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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
New International Young Women General Board members pose in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Sept. 30.

SALT LAKE CITY — Two images of the global nature of the LDS Church from Saturday's sessions of its October general conference will long endure, underscoring the fact the 58 percent of church members now live outside the United States.

The first was an unforgettable mental picture of President Thomas S. Monson, the faith's 16th latter-day prophet, wearing slippers as he flew home from a trip behind the Iron Curtain years ago.

"The image of him I will cherish until I die," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "is him flying home from economically devastated East Germany in his house slippers because he had given away not only his second suit and extra shirts but the very shoes from off his feet. 'How beautiful upon the mountains — and shuffling through an airline terminal — are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace.'"

The second image was of Elder Chi Hong (Sam) Wong, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, of Hong Kong speaking Cantonese in the Saturday morning session, the first time a talk had been delivered in a language other than English in the 184 years of twice-annual church conferences that now are watched in 216 nations and territories via broadcast and the Internet.

The image of President Monson in slippers may well become an indelible emblem of his half-century-long, worldwide ministry to the poor and needy. The symbolism of Elder Wong's address will be durable in the way it is repeated in session after session in the future.

Indeed, Elder Wong was quickly followed Saturday afternoon by Uruguayan Elder Eduardo Gavarret, also a Seventy, who spoke in Spanish. They are expected to be followed Sunday by a Portuguese speaker, and the newness of an experience that on Saturday clearly delighted apostles and gave American Latter-day Saints a new view of the church's globalization is likely to swiftly feel customary because of the increasingly international makeup of the church.

Telling numbers

It's been 17 years now since the number of Latter-day Saints living outside the United States surpassed the number living in the States. Now there are 8.68 million members abroad and 6.4 million members in the U.S.

Those numbers have begun to affect the composition of church leadership, too. While one of the 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve was born outside the United States, that is now true of 29 of the 60 members of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

And fully two-thirds of the church's Area Seventy, 164 of 241, live outside the U.S.

But for now, hearing a talk in their own tongue speaks deeply to international Saints. For example, Brazil has the third-largest Mormon population in the world, six LDS temples and is well-represented in church leadership. One of the seven presidents of the Seventy, Elder Ulisses Soares, is from Brazil, as are three members of the First Quorum of the Seventy, one member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy and 17 Area Seventies.

But when the first conference talk in Portuguese is given, Brazilian member Marisa Saito said Saturday, "We'll feel like we really are represented."

Brazilian visitors

Saito and her brother, Marcelo Saito, are third-generation Japanese-Brazilians. He is president of the São Paulo Perdizes Stake. They've experienced the globalization of the church firsthand.

"In 1966," President Saito said, "our parents joined the church, the same year the first stake was created in Brazil. Now we have 253 stakes, 34 missions, six temples" and 1.25 million members.

Saito became a high priest at age 20 immediately after he returned from a mission to Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1980s, something that in the United States often doesn't occur prior to a man's 30s or 40s or even later. He was a bishop at 25. Now 48, he has been in stake presidencies for 18 years.

During his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch presidency.

Such leadership callings for young Brazilians were commonplace. Today, they are rare.

"Before," Marisa Saito said, "you had converts leading the church. Now you have third- and fourth-generation members leading the church. The membership and the leadership is more mature. We still get a lot of financial assistance and leadership assistance, but Brazil is becoming more self-reliant."

President Saito and his wife, Rose, chose to travel to Utah for conference for their 25th anniversary. Rose was a foreign exchange student at Olympus High School. Their oldest son served a mission and a daughter is serving in the Brazil Santa Maria Mission. Another daughter is preparing her mission papers.

Marisa Saito lived in Salt Lake City for five years after serving a mission. She and her brother brought their mother, Harue, with them for their 10-day stay.

International board

Every Saturday at 2 p.m., Sister Dorah Mkhabela turns on her computer in Roodepoort, South Africa, and joins a video conference that connects her with LDS sisters in Peru, Japan, Brazil and Salt Lake City.

Sister Mkhabela is a member of the LDS Church's Young Women general board. In the past, the board was exclusively comprised of Utahns who could gather for meetings in Salt Lake. No more. Even one of the Utahns is a native of Cuba.

"I think the time was right," said Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, the General Young Women president. "We were asked to think outside the box and to keep in mind this is a worldwide church. At first we thought we'd need advisers, not full board members. But when we took the idea to the First Presidency, they said, no, they need to be full board members."

The four Utah members of the nine-woman board come to Temple Square at 6 a.m. each Saturday to accommodate their international sisters.

"It makes me tear up to think about what those women are doing for us," Sister Oscarson said. "They are our eyes and ears to say, 'This is how we perceive this in our part of the world.' We are a global organization."

For the first time, the board is together in Utah. The members arrived last week for the general women's meeting and stayed for general conference this weekend. They described the church in their areas for the Deseret News and the influence they are having on the Young Women program.

The biggest influence they are having is on a revision of the organization's camp manual, which Sister Oscarson said has been American-centric.

For example, camp is a costly and foreign concept in Japan, where the church is growing and the members are excited for a third temple announced in Sapporo, said Sister Megumi Yamaguchi of Nagoya City, Japan.

"Camp for me?" she said. "It is really great to nurture the friendship with others. I love the testimony meeting at the end of camp, and being away from worldly things."

More lessons

In São Paulo, seminary is held in the evenings, not the mornings, for safety. In Japan, Young Women mutual meetings are held not on weeknights but on Saturday mornings once a month, because of school club activities and "cramming school," or university test preparation.

Sister Yamaguchi and Sister Lucia M. Silva of São Paulo, Brazil, described for their fellow board members the difficulty the Young Women in their nations have getting to weeknight Young Women meetings. So instead, they regularly have meetings on weekends.

That kind of real insight is tremendous, Sister Oscarson said. "We have to keep the programs of the church adaptable for all areas."

Those insights have been a boon for Sister Rosemary Thackeray of Orem, Utah.

"Camp is steeped in Western tradition," she said. "As we talk to Megumi in Japan and Dorah in South Africa, we recognize the principles and the experience we want the Young Women to have are the same, but how they do it is different because of where they are. Whether they are in Peru, South Africa or St. George, Utah, we want them to come away with a testimony of the gospel."

Another issue is quick turnover in callings in congregations in areas where the church is small and growing. Sister Oscarson has begun to emphasize training and orientation.

"It's tough when you have a young church in an area growing fast," she said.

A member of the church's Soweto South Africa Stake, Sister Mkhabela, who speaks more than 10 languages and travels throughout southeast Africa with her husband, an Area Seventy, and trains LDS women, described further difficulties due to poverty in some areas of her stake.

"The church is doing very well in Africa, but in the black community there are lots of part-member families. The youth come to church in numbers, but without support from home, they stop. They don't have scriptures, they can't afford camps, and raising funds is difficult because they don't know how. Training is not enough because some don't have access to materials."

What she does like is that young women in Rootepoort and Soweto understand modesty.

"They are doing it so well," she said.

Other symbols

Globalization is nothing new for LDS Church leaders, who have vigorously traveled the world for nearly two centuries, overseeing the creation of new congregations, nurturing leadership and literally building the church. Today, more than half of operating LDS temples — 73 of 143 — are outside the United States.

Sixteen of the 27 temples that are under construction or announced are outside the United States.

In a nod toward those they serve worldwide, several of the apostles, like Elder Russell M. Nelson, have for years recorded their general conference talks in other languages so members can hear them speak in Spanish or French.

But general conference remains one of the best symbols of the global flavor of the church. In April, church members from 65 nations traveled to Salt Lake City to attend conference. They came from Benin and Bahrain, Estonia and Madagascar, Norway and the United Arab Emirates.

Conference addresses are translated into 94 languages, and church magazines carrying the talks are published in 34 languages.

But on Saturday, it was the Americans at the Conference Center who sometimes needed the translation via subtitles on TV screens and new subtitle screens, as they listened to talks from fellow members from Hong Kong and Uruguay.

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