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No one who makes racial slurs or denigrating remarks can consider himself a true disciple of Christ, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said emphatically on Saturday.
"Racial strife still lifts its ugly head . . . even right here among us," Hinckley said during the men-only priesthood session of the 176th annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I plead with you, brethren, do all that you can to stop racial divisiveness of any kind."
He also decried self-righteousness among the faithful, telling the story of a non-Mormon youth who grew up being belittled and teased by his LDS neighbors. The boy came to hate the church and its people, saying they had ruined his childhood.
"Why do any of us have to be mean and unkind to others?" Hinckley said. "Why can't all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not part of the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Hinckley attended both daytime sessions on Saturday and even waved his cane at the assembled crowd in the LDS Conference Center, but he didn't give his usual opening remarks of the two-day meeting nor speak in the afternoon.
That led to speculation about Hinckley's health a few months after undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his colon. He has not spoken in public in Utah since January and many Latter-day Saints watching the proceedings in the Conference Center or on satellite broadcast around the world were eager to hear from the man they consider a "prophet, seer and revelator."
But Hinckley saved his energy for the priesthood session. "His voice was strong and vibrant. It was vintage President Hinckley," said LDS spokesman Dale Bills.
"What would I wish for this people?" Hinckley asked. "Basically that as Latter-day Saints we would at all times act like Latter-day Saints . . . that we would live the gospel more fully in our homes, in our work, and in every aspect of our lives."
Other speakers on Saturday hit on some perennial General Conference themes: the importance of free will, the dangers of alcohol and drugs, the sacredness of marriage, the seduction of Satan and the church's vast humanitarian efforts across the globe.
Some may remember an old adage, "The devil made me do it," said Apostle Robert D. Hales. "But the truth is the devil cannot make people do anything.
"Every time we go out, every decision we make, we are either choosing to move in [the devil's] direction or in the direction of our Savior," Hales said. "But the adversary must depart if we tell him to depart. He cannot influence us unless we allow him to do so, and he knows that."
Life is about learning to make good choices, he said, and then taking responsibility for your actions.
Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the governing First Presidency, described the process Tongan fishermen use to trap an octopus. It's called "maka-fekes." The octopus thinks the maka-feke is food and grasps it so tenaciously that the fishermen can flip it easily into the canoe.
Today we are surrounded by maka-fekes that the "Evil One" dangles before us, Monson said. "He attempts to entice us and then to ensnare us."
He mentioned what he sees as contemporary traps: pornography, drugs and alcohol, but focused especially on excessive debt.
"It is a human tendency to want the things which will give us prominence and prestige. We live in a time when borrowing is easy," Monson said. "The day of reckoning will come if we have continually lived beyond our means."
Utah consistently has the highest bankruptcy rate per capita in the country.
Debt "can crush our self-esteem, ruin relationships and leave us in desperate circumstances," he said. "I urge you to live within your means. One cannot continually spend more than he earns and remain solvent."
The only woman who spoke during Saturday's conference sessions addressed the question of spiritual equality.
Both men and women can "enjoy the blessings of spiritual gifts," said Julie B. Beck, first counselor in the Young Women's General Presidency, even though only men hold the priesthood in the LDS Church.
"Each of us is equally entitled to a priesthood blessing when we are sick or need added support from the Lord in our lives," she said. "Priesthood blessings are the great equalizer. [They] are the same for men and women, for boys and girls; they are the same for married and single, rich and poor, for the intellectual and the illiterate, for the well-known and the obscure."
Beck described her parents working together to heal her when she was a child - her father using his priesthood to bless her, while her mother used her own spiritual gifts to "minister to my needs and help me get well."
Her mother's faith would "lead her to answers about medical treatment," Beck told her audience.
The conference resumes again this morning.
l Church units: stakes - 2,701; missions - 341; districts - 643; wards and branches - 27,087
l Membership: total - 12,560,869; increase in children of record during 2005 - 93,150; converts baptized during 2005 - 243,108
l Missionaries: number of full-time missionaries - 52,060
l Temples: temples dedicated during 2005 - 3 (San Antonio; Aba, Nigeria; Newport Beach, Calif.); temples rededicated during 2005 - 1 (Apia, Samoa) total number of temples currently in operation - 122