LEHI — The streets are always barren here on Sunday mornings. Usually it’s because people are at church in this city named for a Book of Mormon prophet.
Yet on this sunny, blue-sky morning early in the spring of 2020, it was the fight against the global coronavirus pandemic that kept parishioners from going to one of the three dozen or so meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lehi.
“I went over to church this morning, and it was kind of sad because no one was in it,” Eaglecrest 3rd Ward Bishop Ryan Kirby, 42, told his wife and five children as they sat around their dark chocolate-brown kitchen table on Sunday morning. “It was hard to see it empty. It’s been a historic week, hasn’t it? This is a time you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.”
Nearly 5,900 miles away, that flash of temporary sadness was already familiar to another Latter-day Saint family living in Uiwang, South Korea, a city just outside Seoul.
“We haven’t been able to attend church since Feb. 16,” said Heo “Eunny” Seungeun, a mother of two teenage boys and a Sunday School and seminary teacher in the Anyang Ward. “Sometimes it’s very depressing,” she said by phone.
But both families said they experienced joyful Sabbath days for two reasons — the arrival of a new video message of hope and optimism from the church’s leader they honor as a modern-day prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, and what they gratefully consider the prophetic arrival last year of a new, faith-wide, home-centered gospel study program.
Believers around Utah and around the world found different ways of confronting the pandemic. Some faiths kept their church buildings open for visitors. Others kept the pews empty while broadcasting to believers. Virtual gathering is what K2 the Church did in Murray, Utah, streaming their morning meeting live online.
Latter-day Saints studied “Come, Follow Me” alone or with families or roommates. Some held virtual Sunday School classes on Google Hangout. Many priesthood holders blessed the sacrament in their own homes or took it to those who needed it in their homes.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is really a scaffolding to build the family,” said Daniel Judd, as former counselor in the church’s Sunday School General Presidency.
Judd, who served as a mission president in Ghana, said, “The church has been here these 200 years since the First Vision in 1820 and this scaffolding has been built ... sufficiently now for families during times like we’re facing right now to continue to progress and to flourish when our ability to go to church has been taken away.”
“Come, Follow Me,” is the church’s timely answer to a major faith question during the pandemic: When leaders cancel public worship services for all of the church’s 30,500 congregations and 16.3 million members around the world, what should they do instead?
At the Kirby home, the answer included 8-year-old Camree’s “stick friends,” hand-drawn pictures of leaders like President Nelson and her Primary teacher who help her feel closer to Jesus Christ. Camree’s drawings, taped to the tip of popsicle sticks, illustrated the transition of leadership in the Book of Mormon from the foundational prophet to his younger brother Jacob.
Normal Sundays are marathon days for Bishop Kirby, but he comes home from his meetings at 1:30 p.m. each week to sit down at their dark brown kitchen table to eat and study “Come, Follow Me — For Individuals and Families: Book of Mormon 2020” with his wife Kristin, 39, and their children.
When they finished last week, they briefly planned for this week. Each parent and each of the four oldest children chose their own section of the next lesson, the first four chapters of the Book of Jacob.. They then spent the week studying their section and preparing a short discussion.
An ocean away, Eunny’s family studied the exact same lesson and chapters together on Sunday evening in their Korean-language manual. In the morning, they watched President Nelson’s short, videotaped message and a devotional broadcast by the leaders of their stake — a designation for a group of congregations.
With no church meeting or broadcast in Lehi, the Kirby family moved their study up to 10 a.m. this week. Eleven-year-old Trevor led the discussion on the first section of the manual. The fifth-grader confidently handed out assignments to his teenaged brothers and his parents. He gave each a verse of scripture to read and asked them to look for paths that lead to sin.
While 4-year-old Carly colored vigorously with two crayons — blue and red — crammed together in her fist, 16-year-old Mason led a discussion on being reconciled to God.
“I didn’t understand what that meant at first,” the sophomore at Lehi’s Skyridge High School told his family, “but I read all of Jacob 4, then looked it up. Reconcile means to restore friendly relations or settle with another person.”
Mason taught his parents and younger brothers and sisters that people become separated from God “because we’re not perfect.” The prophet Jacob, he said, taught that people can be reconciled to God through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
That kind of teaching by young Latter-day Saints is exactly what church leaders sought when they launched a revolution in church teaching designed to activate learners, as the director of publishing product management for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion said a few years ago.
The late Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told seminary and institute teachers in 2005 that “the use of agency by a student authorizes the Holy Ghost to instruct. It also helps the student retain your message. As students verbalize truths, they are confirmed in their souls and strengthen their personal testimonies.”
That talk helped set off a cascade of events that led to “Come, Follow Me,” Judd said.
“Our job, with direction of the Brethren, was to help individuals take responsibility for their own learning and then for families then congregations to become more helpful at inviting individuals to be a part of the whole process,” said Judd, now the dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University.
Fourteen-year-old Jacob Kirby’s father learned that his son especially likes discussion.
“President Nelson was inspired that we needed to become a more home-centered church,” Ryan Kirby said. “He may not have known this exact event was coming, but he was inspired to make our homes stronger. Now when something like this happens, we don’t have to worry. We can do church at our house.”
Eunny, speaking English in the telephone interview, said her sons, ages 17 and 14, sometimes found reading scriptures alone to be boring.
“When we started studying the ‘Come, Follow Me’ manual, they changed,” she said. “They talk more and we talk to each other. It’s more fun than before. It gives us discussion topics and we have family conversations about the gospel. It makes it much easier and better than before. Our sons want to do it, and it makes us a stronger family.”
On Sunday, they talked mostly about the Book of Mormon scripture Jacob 3:1, helpful during the current state of world affairs.
“We focused with our sons on looking to God with firmness of mind and pleading to him with exceeding faith,” Eunny said. “We talked about the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
That scripture promises that God will console the afflictions of those who seek him. Eunny said she felt that consolation on Sunday morning as she watched President Nelson’s video with her family.
“I can’t go shopping for food. I can’t meet my friends. I just stay home,” she said. “My job is being an English grammar tutor, but I stay home for my teaching. Staying home all the time makes me depressed. I can only talk to my friends on the phone. I want to go to church, and I can’t.”
She said her boys are tired of being home, too. They’ve been self-isolated for nearly three months.
“When we watched President Nelson’s short, three-minute video as a family this morning, it made me very happy,” she said. “It was really good. He cheered us up. He said it will be OK, it will be good soon. When I heard that, I felt good.”
Most of the Kirbys had seen the video on Saturday night, but they rewatched it as a family on Sunday morning in Utah, where a total of 1,817 meetinghouses were closed, according to church spokeswoman Irene Caso.
“It’s really clear to me the families who are doing ‘Come, Follow Me,’ where gospel study and discipleship is really a part of their families,” he said. “The kids that come prepared, it’s obvious that gospel discipleship and gospel scholarship is an integral part of their families.”
Latter-day Saints worship services have been shut down in Utah before. From October to December 1918, Sunday services were canceled when the Utah Board of Health issued a ban on public gatherings because of a worldwide flu pandemic, said Matthew Grow, managing director of the Church History Department.
“In addition, worship services have been temporarily canceled in parts of the world throughout the history of the church due to government restrictions, wartime conditions or political instability,” he noted.
Some Latter-day Saint congregations in Asia stopped meeting two months ago because of COVID-19.
Judd and many other Latter-day Saints consider the leadership of President Nelson, who was a world-renowned heart surgeon before his calling to the apostleship, to be divinely inspired:
“To think that the Lord has placed a man, a prophet in our midst who has the training that he does medically but also has been a serious student of the scriptures, and to see that coming together even in this very day with this coronavirus with the emphasis on home-centered gospel study and gospel scholarship leading to the Savior, is just not a coincidence. He’s obviously been raised up to this time.”