The LDS Church and the nation's largest civil rights organization will soon celebrate a historic first together.
Punctuating his efforts toward building bridges of friendship and cooperation, President Gordon B. Hinckley is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the April 23-26 conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Western Region I in Salt Lake City. (See details on A8.)His speech will mark the first time the head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has addressed an NAACP gathering, according to local NAACP president Jeanetta Williams.
"When I found out (President Hinckley) accepted our invitation, I told his secretary to tell the president he'd made my day," said Williams, who chairs the conference and is a member of the NAACP's Board of Directors.
Williams said the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP has long enjoyed a friendly relationship with President Hinckley.
"We were one of the first groups to sit down with President Hinck-ley after he became president of the church," said Williams, recalling a meeting that included civil rights leader Andrew Young and Calvary Baptist Church Rev. France Davis.
Williams says her regard for the LDS prophet deepened during his recent visit to Africa. "I was very impressed by the trip" and its message of love and inclusiveness, she said.
Although some local black church leaders recently lamented the lack of dialogue between the LDS Church and area black Protestant congregations, Williams said her organization has enjoyed a "cordial" relationship with President Hinckley.
President Hinckley's spot on the NAACP's speaking list has raised eyebrows outside Utah's borders.
"When I told some colleagues over the phone that President Hinckley was speaking at our conference, they were almost speechless . . . but they responded positively," said Williams, who expects NAACP members from as far off as Japan and Hawaii to attend the event.
Williams hopes President Hinckley's role in the upcoming NAACP event will reflect a willingness among Utahns to work together.
Indeed, since assuming the helm of the LDS Church in March 1995, President Hinckley has become known as much for his emphasis on openness and cooperation as he has for his whirlwind travel schedule.
The 87-year-old church leader has repeatedly called on church members to open their hearts to their neighbors, to befriend those around them and to show concern for all people, whether LDS church members or not.
Last October during General Conference, President Hinckley told church members that "it is your friendliness, your concern for others and the good examples of your lives that result in the opinions held by others concerning the Latter-day Saints."
Williams sees in President Hinckley a man who is willing to act on his own advice.
"I think by going to Africa, he showed people that he's not only saying that we all should be more inclusive and not discriminate, but he's showing them by going over to Africa. I was very impressed with his trip over there. A lot of people didn't hear a lot about it, but I was very impressed. I thought the same thing when he went to Mexico.
"I really feel that when he's saying those things about discrimination being wrong and we need to work together, he means it. He's not just saying it as words. He's not just throwing the words out there to make people feel good, but he's saying it because he believes it," Williams said.
As reported locally, President Hinckley's Africa visit was an overwhelming event to church members there. Several of them told reporters they never thought they would see a Mormon prophet in person in their lifetimes.
Since October, he has traveled not only to Africa and Mexico but to the Pacific Islands. In September he spent time in Arizona with 5,000 American Indians, encouraging them to gain both a secular and a spiritual education. Days later in General Conference, President Hinckley urged members to open their hearts to American Indians.
President Hinckley's message of inclusiveness has touched several members of Utah's ethnic population.
Mark Maryboy, a Navajo Tribal Council member, says the LDS Church is visible throughout Navajo land.
President Hinckley's recent visit "was well accepted by the people on the reservation," Maryboy said.
Such visits continue to engender good will long after the church leaders have returned to Salt Lake City.
A week following the October general conference, President Hinckley toured and spoke to tens of thousands in Samoa, Hawaii, American Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Tahiti. Local residents with heritage in such countries are warmed by such visits.
"Our community loves President Hinckley," said Mili Peters, chairwoman of the Polynesian Advisory Council. "He's seen by the Polynesian community as very sensitive to our needs."
Peters said President Hinckley's role as spiritual leader assures him a revered spot in the hearts of many Utah Polynesians, but his efforts as a service facilitator have improved many lives, she added.
While some Hispanics say a communication chasm exists between their community and the church, others say President Hinckley's efforts throughout Latin America have forged a sacred bond.
"He has taken the initiative to travel and visit our countries to support the church," said Gladys Gonzalez, a Colombian native and publisher of Utah's Mundo Hispano Spanish language newspaper. President Hinckley's travel schedule during 1997 included meetings in 10 Central and South American nations.
In addition to the warmth they feel from their prophet, thousands of Hispanic church members have been spiritually aided because of President Hinckley's work to put temples throughout Central and South America.
LDS meeting schedule
Morning session 10 a.m.
Afternoon session 2 p.m.
Priesthood session 6 p.m.
Morning session 10 a.m.
Afternoon session 2 p.m.
Daylight-saving time begins at 2 a.m. Sunday. Move clocks ahead one hour.
`A Prophet's Journey'
KSL Television will air "The African Saints: A Prophet's Journey" at noon Sunday. The program chronicles LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's recent five-country African tour, the first of its kind for an LDS Church president.