DETROIT, Mich. — Standing in front of the Vatican after meeting with Pope Francis, on a rainy rugby field in Tonga, and in a vast, cement-floored convention hall in Detroit, President Russell M. Nelson has repeated a phrase with an intriguing personal origin in a yearlong call for unity across races, religions and gender and within the human family.

The first time many heard the leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use a variation of his message that people should “build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation” came in the spring of 2018.

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He first used it during a press conference in Salt Lake City announcing a partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Then he said it at the end of the international broadcast of the “Be One” celebration, which heralded the 40th anniversary of the revelation that lifted the church’s past restriction on blacks holding the priesthood and receiving temple blessings.

The message has resonated with NAACP leaders and members and with African American church members. President Nelson told the Deseret News for this story that the origins of the phrase go back decades, and his application of it in 2019 is equally diverse.

The Vatican

On a sun-splashed March day at the Vatican, President Nelson became the first president of the church to meet with Pope Francis, then emerged to discuss one of the key highlights of the meeting with media on the street outside St. Peter’s Square.

“Well, to me it was getting to know him, and for his getting to know us and find that we had so many points in common,” he said. “The differences in doctrine are real and they’re important, but they’re not nearly as important as the things we have in common — our concern for human suffering, the importance of religious liberty for all of society and the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation.”

In Tonga

His Majesty King Tupou VI stands with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Royal Palace in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019.
FILE - His Majesty King Tupou VI stands with President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Royal Palace in Nuku‘alofa, Tonga, on May 23, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A few months later on a humid, rainy night at an outdoor devotional in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, President Nelson used the phrase again, this time in the context of the church’s doctrine on eternal relationships. It applied to working together within families, across gender and in the overall human family.

“Now, we know that through the ordinances of the priesthood and fidelity to covenants made in the temple, families can be together,” he said. “The fondest yearning of the human heart is for continued relationships with those we love beyond the veil of death. That fondest hope is now more than a hope. It can now be a reality.

“Prior to our meeting tonight, we met with a wonderful stake president and his children. His wife suddenly and unexpectedly died just recently, and they were grieving, but they know and we know that they can be together again forever.

“That understanding of the brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of women can only take place as we understand the fatherhood of God. This understanding inspires us with a passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation.”

To the NAACP

Then on July 21, President Nelson strode across the floor of the Cobo Center’s echoing convention hall and spoke for the church on the issue of race, saying he wants the church and NAACP members to become dear friends.

“Simply stated, we strive to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation,” he said.

He quoted a Book of Mormon scripture that Jesus Christ invites “all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he (denies) none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.”

“You who are gathered here in this room strive to make this heavenly truth an earthly reality,” he told 3,000 African Americans in the hall and many more watching a livestream broadcast online. “I commend you for it. And yet we all realize that, as a society and as a country, we have not yet achieved the harmony and mutual respect that would allow every man and woman and every boy and girl to become the very best version of themselves.”

He said the cure is to follow Christ’s second great commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” He said the NAACP president, Derrick Johnson, set the example when he received a public service award on behalf of the NAACP presented by Brigham Young University’s Management Society. Later, when asked why he would accept an award from the church’s flagship university, Johnson said, “Because that’s our neighbor.”

“That was a profound response,” President Nelson said. “We are all connected, and we have a God-given responsibility to help make life better for those around us. We don’t have to be alike or look alike to have love for each other. We don’t even have to agree with each other to love each other. If we have any hope of reclaiming the goodwill and sense of humanity for which we yearn, it must begin with each of us, one person at a time.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hugs the Rev. Amos Brown after his introduction at the 110th NAACP convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
FILE - President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hugs the Rev. Amos Brown after his introduction at the 110th NAACP convention in Detroit on Sunday, July 21, 2019. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

An NAACP national board member, the Rev. Theresa Dear, said the board and the organization’s members were deeply impressed.

“The overall sentiment was that President Nelson gets it, and the church gets it,” she said. “They understand why it’s important for us to come together and come together now.”

She said NAACP leaders and members were grateful that he came to their convention, in her words, to emphasize unity and togetherness “when we are in a political landscape where there’s lots of othering and scapegoating.

“To hear someone of his distinction talk about togetherness was profound.”

“It was absolutely historic in nature that President Nelson would come to our convention at this juncture in the NAACP’s history and America’s history,” she added. “I think his presence sent a message to the world that people who have different histories can come together for a common and alike cause and build something exceptional together for humanity.”

She called it a message about humanity.

“That message resonated with me as one of access and progress versus barriers and stagnation,” she said. “It’s a way for us to find common ground. And it provides us an opportunity to build a philosophical and practical apparatus, which would allow us to move or transport ideas, resources, initiatives and teams from one positive place to an even greater, positive place.”

The church and the NAACP have created a trailblazing new partnership that is bringing critical, customized personal finance courses based on the church’s self-reliance program to a sodium swamp in Chicago and a historic African American church in San Francisco.

“I also look at that message as a way to create a platform that unites us and brings us together, rather than dividing us and preventing us from having access to one another,” the Rev. Dear said. “It’s a place where our values intersect, and where we can make a strategic impact together.”

Church reaction

President Nelson’s use of the phrase at the Be One concert and with the NAACP gave reason for cautious optimism to James C. Jones, 31, an African American church member in Boston, Massachusetts.

“I think he made it pretty clear last year with that press conference announcing their partnership that he wanted to go for racial and ethnic harmony while abolishing prejudice,” said Jones, who co-hosts a podcast called “Beyond the Block” with a gay church member named Derek Knox. “If the church is trying to build bridges with an organization built for the purpose of advancing a people we’ve literally historically dispossessed, the church is going to have to do a lot prioritizing, a lot of understanding.”

Jones serves as an interfaith specialist in his ward and as a baptistry coordinator in the Boston Temple. He and other African American members said that while they know that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe in racial equality, there are not many examples that equal the clarity of President Nelson’s message.

“But here you do have what that phrase means from the head of the church,” Jones said. “I’m not inclined to believe it means that much just yet for the whole church. I hope it means that the church is going to make a concerted effort to prioritize its relationship with the black community through this historic partnership.”

“I hope it means that the church is going to make a concerted effort to prioritize its relationship with the black community through this historic partnership.”

Kwaku El, 23, a BYU communications major from Houston, Texas, said he sees a narrative of racial strife in the Book of Mormon that was corrected by Jesus Christ. One people, the Nephites, removed from their history the name of Samuel, a prophet from another people with darker skin, the Lamanites.

“They don’t like them because of their skin color, among other things,” El said. “And then they try to remove them from their history the same way, unfortunately, American society has removed a lot of brown voices from the historical narrative. But then Jesus comes in Third Nephi and tells them to put Samuel back in their narrative. To me, one way that the Book of Mormon is relevant today is that it helps us think about figuring out how to navigate away from colorism and racism and all kinds of prejudice.”

El said watching the video of President Nelson’s speech to the NAACP was powerful.

“I thought that him being there and saying what he said is going to be something with real lasting power in Latter-day Saint history. I think that’s going to be a thing that we’re going to look back at. So I loved it.”

President Nelson’s history

President Nelson actually used his phrase about building bridges rather than walls more than a quarter century ago.

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In April 1994, after spending a decade in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with a special assignment to gain access for the church to operate in the Soviet Bloc, he spoke on tolerance and love in a church general conference. He used a variation of the phrase and then said, “Our Creator decreed ‘that there should be no contention one with another, but that they should look forward with one eye, having one faith and one baptism, having their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.’”

Today, President Nelson recalls the experiences that have shaped this approach.

“I don’t know that I can cite a specific time but much of my thinking has come from my work opening up the countries of Eastern Europe under the yoke of Communism,” he recently told the Deseret News. “Those were very, very difficult times. It was then I realized that as long as people are under dictatorships, they’re limited. As long as people are imprisoned by labels, they’re limited by those labels.

“Really, if they can get rid of the shackles that limit them, they can grow, they can be free. So the building of bridges which lead to understanding are more productive than building walls of segregation. The Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain and all those things, they’re limiting. The Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates people from labels that would otherwise limit and restrict the capacity for continuing progress.”

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