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In a stirring speech Sunday, an LDS British general authority called on the Mormon faithful to see themselves in the suffering of 1.25 million refugees flooding into Europe on a "perilous journey" to flee the ravages of war and political turmoil.
Early Latter-day Saints were "violently driven from homes and farms [in the Midwest] over and over again," said Patrick Kearon, a member of the Seventy who directs the Utah-based faith's relief efforts in Europe. "Their story is our story and not that long ago."
This crisis does not define today's refugees, he added, "but our response will help define us."
Kearon's topical address stood out in the final session of the faith's 186th annual General Conference a day that began with LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson reminding thousands of Mormons in the giant Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City and millions more watching across the globe about choice and accountability.
"Our goal is to obtain celestial glory," he said, "and the choices we make will, in large part, determine whether or not we reach our goal. ... May we maintain the courage to defy the consensus. May we ever choose the harder right, instead of the easier wrong."
Monson's remarks came after he offered a similarly short speech Saturday night during the all-male priesthood session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Together, his two talks, totaling about 10 minutes, represent his briefest stints at the pulpit during conference in his eight-year presidency. The church has said that the 88-year-old leader, viewed by Mormons as a "prophet, seer and revelator," is "feeling the effects of advancing age."
Monson, who attended all the conference sessions, did announce plans to build four more LDS temples in Harare, Zimbabwe; Quito, Ecuador; Belém, Brazil; and, a second such edifice, in Lima, Peru.
He noted that when he was named an LDS apostle in 1963 at age 36, the church had 12 temples. With the recent dedication of the Provo City Center Temple, the LDS Church now has 150 operating temples 16 in Utah, with plans for a 17th in Cedar City.
Kearon's impassioned plea on behalf of refugees in the afternoon was more practical than other doctrinal-themed sermons and echoed what LDS female leaders said in the conference's opening session a week ago, when they introduced a new churchwide aid program called "I Was a Stranger."
Utah activists already have reported a dramatic spike in outreach to refugees since the church unveiled its initiative.
Working with 75 aid organizations in 17 European nations, Mormon congregations have "provided shelter and medical care ... assembled many thousands of hygiene kits ... have provided food and water, clothing, waterproof coats, bicycles, books, backpacks, reading glasses and much more," Kearon said. "Individuals from Scotland to Sicily have stepped in to every conceivable role. Doctors and nurses have volunteered their services at the point where refugees arrive soaked, chilled, and often traumatized from their water crossings."
Kearon said his church assignment over refugee relief has changed him.
"After looking into their eyes and hearing their stories, both of the terror they fled and of their perilous journey to find refuge," he said, "I will never be the same."
Nor will anyone who meets refugee families, he said.
"Hearing their stories with your own ears, and not from a screen or newspaper, will change you. Real friendships will develop, and will foster compassion and successful integration."
The LDS leader challenged Mormons to help out any way they can.
"Think in terms of doing something close to home, in your own community, where you will find people who need help in adapting to their new circumstances," Kearon counseled. " ... The possibilities for us to lend a hand and be a friend are endless. You might help resettled refugees learn their host country language, update their work skills, or practice job interviewing. You could offer to mentor a family or a single mother as they transition to an unfamiliar culture, even with something as simple as accompanying them to the grocery store or the school."
Beyond that, Kearon urged members to "take a stand against intolerance and advocate respect and understanding across cultures and traditions."
Kearon's speech appeared to deeply touch Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Monson's second counselor in the governing First Presidency, who choked back tears afterward while introducing the next part of the program. As a child, Uchtdorf was a refugee twice once while leaving Czechoslovakia and again while fleeing then-East Germany to West Germany.
Earlier on Sunday, Uchtdorf discussed the transforming nature of God's love.
"It matters not how completely ruined our lives may seem. It matters not how scarlet our sins, how deep our bitterness, how lonely, abandoned, or broken our hearts may be. Even those who are without hope, who live in despair, who have betrayed trust, surrendered their integrity, or turned away from God, can be rebuilt," the German leader said. " ... There is no life so shattered that it cannot be restored."
Drawing on the parable of the lost sheep, Uchtdorf said Christ is the good shepherd, seeking those who have wandered away from the flock.
"You may feel that your life is in ruins. You may have sinned. You may be afraid, angry, grieving or tortured by doubt," said the charismatic leader, sometimes dubbed Mormonism's Pope Francis. " ... If you will only lift up your heart to the savior of the world, he will find you. He will rescue you. He will lift you up and place you on his shoulders. He will carry you home."
God's plan is to "build us into something far greater than what we were far greater than what we can ever imagine," Uchtdorf said. "With each step of faith on the path of discipleship, we grow into the beings of eternal glory and infinite joy we were designed to become."
Here are highlights from other Sunday speakers:
Dallin H. Oaks • The seasoned apostle, second in line to lead the worldwide faith, explored the Mormon belief in opposition as essential to the human experience.
"Opposition permits us to grow," Oaks said, "toward what our Heavenly Father would have us become."
Currently, the church seems to face "increasing opposition," he declared. "Perhaps as the church grows in strength and we members grow in faith and obedience, Satan increases the strength of his opposition so we will continue to have 'opposition in all things.' "
Some opposition "even comes from church members," Oaks said. "Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies 'the loyal opposition.' How ever appropriate for a democracy, there is no warrant for this concept in the government of God's kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not."
Oaks cited the church's efforts to be "transparent" about its history, alluding to its recent publication of nearly a dozen essays about Mormonism's beginnings, preachings and practices.
"After all we can publish, our members are sometimes left with basic questions that cannot be resolved by study," he said. "Some things can only be learned by faith."
Bonnie L. Oscarson • The president of the faith's Young Women organization, for girls ages 12 to 17, said the LDS Church is "more than just a good place to go on Sundays and learn how to be a good person."
"It is more than just a lovely Christian social club where we can associate with people of good moral standing," she said. "It is not just a great set of ideas that parents can teach their children at home so they will be responsible, nice people."
To Mormons, their church is "the kingdom of God and the only true church on the Earth," Oscarson said. "It is called the Church of Jesus Christ because he stands at the head; it is his church, and all these things are possible because of his atoning sacrifice."
Those who have been converted to this gospel need to keep "feasting and not heed those who would make fun of our beliefs or those who delight to create doubts," she said, "or those who find fault with church leaders and doctrine. It is a choice we make daily to choose faith over doubt."
W. Christopher Waddell • The second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the church's business affairs, warned members against listening to those who would mock believers.
To find peace, Waddell said, Mormons need to listen to their leaders.
"Our commitment to the Lord and his servants cannot be a part-time commitment," he said. "If so, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who seek to destroy our peace. As we listen to the Lord through his authorized servants, we stand in holy places and cannot be moved."
D. Todd Christofferson • The apostle celebrated the contributions of fathers.
"As a church, we believe in fathers. We believe in the ideal of the man who puts his family first," he said. " ... We believe that far from being superfluous, fathers are unique and irreplaceable."
Fatherhood exposes men "to our own weaknesses and our need to improve," Christofferson said. "Fatherhood requires sacrifice, but it is a source of incomparable satisfaction, even joy. Again, the ultimate model is our Heavenly Father who so loved us, his spirit children, that he gave his only begotten son for our salvation and exaltation. ... Fathers manifest that love as they lay down their lives day by day laboring in the service and support of their families."
Quentin L. Cook • The apostle described Mormon temples as a place of refuge, thanksgiving, instruction, understanding, and in all things pertaining to the kingdom of God on the Earth."
Throughout Cook's life, the temple has been "a place of tranquility and peace in a world that is literally in commotion," he said. "It is wonderful to leave the cares of the world behind in that sacred setting."
Mormons view temples as houses of God, a place devout Latter-day Saints participate in their faith's highest ordinances, including eternal marriage.
Robert D. Hales • The apostle, who spoke Sunday afternoon after being absent from all the other conference sessions likely due to health issues, addressed the nature and purpose of the Holy Ghost.
Such spiritual promptings can help believers with life decisions, including school, career and marriage decisions.
However, Hales said, the gift is not meant "to control us."
Some Mormons "unwisely seek the Holy Ghost's direction on every minor decision in our lives," Hales said, standing at the pulpit, leaning on it. "This trivializes his sacred role. The Holy Ghost honors the principle of agency. He speaks to our minds and our hearts gently about matters of consequence."
Nor are such intuitions all alike, he said. "Each of us may feel the influence of the Holy Ghost differently. His promptings will be felt in different degrees of intensity according to our individual needs and circumstances."
Paul V. Johnson • The member of the Seventy spoke movingly about the death a year ago of his daughter, Alisa, and of his belief in Jesus' physical resurrection.
"The reality of the resurrection of the savior overwhelms our heartbreak with hope, because with it comes the assurance that all of the other promises of the gospel are just as real promises that are no less miraculous than resurrection," Johnson said. "We know he has the power to cleanse us from all our sins. We know he has taken upon himself all our infirmities, pains and the injustices we have suffered."
Jeffrey R. Holland • The apostle concluded the conference with a pep talk for the days ahead.
"The gospel, the church and these wonderful semiannual gatherings are intended to give hope and inspiration, not discouragement," he said. "We all have to come down from peak experiences to deal with the regular vicissitudes of life. ... So please remember tomorrow and all the days after that that the Lord blesses those who want to improve, who accept the need for commandments and try to keep them, who cherish Christlike virtues and strive to acquire them. If you stumble in that pursuit, so does everyone; the savior is there to help you keep going."
If believers give their hearts to God, and do the best they can to live the gospel, the apostle promised his listeners, "then tomorrow and every other day is ultimately going to be magnificent, even if we don't always recognize it as such."
Heaven, he added, "will be cheering you on today, tomorrow, forever." Four more LDS temples
Harare, Zimbabwe • The first in Zimbabwe; Africa has three operating LDS temples, with announced plans for four more.
Quito, Ecuador • The country's other Mormon temple is in Guayaquil.
Belém, Brazil • Six other LDS temples are operating in Brazil; three more are planned.
Lima, Peru • The country has two other Mormon temples, with announced plans for two more. Lima also will join South Jordan and Provo as the only cities with two LDS temples.