Elder Jay E. Jensen

SALT LAKE CITY — The importance of the Atonement in the lives of all people was taught by Elder Jay E. Jensen of the LDS Church Presidency of the Seventy during the 21st Annual Evergreen Education and Resource Conference Saturday morning.

Although most of the presentations during the one-day conference in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building focused on issues relative to same-gender attraction, Elder Jensen said the Atonement was universal in its importance and application.

He built on the foundation of a brief testimony shared by a young member of the Evergreen group who was identified only as Spencer, who spoke of the overwhelming trials of the past year for him in his battle with same-gender attraction. He said he has learned that "trials don't define us — it is what we do in the face of those trials that truly defines us."

"The Atonement is what helps us face those trials, whatever they may be," Elder Jensen said. He referred to the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie's statement that "the Atonement is the most basic and fundamental doctrine of the church."

"How do we get our arms around something so infinite?" Elder Jensen asked.

He presented three critical areas he studies in order to get a better understanding of the Atonement: the events that led Jesus Christ to a garden, a cross and a tomb; the doctrines of the Atonement; and the relevance of how it applies to him — and to all people — personally.

Elder Jensen talked about when his family was younger, and how his two small children would run out to greet him as he walked toward the house. They would sit on their father's feet and wrap their arms and legs around his legs, and he would walk — or "waddle" — to the house, where he would wrap his arms around his wife, and feel her wrap her arms around him.

"When the scriptures tell us that through the Atonement, 'mercy encircles us in the arms of safety,' that's what I think about," Elder Jensen said. "That's how we should feel, completely encircled in the arms of the Savior's love."

Regardless of our weakness and imperfections, Elder Jensen concluded, "there is hope, and there is healing in the Atonement. Through the Atonement we can be reconciled to our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ, and sit in peace with them."

During the following session of the conference, LDS priesthood leaders were told that it is important that those who have same-gender attraction are not treated like they choose to have same-gender attraction.

"If we treat them like they made a choice, like we are waiting for them to get on with it and choose to be otherwise, we do damage," said Elder James O. Mason, a medical doctor, emeritus general authority and a member of the Evergreen board of trustees. "We don't know why people have this orientation or inclination. For some reason, they are just wired this way."

For priesthood leaders, it doesn't matter why certain members of their congregations have same-gender attraction. What matters, Elder Mason said, "is that we are sensitive to their special needs."

"They need more of our love," he said. "They need more of our acceptance. But sometimes it seems that they are getting less."

He outlined a scenario — "all too common," he said — in which young men become deacons who are a little different than the other boys.

"Perhaps they aren't athletic, or they are interested in different things than the other boys in the deacon's quorum," Elder Mason said. "Instead of reaching out to the young man and trying to find ways to include him, the other deacons bully him and make him feel different and uncomfortable. Then he goes on to the teacher's quorum, and the same thing happens. By the time they are of priest age, we've lost them.

"We don't kick them out," Elder Mason continued. "But they feel as if they have been kicked out. They don't feel fellowship. They don't feel they belong.We've got to be more sensitive."

And that begins with the assumption that young people don't choose to be same-gender attracted.

"If we assume that people don't choose to have same-gender attraction, we can deal with them in the same way we deal with any person who has a challenge," said Elder Mason. "As with young men and young women who have heterosexual feelings, we can teach the young people who are same-gender attracted that it isn't the thought that makes a person a sinner — it's the behavior.

"The church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other," he continued. "The world wants to label them as gays or lesbians. And when they do, that becomes their identity, that's who they are. As a church, we reject that. Filled with the love of the Lord, we say, 'No, that's not who you are. You are a son or daughter of God. That's who you are. Let's start there, and not worry about labels.' "

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Other speakers during the one-day conference focused on general LDS information and resources; principles of growth; the specific same-gender attraction issues of men, women, adolescents and young adults;church doctrine and scientific research; and resources for spouses and parents.

Evergreen is an LDS-oriented organization based on the belief that "individuals can overcome homosexual behavior and can diminish same-sex attraction, and is committed to helping individuals who wish to do so."

Although it is not an official organization of the LDS Church, the organization "sustains the doctrines and standards (of the church) without reservation or exception."

Email: jwalker@desnews.com