SALT LAKE CITY — Plans were changing rapidly. LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson, his wife and members of their traveling party arrived to Jerusalem from London and made an early visit to the BYU Jerusalem Center Friday night in anticipation of Saturday meetings with area church members and visitors.
Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver and Deseret News photojournalist Jeffrey Allred are part of our team of journalists chronicling a portion of his World Ministry Tour and arrived the day before to capture the pulse of life in Jerusalem. Sadly, that also includes regular responses to area unrest. And that unrest was in full display hours later after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the joint mission by the United Kingdom, the U.S. and France to retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons against his own people.
Our Deseret News team and a group from KSL that includes longtime broadcast journalist Carole Mikita, had planned to report on the president's trip to the Garden Tomb and a highly anticipated visit to the shores of the Sea of Galilee to hear the man revered as a prophet by faithful church members testify of Jesus Christ where he himself walked.
That testimony, which President Nelson took first to London, was given at the BYU Jerusalem Center Saturday in several sessions with church members. At the same time, about 135 miles to the north near the Syrian city of Damascus, the first images of the wreckage brought by more than 100 missiles fired to destroy chemical weapons storage and research facilities, were being transmitted around the world.
“The message of the Lord Jesus Christ is a message of hope, it is a message of love, it is a message of joy,” President Nelson told our reporters in an interview from Jerusalem. “It is underlined in this time of a little heightened tension.”
That is why the Deseret News, Church News and KSL are here, and in London prior with separate teams of journalists that include Deseret News writer Tad Walch and photojournalist Ravell Call, to report on the global impact of the LDS Church and the messages of its leaders.
President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, as well as Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, were flown out of Jerusalem immediately following their ministry to the Saints here, to an undisclosed country. They will then carry on to Kenya to be with the church membership there.
Our Deseret News and KSL teams also left Jerusalem early. They made an unexpected trip to Rome for a day, before they will travel on to India to report on that leg of the church president's journey. Keeping up with President Nelson requires teams of reporters hopscotching countries to mark events, but also to report on the church and its members there.
Tad and Ravell left London for Africa Friday and spent much of the day Saturday in Kenya to prepare for President Nelson's arrival there. "We are on the outskirts of Nairobi learning an incredible story of a young bishop and his small family and their self-reliance," he messaged me early Saturday. He will also report from Ghana for future stories.
On the one hand our reporters are on a grand adventure, marvelling at how the 93-year-old president of the LDS Church can travel such distances and have such an impact on all who hear him. But as this excerpt from another message from Walch notes, it's hard work and flexibility is key:
"We took off Monday morning at 10:30 for Los Angeles, did some reporting and wrote a preview story about the tour during a 6-hour layover. Then we had a 10.5-hour flight on Air New Zealand to Heathrow (Airport). When we got off the plane, we called our contacts to see if any work was being done at the Hyde Park Chapel to prepare for President Nelson’s visit. We were told that there was a cleaning crew on hand, so we got directions to take the Tube to downtown London, on the Piccadilly line.
"We got out at South Kensington Station and walked about a mile with our bags, down Exhibition Road past the Victoria and Albert Museum, where two days later, hundreds of members would stand in line to see the man they consider a prophet of God.
"We interviewed the stake patriarch who runs the work crew that was cleaning the building. We interviewed the mission president, Mark Stevens, and his wife, Sister Jean A. Stevens, a former counselor in the Primary General Presidency. … We also interviewed six missionaries, who turned out to be representative of the diversity of the England London Mission. The six were from Estonia, Spain, Taiwan, Germany and Draper, Utah. We felt pretty self-conscious about being in our travel clothes for all of that.
"We finally took an Uber and got to our hotel for the first time, 29 hours after we lifted off in Salt Lake."
Tad and Ravell said they took time for a quick chicken dinner followed by a few hours of sleep, and then the reporting and writing really began.
Coming in the days ahead will be dispatches from Kenya, Harare, Zimbabwe; Bengaluru, India; Bangkok, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
For Sarah, watching President Nelson Saturday morning proved inspiring. As she noted to me upon her arrival in Rome:
"Saturday morning he participated in three press interviews, conducted and spoke during priesthood and general sessions of the Jerusalem District Conference, and stayed after to shake hands with the members. He walked up the stairs of the chapel — which overlooks the Holy City — reaching into the congregation and greeted members and BYU students. He specifically focused on the children. And those meetings were not the only thing on his agenda," she said, noting that he was now making plans to push on to Africa early.
The Mormon children he greeted in Jerusalem — and the world over — know well the Primary song "Follow the Prophet." It's now becoming engrained in our reporting staff: Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, Follow the prophet; don’t go astray. Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, Follow the prophet; he knows the way.
We just hope we can keep up.