bring them together in unity.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Rev. Amos C. Brown, representing the NAACP, embrace at the announcement of a new partnership between the two organizations during a press conference at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. The partnership will provide $6 million in humanitarian aid over three years to inner cities in the United States, $3 million in scholarship donations over as many years to the United Negro College Fund, and a fellowship to send up to 50 students to Ghana to learn about Black American and African history.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Rev. Amos C. Brown, representing the NAACP, embrace at the announcement of a new partnership between the two organizations during a press conference at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. The partnership will provide $6 million in humanitarian aid over three years to inner cities in the United States, $3 million in scholarship donations over as many years to the United Negro College Fund, and a fellowship to send up to 50 students to Ghana to learn about Black American and African history. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

5:52  

Doug Wilks: There’s no question about that. It’s about building relationships. It’s not just building a transaction where two people come together, they do something one day, and then they go away. These relationships were born with President Nelson and back in, was it Detroit where you went back to the conference. And so now, we start 2021 with this wonderful outpouring of togetherness, and that later played out in the summertime, when the NAACP and the Church announced new partnerships, new initiatives, and came together again.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, you’re right. In July of 2019, President Nelson offered the keynote address at the national NAACP convention, and that was the first time I ever met the Rev. Amos Brown. We were doing a Church News interview with him, and he started to compare and contrast the words to our hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” to the NAACP national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” So he actually spoke of people, both ours and his who had endured challenges, trials and adversity. And then this friendship was born between both of those organizations. And then in June, the Rev. Brown came back to Salt Lake, and he was joined by NAACP President Derek Johnson and President Nelson, of course, and they announced joint education and humanitarian initiatives. And Doug, you’re a stake president in Salt Lake City, and actually had some role in hosting them, right?

Video: Civil rights activist quotes stirring version of ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ and what it symbolizes for the NAACP

7:17  

Doug Wilks: Well, it was fascinating what occurred in June. I received a call and we were told Derek Johnson was going to come and there was going to be a Church announcement. And so, I’m a member of the Salt Lake 14th Ward in the Salt Lake Stake, and Elder [Ronald A.] Rasband, with Elder Jack Gerard, put together a meeting where Derek Johnson, the president of NAACP, was invited to the 14th Ward, because he came into town on a Sunday, he wanted to visit a congregation and not just visit a congregation, he wanted to worship with the Latter-day Saints. And that’s a huge distinction. It’s not, “Well, we’ll just tolerate you and you tolerate us.” It’s like, “No, let’s join arms,” which President Nelson has modeled for us over and over again, “Let’s join arms and worship together.” 

So on that Sunday, on June 13, Derek Johnson and Elder Rasband and Elder [Gerrit W.] Gong was also there, as was Elder Jack Gerard and a few others, and all stood at the pulpit, bearing testimony of the unique things that needed to be done. And I recall, and I actually went back to look at this today that Derek Johnson when Elder Rasband invited him to stand at the pulpit and preach, Derek Johnson said, “Our uniqueness is actually our genius, and I believe the Lord truly wants us to bring all of our geniuses together behind a wall of love, so that we can truly experience His blessing. Thank you for this opportunity to worship with you today.” So it was acknowledgement of something greater, right? It was an acknowledgement of God, that if we kind of get out of our own way, and build a wall of inclusion, that we will be able to accept the blessing and accepting the blessing is sometimes something we’re not really good at all the time.

Elder Jack N. Gerard, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, and Elder Ronald A. Rasband attend the Salt Lake City Utah 14th Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday, June 13, 2021.
Elder Jack N. Gerard, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, NAACP President Derrick Johnson, and Elder Ronald A. Rasband attend the Salt Lake City Utah 14th Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Sunday, June 13, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sarah Jane Weaver: We can think of and talk about the events of 2021, but they ripple in the past and they ripple forward. And the NAACP relationship actually started in 2017 when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland visited the NAACP national offices, and he found that the offices needed repairs. And he returned to Church headquarters and secured funding and organized some young adults in the Jackson Mississippi Stake where those headquarters were located, and put them to work replacing carpets and painting the walls and making electrical and plumbing repairs. So, so much of our relationships have connections someplace before the year that they actually occur.

9:45  

Doug Wilks: And what’s the lesson there? The lesson there is simple service, trying to do an act of good, and what that led to was not only this visit where we have this wonderful outpouring of togetherness, but real tangible things occurred. 3 million in scholarships funded by the Church for Black students, partnerships with the United Negro College Fund, planned trips to look at the heritage of both the Latter-day Saints and of Black Americans, trips to Africa, and this is just the beginning. And it’s because they’re not trying to do a transaction. They’re trying to build a relationship and it’s genuine. If you see Amos Brown and President Nelson together, you see the love that exists between the two men.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And they’re trying to strengthen not just their own people, but all people.

10:34  

Doug Wilks: Well, there’s no question about that. I thoroughly enjoyed that time, and I felt very privileged because the 14th ward is my home ward with my wife, Christiana, and I, to be able to participate and worship together, that Sabbath day was really a wonderful experience.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, another thing that’s sort of marked this unique year, 2021, is temple growth in the church. So, in April general conference, President Russell M. Nelson announced 20 new temples. That brought the total of temples in the church to 251. And then a few weeks later, the first week of May, he announced plans to build another temple in Ephraim, and that is a site which is not too far from Manti, Utah, and that had been in the news quite a bit around here.

11:18  

Doug Wilks: Well, Manti Temple, personally, to me, is a special temple. My brother got married there to a girl from Nephi, and so I’ve kind of followed the dealings there, even though I’m from California, and certainly spent most of my life on the West Coast. To come to that town and see that beautiful temple, it obviously made an impact to me the first time I was in there. There had been much discussion about the murals, as they announced changes and upgrades to help preserve the temple and get it ready for the future, and certainly the millennium. But there are Minerva Teichert murals on the walls. How do you preserve them? How do you go forward? So in order to try and preserve and keep the murals in place, they also wanted to provide more access. And basically, I mean, I didn’t have any privy to this, but they announced a new temple. And there was great excitement in that valley, as people realized what it would mean, that there’d be an opportunity for more temple service, more temple work, and to preserve both the pioneer heritage that was so important to the area, as well as looking ahead to the work that needed to be done.

Manti Utah Temple
Manti Utah Temple Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it was hard to keep the murals and make the temple accessible for those with disabilities, issue widened doorways and put in elevator shafts and such,and so they announced a second temple. I remember President Nelson, in that announcement, said he had been thinking a lot about the stalwart pioneers in that part of the Lord’s vineyard. And now I also love that the new temple in Ephraim will be right next to a college campus. It seems so important that they were focusing on building a temple where college students would have access to it, or young people.

12:57  

Doug Wilks: Well, no question and today, perhaps more than ever, young people need to figure out, you know, how can they serve? How can they succeed in a sometimes difficult landscape, that transition from teenage years to young adulthood to true adulthood. And being able to contemplate within the temple and to serve others who have gone before them, family members, you know, bringing that tie together. I mean, all those are the benefits of the temple and to be able to bring that to more people was truly one of the stories of 2021 for the Church.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And one of my favorite temple stories of 2021 is watching the Salt Lake Temple renovation project. Now, this project is not too far from our offices. I think you can see it right out the window of your office, right?

13:42  

Doug Wilks: Yes, it’s a beautiful view, but I live right downtown, and so we like to say that the temple is kind of the heart of the Salt Lake Stake. The Salt Lake Stake, from 1847, the pioneers came and they worshiped as a stake before, two years later, the wards were established. But we’ve been watching with great anticipation the growth that’s happened in the temple, and changes that are occurring all downtown actually. I mean, it’s probably not enough time to go into them, but with the high rises going up there’s a great vibrancy, great activity going on. And ultimately it will all be centered on the temple and Temple Square and focusing the attention of the world on Jesus Christ.

The process of removing and cataloging stone for repair and restoration from the eastern towers and walls of the temple is viewed from the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City in December 2021.
The process of removing and cataloging stone for repair and restoration from the eastern towers and walls of the temple is viewed from the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City in December 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah. And so at the beginning of 2020, the Church closed the Salt Lake Temple, and it began renovations for seismic upgrades and many, many other things. And we’ve watched the foundation dig down. In October general conference, President Nelson actually talked about that. And he said the Church is sparing no effort to strengthen the foundation of the temple, and he said he wants it to withstand all kinds of forces, forces from natural disasters or anything else. And then he actually told each of us it’s time for us to strengthen our personal spiritual foundation.

14:59  

Doug Wilks: Well, and you can see everything coming at individuals. For example, one of the stories of 2021 has been the reconciliation of the nation with social media, Facebook, Instagram, the different social media platforms that are impacting us. People are trying to weigh, “What is the impact? How is it affecting our children in our youth? What is it taking away from us if we’re spending our time on our phones or computers?” Many, you know, Mark Zuckerberg and others have come before Congress, and that’s continuing. So, if your foundation is found on your phone, or if it’s found in things that are changing so rapidly, you can flail about. What did the scriptures tell us, kind of cast about with the wind, and you don’t want to be in that space. So building a solid foundation on Jesus Christ and the gospel, certainly resonates today with what’s going on in the world.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I think the discussions that we’ve heard this year on social media are so interesting, as well as the research that’s come out that would suggest that, actually, the more time young adults and youth spend on the phone, the more depressed they are. The more time they spend on social media, the less time they’re actually spending in the real world engaging with real people in real things. And so it is interesting that during October general conference, President Nelson stands right by the historic foundation of the Salt Lake Temple. This is the foundation that’s been unearthed by the renovation project, and he actually makes a plea, he says: “My dear brothers and sisters, these are the latter days. If you and I are to withstand the forthcoming perils and pressures, it is imperative that we each have a firm spiritual foundation built upon the rock of our Redeemer Jesus Christ.” And then he asked all of us, “How firm is your foundation?”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tours the Salt Lake Utah Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tours the Salt Lake Utah Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

16:51  

Doug Wilks: Yeah, I feel like we should break into song now. But you know, I had an interesting experience. Elder Rasband spoke at the G20 Interfaith forum in Bologna, Italy in September. And the theme of this conference was “Time to Heal.” And it brought hundreds, I think there was 600-700 people from all over the world, South Africa, everywhere, trying to understand: How do we heal? How do we heal from the pandemic? How do we heal from political unrest? How do we heal from social strife? And Elder Rasband had already expressed good cheer. He’s an optimist. And he says, to have visitors, these heads of state, a patriarch and others who want to visit with the Church and talk about actionable items made him very optimistic because people sought him out to try and say, “What can we do together to try and help the world? How do we heal?” Elder Rasband said many things that were fascinating, but one of the things he said was, and I’ll quote him here: “The great healer is Jesus Christ the Lord. I’m an optimist, and I believe that healing can take place if people will humble themselves and approach God the Father, who was the Father of all of us, and Jesus Christ, His Son.” And then he also recounted during a speech, the extermination order that was made against the Saints, and some of this audience had never heard that before and were pretty horrified that that occurred. But there was an immediate affinity for, “Well, how do we help? What can we do?” Elder Rasband recounted some of the impressions he had while he was there. And he said, talking to us, I asked him a question: “Is it possible for the world to heal?” And he said, “I had an interesting moment today, and it had to do with how I was going to end my talk. I’d been through listening to seven other speakers, and none of them closed in any faith tradition way, in the name of God or anything like that.” Elder Rasband said, “When it came to me, I had a moment of, ‘Do I just say, thank you to this group? Or do I close in the name of Jesus Christ?’ And I remembered who I was, and I thought, ‘The Lord would have me say his name to conclude this message.’ And so I did. And I was the only speaker today that invoked the name of the Lord or even deity, to my knowledge. I felt that it was a very important thing to declare His name, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” So here we’re in a season of peace and pointing attention to He who gives all peace, even Jesus Christ, and that that’s ever present through the messages of the Church, whether it’s in Ephraim, trying to build a new temple, or whether it’s in, you know, a church in San Francisco, where “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” resonates with those who aren’t members of the Church. Peace, healing, hope, optimism, all those themes come through, even in times of great duress, and certainly with a pandemic and everything else happening. There was great duress.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during Freedom of Religion and Belief: Protecting Minorities session from the Palazzo Re Enzo during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna, Italy, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
Elder Ronald A. Rasband, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during Freedom of Religion and Belief: Protecting Minorities session from the Palazzo Re Enzo during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Bologna, Italy, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: With all that was happening this year, I think the G20 Summit is also historic, in that it marked the return of senior Church leaders to international travel. You had many leaders begin to get out again after being confined to Salt Lake City because of the pandemic, and they continued to deliver their message throughout most of 2020 and a good chunk of 2021, and then things began to open up, and Elder Rasband was in Italy in person.

20:12  

Doug Wilks: Right, and I think he was also there when Elder [David A.] Bednar was in Italy serving the Saints. The G20 Interfaith forum, not a lot of people know that that’s been occurring for quite a few years. But it was in Argentina, in Japan, and Elder Bednar spoke remotely, but it was last year in Saudi Arabia. So obviously, no one traveled there during the pandemic. In Bologna, Italy this year, interestingly, Cole Durham, who was a professor for a long time associated with Brigham Young Law School where he still is, he was the main organizer of the event. And the number of people they pulled together was tremendous. A message from the Pope, messages from all over the world and it continues to grow in importance. So, I think as you look into 2022, look for the interfaith forum that will happen, probably in October again, and I think it’s in Indonesia this coming year.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I’m so glad that you mentioned Elder David A. Bednar. He was in Europe on a ministry visit just a few weeks before the G20 Summit, and then not too many weeks after that, he went to the Middle East and visited members and did a lot of work there, and it did mark the beginning of senior leaders getting out.

21:27  

Doug Wilks: You know, the leaders have not shied away from sharing their message and technology has allowed it to happen all over the world every day, but certainly to be able to see Church leaders in person and able to bear their testimony and hear of that has been a tremendous opportunity. I know you were with senior Church leaders in England. Sister Sharon Eubank was in Bologna, but she also, I think, went to Greece to some of the refugee camps. So the leaders have certainly been out there and working and not only spreading the gospel, spreading goodwill, but offering tangible aid and relief in what they’re doing. And they’re also putting money and effort behind getting the world vaccinated, and that’s continued throughout the year and will continue.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Since you brought that up, let’s talk about vaccinations. You know, we started this year with senior Church leaders stepping right into this and getting vaccinated themselves. In January, you had eight senior Church leaders who all received a very early dose of the COVID-19 vaccination. This is when, in Utah, you had to be 70 years or older to get that vaccination. And they not only received the dose themselves, but they issued statements saying, “We want other people to do that.” I remember the First Presidency said, “As appropriate opportunities become available, the Church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens, and help quell this pandemic.” And I loved the image of President Nelson actually rolling up his sleeve and showing everyone the moment when he received that first dose. And then in March, just two months after that first dose, the Church updated the vaccination section of the General Handbook and again encouraged members to safeguard themselves and their children and their communities through vaccinations.

President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
President M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

23:18  

Doug Wilks: It’s certainly by example, and through words, through deed, the Church leaders have told us the importance of vaccinations. One of the important points is that they’ve supported vaccinations for generations. I know there’s a podcast where Richard Turley talked about, historically, the vaccination support from 100 years ago to now that the Church has given. I would certainly encourage listeners to hang up on this podcast where I’m speaking and go listen to Rick Turley, and you, Sarah, because that’s a tremendous, tremendous podcast. 

But these are life-saving vaccines throughout the world. And I’m not here to champion vaccines. I’m here to champion the words of President Nelson and those leaders who are trying to keep the world open for the spread of the gospel. It’s all about an invitation. It’s an invitation to have a vaccination, it’s an invitation to follow the Savior. It’s an invitation to heal, as Elder Rasband spoke of so eloquently in Italy. So, it’s been a fascinating year. When you look at world events through the eyes of the gospel, it’s fascinating. If you look at it as simply random events that are occurring and we are flailing about not knowing how to respond, it can be incredibly stressful and depressing. So offering a helping hand to someone suffering through the pandemic or who has COVID and has lost a loved one, that kind of healing, we know the source of overcoming healing is the Savior, and we’re just trying to do our best, each of us.

Episode 44: Following the recent First Presidency message on masks, immunizations, Richard E. Turley Jr. reflects on the lessons of history

Sarah Jane Weaver: And certainly this topic of masks and immunizations, became a topic that was talked about, both in the nation and outside the nation, and in the state of Utah, and in many of our wards and stakes and branches.

25:05  

Doug Wilks: Well, it continues, right? The current counsel from the Brethren is to be vaccinated and, where necessary, wear a mask if you can’t socially distance. But we want to be in places where we can worship together. People in sacrament meetings can still worship, whether it’s virtually or in person. So the Church has certainly tried to be good global citizens, which they’ve said repeatedly. And I imagine that will continue with the emergence of variants now that are plaguing us to some extent, we’ll need to be good citizens into 2022, as well.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And in August, President Nelson and his counselors in the First Presidency released another statement on masks and vaccines.

25:45  

Doug Wilks: I’m a journalist, Sarah, and in some ways, this is one of the most unique things I do during the year, is to have this kind of conversation, because I’m a journalist, but I’m also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And, you know, I’ve just encouraged everyone to be prayerful about how they can move forward best for themselves and their family. Because I’ve seen it over and over again, the blessing that comes from that. Just a simple prayer, a simple ask for the blessings. And particularly during this season, there’s time to pause and ponder. There was Mary who pondered in her heart all these things, right? And we know in Luke, and it’s time for us to ponder as well.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And what you’re saying is an echo of President Nelson’s October 2021 general conference message. You know, at the close of conference, he pled with members across the globe to counter the lure of the world by making time for the Lord. He said, “If most of the information you get comes from social or other media, your ability to hear the whisperings of the Spirit will be diminished.” So, he was asking us to seek the Lord through daily prayer and gospel study, and to do whatever we need to do to be in a position to receive personal revelation.

President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church, delivers the closing address of the 191st Semiannual General Conference on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3, in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Church, delivers the closing address of the 191st Semiannual General Conference on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 3, in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

27:01  

Doug Wilks: Yeah, certainly, I would have nothing to add to that. That’s the counsel to go forward. You know, I will mention there’s so many events and the significant things that happened this past year. One of the most significant was the change in Afghanistan and the number of refugees that have fled Afghanistan, once the nation determined to pull troops out earlier this year. Many have come to Utah, certainly other states around the nation, and that then becomes an opportunity for service and help and to look beyond ourselves, for people who’ve had to make a choice within minutes to leave and leave their country behind, in some cases, leave family members behind and try to come into an American society, and trying to understand what’s available to them here. So, I would just think that gives us opportunity to look beyond ourselves in our own sort of struggles, to help those who certainly have had to give up almost everything to be here.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You mentioned that I had been in England earlier this year, and in October, I traveled to Great Britain to cover a ministry visit there by President M. Russell Ballard, and two other members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook. But while I was there, in addition to covering and writing about these leaders, I also met some amazing Latter-day Saint women who were working almost every day to help refugees in that country, and so the refugee support around the globe from Latter-day Saints has been remarkable.

28:31  

Doug Wilks: You know, sometimes we think in terms of a missionary mindset, which is, “Oh, I need to help someone see the gospel.” Well, really, all we’re trying to do is worship together, and one thing we do in the Salt Lake Stake is, we invite people to come worship with us. That’s it. That’s the invitation: Come worship, see if you can feel the Spirit, build your own personal faith. That’s what happened with the NAACP. We worship together. That’s what happened in San Francisco, it’s, you find this commonality of looking at something greater than yourself. That’s what I think has really been building peace through the year.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And that’s the invitation that missionaries are extending right now too: Just come and be with us, come and see what we have and enjoy our friendship. It was so remarkable to me that part of this England trip included looking back to the missions of President Ballard and Elder Holland and Elder Cook. All three of them had served missions in England, and they talked about the remarkable impact in their lives that their missions had, the opportunity to testify of Jesus Christ in a way that they had not before. They have one thing that’s unique in common: All three of those men were raised by fathers who were inactive in the Church and somehow found their way to mission service, and then it changed their life, it set them on a path that would ultimately lead to the holy apostleship.

29:55  

Doug Wilks: You know, in Italy, reporter Ted Walsh was there covering that G20 forum. One of the things Tad did, together with photographer, photojournalist Jeffrey Allred, was to be with missionaries in that Bologna Italian Mission. And because of COVID, many of the missionaries had been in other missions, English-speaking missions for many months, but had only just recently arrived in the country. So that the majority of the missionaries in that Italian mission did not speak Italian. So what did they do? The membership began to serve and help the elders and sisters, and one of the programs that they did was to have the elders and sisters come into the homes and teach a “Come, Follow Me” lesson, I believe, in Italian, and then they would, the members would work with the elders and sisters on their Italian. And the bonds that developed from that work were tremendous, because now each was trying to help the other. And you can imagine how difficult that might be to be in the middle of your church mission, but not speak the language. But so many wonderful experiences have occurred because of that kind of approach. So certainly, the Church has had to be creative, but the basic message of help, service and hope remains.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and when we talk about missionaries learning the language, I have a daughter, she was on a reassignment as a full-time missionary in Ohio. And in May of this year, she learned that she was going to go to her original assignment, which was in Brazil. And so she went from home MTC to nine months serving in Ohio, where she didn’t come in contact with too many Portuguese speakers, and then landed in Brazil, where so many kind and generous missionaries in the country and Latter-day Saints in the country helped her learn to speak Portuguese. So it’s not so different than what’s happening in Italy or any other mission in the world right now. 

Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is in the Pembroke College’s McGowin Library in Oxford, England, on Oct 29, 2021.
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is in the Pembroke College’s McGowin Library in Oxford, England, on Oct 29, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When we were in England, we also had a chance to visit Oxford, where Elder Cook testified of the importance of religious freedom. He talked about the Magna Carta and other documents that were precursors to the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and why religious liberty is so important today. Earlier in the year, in July, he had participated in a religious freedom conference at Notre Dame, and so many other leaders of other churches participated in that conference too, and they all came together for one cause. The conference became a time for where leaders from all different religions could come together, and declare that religious freedom is essential to the dignity of human persons. Now, the word essential became more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in 2020, when so many churches were not allowed to worship.

32:49  

Doug Wilks: Well, that, as you know, that entered the halls of justice into the courts where the courts needed to rule about what is essential. And as he tried to determine, it became very clear that the chance to worship and worship together is not only an essential right, but very quickly became an essential need to help strengthen people and care for those who didn’t have people in their lives, particularly. So that was another big story this year in New York, California, and elsewhere, as people tried to understand, “How can I be a good citizen, and not spread COVID-19?” But understand the value of worship, whether that’s through technology, or coming into a sanctuary, doing the precautions that are necessary. And now, we’ve kind of trained ourselves up in that way, we can actually worship together and not spread COVID-19 or the variants. But it just takes diligence to pay attention to those who know a little more than we do, perhaps.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And Elder Cook wasn’t the only one that gave an important address on religious freedom this year. In a historic address offered from the Dome Room of the rotunda of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Dallin H. Oaks actually asked religious leaders and other organizations to come together to seek a peaceful resolution to the painful conflicts between religious freedom and nondiscrimination. So he was talking about finding something that could bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and all of those who seek rights for religious freedom. And that is an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away.

34:30  

Doug Wilks: Well, you’re talking about basic freedoms for all people, from a context of, we are all God’s children. I know in the Salt Lake Stake, we try to counsel together to say, how can we be more welcoming? How can we make the sanctuary a place for all people, even within the different stakes that are in the Salt Lake Valley, or along the Wasatch Front. We meet together to talk about education opportunities, opportunities for growth, homelessness, how do you overcome homelessness? There are places in San Francisco and Seattle and elsewhere in the country where homelessness has become such an issue, and if you talk to leaders in the communities, they are looking for churches to help, they’re looking for people willing to give their time. I’ve said over and over again, the number one thing that is needed to help the homeless population and find solutions is to have a willingness to give up your time. Living in downtown Salt Lake walking outside, immediately confronted by someone who’s homeless or in need. Now, if you’re late for work or a meeting, or you got other plans, and you’re off going, sometimes you say, “No, I don’t have time,” and off you go. But if you’re willing to stop and communicate, and, “What’s your name? Why are you here today? What’s your situation?” You learn so much, and people are so grateful to be respected. But that does take time. So how best to do that, certainly we counsel together to try and find out.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, and I’m so glad you use the word council. This year also marked a historic series that the Church News created. It was by author Sydney Walker, and it was titled “Inside Church Headquarters,” and we talked about the council system of the Church, and took people inside Church headquarters, so they could see how decisions are made within the First Presidency, the council of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. And the idea that came out of that was, we are stronger together than we are individually. That is one way the Lord helps reveal His will to us, is through counseling together.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presidency of the Seventy gather for a meeting at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 11, 2021.
The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the Presidency of the Seventy gather for a meeting at the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

36:30  

Doug Wilks: Right. I’ve heard Church officials say, you know, they don’t often know where that revelation is going to come from. But if people are gathered together, and the Spirit is there, and the Lord is teaching through revelation, that information comes up, and it comes into a ward council or it comes to a stake, or a council of stake presidents that get together and get instruction from the Seventies. And certainly, all under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve, the First Presidency and ultimately, President Nelson. The Church is very well-organized, and there’s no chaos. Our lives might feel chaotic, but the Lord is trying to peel through the chaos to give us some good direction.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And when we talk about the need for religious liberty, the need for people of faith to worship together, one of the things that always seems to come up is this idea that so much humanitarian aid is delivered by those who are a member of a faith community. I was touched that in October, President Nelson and the Church of Jesus Christ, they made a donation to Native Americans in Oklahoma and Kansas. And what they were doing was building a family history center in the first American museum in Oklahoma City, because they wanted them to connect to their roots.

37:44  

Doug Wilks: You know, there’s a lot of news this year about the Native American populations. The Navajo Nation in Utah and Arizona suffered one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19. And it was devastating. But through following procedures by getting vaccinations or a vaccine available for vaccinations, by following the protocols outlined by health officials, they overcame it largely, they were able to get back on the right path and became an example or a light to the rest of the nation. So, sometimes places that have the most difficulty, when you’re obedient to the principles that bring you relief, that relief comes. And that was an important lesson here in the West, but also in Oklahoma to respect those traditions.

A variety of Church, civic and Native American leaders and represented participated in an Oct. 17, 2021, ceremony at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma. The museum accepted a $2 million gift from the Church at the event.
A variety of Church, civic and Native American leaders and represented participated in an Oct. 17, 2021, ceremony at the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma. The museum accepted a $2 million gift from the Church at the event. Credit: Peter Adams

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I loved that the Church was so quick to reach out and help that population that had been hit so hard by the pandemic. 

Doug Wilks: Yeah, no question.

Sarah Jane Weaver: At the close of 2021, the Church did something that I thought was so sweet. They put giving machines in locations across the globe. And it was an opportunity for people not to think about themselves and buy something for themselves, but to think about other people, and the needs of other people.

38:56  

Doug Wilks: Yeah, and if you look at those machines, they’re not branded for the Church or anyone else. It’s simply, “Hey, here’s a chance for you to do good. Here’s the chance for you to teach your children how to do good.” And through this process, over the years, it’s raised millions and millions of dollars. So it’s a very simple thing. It marks the season, and again, focuses our attention away from our own needs into the needs of others, which touches everything we’ve talked about with refugees or others who are in need and hurting, COVID sufferers and the like.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And these giving machines help us look not inward, but outward. You know, there’s giving machines in Las Vegas and Nashville, Tennessee; and Honolulu, Hawaii; and in Orem and Salt Lake in Utah; but also in Oakland, California; in Gilbert, Arizona; and Denver, Colorado; and in New York, right in the heart of Rockefeller Center.

39:51  

Doug Wilks: Right. Some people have been looking for these now for a period of years and when they donated the first year then they say, “I hope this comes back because I want to take my children or grandchildren,” others are discovering them for the first time. But it’s a very simple way, not heavily branded for the Church or otherwise, simply: “Here, you can provide this service or this meal, or this goat, to a family and help them become more self-sufficient.” It’s an easy way to help, and as you said, focus attention away from our own issues, to help others who are suffering more.

Missouri Governor Mike Parson, left, helps tear off the wrapping paper for the Kansas City Giving Machines on November 30, 2021.
Missouri Governor Mike Parson, left, helps tear off the wrapping paper for the Kansas City Giving Machines on November 30, 2021. Credit: Valerie Anderson for Church News

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I love that the theme of the giving machines is “Light the World,” that we can all be a light to the world. It sort of brings us back full circle as we start looking at hope, and we end the year where we actually are turning to hope in a way that’s tangible. And this conversation of all that’s happened in 2021 leads us to our final question of this episode of the podcast. And that is the question that we ask every guest, and that is, “What do you know now?” So Doug, at the end of this year, after writing about the news and events of 2021, what do you know now?

Year in review: See photos and read highlights from 2021

41:01  

Doug Wilks: You know, that’s such an intimidating question. But I think I would say that adversity builds resilience, resilience builds hope, and it teaches us something about who we are as people. We’ve done a lot of soul-searching as a country in America and actually around the world. Why do people do what they do when they know what they know? Why do people have such a different view of institutions? But I think at the end of the day, we’re resilient people, and I’m not just talking about Latter-day Saints, I’m talking about God’s children. The Light of Christ permeates. It survives, it cannot be extinguished. It goes forward, and so that gives me a lot of hope. So I began 2021 with hope. I certainly will begin 2022 with hope, and I just hope that others can feel the same optimism that, certainly, Elder Rasband felt this year, certainly, that the prophet has talked about over and over again. Because life is good. It is fundamentally good, and there are great things ahead, at least from my perspective. You can talk about the media’s pluses and minuses and certainly, we could do hours on that. But the Church, the gospel, life as it is today — it’s good.


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 have 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.