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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Wendy Nelson, greet attendees after the first session to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Love is essential to happy homes, ministering and missionary work and should motivate Latter-day Saints to preserve their relationships with family and friends who distance themselves from God or the church, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Saturday morning at the beginning of the faith’s two-day global general conference.

With millions watching and listening via broadcasts on the 189th anniversary of the organization of the church, Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told 20,000 people in the Conference Center across the street from Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City that some church members may be experiencing sadness, agony and regret over loved ones who distance themselves from faith, but he encouraged members to love and embrace them and pray for them.

“Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes,” he said. “Be their friends and look for the good in them. We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships. Never reject or misjudge them. Just love them!”

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaks during the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles listed cultivating love for others as one of five ways church members could begin doing missionary work.

“Laugh with them,” he said. “Rejoice with them. Weep with them. Respect them. Heal, lift and strengthen them.”

The statements came two days after church leaders said love and compassion were driving factors in updated policies allowing baby blessings and baptism for children living with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents.

Midway through the opening session, the hashtag #generalconference was a top 10 trending topic in the United States as members shared and reacted to conference messages.

The pure love of Christ is essential in the hearts of each family member to create a holy place at home, said President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency.

“Building faith in Jesus Christ is the beginning of reversing any spiritual decline in your family and in your home,” he said.

The church’s new home-centered curriculum, announced at the October general conference and launched in January, will help build faith, he added. So can cultivating a missionary spirit, temple visits and teaching children to repent early and sincerely.

“A simple ‘I’m sorry’ can heal wounds and invite both forgiveness and love,” he said.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, right, and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, center, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, greet others after the first session to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

He said prayer is also crucial and shared how he once learned a family member far away had prayed at the same time for the same thing he was.

“For me, the old saying ‘The family that prays together stays together’ could be expanded to ‘The family that prays together is together, even when they are far apart.’”

He also expressed hope for families with members who have left the church and shared the advice another apostle once gave him: “You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.”

In addition to loving neighbors as themselves, Elder Uchtdorf provided four other suggestions Latter-day Saints could use to share the good news of Jesus Christ — draw close to God, strive to walk the path of discipleship, share what is in your heart and trust the Lord to work his miracles.

Elder Uchtdorf, who is chairman of the church’s missionary executive council, encouraged church members to simply include their faith in natural and normal interactions with others.

“Invite them to come and see,” he added. “Then encourage them to come and help. There are numerous opportunities for people to help in our church.”

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Sister Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, talks with Sister Jean Bingham, general president of the Relief Society, prior to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

He said some may unfriend members who share their faith, but that shouldn’t stop Latter-day Saints from sharing their faith with confidence, courage and humility.

Love is the key to ministering to others, said Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. He shared the story of the terminal cancer diagnosis received by his brother, Mike Waddell, who hadn’t attended church for 50 years. After the diagnosis, Mike returned to church activity with the ministering help of his bishop, John Sharp, whose motto was, “If someone is on a list that says ‘not interested,’ don’t give up. People change.”

“John knew that a minister is more than a friend and that friendship is magnified as we minister,” Bishop Waddell said.

The church’s ministering program, announced a year ago, is a “higher, holier way” of helping, he added, suggesting that members try to minister like Christ, “the Master, whose greatest service of all, his infinite Atonement, was anything but convenient.”

“There may be other times when we recognize a need but feel inadequate to respond, assuming that what we have to offer is insufficient,” Bishop Waddell said. “To do ‘just as He did’ is to minister by giving what we are capable of giving and to trust that the Lord will magnify our efforts to bless our ‘fellow travelers on this mortal journey.’”

Elder Soares, ordained an apostle a year ago, called on Latter-day Saints to “attune themselves to the highest influences of godliness” and work toward lasting conversion and a genuine spiritual transformation that he said “will bring us a more happy, productive and healthy life and help us maintain an eternal perspective.”

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Elder Ulisses Soares, Elder Ronald A. Rasband, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, Elder Dale G. Renlund and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speak prior to the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

He also emphasized strong gospel teaching inside the church and with those outside it.

“Brothers and sisters, our actions must reflect what we learn and teach,” he said. “We need to show our beliefs through the way we live. The best teacher is a good role model.”

Latter-day Saints know better than to look for happiness in cheap or temporary items, said Sister Becky Craven, second counselor in the Young Women general presidency. True happiness, she said, “is found in living the gospel established by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and in striving to become more like him.”

She described the covenant path — the ordinances and promises and choices members receive and make that can lead back to heaven — as a train track and counseled members to avoid derailment in a world full of distractions that can deceive anyone, “causing them to be casual in living their covenants. If we are not careful in living our covenants with exactness, our casual efforts may eventually lead us into forbidden paths… .”

“There is a careful way and a casual way to do everything, including living the gospel,” she said.

Sister Craven also encouraged members to follow the counsel of the faith’s prophet-leaders.

“Any time we say, ‘however,’ ‘except’ or ‘but’ when it applies to following the counsel of our prophet-leaders or living the gospel carefully, we are in fact saying, ‘that counsel does not apply to me.’ We can rationalize all we want, but the fact is, there is not a right way to do the wrong thing!”

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Latter-day Saints stand and sing with The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City during the morning session of the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

That doesn’t mean life must be formal or stuffy, but she asked members to be careful about their choices regarding Sabbath-day worship, prayer, scripture study, temple worship, dress, fulfilling callings, media and language.

She also said love plays a role.

“I also plead with you not to be critical of others making this same journey,” she said. “‘Judgement is mine,’ saith the Lord. We are each in the process of growth and change."

That kind of love should extend to the self, she added, saying it’s impossible to live a perfect life.

“Although we may not be perfect, brothers and sisters, we can be worthy,” she said.

“As the influences of the world increasingly embrace the evil, we must strive with all diligence to stay firmly on the path that leads us safely to the Savior, widening the distance between our covenant living and worldly influences.”

The secretary to the First Presidency, Elder Brook P. Hales, a General Authority Seventy, said many people are unaware or do not understand God’s involvement in the details of their lives, calling that an aspect of his perfect love for them. He said those who have made covenants and try to follow Christ are entitled to a constant stream of divine guidance and should seek it through prayer.

However, he said, not all prayers are answered in the same way or with the same alacrity and shared examples of each.

“Sometimes our prayers are answered quickly with the outcome we hope for,” he said. “Sometimes, our prayers are not answered in the way we hope for, yet with time we learn that God had greater blessings prepared for us than we initially anticipated. And sometimes our righteous petitions to God will not be granted in this life.”

One of his stories was about Patricia Parkinson, who lost her eyesight at age 11. Now an independent, upbeat adult who supervises language technicians in a school district, she confided to Elder Hales that she has had severe bouts of depression. But when people ask if she is angry because she is blind, she says no because of her experience with the love of God.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Conferencegoers listen to the opening prayer during the 189th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

“Who would I be angry with?” she said. “Heavenly Father is in this with me; I am not alone. He is with me all the time.”

The session began at 10 a.m. The sun worked through clouds all morning to dry wet streets and sidewalks as thousands walked to the Conference Center. Men wore suits, white shirts and ties and women wore spring dresses or skirts. Some wore boots, while some optimistic women wore sandals. Many wore light coats against a pleasant but cool morning, and others stood on corners and asked for extra tickets to the session.

Church officials said 25,318 people attended the first session, with 21,000 at Conference Center and the rest in the Tabernacle and other buildings on and around Temple Square.

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, presided over the session, the first of the weekend’s five meetings. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square provided the music, singing “Now Let Us Rejoice,” “Press Forward Saints,” “Redeemer of Israel,” “Dearest Children, God is Near You,” “I am a Child of God” and “Rejoice, the Lord is King.”

The opening prayer was given by Elder Steven E. Snow, a General Authority Seventy, the church historian and recorder and executive director of the Church History Department. The closing prayer was given by Elder Wilford W. Andersen, a General Authority Seventy with leadership responsibilities in the North America Central and Middle East/Africa North areas.