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Episode 168: Recounting significant Latter-day Saint news of 2023 with Deseret News editors Doug Wilks and Hal Boyd

They talk about finding peace and being peacemakers, temple building, the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson and the Church’s promotion of religious liberty

At the conclusion of 2023 — a remarkable year for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsDoug Wilks, Deseret News executive editor, and Hal Boyd, Deseret News editor and executive editor of Deseret Magazine, join the Church News podcast to discuss the news of the Church and how it intersected with national, local and government news this year.

They talk about temple construction, dedications and announcements; the leadership of President Russell M. Nelson; the Church’s promotion of religious liberty; and Latter-day Saint humanitarian work and emergency response efforts. 

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Transcript:

Doug Wilks: What I know now that I didn’t know before truly is that there’s no place for contention. You can have joy in your life without ever winning an argument. It’s just not necessary. Sometimes the Savior preached His gospel. Sometimes He remained silent. Sometimes He walked to another town. It’s just — we don’t have to win all the time. We simply have to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, have empathy and love for everyone. It’s the first and second great commandments, right? So, I think I knew that before the year started, but the fact that there really doesn’t need to be any place for contention. No, there’s no place for contention.

1:01

Sarah Jane Weaver: This is Sarah Jane Weaver, executive editor of the Church News, welcoming you 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.

2023 has been a remarkable year for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Church members saw a hastening of the Lord’s work in temple announcements and construction, missionary milestones, and significant anniversaries and accomplishments in Church history. This episode of the Church News podcast features Doug Wilks, Deseret News executive editor; and Hal Boyd, Deseret News editor and executive editor of Deseret Magazine. We will discuss the news of the Church and how it intersects with national, local and government news in 2023.

Thanks, both of you, for joining the Church News podcast.

1:55

Doug Wilks: It’s good to be with you, Sarah.

Hal Boyd: Thanks for having us.

Related Story
2023 in review: A look back on Church events this year

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m excited to talk about 2023. It was a significant year. We actually started 2023, as Latter-day Saints, with the five-year anniversary of President Russell M. Nelson’s service as Prophet of the Church. This year was significant for him in other ways; he turned 99, and we now have the oldest First Presidency in Church history. I think this is an interesting time to discuss the benefits of age in Church leadership, especially when many in the United States are questioning the age and the capability of U.S. President Joe Biden and whether he should run for a second term.

2:40

Doug Wilks: Well, I think it’s a fascinating topic. First of all, age isn’t really the issue; it’s competency, right? No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s here at the Deseret News as one who’s got a few years under his belt, or if you’re just starting out. For President Nelson, I mean, he started out the year with his New Year’s Day posting on fishing lines. And he talked about these three principles of patience, persistence and prayer. And sometimes — politics or elsewhere — we’re not patient, and we’re not persistent, and certainly not prayerful. So I think that message itself, from that Prophet and from the First Presidency, is really, really important. But age is a topic. It’s a national conversation, and it’s something that will certainly become relevant in the coming year as they seek a new president in the nation.

3:31

Hal Boyd: I sort of separate the political realm a little bit from the spiritual realm. And you see the wisdom within the spiritual realm that comes with a century of experience, a century of spiritual experience, of the ability to transmit that wisdom down through the ages. There’s a quote from a great education philosopher who said, “Education is the way that we transmit the information from one generation to the other.” And President Nelson, I think, atop the Church, with a century’s worth of experience, is providing that spiritual education for the rising generation, for every generation.

I’ve been perusing his new book, “Heart of the Matter,” where he sort of distills these principles of wisdom from a century. And I think we’re also seeing sort of the fruit of that, both in terms of how he’s reacting to the times in which we’re in; these are divided times. There was a poll earlier this year that was released from the Economist and YouGov that reported that 43% of Americans think that civil war is likely within the next 10 years. And in the midst of that, a century’s worth of experience, seeing the ups and downs and the divisiveness of our current era and be able to speak to peace, how to bring about reconciliation.

And I think you’re seeing that in a variety of ways that President Nelson, throughout his ministry, is trying to achieve that, whether it’s in the way we approach political questions, the way we approach demographic differences, whether it’s race or religious interfaith dialogue. And so I think — there’s 99 years — that 100th year that he’s in is truly inspired for these times.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shakes hands with President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, after the Sunday morning session of the 193rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 2, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

5:16

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I love that we have a Prophet in his 100th year. It actually reminds me of a quote from President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1996, when he was on 60 Minutes, and he was being interviewed by Mike Wallace, who actually asked him, you know, “There’s those who say that your church is a gerontocracy.” And he said, “It’s a church run by old men.” And President Hinckley, with his wit and just such quick mind, said, “Isn’t it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment, who isn’t blown by every wind of doctrine?” And then Mr. Wallace said, “Well, it’s great as long as he’s not dotty.” And President Hinckley said, “Thank you for the compliment.”

And so, this year, as we were celebrating not just President Nelson’s 99th birthday, but President Henry B. Eyring turned 90 in May, and President Dallin H. Oaks turned 91. And so we now have, for the first time, an entire First Presidency over the age of 90. The Church News published an essay by President Jeffrey R. Holland, who’s now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And President Holland just said that the activity of the First Presidency is breathtaking and dazzling. And then he went on to talk about everything that’s happened in the Church, from new and renovated temple building to an elevated temple experience.

And we’ll link to that essay. But that just is a nice segue to talk about all that’s happened in temples this year, because for the first time in Church history, three temples were dedicated in the same day, on Sept. 17. And at the end of the year, President Holland rededicated the St. George [Utah] Temple, which sort of brings us full circle, because that was the first temple the Church built after coming west.

7:14

Doug Wilks: You know, I think it’s fascinating to hit again on the wisdom of the leadership of the Church, both men and women. We had the 200th anniversary of the angel Moroni’s first visit to Joseph Smith on Sept. 21. So, President Nelson has been alive for half the length of the beginning of the Restoration. And he’s made the point over and over again, the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ is ongoing, and there is so much yet to be revealed, right? Take your vitamins; it’s going to get very much accelerated.

And from a news standpoint — and you know this as executive editor of the Church News — there are so many temple dedications to cover, it’s almost a challenge for us to get, you know, reporters where they need to be and photographers where they need to be, as well as video to record these significant, important events. And President Nelson knows that we all just take our time, do what we need to do, be patient, be persistent and bring about the work of the Lord in the individual ways that we each can do it. And it is an individual pursuit building on our own individual faith. And our faith grows as we go through that process.

8:25

Hal Boyd: I think about the temples dotting the earth, and it is exciting. As we reflect on sort of news, we often think about inflection points; big events that launch negative things or positive things into the world or change the trajectory of the world in certain ways. And really, temples, for individuals who are building their relationships with God and are making eternal covenants with God, the most newsworthy thing for them is an experience in the temple or a temple coming to them, because it represents that inflection point, or that trajectory, an eternal trajectory, in their lives.

And so I think it’s so exciting. And I know, Sarah, you’ve shared kind of the quote that every single temple is significant. Every single temple deserves coverage because of the magnitude of those inflection — those sort of eternal inflection points that occur in Church members’ lives as they enter the temple and make those eternal covenants and to see them becoming closer and closer to members all across the globe is quite exciting and exhilarating. And yeah, vitamin-worthy.

9:30

Doug Wilks: You know, the St. George temple, you know, I think we each got to go see that temple. I wasn’t at the dedication, but to see President Holland be able to dedicate a temple so meaningful to him and to call upon just the memory and sacrifice of the pioneers, it’s really a remarkable thing, as well as the temples that have gone around the world. In the stake I’m in, we have two young missionaries who are in the Bangkok mission, and to see a temple in Bangkok and to hear from them in their letters — in fact, you know one of them, who’s in your ward, you know, Hal — but just to see the work going forward, just one person at a time.

And we have many faith leaders come into the Deseret News who are also being hosted in town by various people, sometimes the Church, and they want to know what they can do to bring this truth and light to them around the world. And my understanding is that some have come and said, “How do we have a temple in our country? How do we get a temple in our city or town?” because they know the light that it brings and the beauty that exists.

Okinawa Japan Temple in Okinawa on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023.
Okinawa Japan Temple in Okinawa on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

10:32

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, and this year, I had the opportunity to go to McAllen, Texas, for the temple dedication. Now, I had never been to McAllen. I had actually never looked up McAllen on a map before I realized that we were going to dedicate a temple in McAllen. And yet that felt like such a significant, sacred, tender experience. We were just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, the people that were served by that temple were so grateful. I also had the opportunity to cover a temple dedication in Okinawa, Japan. And this was also a significant moment in Church history. This is a place where the United States and Japan had fought very significant battles at the end of World War II, where a lot of lives were lost. And now we have this very, very beautiful symbol of peace in that land.

Those two temples, as well as the others, bring the total number of temples in the Church now that have been dedicated, announced or under construction to 335. And something that’s really remarkable about that is President Nelson has announced 153 of those. So, when we talk about him — and it was at a temple dedication in Concepcion, Chile, where he actually said, “Look, the Restoration is just now unfolding.” And he said, “Buckle your seat belts. Eat your vitamin pills. It’s going to be exciting.” We’re seeing that excitement. He called the Rome temple dedication a hinge point in the history of the Church, because he felt all that was going to come next. And we’re just starting to see that.

12:06

Doug Wilks: Well, and I think he also talked about becoming peacemakers. So, you referenced World War II. That’s, you know, his wisdom. He understands those conflicts. He was alive and very aware. And in fact, he served in the military. So, those places where you bring the peace of God and the message of the Savior, to Okinawa or to other parts of the world where there might be unrest, certainly there’s a temple functioning in Ukraine, and the members go there; they want that refuge, they want the peace, they have faith in God, and you see it tested in times of distress. But the Savior said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), and the Prophet all these years later has talked about becoming peacemakers. And it’s a key part of the doctrine of Jesus Christ, so to see it in the temple is a marvelous thing.

Sammy Arce II receives a hug from Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as he and Sister Harriet Uchtdorf leave after the McAllen Texas Temple dedication on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023.
Sammy Arce II receives a hug from Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as he and Sister Harriet Uchtdorf leave after the McAllen Texas Temple dedication on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

12:54

Sarah Jane Weaver: And the First Presidency also issued a statement in June reaffirming the Church’s stance on political neutrality. You know, Hal, I was interested that you talked about the conflict in the world right now. There’s all sorts of angst as we see a continued polarized society. And in an earlier podcast, Judge Thomas Griffith talked about how Church members are so well suited to be peacemakers because we worship with people that we may not get to choose, that we may not know, that we might be different from, that we might have political views from. And in the process of worshiping together, we also have the opportunity to serve together, and then we learn how much we can love and enjoy being with each other.

Is this something you’ve seen as we hope to build a United States that’s less polarized?

13:45

Hal Boyd: I think any group that’s going to unify has to find a common thread, a common basis of understanding. And within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that most fundamentally goes to that we are children of a loving Heavenly Father, that we have divine potential, that we can become, through Jesus Christ, we can become and return to our heavenly home. And so, this provides this basis of commonality where people can then serve together, they can work together, they can overcome differences — pretty significant differences along any sort of demographic lines — and they can serve together.

I think one of the most powerful things is overcoming differences. There’s a study that was conducted years ago where they brought a bunch of students from very similar backgrounds to a summer camp, and they pitted them in a Team A and sort of Team B environment and sort of riled them up, and they were sort of contentious and rivals. And then, at one point in the experiment, they decided to create sort of a crisis scenario where both teams had to work together to sort of help the camp for the good of the camp. It was actually like a water line, I think, if I’m remembering correctly. And what was remarkable is when these individuals started to work together for the good of the camp, the animosity faded, the rivalry faded, and they were able to sort of accomplish the goal.

15:11

And I think within congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there’s the ability to serve next to each other, that, “Hey, you may come from this part of the town, or you may come from another part of the town, or you may have grown up, you know, somewhere else, or you may have had this background, or you may have worked in this industry or that industry. But right now, we’re together, we’re serving the congregation, we’re serving the community in a united way, and that brings about peace.” And I think President Nelson’s call is that we ought to do more of that, we ought to really model that, we ought to be the exemplars of that in the political realm or in any other realm.

And certainly, we have no corner on wisdom. Others bring many beautiful teachings and practices to bringing about peace. But we of all people ought to strive foremost to model the Prince of Peace, our Savior, Jesus Christ, in all that we do and go about doing. And President Nelson has really just set the tone for that through his messages and, of course, through his examples: work with the NAACP, his extension of temples throughout the earth that bring individual peace and peace within people’s lives, and, of course, his call for dialogue and peacemaking, which has been profound and powerful.

I was especially struck with a post that I came across recently that sort of shared points on how to actually become a peacemaker. There’s sort of six ways to become a peacemaker. And one of them was really profound; I think a lot of people kind of were struck by one in particular, that was, “Don’t argue your point so vociferously that it leads to contention.” And of course, we always want to make our point, we want to do so in a logical manner. Having gone to law school, that’s a vital thing to do if you’re an advocate. But I think it does, if we try to overshadow the other person’s ability to speak, if we try to make our point such that it brings contention, we aren’t following sort of those guidelines to bring about peace.

17:07

Doug Wilks: You know, it’s interesting for Hal and I working together, you know, running the Deseret News; we have to allow for each other’s opinions. How do we move this work forward? And where we embrace gospel principles, we can see it going forward. For example, you need a measure of humility to disagree with someone. And the gospel principle of humility is what works; it works in politics. Gov. Spencer Cox here in Utah, his whole plan is to disagree better. And he began being head of the National Governors Association this summer, and he put that forward. And he said, “You cannot solve any problem — any problem, whether it’s immigration or contention between countries — without learning how to disagree better.”

And that also is true in Congress, where we’ve had some real-life examples of people almost coming to fisticuffs because they’re not disagreeing better. And that all stems from the gospel principles that President Nelson and the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve espoused at the beginning of the year. So it’s really rewarding to see gospel principles at work, and it’s through all layers of society.

18:19

Sarah Jane Weaver: I love that at the beginning of Holy Week in April, President Nelson did a post on social media where he actually encouraged forgiveness, which feels like part of this, you know; sometimes when we disagree, there has to be something to remove this angst. And sometimes, it’s not just disagreement. Things happen in life, and people need repentance and forgiveness. And he encouraged us to do that. Doug, you had the chance to actually travel to Ukraine this year, where you can see a lot of people who are harmed by conflict.

18:57

Doug Wilks: They’re harmed by conflict, but there is an overwhelming spirit of hope and “Please, please don’t forget us. Please support us. We want to succeed. We want to be happy.” It’s mothers and fathers and children. It’s moving gospel principles forward. And that’s in every aspect of life. When people are challenged, they tend to come together. And Ukraine is certainly being challenged right now, and they’re trying to come together.

A lot of the government officials are young; they’re like 39 years old, 40. They’re trying to find a way to move forward. Some of the lessons from World War II, World War I, the lessons that are valuable, are lessons of compassion. Keep in mind, after those conflicts, think what the world had to do to come together, to rebuild Europe after blowing it apart, to have agreements with Japan after dropping an atomic bomb. There is a path forward, but it always centers on the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of happiness for all people. So I would say the trip to Ukraine that I was able to join, it was all about hope. It wasn’t about stamping out your enemy — though clearly, that’s a part of war — but hope was ever present.

President Russell M. Nelson receives the Gandi-King-Mandela Peace Prize from Lawrence Edward Carter Sr. at Morehouse College.
President Russell M. Nelson receives the Gandi-King-Mandela Peace Prize from Lawrence Edward Carter Sr., professor and founding dean of the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel, at the annual Worldhouse Interfaith & Interdenominational Assembly at the Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

20:14

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I’m so glad that we’re talking about peace. President Nelson was also honored this year with the Gandhi-King-Mandela Peace Prize from Morehouse College. And this showed that he is recognized inside and, of course, outside the Church as a peacemaker. He also had an opportunity this year, after having a pioneering career as a heart surgeon, to donate his medical journals to the University of Utah.

And so, let’s shift and talk a little bit about education. I thought that was such a sweet thing that he would do, after his whole career, to say, “I want to leave my records for another generation.”

20:56

Hal Boyd: Well, we talk about, sort of, you know, peace in the sort-of secular world and the political world. But there’s also sort of a piece that President Nelson embodies with regard to science, faith and reason. And this blending of really embracing truth, wherever it be found, but certainly within the medical realm, Dr. Nelson, but also President Nelson, has shown a path forward for, I think, those who seek to understand and pursue scientific truth, including in the medical field.

And there was an article in BYU studies a few years back by a fellow named Austin Robinson, who was a medical student and was doing a residency at Yale, and he wrote about the breakthrough of what occurred when President Nelson was operating on the stake patriarch’s heart. And he figured out a solution in the moment, as he described, a revelatory experience of seeing how to perform a surgery that had never been performed before.

And so, it’s a remarkable thing, from a scientific standpoint, to donate all of these records to the university. But at the same time, there’s spiritual stories in many of those records. And so I think it’s a great example of the harmony that can occur when someone is open to truth, whether it be scientific or religious, and sees that all of this knowledge, all of this truth and light, ultimately derives from God and is received through a loving Heavenly Father who wishes to bestow that wisdom. And so, I think it’s a significant donation, certainly just from a medical standpoint and a scientific standpoint, but also a spiritual one. There are spiritual stories embedded in those medical records.

22:43

Doug Wilks: There’s another really significant piece to that, which is he is a living example of someone who learns a lesson and embraces a lesson. Hal referenced “Heart of the Matter,” but some of his other writings and works, he has repeatedly spoken of, as you said, how being in the moment seemed the right, correct way to correct something. And then he doesn’t deviate from that path. Once learned, he says, “Do it; do it the exact same way, and it will never fail.” He speaks to that in terms of the principles of light. And Elder [Dieter F.] Uchtdorf, of course, talks about flight often, but those principles are the same, or, as they say, we would never get on an airplane.

So there’s a lesson in the gospel. And in fact, Sarah, you and I have talked about this. You learn a lesson and you can put off a sin or a challenge, and then you can tell yourself, “Be done with it,” right? Just be done with it and move on to the next thing. And he has spent his lifetime putting off anything that was negative and embracing the light. And it’s carried him all the way through for these 99 years. It’s hard to imagine a better human being, quite frankly. We don’t deify the prophet of God, because he is a servant, clearly a servant, and he labored anonymously, year after year after year, doing these remarkable things. But I’m so grateful that he’s the example to do that, because it allows us, I mean, who among us can complain about anything when someone is working so hard on behalf of the Lord in his 100th year?

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson blow a kiss to attendees of the 193rd Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 1, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

24:19

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I had the opportunity to interview him before his 95th birthday. And I remember so clearly, he said, “I do not really spend much time looking back.” He is a forward-thinking leader, and he said, “I did the best in every period of my life, and then I look forward.” And that interview took place in Brasilia, Brazil, And just a few days earlier, he’d been in Uruguay, and a little boy had asked him, “Well, don’t you feel bad that you had to walk away from your medical career to do what you’re doing now?” And President Nelson said, “I walked through the door and closed it behind me.” He is a forward-thinking, looking forward to the next opportunity.

And we think about the impact he’s had on young adults, and it’s been remarkable. I have three children — they’re all college age — and they look forward to hearing and reading everything he writes or posts, or every talk he gives. We started 2023 with a remarkable address from President Holland and his late wife, Sister Patricia Holland, in St. George. They were offering a worldwide devotional to young adults, and they asked all of them to look to a future filled with hope.

And so, I want to talk about these young people who are now actually going on missions in numbers that we have not seen before. At a time when society talks about young people not wanting to be religious or walking away from religion, that is not the trend that we’re seeing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church announced 36 new missions to open in 2024 to accommodate the rising number of missionaries this year. And right now, we have more than 72,000 missionaries. So, as of July 2024, we’ll have 450 missions, and that’s the highest number in Church history.

26:16

Hal Boyd: Yeah, I just experienced it in my own family. I have a nephew who just left, and then I’ve got a niece who’s on the way and putting in her papers. And it’s fun to see. I’ll reference some research that was done by a BYU professor named Justin Dyer, looking at essentially surveys of individuals who are in their senior year in high school in different generations. So it goes back to even sort of the 1960s and the ’80s and today. And what was surprising, you do see a diminishment of how important religion is to these individuals over time. But when you isolate Latter-day Saints in the survey data, what you find is today, there’s actually more self-professed faith, or their religion, their faith is more important to them today than it was in prior generations. So, if you look at these high school seniors and these different generations today, you actually see that they’ll say that their faith or belief in God is more important to them.

And so, this is quite significant because, yeah, the trend lines are pretty dramatic in the other direction in many, many traditions and faith writ large. And so this brings hope. It’s certainly always a challenge to discipleship. And following the path of Jesus Christ has never been an easy thing. It has never been an easy road. It certainly was not for our Lord and Savior. But it is heartening to see that despite maybe secular headwinds in society, or other challenges, whether they be political or unrest that we’ve talked about, that you see young people today embracing that challenge and walking the path, following the Savior’s example and committing to go serve the Lord for a period of their young lives and proselytize and serve in various capacities, but also just being able to stand as a light in the midst of times that may seem increasingly dark.

Sister Alice Tshinemu and Sister Ingrid Bergman do missionary work in London, England.
Sister Alice Tshinemu and Sister Ingrid Bergman do missionary work in London, England, on Saturday, July 8, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

28:13 

Doug Wilks: Sometimes you’ll hear a narrative that young people are leaving the Church or they’re leaving the Church in droves. And it’s just not true. It’s not true at all. Clearly, the society is secular. But with every generation, the generation of people are seeking something. And when you can touch the light, you embrace the light. I mean, you go back to, you know, the 1800s, and people are trying to carve out an existence in a new country or going west. Or you go to the 1960s, and you have, you know, the emergence of a counterculture, or in the ’70s, a bohemian culture, where people are seeking. And sometimes that becomes so loud of conflicting messages that you can’t find the truth.

So, one of the things that we really want to do at the Deseret News and Deseret Magazine is to put forth truth. One of the differences between the Deseret News and every other media company is we profess to know the source of the truth, and that is Jesus Christ. And when I stand up before a crowd of journalists, you don’t hear that very often. Luckily, I’m old enough in my career that I feel very comfortable stating that, because it’s an amazing advantage. It is not a disadvantage.

We are trying to bring to the world our time-tested, gospel-centered principles about truth, humility, kindness, empathy. You cannot be a great journalist without empathy for those you are covering. And that’s why it’s so exciting to work with you, Sarah, and to work with Hal and to try and do just a little better today than we did yesterday. And a little better the day after tomorrow than we will do tomorrow. So, that’s the quest.

29:56

Sarah Jane Weaver: And as we think about missionary work, in June of this year at the Seminar for New Mission Leaders, the Church announced the second edition of “Preach My Gospel.” And the focus of this edition is on discipleship. It reflects a great trust the Church has in young people proclaiming this message that we’re talking about, and in their ability to do it in their own words and in their own way and with their own testimonies.

And, you know, we’ve also had a year where the Church has proclaimed over and over again the importance of our ability to share the gospel across the globe. And so, President Camille Johnson participated on a panel with global faith leaders at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit. And President Oaks, early in the year, addressed the Church’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act and talked so much about the need for protections for religious expression.

Hal, you’ve done a lot of this, been to a lot of seminars. What do you think is so significant about the Church’s push for religious liberty?

Sister Kristen Oaks, smiles over at her husband President Dallin H. Oaks as they speak to young adults of the church during a Worldwide Devotional from the Conference Center Theater in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 21, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

31:03

Hal Boyd: Well, to hearken back to what President Nelson is doing with regard to peacemaking, the message that he’s putting out and emphasizing with regard to peacemaking, I think there’s perhaps no better example of what that looks like than what the Church did with regard to the Respect for Marriage Act. Certainly, the Church has concerns about religious freedom and the importance of the ability of individuals to be able to live out their religious convictions — not just privately, not to just be able to pray in their home, but to live that out, to be able to express that in the public sphere, to be able to let that bleed out into what they do as individuals, whether they’re doctors or attorneys or school teachers or janitors or politicians, that they’re able to fully practice their faith in an authentic and organic and fulsome way.

But the Church, I think, recognizes that when it comes to contested issues, as President Oaks has taught, that we should seek to moderate and unify. And so the Respect for Marriage Act, I think, represents a full-fledged commitment to religious freedom and upholding the ability to practice one’s convictions while also respecting others who may disagree.

32:24

Doug Wilks: So, bringing forward that kind of message is what we’re trying to do. So, people ask me all the time, “Well, what’s the difference between the Deseret News and the Church? Or is there any difference?” And the Church’s role is to invite people to accept Jesus Christ, to look at the message of the gospel, embrace it, with an opportunity to participate in the saving ordinances that are so crucial to the Restoration.

The Deseret News is trying to make people the best people they can be, whatever faith they happen to be. And we embrace that mission by promoting truth. And one of the true principles is our principles of the First Amendment, right? A God-inspired constitution, you know? The right to gather, the right to speak freely, the right to religious worship and to have that opportunity, and the right to a free press. So, you can find the gospel everywhere if you look for it in both positive ways, but sadly, also in negative ways when it’s ignored.

33:23

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I want to shift a little and talk about things that happened this year that were hard for all of us, and it’s because we saw the gospel reflected in the lives of some very, very remarkable people who we had to say goodbye to. In January, Sister Mary Crandall Hales, the wife of the late Elder Robert D. Hales, passed away. In July, Sister Patricia Terry Holland died. And in October, Sister Kathleen Johnson Eyring, the wife of President Henry B. Eyring, died.

We also lost President M. Russell Ballard, who was someone that had touched all of our lives so deeply. Do each of you have a memory of President Ballard that you want to share?

34:08

Hal Boyd: Yeah. I mean, this is — it’s Christmastime. And I remember — this is probably going back a few years, but I took my son to go see “Elf” in the Eccles Theater, downtown Salt Lake City. And we’re just, you know, getting prepared to enjoy the show and kind of getting into our seats. And it’s a sweet memory that just sticks out, is President Ballard was in the front of the theater, and his wife, at the time, wasn’t able to fully walk; she was in a wheelchair.

And just watching him — you know, no one was really paying attention — just care for his wife, push her all the way to the front then down the aisle to the seat, help her get out of the wheelchair, help her into the seat. You know, no one was noticing. There was no fanfare. It was just seeing this sweet relationship and this devoted disciple of Jesus Christ caring for his beloved wife in their later years and taking in a nice musical with Buddy the Elf.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, waves during a special stake conference of the Hamilton Ontario Stake, April 23, 2023.
President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, greets parishioners during a special stake conference of the Hamilton Ontario Stake, April 23, 2023. | Nick Lachance, for the Deseret News

35:13

Doug Wilks: I’ve got memories of all of them, in one capacity or another. Let me just hit a couple. One, with President Ballard, I was at a church meeting, and we were told to be there 30 minutes early, and we tried to be obedient, and most were obedient, sitting down there. He came in 20 minutes early, looked around and said, “Well, are we all here?” And people said, “Yeah, I think so.” He said, “OK, let’s get started.” So, you know when you’re going to meet with those Brethren whose time is so precious, you’d better be on time, and, you know, you’re going to start 20 minutes early. That was my President Ballard memory.

With Sister Mary Crandall Hales, Brother Hales grew up on Long Island. It’s well known that he was a really great baseball player and a business executive. And I think about that; my family was from Long Island, and my mother and father knew him and kind of grew up with him. The Church was still kind of in its infancy back then in the, you know, late ’40s, early ’50s, when they were back there, and he was coming of age. And his constant service, even as he rose through the ranks, you know, becoming an executive, the head of a company in Europe, just over and over and over again. And then when he was called, I remember he said in a leadership meeting once, turning to his wife, and said, “Well, are you ready to spend the rest of your life in Salt Lake City?” And he and his wife picked up, and they came, and they served, and he was in ill health for a while.

And finally, Sister Patricia Holland, my Sister Holland memory, was when I was working for the Daily Universe as, you know, just a cub reporter in college trying to do a story. Elder Holland became the president of BYU, and Sister Holland was there. And that’s back when the president’s house was on campus, if you remember that, and so I went over there, and I interviewed her about coming to the school and, you know, what it meant for her to be there. And I remember looking at that article years later, you know, going, “Boy, I hope no one ever reads that article,” because I wasn’t a very experienced reporter. But it was lovely to sit down in a sunroom with her at that point. And what would that have been, 45 years ago, having that conversation, and that’s a cherished memory for me.

37:18

Hal Boyd: I love the story of Sister Hales where you’re speaking about the business career of Elder Hales and how he sort of rose up in the ranks. He was the CEO of Gillette. And at one point, I think, he wanted to sort of demonstrate his ability to provide and suggested purchasing this beautiful coat for Sister Hales. And it was either a birthday present or a Christmas present. And she said, “We can’t afford that.” Now, I would venture to guess they maybe could have afforded that, given his position. But her, just, humility and frugality and ability to think about what is most important to sort of resist the, you know, maybe temptation of material accouterments, to think about the higher things in life. And so, that’s what I always remember with Sister Hales.

And then Sister Holland, I wrote a little piece about her and some of the memories I have of her. But one I didn’t include that I thought was particularly funny was — it was actually after I wrote the piece with my wife, who, we got to know her a little bit. And someone came up to my wife after who was in Sister Holland’s ward and remembered giving a talk, or actually it was a Relief Society lesson, when she was talking about the pioneers and how she felt just so sad that, you know, her small problems paled in comparison to the pioneers and how it was a real tragedy that she would complain about these small things in life when the pioneers had to go through so much and so many trials and so many difficulties. And so she said, “Here I am, you know, just creating a green smoothie in the morning and having this nutritious, you know, life and being in this warm house, and what can I do to really live up to the legacy of the pioneers?”

And Sister Holland raised her hand and said to this sister, and said, “You’re right, you know; the pioneers did so much. But one thing you have to remember is they didn’t have to eat green smoothies.” And it captured, I think, the spirit of how she was able to, you know, help people feel that what they were contributing was important and mattered and that we have our own difficulties and trials and we ought to reflect on those while still honoring, of course, the incredible legacy of the pioneers, even though they didn’t have to eat green smoothies.

39:44

Doug Wilks: Well, they all had different lives, very different lives. But what did they have in common? Each, in their own way, they consecrated their lives. They did what they could for their families. They did what they could for each other. And then they said, “OK, Lord, what would you like me to do?” And not every day was glorious, I’m sure. I’m sure there were many days of sacrifice and difficulty. And they were open about some of those struggles and, you know, not having time they wished they had for a child, and so then trying to overcome the challenge and have time for the child. So, really, really marvelous people that deserve to be honored during the past year.

Funeral services are held for President M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

40:19

Hal Boyd: I would also just reflect on Sister Eyring and the impact she had on all of her children. And particularly, I’ve had some interactions with her sons, and the deep love that each one of those sons has for their mother and the example she’s set in very specific ways. You can just tell, you know; it reminds me of, you know, the stripling warriors, right? It was their mothers; they knew — they had faith — they knew the foundation of their salvation because of the righteousness of their mothers. And you see that influence in all the good that the Eyring children are doing in their lives. And I think it’s a reflection, a testament, to all that Sister Eyring instilled.

41:05 

Doug Wilks: Well, for the whole family, the youngest daughter, and I just think about Sister Eyring, when they were living this amazing life in Palo Alto, California, or Atherton at Stanford University and asked to go to Rexburg, Idaho, to some, you know, in that world, unknown university or unknown college to try and do something. And if you haven’t read that book, “I Will Lead You Along,” that’s a family story. It’s not just President Eyring’s story, but “I Will Lead You Along” is just fantastic.

41:35

Hal Boyd: Well, and it was her prompting to say, “You know what? I think there’s another role for you, another role within the Church, within the Lord’s kingdom, to serve.” And that prompted, I believe, President Eyring to have a conversation with Elder [Neal A.] Maxwell, who was the commissioner of Church Education. So, again, an incredibly inspired woman who had an immense influence not only within her family, but throughout the Church.

42:00

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I remember being in Laie, Hawaii, with the Eyrings. And it had been a very long day, and we were at the Polynesian Cultural Center. And it’s interesting; sometimes as a journalist, you’re in a crowd of a zillion people, yet you can still feel alone, because you’re not part of things; you’re just sort of observing what’s going on. And I remember having a moment where I thought, “Wow, this day is long and hard, and I still have to write a story.” And I looked up, and it was Sister Eyring who had noticed me, who acknowledged me, who lifted me that day. 

A similar thing happened in St. George earlier this year, when the Hollands were at a devotional. I was standing off to the side, and Sister Holland yelled out to say, “Hello, how are you? It’s good to see you, Sarah.” And I would have gone unnoticed by everyone had she not said that. I have similar experiences with Sister Hales. And we had an opportunity after the rededication of the Columbus temple in Ohio to be with President Ballard in the Kirtland Temple, where he testified of the eternal nature of relationships and of families and spoke of losing his wife. We’ve heard President Holland speak of the same thing as recently as the St. George temple rededication when he talked about his wife and the ability to be with her again, and how the temple was a symbol of that.

43:28

And I wondered this year, as we lost each of these individuals, why I was mourning them. I thought, “I’m as sad as if they had been a member of my family.” And I think that’s because as Latter-day Saints, we’re all connected by our belief in Jesus Christ and in His Church, and so they are family.

We mourn not just when we lose people, but when we see them suffering. We also saw that this year with wildfires that struck Hawaii and with other disasters throughout the world, but Deseret News did extensive coverage of those Hawaii fires, and as well as a million dollar donation to the Red Cross from the Church to help those who had been affected.

What have we learned as we’ve seen community response to some of these disasters this year?

Brad Kieserman, the vice president of disaster operations and logistics with American Red Cross, speaks with Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, in Lahaina, Hawaii, on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. The Church announced a $1 million donation to the Red Cross to support its relief efforts after the Maui wildfires. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

44:16

Doug Wilks: I’ll go back to a very horrible story, which was the tragic death of a family in Enoch, Utah, which actually was the first week of January of the year. So the year started out in a very difficult place. But the community rallied to the family, government rallied to figure out a way to help against the scourge of domestic violence, which continues to be a problem. And from that horrible event, love emerges, policy emerges, and you try to move forward.

Hawaii, I mean, just horrific fires, and Hawaii was only the latest; California, over and over and over again, for the past four years, five years, has had devastating fires. So, how do you respond to a tragedy? You try to find the principle of joy and happiness. And at this time of year, it’s the angel coming to the shepherds, “Fear not: ... I bring you good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). And it’s like, fear not; you will get through this. This is the meaning of life, to have difficulty, but you will overcome it.

So, we think about resiliency, and we think about, from our standpoint in media, what can we publish to not only give the news, but to give the solution and help people find a way to cope?

45:34

Hal Boyd: I think Christ wants healers. He wants peacemakers. And the example of President Nelson, the example of these brothers and sisters who have passed, they show us individuals who are resilient enough, who reflect the Light of Christ such that when disaster strikes, they can go and help, they can aid, they can lift, they can heal, they can bring about peace. And you see that in the disaster relief of the Church, but also in the collaborations that go well beyond the Church — the Red Cross and to others — to be the catalyst to bring about unity in the midst of tragedy.

And I think, to tie sort of these threads together, that is the mark of a disciple, that is the mark of a peacemaker, is to be a catalyst to bring people together under awful, sometimes terrible, tragic circumstances, to bring about the hope and the healing that our world so desperately needs.

Crowds watch the Nativity displayed on Times Square billboards as part of the Light the World campaign for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City.
Crowds watch the Nativity displayed on Times Square billboards as part of the Light The World campaign for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

46:34

Sarah Jane Weaver: And the year ended with a remarkable message from the Church being broadcast from the billboards of Times Square this Christmas season, which showed images of the Nativity and the Savior’s birth and messaging in multiple languages that said “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Let’s talk about the importance of such prominent messaging.

46:55

Doug Wilks: Look, even for those who aren’t Christians, they respect the season of peace. They respect the Savior, Jesus Christ. Even those who do not necessarily follow a Christian faith, they know the importance of it, and they know the importance of it to the world, where wars pause and stop. Families come together. And so, to bring that message forward in Times Square and in other parts of the world is a pause. It’s pause, reflect. We know we’re going to return to some difficult days, but take a moment and understand how important this is for you personally, your own spirituality, for your family and for others who may be less fortunate than you.

So, media is — you know, sometimes we’re criticized for media, but it’s simply to give people a chance to reflect on something greater than themselves.

47:51

Hal Boyd: We had the Nativity in our church this week, and I had four children who were part of the Nativity, and one of them played the sheep. And she’s a little 3-year-old, and she was sort of unruly, you know, just wandering around, going up to the manger and going up to the baby Jesus. The other kids were trying to sort of guide her in some path. But it reminded me of, you know, the messiness of the barn, of the stable, of the animals and the chaos that generally just exists around us, the messiness, the noise that we hear.

And then all of a sudden, this piercing piece of the Christ Child, of what that represents, and I couldn’t help reflect on that when I saw the video and the article by the Church News, showing the message of our Savior, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the epicenter of hustle and bustle in the Big Apple in New York City in Times Square. And that — there’s no better symbol for what Christ does in our lives than in the midst of the chaos, in the midst of the noise, in the midst of the sin, in the midst of the darkness and difficulties, light comes in, and it brings order, and it brings peace, and it brings awe, and it brings hope, and it brings inspiration. And I think there’s no better message of that, there’s no better symbolism of that, during the Christmas season.

49:12

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I think that brings us to a point to wrap things up. There could be so much more that we could talk about from this remarkable year. We have a tradition at the Church News podcast: We try to end each podcast with the same question, and we try to give our guests the last word. And so, Hal, let’s start with you and then end with Doug and have you each answer the question “What do you know now that you didn’t know before 2023?”

49:41

Hal Boyd: I think I know now that there is an ability to move forward despite our differences, as communities, as a country, as a world, and we are in need of that unity. We are in need of that peacemaking. There are wars and there are rumors of war (see Matthew 24:6). There’s political strife. There’s divisiveness. There’s polarization. And yet, there are things like people coming together to do legislation that no one thought would be possible. And yet, there’s coming together of organizations that may have had historical differences coming together to do good. And yet, there’s a Prophet of God calling on individuals to become peacemakers and follow the example of Jesus Christ.

And so, through these different examples — whether it’s the Respect for Marriage Act, whether it’s collaborations with the NAACP, whether it’s profound messages at general conference, whether it’s temples dotting the earth — I’m once again inspired with renewed hope through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, as He moves His work forward through living prophets and apostles and leaders of the Church. And so, despite the darkness, despite the difficulties that surround us, I know that we can move forward. We can move forward with confidence, and that there is hope, and it’s not just a misplaced hope, but it’s rooted in a solid, strong foundation.

51:06

Doug Wilks: What I know now that I didn’t know before truly is that there’s no place for contention. You can have joy in your life without ever winning an argument. It’s just not necessary. You can just be persistent and patient and move forward, but you don’t have to do that in a spirit of contention. Sometimes the Savior preached His gospel. Sometimes He remained silent. Sometimes He led by example. Sometimes He walked to another town. It’s just — we don’t have to win all the time.

We simply have to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, have empathy and love for everyone. It’s the first and second great commandments, right? Keep the commandments, which is loving God, and the second like unto it, love your fellowman, love your neighbor. So, I think I knew that before the year started, but the fact that there really doesn’t need to be any place for contention. I might have thought previously, “Well, there’s a few places, and I’m going to have my say,” but the older I get, no, there’s no place for contention.

52:24

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News executive 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, rate and review this podcast so it can be accessible to more people. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests; 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 channels or with other news and updates on the Church on TheChurchNews.com

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