With a smile and signature wave of his cane, President Gordon B. Hinckley opened the first session of the LDS Church's 176th Annual General Conference on Saturday reserving strong words about racism for an evening gathering of men and boys.
The 95-year-old leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scarcely used his cane as he walked vigorously in and out of conference sessions, which will attract more than 100,000 people to the Conference Center this weekend. He did not address the opening general sessions but told male priesthood holders Saturday night that racism still "lifts its ugly head," even among church members.
That is unacceptable, he said.
"I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ," said President Hinckley. "How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color, is ineligible?"
The LDS Church opened its priesthood to worthy males of all races in 1978, after then-President Spencer W. Kimball announced he had received a revelation admitting black males, who had formerly been excluded.
President Hinckley's remarks came as part of an address admonishing members to show more kindness in their lives.
His appearance at the opening session Saturday morning was a moment of sweet normalcy in a meeting marked by a change. For the first time since taking the church's helm 11 years go, the man revered by millions as a prophet did not conduct or open the conference with a sermon of his own.
No mention was given for his absence as the opening speaker, but many church members surmised it was a result of recent illness. In January, President Hinckley had surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his intestine and was hospitalized for a week. He has since made few public appearances, but he did fly to Chile last month to rededicate a temple there.
From the perspective of 95 years, he said, his "wish list" for church members "is not long or complex. It is basically that as Latter-day Saints we would at all times act like Latter-day Saints. It is that we would live the gospel more fully in our homes, in our work and in every aspect of our lives."
President Hinckley's son, Elder Richard G. Hinckley of the First Quorum of Seventy, gave a small tribute Saturday to the way his father has lived the gospel and his life. Both father and son spoke during the priesthood session.
"My memories of him will ever be of laughter and love; of steadiness, of testimony, of relentless hard work, of faith and fidelity," he said. "He is kind and wise, and I am blessed beyond measure that I not only sustain him as my prophet for this season of mortality but that I also claim him as my father now and throughout all eternity."
This weekend, Elder Hinckley noted, marks the second anniversary of the death of his mother, Marjorie Pay Hinckley.
In other sessions, speakers focused on themes of living the gospel more fully, avoiding the snares of sin, nurturing marriage, giving service and listening to the Holy Ghost.
President Thomas S. Monson, first counselor in the First Presidency, warned members about the snares of Satan, particularly pornography, drugs and alcohol, immorality and debt. Like the maka-feke, a Tongan octopus trap, the devil wants to "ensnare unsuspecting persons and take possession of their destinies," he said during the opening session.
"To all who walk the pathway of life, our Heavenly Father cautions: Beware the detours, the pitfalls, the traps," he said. "Do not be deceived."
But for those who need to find their way back, the gospel offers opportunities for repentance and forgiveness, said Elder Boyd K. Packer, who related the story of a Book of Mormon prophet and his wayward son. "Christ is the creator, the healer. What he made, he can fix," he said.
Avoiding temptation was encouraged by other speakers.
"The standard is clear," said Elder David A. Bednar. "If something we think, see, hear or do distances us from the Holy Ghost, then we should stop thinking, seeing, hearing or doing that thing."
Through "tender hearts and helping hands," church members can also lift and strengthen others, said Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, who oversees the temporal affairs of the church. He related several instances where church members and others have assisted people devastated by natural disasters.
When hurricanes roared ashore in the southern United States and the Caribbean, hygiene kits, food, water and volunteer labor were provided to victims of the storms, Bishop Burton said. Refugees in Sudan have been provided with a nutritional porridge and medical supplies. Victims of the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands in Southeast Asia were provided with immediate and long-term assistance.
"To each of you whose tender hearts and helping hands have eased the burdens of so many, please accept my heartfelt gratitude."
Membership in the LDS Church has surpassed 12.5 million, according to a statistical report released Saturday. In 2005, more than 240,000 converts were baptized into the church. Three new temples were dedicated and one rededicated, putting the number of operational temples worldwide at 122.The conference will reconvene today, with sessions at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.