SALT LAKE CITY — Reflecting the ever-increasing diversity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, members worldwide sustained Elder Gerrit W. Gong and Elder Ulisses Soares to the faith’s senior leadership Saturday morning.
Elder Gong becomes the first Asian American LDS apostle, Elder Soares the first South American apostle. As members of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the men will lead a growing church membership of over 16 million people who speak more than 180 different languages.
Elder Gong, former president of the Asia Area and member of the Presidency of the Seventy, has served as a general authority since 2010. Elder Soares, former president of the Brazil Area and also a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, has served as a general authority since 2005.
The historic, unprecedented calling of a man of Asian descent and a South American to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostle prompted rejoicing by Latter-day Saints from their respective communities.
“I felt surprisingly emotional upon hearing Elder Gong’s name announced as a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve,” said Sang Kim, a Yuba City, California, resident who was born in South Korea.
“It was a complete shock. I had always paid close attention to Elder Gong’s conference talks, partly because I could relate to him in so many ways. And here we are — an apostle of God who looks like me. It’s just amazing to me.”
A native of Santa Catarina, Brazil, Guilherme Berg is a fifth-generation Latter-day Saint. Raising his hand to sustain his compatriot, Elder Soares, was an unforgettable moment.
“It is very exciting to hear that a Brazilian was called to serve as an apostle,” said Berg. “I don’t know him personally, but I know he is a great man and will be an excellent servant of the Lord.”
Brazil is one of the church’s great success stories. Having a Brazilian serving in the Twelve helps ensure future success in the South American nation, he added.
“Elder Soares will be part of this great work and help the church in Brazil and worldwide. I am very proud and excited to have someone from my home country represent the church as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Berg’s fellow Brazilian Eduardo Galvao called Elder Soares a “great, humble man” who will inspire Mormon Brazilians during ongoing political and economic challenges.
“We have a leader that will understand our needs and personally bless the lives of our people,” said Galvoa. “Gratitude is the word.”
Vietnam native Dien Nguyen is thrilled to see a fellow LDS Asian take his seat among the other apostles.
“It’s absolutely awesome news,” said Nguyen, a convert living in Taylorsville, Utah. “It’s exciting to see this diversity — and the church’s outreach in a different part of the world.”
But Ngyuen added he was eager to sustain anyone called to the Twelve by President Russell M. Nelson.
Elder Gong — a Rhodes Scholar who worked in high-level positions at the U.S. State Department and for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. — served the assistant to the president for planning and assessment at Brigham Young University for nine years before being sustained as a general authority at age 56.
Elder Gong’s ancestors left south China in the 19th century to find work in the United States. His mother, Jean, was converted to the LDS Church while a teenager living in Hawaii. Her faith was strengthened while attending BYU when she stayed with the family of Gerrit de Jong Jr., the first dean of the school's College of Fine Arts and Elder Gong’s name sake. His mother went on to Stanford University, where she met his father as they both furthered their education. Elder Gong was born in Redwood City, California, on Dec. 23, 1953, to that foundation of faith and learning. He married Susan Lindsay in January 1980. They are the parents of four children and three grandchildren.
Elder Soares served as the director of temporal affairs in Brazil during the decade before his call as a general authority age age 46. He also served as a stake president and mission president in Portugal.
Elder Soares was born in São Paulo, Brazil, on Oct. 2, 1958. He first learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when his aunt sent missionaries to his home in 1963.
His parents began attending branch services with a few others on the upper floor of a bakery, according to an article published in the LDS Church News. Even today, Elder Soares remembers the warmth of the members, mingling with the smell of fresh bread baking at mid-meeting. "I still have great memories of that time," he said. His parents were baptized after a few months and he followed when he turned 8.
Elder Soares married Rosana Fernandes in October 1982. They are the parents of three children and three grandchildren.