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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Elder Gerrit W. Gong, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, greets Mariama Olayemi, of Sierra Leone and now living in Salt Lake City, after Gong spoke at the BYU Women's Conference at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, May 4, 2018.

PROVO — A new Mormon apostle and his wife added fresh insights to the LDS Church's emerging emphasis on ministering during the closing keynote speeches at BYU's Women's Conference Friday.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong introduced the concept of covenant belonging, a phrase uncommon among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He said covenants connect Mormons both to God and to each other in ways that mean they belong to each other.

Those covenant connections should inspire how church members approach ministering to each other and those outside the faith, said Elder Gong, sustained March 31 as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a historic international general conference.

"In the revelation of our true, divine selves through our covenants with God," he added, "we learn to recognize and love our brothers and sisters as he does. This deepening love and knowledge invites, empowers and sanctifies us to know and, in our own way, to become more like him."

LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson announced April 1 at general conference that the church would discontinue its longstanding home teaching and visiting teaching programs. Those programs called Mormons to visit and assist each other. President Nelson said the church would replace them with ministering, "a higher and holier way" to lift and strengthen church members and others one by one.

"There is divine harmony and resonance in covenant belonging," Elder Gong said, "as we are strengthened in his love and as we strengthen each other in the Lord."

"We belong to each other," he added. "By divine covenant, we belong to God and to each other. Covenant belonging is a miracle. It is not possessive. It 'suffereth long, and is kind.' It envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up. Covenant belonging gives roots and wings. It liberates through commitment. It enlarges through love.

"In covenant belonging, we strengthen each other in His love, thereby coming more to love God and each other."

The concept resonated with many of the 10,500 — nearly all women — who gathered at the Marriott Center.

"It was a new term to me, and I loved it," said Dori Woodbury of Pleasant Grove, Utah, who attended with a loved one experiencing a faith crisis in mind. "He was poetic when he said covenant belonging is a miracle that gives roots and rings. It's a nice addition to the term 'covenant-keeping sisters.' I'd really like to go home and put it all over my home. I felt a resolve this conference that unlike 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,' what happens at Women's Conference should not stay in Women's Conference. 'Covenant belonging' is going home with me and I'm going to figure out how to help my kids understand it."

Morgan Pinkston of North Plains, Oregon, said the concept bolstered the idea of ministering.

"The point of ministering is to be one and come together as covenant people," she said.

Elder Gong was the concluding speaker at Women's Conference, the largest two-day gathering of LDS women in the world. He followed his wife, Sister Susan Gong.

The audience appreciated their humor. After they began by standing together at the podium, Elder Gong sat down to let her speak. Sister Gong joked that he'd abandoned her, then drew extended laughter by saying, "Sometimes I call him 'Elder Gone.'"

After she spoke, Elder Gong stood and thanked her and called her, "Susan Sweetheart."

"I really, really liked them together," Pinkston said. "They were super, super sweet. When Elder Gong sat down, they immediately held hands. You can tell they have a sweet relationship."

In her talk, Sister Gong shared three examples of ministering from Jesus Christ's life.

First, she said he was an example of listening and understanding, which she said are powerful ways to serve.

"There is healing, there is hope in just being understood," Sister Gong said.

Second, compassion always accompanied Christ's understanding, which she also called empathy.

Third, she said, Christ comforted, supplied, fed, healed, nurtured, taught and blessed.

"Know the heart. Feel compassion. Bless. This is the Savior’s pattern of ministering, and it can be ours," she said.

Sister Gong echoed the prayer of Sister Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society, at the White House on Thursday, when she prayed that the United States would be "a land of Good Samaritans."

"Like the Good Samaritan," Sister Gong said, "when Christ finds us suffering, he has compassion on us, comes to us, binds our wounds, brings us to the inn and cares for us."

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Friday's keynote address was the Gongs' first major public appearance since he was called as an apostle in the church of 16.1 million members, a calling they described as overwhelming in an interview last month with the Church News.

Elder Gong said Friday that President Nelson asked him to share a message during his Women's Conference talk. "Please tell our sisters we love them," he said.

Elder Gong also asked women to find faith, strength and trust in knowing that perfection comes through Christ.

"Such," he said, "offers an escape from the always-anxious treadmill of perfectionism."