Episode 105: Elder S. Gifford Nielsen on the Black 14, feeding the hungry and healing communities, with guest host Sheri Dew
This episode of the Church News podcast highlights charity and healing after 14 Wyoming football players were dismissed from their university team five decades ago
Episode 105: Elder S. Gifford Nielsen on the Black 14, feeding the hungry and healing communities, with guest host Sheri Dew
This episode of the Church News podcast highlights charity and healing after 14 Wyoming football players were dismissed from their university team five decades ago
In 1969, 14 members of the University of Wyoming football team were unfairly dismissed for asking to participate in a peaceful racial protest in a game against Brigham Young University. A half-century later on Sept. 24, 2022, two members of the group, now known as the “Black 14”, ceremoniously lit the Y on the mountain above BYU’s Cougar Stadium. At their side was Elder S. Gifford Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy and former BYU quarterback.
Elder Nielsen joins this episode of The Church News podcast to talk about how the Church has partnered with the Black 14 to heal that community rift while feeding the hungry, his newest assignment as president of the Church’s Africa West Area, and how examples of Christ-like leadership continue to shape his life today. He is joined by fellow BYU alumni Sister Sheri Dew, executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp. and a former member of the Relief Society general presidency, as guest host.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: And so I look back on those experiences as a college quarterback and as a pro quarterback and think, “Why was I so lucky to have those kinds of coaches?” At that time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have LaVell Edwards as a mentor. But he was such a caring individual, unbelievable coach, not really boisterous in everything that he did, but we knew that he loved us. And he really deeply cared about us and he cared about our lives. If you really care about people, you will find that you will get back more from them than you could even possibly imagine. He gave to us life lessons that we really didn’t understand at the time, but it was the guiding principles to help us become what we eventually became.
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.
In 1969, 14 members of the University of Wyoming football team were unfairly kicked off the team for requesting to participate in a peaceful protest for race during a game against Brigham Young University. On Saturday, Sept. 24 of this year, two members of that group ceremoniously lit the “Y” on the mountain above BYU’s Cougars Stadium. The ceremony with John Griffin and Mel Hamilton took place in front of 60,000 fans gathered for the BYU/Wyoming football game. At their side was Elder Gifford S. Nielsen, a General Authority Seventy and a former BYU quarterback.
Elder Nielsen joins this episode of the Church News podcast to talk about the Black 14, donations from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made in their name to feed the hungry and his newest assignment as president of the Church’s Africa West Area. He is joined by guest host Sister Sheri Dew, Executive vice president of Deseret Management Corp. and a former member of the Relief Society general presidency.
Sister Sheri Dew: Elder Gifford Nielsen, welcome.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: It is so nice to be here with the two of you and everybody else who will listen to this.
Sister Sheri Dew: We’re just thrilled to welcome you to the Church News podcast and I’m just kind of thinking that I hit the lottery today. I’m remembering, in a vivid fashion, sitting in the stands at Cougar Stadium. That’s before it was known as LaVell Edwards Stadium, right?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Right, yeah.
Sister Sheri Dew: Back in the old days, as it were, and cheering you on to victory. You are a hero and here you [and I] are in the very same studio and I’m just thrilled to welcome you. Thank you for squeezing us into your schedule.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: It’s my pleasure and I think back of those times together with LaVell. And it’s interesting, because when I was back there with him, he was just a young coach. And we always used to kid that, you know, in fact, we were 0 in 3 as a team, and then he put me in and now he’s got a stadium named after him.
Sister Sheri Dew: So, now we know the reason.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: And he used to say to me, he used to say, “Well, you’re kind of the slowest player I ever had and I made you an All-American, so I had to be a pretty good coach.” So we’ve had this wonderful relationship, but it started right there, Sheri, and it’s interesting that you would bring that up, because at that time, we didn’t really understand and realize that we were being trained for something far greater than what was happening on the field. We wanted to play. We wanted to win. We wanted to excel. But something was happening back then that was preparing us for something far greater than we could even comprehend. So when you bring that up, it’s so enjoyable to go to the games now and look down there and see these athletes and think, “This is only a small part of your life. You’re really being prepared for something far greater than you can even comprehend.” So thank you for helping me reflect on that.
Sister Sheri Dew: We might come back to that in a minute.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Sure.
Sister Sheri Dew: But let’s go back to your football days and maybe even to an incident that happened before then. In 1969, there was a difficult episode that occurred with some football players for the University of Wyoming who went to their coach and wanted to wear black armbands as they played BYU as a kind of protest. And they were summarily dismissed from the team and went on to be known as the Black 14. Will you recount what happened? Now, you weren’t right in the middle of that. You weren’t playing yet.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: No.
Sister Sheri Dew: But you’re very well familiar with what happened. Just recount for our audience what happened.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So, as a young man, and I think I was — would have been in ‘69 — so I was just coming out of junior high school into high school because I’m a Provo High School graduate of 1973. Growing up in Provo, I went to every game. I knew what was happening with the BYU cougars. I couldn’t understand at that time, and I didn’t put a lot of time into understanding the racial issues that our country was facing. I can remember vividly watching John Carlos and Tommie Smith as they ran in the Olympics and then they put their fists up.
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah, so I remember that too.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: With those black gloves on, protesting racial division in our country. And I kept asking my dad, “What’s going on there?” And so I was trying to figure it out a little bit, coming through those years. And then, I can remember, not a lot about Wyoming football, but I can remember that the basketball team went over there and there were Molotov cocktails thrown on the court and the teams had to leave. I’m thinking to myself, “Dad, what’s going on here? Why are they doing that?
Sister Sheri Dew: And why are they so mad at us?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, “why, why is everybody so mad at us?” Because I was in a little cocoon. I was in an athletic cocoon. All I wanted to do was do something with a ball. If it was to throw it, I wanted to throw it. If it was to kick it, I wanted to kick it. If it was to hit it, I wanted to hit it. And I didn’t really understand and realize. Well, you fast forward to the 50th anniversary of the Black 14 and being the president of the North America Central Area, I received a couple of phone calls, saying that the University of Wyoming is going to apologize to 14 Black athletes for removing them from the team, because they wanted to wear black armbands to protest playing against BYU and the racial policies of the Church. And I’m going, “OK, so what are we going to do about it?” And I got word back that the institute kids, our young adults at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, wanted to make their black armbands for their celebration. And the Black 14 players were going, “No, you’re the reason we got kicked off the team. I’ve protested in front of your buildings over here. You’re not going to make our black armbands.” And, “Yeah, we’d like to make the black armbands. What size do you want? And do you want them in really nice black, or what do you want?” So they were just reaching out to them and it kind of melted them.
Sister Sheri Dew: Their reaching out melted them.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Started to melt them, started to break down this barrier and so this is the story I got. So that’s when I jumped in and they said, the leader of the Black 14 was an offensive lineman by the name of Mel Hamilton and he wanted to come to Salt Lake and he wanted to bring his wife, Carey. And I was asked, as [a member of] the area presidency, to host that luncheon. So he comes over, we go to the Joseph Smith Building. He has a tour of all the facilities in the morning, then comes to this luncheon. And I looked at him and I just said, “OK Mel, offensive lineman, you know, quarterbacks really like offensive lineman. What do you need? What do you want to do?” And he said, “I wanted to come and meet you. We need to feed the hungry. There are hungry children all over this country.” I went, “OK, how are you going to do that?” And he said, “Would BYU put their logo on a Black 14 T-shirt?” I said, “Probably not, but let me call.” So I called down to BYU and I got a guy in the licensing department, and I said, “Would we ever put the ‘Y’ logo on a Black 14 T-shirt?” And the guy at BYU said, “Let me check.” And he came back to me about an hour later and he goes, “We will do it and we will provide the T-shirts.”
Sister Sheri Dew: Wow.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: I went, “What?”
Sister Sheri Dew: Wow, that’s fabulous.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So I called Mel back and I said, “Not only will we put that ‘Y’ logo on your T-shirt, but we’ll provide the T-shirts. But if you really want to feed the hungry, how many T-shirts do you have to sell, Mel?” And he goes, “Quite a few.” And I said, “Where are you going to sell them and how are you going to sell them?” And he said, “Well, we’re just going to, just, we will see what happens.” And I’m not a “let’s see what happens” kind of guy. I started to get a vision of this. I’m telling you this story, but I kind of want to set the stage, because it didn’t start there. It started with a prophet of God, Russell M. Nelson, in probably June or maybe July, check the date for me, I don’t know, but it was 2018. When he walked out of the First Presidency offices, arm in arm with Derrick Johnson, the leader of the NAACP; Amos Brown; and Theresa Deer. We never thought we would ever see that.
Sister Sheri Dew: Right.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: But here was a prophet of God, saying “I needed to break down this barrier.” So he did that and it was shortly thereafter.
Sister Sheri Dew: That this started to unfold.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: That this started to unfold. So it was kind of like a miraculous, perfect situation developing. And so, I mean, it just, the story kind of just fell into our laps. And I was just thinking, “Well, what can happen here? What’s the vision of this?” And so that’s when we kind of went to work and said, “Yeah, BYU will provide the T-shirts. We’ll put the logo on the T-shirt. You can sell some T-shirts.” But I went to some of our people at Church headquarters and humanitarian and, and with the Presiding Bishopric and others, and just started asking questions and said, “How can we help this group? I think this would be a very important statement if we could help this group do what they want to do — and that is to feed the hungry.” So I was talking to somebody and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could send an 18-wheeler, full of food, to 14 different cities, where the Black 14 members live?” I called Mel Hamilton on the phone and I said, “OK, so you want some food for the inner city. The Lord has blessed us abundantly with some of our crops with grain, vegetables. We can provide 14 18-wheelers to go to the cities where you live. Would you be there? Would each of the Black 14 members be there to welcome this 18-wheeler? Would you pick the food pantry and it will be in the name of the Black 14 and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He said, “You would do that?” I said, “We will do that, Mel, but you got to be there and the news people will be there and you got to be able to talk to them.”
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Tell them whatever you want. I’m not gonna tell you what to say, but just tell them whatever you want: How you feel seeing one of these big 18-wheelers, roll up, and in your name, each of the name of the Black 14 members, that this food is being donated.” And he just started getting emotional and that’s kind of where it started.
Sister Sheri Dew: Did all of that transpire in 2019? 2019 was the 50th anniversary, right?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah. It was shortly thereafter.
Sister Sheri Dew: OK.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: It was probably 2020 and we were kind of in the middle.
Sister Sheri Dew: Of a pandemic.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, we’re starting to go into this COVID situation and so there were even more people that needed food.
Sister Sheri Dew: Sure.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: More hungry children in neighborhoods and I even went to Mel and said, “You know, we don’t want to just feed these families, these children. There’s got to be accountability. Self-reliance principles are based on accountability. We need to continue to teach. How are we going to perpetuate this? They’re gonna get their food, but then how do they take that nourishment to go bless the lives of other people.” That’s really what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is all about. We teach self-reliance principles. And I said, “I want your group to get together and come back and bring me another proposal. We want to continue this relationship if there is accountability.”
Sister Sheri Dew: So now fast forward, the weekend before October  general conference, some of these leaders came to the BYU-Wyoming football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium and what happened? You were really, alongside BYU. You hosted them there. Tell us what happened and what’s happened since those original food donations?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, so, so this thing has just continued to blossom and it has continued to grow. In fact, their accountability is that the people that were getting food, were now stocking the shelves and they were stocking other food pantries. So it wasn’t just kind of getting a free handout. They had a role to play in this and that was their idea. I just asked him to be accountable and to try to stretch this out and they’re even thinking about more things like getting people involved in JustServe, getting people involved in Pathway education. And so well, first of all, I developed a very close relationship with Mel and Carey Hamilton. It goes beyond just this situation that we’re talking about. This is a very, very close relationship. We have developed a very close relationship with John and Gilda Griffin, who was a wide receiver. John was a wide receiver on that team. And that ‘69 Wyoming team was supposed to be one of the best in the country and it was just decimated, because their coach decided to just dismiss the team.
So when I received a call to go to West Africa and be the area president in West Africa, I called Mel. And I said, “You’re not going to believe this. I have just been assigned to West Africa. I’m leaving you, but you can carry this on.” And he goes, “You can’t go.” I said, “I have to go. The Lord has called me to West Africa, Mel. Can you believe that? After this story, after everything we’ve done, He has called me to go to West Africa.” And I said, “But I want you to know that I looked at the BYU football schedule and BYU is hosting the University of Wyoming and I think the Black 14 need to be here.” So I called down to Tom Holmoe. I said, “Hey, Tom”
Sister Sheri Dew: Athletic director.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: The athletic director at BYU and I said, “Hey, Tom, you know, this could not be a better story for us to somehow engage the Black 14 as we host the University of Wyoming.” And he said, “Let’s go to work on it.” And I said, “But the story has to be told the right way, because this is all about healing. This is all about helping. This is all about nurturing. This is just a, an amazing story that is continuing to progress.” And he said, “Well, let me work on it.” And so, graciously, the timing was perfect for me to go to West Africa and then be able to come back for that weekend and everybody else kind of put this together. And I said to Mel, “I’m coming home and I’m going to be with you and John.” And in the meantime, this is another interesting part of the story, the Communications Department at BYU said, “We want to do a documentary on the Black 14.” I’m going, “OK, has everybody got approval to do this?” “Yeah, we got approval to do it.” And so they decided that they were going to go visit all of these places where the 18-wheelers were going to deliver this food and interview all of the recipients, the Black 14, just do a whole documentary on this. And they invited me to be a part of the documentary and so I got clearance to do it, was able to be a part of it and they were going to have the inauguration two nights or three nights before the Wyoming football game. I’m thinking “Timing, timing, the Lord’s timing through this whole process has been pretty miraculous.”
Sister Sheri Dew: So what did you see happen behind the scenes, things that we wouldn’t have seen in terms of them coming to BYU, some of the aftermath of the 18 wheelers in the different cities? What’s happened behind the scenes and what have you learned from it?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, I learned that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just being led by the Spirit, literally led by the Spirit.
Sister Sheri Dew: Step by step.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Step by step through this whole process. I had no idea until I was with them this weekend, after working with them for about two years, the pain that they went through. When I went down…
Sister Sheri Dew: Meaning when their coach kicked them off the team.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: When their coach kicked them off the team and then I started to think about this, “Well, what would I have done as a 19- to 21-year-old who lived for football and basketball, to have a coach come in and say, ‘Not only are you done playing, you’re out of here?’” How do you even pick up the pieces of that shattered life? And just listening to Mel and to John, this last weekend, I got pretty tender thinking, “What would I have done, because of something that I couldn’t really put my arms around at the time?” Racial tension? They had, here’s another thing I learned — if their coach would have said, “You can’t wear the black armbands,” they would have been OK. They just went to ask him if they could wear the black armbands and the coach dismissed them and then went after them, as they so beautifully said in the question and answer period afterwards, and told him what losers they were. “They’d never amount to anything. They were done with life.” And just went after them for about two hours. And Mel and John said, “We could have revolted, then. We could have gone right after our coach, but then we would have been labeled as ‘just another young Black kid.’ So we just sat there and took it. We just sat there and took it.” And they both said, “And after that we hated football. We couldn’t go to a game.” They tried to pick the pieces up in their lives, tried to move on. “We could not go to a game, because we were so hurt.” And then John said, “But we were determined not to let that incident define our lives and so we wanted to do something. So we came back together and said, ‘Let’s do something.’ And that’s when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stepped in and has taken this cause so much further than we even could envision and we can’t thank you enough for it.”
Sister Sheri Dew: So really, it happened because they tried to take a very painful thing and say, ‘Let’s build on it and do something that will help somebody else.’
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah.
Sister Sheri Dew: And then you picked up the ball, pun intended.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah.
Sister Sheri Dew: And started to say, “How do we run with this ball?” Right, and look what’s happened.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: And I think this is so important, that it wasn’t me. I had the ideas, but then everybody had to come together collectively to make this thing happen. I can remember our director for temporal affairs, Chad Furness, jumped in there, Blaine Maxfield
Sister Sheri Dew: From humanitarian
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Who’s a former offensive lineman
Sister Sheri Dew: At Stanford
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So I’ve got an offensive, I got the center who’s snapping the ball, I’ve got Mel Hamilton, who’s blocking, he’s the right guard and I’ve got John Griffin, who’s the wide receiver out there who thinks he’s always open.
Sister Sheri Dew: So there’s only players on offense. I’m not hearing anything about anybody who’s on defense.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Now you’re starting to get it. Now you’re starting to get it.
Sister Sheri Dew: The offense makes things happen. That’s what you’re telling me.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, the offense makes things happen and we count on the defense to win the game. But the bottom line to all of this is everybody, all the pieces came together and it was just like this miraculous puzzle coming together to paint this just, beautiful picture of what, what it is right now and it’s fascinating. It’s just miraculous to me to think back on every little step that took place in order for us to celebrate last weekend on the field and they couldn’t believe being in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU said, “OK, why don’t we figure out a way to have them come back and make this really, a nice situation?” The students said, “We’re ready with the documentary, so let’s show the documentary and then let’s put Mel and John up there to answer the students’ questions, not Elder Neilsen. Let’s put them up there.
Sister Sheri Dew: The guys that were right in the middle of it.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Right in the middle of it. And that’s when the most compelling answers came out. Where I sat there and listened to it going, “Wow, what would I have done?” You talk about a defining moment in life. “What would I have done if I would have gotten kicked off the team when I was just trying to ask a question?” That this coach was having none of it. He just dismissed them. And there was tremendous division, from what I understand. Mel kept saying, “I don’t want to get political here. I’m not gonna get political. I’m just, I’m just telling you how it was.” And then one of the students asked him, “Well, what, what should we do now?” And he goes, this is Mel Hamilton, he said, “I want to invite everyone listening here, in this Varsity Theater, to go find someone who’s really poor, who’s really poor, and lift them. And then you tell them to go get somebody else and go get somebody else. Let’s go get somebody else and change this world, because this world is a mess.” And I don’t want to, I don’t want to say that’s exactly what Mel said, but the concept was, “Go find somebody that’s really poor and lift them and then let them go find somebody else, go find somebody else and then we’re going to start solving the problems of our world.”
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah, what a powerful message too, for largely young adult age men and women who do want to change the world and they have the energy to change the world and see no reason that they can’t. So I can imagine the impact that that would have had from those who heard Mel Hamilton say that directly to them.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah.
Sister Sheri Dew: Having lived it, really. He’s lived it. And he’s showing them, “We’re trying to change the world.” Basically, take some lemons and turn it into lemonade. That’s pretty trite, but that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Stop focusing on yourself.
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Go help and serve somebody else. And then I thought, “BYU did a really classy thing.” They said, “OK, we’re going to show you about a new area here at BYU to introduce to the world, it’s inclusion. And by the way, ‘Mel, you and John, we want you to light the ‘Y.’”
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: “And we’re gonna go out there and all you have to do, and offensive people, offensive lineman and wide receiver,”they pretty much know what to do. Defensive guys, you’d have to teach them how to flip the switch, but, but they were able to flip that switch. And he goes, “Where’s the ‘Y’?” And I said, “Just back up just a little bit.” We backed up and I said, “Do this, flip the switch to light that ‘Y’ on the mountain.” And that’s pretty cool.
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah that’s very cool.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, and then he said this, it was kind of interesting if you want to know the backstory, both of them said, “We got to get down and be there when Wyoming comes out on the field.” And I said, “OK, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to do this one time. I’m not going to sing ‘Cowboy Joe.’” I don’t like that song, because if you’re singing “Cowboy Joe,” it’s their fight song, that means that Wyoming’s just scored. “I’m not gonna sing it, but I’ll take you down there, because I love you two and I’ll stand there and I’ll help you.” And I thought it was really classy, the head coach and a couple of the other coaches and some of the players came down and shook their hands, and it was just kind of a warm feeling. Just classy. The whole weekend was just, I couldn’t have scripted it any better.
Sister Sheri Dew: I hope for them it was a healing moment, maybe a full circle healing moment to feel like something, treasured, really, had come of a very, very difficult and unfortunate situation.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: It was a miraculous healing process and it culminated in LaVell Edwards Stadium. How appropriate is that?
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: On that field.
Sister Sheri Dew: You know, hard to imagine, I mean, these schedules are made up, how long ago and, and that it would be a game that you could get to, because it was right before general conference, so you were coming home for conference.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Are you trying to be part of the miracle story?
Sister Sheri Dew: Well.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: I mean, just think of everything.
Sister Sheri Dew: I mean, that’s amazing.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Think of everything that was lined up. And I didn’t really need to be here, but being in the center of it and trying to help it perpetuate itself, keep growing and keep working. It was just perfect for me. I just, once again, I come back and I just see miracle after miracle after miracle like the Lord’s hand is in this whole thing. People can say all they want about how everything is happening right now. This was a miraculous story and it’s not stopping. I’ve challenged him. I said, “I’m going back to Africa. I’ve got to go back and fulfill my responsibilities, my assignment. I’m going to, dutifully, but you can keep this thing going.” I’m hoping this is not the end and it’s not the end. They have got a vision.
Sister Sheri Dew: That’s lovely. OK, let’s talk about Africa. You, you’re not a brand new area president. You’ve been an area president at least twice before, if I’m counting. Maybe there is more than twice, but in the Pacific and in Central.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So I was the area president in the North America Central Area and I was a counselor in the Pacific and now I went to Africa as the area president.
Sister Sheri Dew: But you’re now a brand new area president in, in West Africa, so you’ve been there, what, a couple of months.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Isn’t it interesting the way the Lord works?
Sister Sheri Dew: What have you learned already? Yeah, what have you learned already? What have you seen already? What surprised you already?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Well, ya know what’s kind of interesting, my first day, Aug. 1 of 2022, my first day on the job, Amos Brown comes and Derrick Johnson.
Sister Sheri Dew: Yeah, come to Ghana.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: To bring 47 scholarship students, that was kind of a dream of Amos Brown and President Nelson.
Sister Sheri Dew: Right.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: To put together this scholarship so these students could come and see their heritage, see their, whatever they wanted to see in Africa and so they came that very first day. It was pretty interesting that night, my first night on that assignment, I was able to go to the hotel and speak to all the students. To be there with Dr. Brown, who’s a fascinating guy.
Sister Sheri Dew: Marched with Martin Luther King.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, absolutely. And it was kind of interesting, as we were talking, one of my dear friends living in Houston, Texas, was the Reverend Bill Lawson, who also marched with Martin Luther King.
Sister Sheri Dew: Really?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So I started to tie Bill Lawson with Amos Brown and he knows Bill and it was just such a beautiful connection to see his spirit and what he’s trying to do with these scholarship students. So there were 15 of the Church’s scholarship students and 15 of the NAACP scholarship students and then 15 other students. And I’m not sure exactly how they were all selected, but they came. We greeted them and had a remarkable time with them.
Sister Sheri Dew: That’s beautiful. So you’ve had time too, to start to mingle with the Saints in Ghana and probably some of the other countries in that area. That’s a really critical and a fast growing area of the Church. What are you seeing already that’s delighting you, surprising you, maybe concerning you, even? As an area president, what are you dealing with in West Africa?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: So it’s a great question, because my first two months have been absolutely miraculous. And I didn’t realize this, you know, when I got there, we had 10 days of the students from the Amos Brown Scholarship Foundation, the NAACP, then right after that, we had a visiting authority that came in for about seven days and that’s just full on, you just working with the visiting authority, and then right after that, I had the Chief Imam of Ghana, of the Muslim religion reach out and say we’d like to meet with you. Well, actually, it was at the end of that meeting, because I went Elder [S. Mark] Palmer, Mark Palmer, who’s our supervising member of the seven presidents of the [Quorum of the] Seventy. So, we went and met with Sheikh Dr. Osman Nuhu Sharubutu, 103. So we’re sitting there with him and all he’s talking about is education. And he goes, “We need to educate. We need to educate. We need to educate.” And he’s doing it through an interpreter, but he’s just getting so animated at 103. And then we were told, “And you’ve got the answers. Will you help us?” So that developed a very, very close relationship with the chief Imam, 103 years of age. And so we have been working with the Muslim leaders in Ghana and then, just prior to coming here, the king of Accra calls and says, “I want to meet with you.” I go, “OK, who’s the king of Accra?” And I found out that Dr. Tackie Teiko Tsuru II wants to meet. So we take our contingent, there are 15 of us, and we go meet with the king of Accra.
And we go in there, and there’s some pageantry and different things that they do to start the meeting. And then he goes, “I want to speak in English.” And so I go, I’m listening to him. I’ve never met him. I didn’t know why we were there. And he goes, “I’m a righteous king and you’re a new leader and, together, we can make a difference in this community.” And I’m thinking, “OK,” just kind of listening. And he said, “By the way, what are you doing Wednesday?” And I said, “Well, what do you have in mind?” He said, “I’d like you to come back and let’s talk about how we can really make a difference.”
And it was interesting, because his, his main focus was the girl child and education, because when a girl matures, when she’s going through her cycle and she goes to school for three weeks, and then she’s taken out of school for a week, and then she drops out of school, because she can’t keep up. And he goes, “If you take away the girl, then you take away the companion. You take away the mother and then you take away the society. That’s got to stop.” I’m going, “OK, top priority.” And I’m thinking, “You’re very wise.” I’m looking at him and I’m thinking, “You’re wise.” “Can you help?” I said, “Yeah, I think we can help with that. What else?” He said this, and he said this, and he said this, and he goes, “And I think, together, we can really make a difference.” And I’m just looking at him thinking, “Wow, what an experience this is.” I’m thinking of Book of Mormon kings. I’m thinking, “What, what king are you in the Book of Mormon?” This is my thought process. You King Benjamin? King Lamoni?
Sister Sheri Dew: “Who’s he analogous to?” That’s what you’re thinking, right?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, just thinking that. And it was just interesting to just meet with him again and just talk to him about some of the priorities that he’s got. And he feels like, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the answer for what he’s looking for; what he needs. I don’t know if he’s meeting with other religions. I was told he wasn’t, so I don’t know. It is his, his agenda, but we’re always ones that are looking out to love the Lord and love our neighbor. And so one of my main responsibilities here, my main focus, coming back to general conference is to find out how we can help; what we can do to help.
Sister Sheri Dew: It’s an interesting thing, Elder Nielsen, because when you listen to President [Russell M.] Nelson talk about his experience in Eastern Europe, when he was charged by President Ezra Taft Benson with opening all the countries, that at that point, were not open to the preaching of the gospel. He met with lots of stiff resistance. But he started asking in various Eastern Bloc countries, “How can we help? What do you need? What are your needs? How can we help?” So that would be his sincere entree. And again and again, they would come back and say, “Well, we actually need help with this. We need help with helping those who are addicted to alcohol, or we need help with children who don’t have parents, all the kids in orphanages, or we need,” so on. And you see a pattern that has been very effective in a lot of places in the world. And here it is playing out again, in a beautiful, in a beautiful way, because that’s as followers of Christ. That’s what we want to do. Right? We want to help.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah and that’s what’s happening right now. We’re seeing this he, in fact, he said, “What are you doing on Wednesday?” And I went back and saw him on Wednesday and then he goes, “What are you doing on Sunday?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I want you to come and walk the village of Jamestown with me.” And I said, “What’s the village of Jamestown?” He goes, “Well, you’re not going to believe it. We’re just going to walk up and down the streets, you’re going to be next to me, the king, and you can just look on both sides and you’re gonna see these little children and you’re gonna see these families and you’re not going to believe it. It’ll change you.” Walking up and down the streets of Jamestown in Accra, Ghana, I’m a changed man. I thought, “These are all precious children of Heavenly Father, my goodness.” He goes, “They don’t have running water. They don’t have any water here.” I go, “Well, how do they survive?” “They figure out a way to survive. They need water.” I’m thinking, “OK.” And they need teaching. They need education, because if you just look at it right now, it is just tragic. But they get along. They, they figure out a way to live.
Sister Sheri Dew: But it could be so much better.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: It could be so much better. And you, you know, you don’t want to change them. You don’t want to bring in all the Western culture and everything like that, but you can give them some things to help them a little bit and let them continue to help themselves. So that’s kind of where we are right now. And it’s just, once again, it’s miracle, after miracle, after miracle happening, as people are reaching out. I think all over the world, it’s not just in Ghana. I think it’s in so many different ways. And I’m so proud of the Church, and so proud of how, all we’re trying to do is lift people, just bless people and help people. That’s all we want to do. And help them, help themselves, self-reliant principles — try to help them be more self-reliant. If we can do that, we can do what the king said to do, and that was to change, change his neighborhoods, change his.
Sister Sheri Dew: Boy, that’s beautiful.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Yeah, and it’s, it’s happening.
Sister Sheri Dew: Let’s end where we began. You said something, I think really profound at the beginning, when you were talking just ever so briefly about your time as a player under the direction of Coach LaVell Edwards. That when you look back, you didn’t realize everything that was happening, then, that it was, you thought it was for what was on the field then and wanted to win, and wanted to get better, and have a better program, and do the best that you could and so forth. But that what you experienced, then, was for much, much more than what you experienced on the field at BYU. Say a little bit more about that. What was that for and what can we learn from that?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Well, I think life is a learning laboratory. I think we are shaped by the experiences we have. At that time, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have LaVell Edwards as a mentor. But he was such a caring individual, unbelievable coach, not really boisterous in everything that he did, but we knew that he loved us and he really deeply cared about us and he cared about our lives. I don’t think he was thinking, “Well, I care about you, because you’re gonna go on to do this, or you’re gonna go on to do this, or you’re gonna go on to do this,” but, “I care about you as an individual.”
I learned a very important lesson from LaVell Edwards, that if you really care about people, you will find that you will get back more from them than you could even possibly imagine and it works both ways. So I think we gave back to LaVell as a coach, what he was really looking for. He gave to us, life lessons that we really didn’t understand at the time. But it was the guiding principles to help us become what we eventually became or who we would become. And so you know, I was so lucky, because I went from LaVell Edwards to a pro coach by the name of Bum Phillips. I never had a coach named Bum before, but I had a coach named Bum and he was a Texas legend and he was so much like LaVell. Everybody cared about being with Bum Phillips. Everybody wanted to be around him. We would have run through a wall. If he would have said, “Just run through that wall,” we would have run through the wall. Because we know that he cared about us and he was going to put us in position to make plays, right? It’s the same thing that happens in life when you learn those lessons early in life, then you carry those lessons and keep building on those lessons to become what you’re really here to become.
And so I look back on those experiences as a college quarterback and as a pro quarterback and think, “Why was I so lucky to have those kinds of coaches?” Because —
Sister Sheri Dew: Everybody doesn’t get that, not everybody gets that.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Not everybody gets that. And so, then you look at those people that just come into your life at just the right time in your life and it helps shape you and mold you. I feel the same about President Nelson. When you think about President Nelson, wouldn’t you just want to run through the wall for him? Whatever he asked you to do, you’re gonna go do. He’s just such a loving, kind, smart, articulate — more importantly — spiritual, inspired leader. Why would you not want to follow him? I remember, you know, this is kind of personal, but I’ll share it with you. I saw him after I received this call and he just kind of looked me in the eyes and he was just kind of looking at me right in the eyes. And I looked right back at him and he goes, “Giff,” calls us by our first name, very personable. It usually goes like this, “Hey, Giff, how’s Wendy doing?” And I’ll say, “Fine” and I’ll go back to him and say, “Well, President, how’s your Wednesday doing?” And he’ll say, “Fine.” That’s kind of our conversation. It’s kind of a fun little thing and then he just looked at me and he said, “The Lord has a very important call for you and Wendy.” That’s all he said and looked at me and I went, “OK, President.” “OK, I got this.” It’s all he said. And so I go to Africa with that, seared into my heart.
Sister Sheri Dew: And vote of confidence
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: And a vote of confidence
Sister Sheri Dew: Spiritual confidence
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Spiritual confidence. It’s not me. It’s the Lord doing His work through His servants. And it could have been anybody else. But right now I’m in that seat at the Elder [Jörg] Klebingat and Elder [Alfred] Kyungu and our wives. We’ve got a great staff together and miraculous things are happening and are unfolding. As just that little sentence, “The Lord has a very important call for Wendy and you.” “OK, President. I got this. I’ll go. I will probably make a ton of mistakes, but I’m going.” And so far, it’s just been a revelatory experience there and those people are so remarkable. We were told that, but we didn’t really understand it until we got there. Those people are so faithful. The veil is very thin for them. They are deeply spiritual and totally committed. And so we’re just having a really remarkable experience with the people of West Africa. My French is not very good. I can go, “Bonjour.” I can say, “Como ta les vous.” Now I can sing a little song that I, I learned in sixth grade, because my teacher was French like, “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez vous? Dormez vous?” If I ever need to have something to go to and I’m in Côte d’Ivoire, just start singing that. It’s, it’s great. I think I really know French. But it’s the connection of hearts that’s so important and that’s what President Nelson did. He just connected with my heart and said, “Now go do.” “I’ll do it, President. I’m on this.”
Sister Sheri Dew: You’ve shared so many wonderful things. Thank you so much, any parting words?
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: I do have a parting word. You know me well enough that I always have a parting word. We live in miraculous times. This is not normal. The adversary is all around us. There are challenges all around us, but I have never seen such strength in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as I see right now — with leaders, with “can-do” people making things happen, making things work, being put in situations where you can really make a difference. I’ve never seen anything like it. And I think this is the Lord opening His arms to us, as leaders, making sure that we’re in tune and inspired to continue to act on these very special relationships and very special promptings that are coming right now. And I see it time and time again. So, I just feel honored to be part of this work, to know good people, like you, to be able to tell stories about the miraculous things that are happening with the Black 14 or some of the things that are happening in West Africa. It’s not the first time there have been miraculous things happening in West Africa. There have been leaders, and great things happen all the time. This is kind of my adventure in West Africa right now. But I can tell you, it’s not normal. It’s way above normal. This is pretty special, what’s going on. And I just feel humble and grateful to be a part of it. What an honor.
Sister Sheri Dew: Elder Nielsen, thank you so much. You’ve blessed us today. Thank you.
Elder S. Gifford Nielsen: Thank you.
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.