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On Easter weekend, President Nelson opens conference with invitation to clear ‘the old debris in our lives’

Flowers bloom near the Salt Lake Temple, which is currently under renovation, during the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 3, 2021.
Flowers bloom near the Salt Lake Temple, which is currently under renovation, during the 191st Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 3, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Referring to the church as a global family and calling for it to be an inn of inclusion and refuge with no second-class groups, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcomed an international broadcast audience Saturday morning to the first session of the faith’s 191st Annual General Conference originating from Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We gather as a great global family desiring to worship our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” President Russell M. Nelson said in his opening remarks.

He issued a specific invitation about how to listen to messages presented during the Easter Weekend conference.

“As we listen to the messages that have been carefully prepared by our leaders under the direction of the Holy Ghost, I invite you to pray to identify the debris you should remove from your life so you can become more worthy,” he said.

He and other leaders presented messages from the Conference Center Theater, where they wore masks except when speaking from the podium and sat several feet apart. The Conference Center typically hosts 20,000 people for each conference session, but its vast main hall remained empty Saturday, as was Temple Square across the street, where the Salt Lake Temple is under renovation.

President Nelson said he can see part of the construction from his office as workers tear up the plaza east of the temple between the Church Administration Building and the Church Office Building.

“As I have watched workers dig out old tree roots, plumbing, wiring and a leaky fountain, I have thought about the need for each of us to remove, with the Savior’s help, the old debris in our lives,” he said.

He defined Jesus Christ’s gospel as a gospel of repentance that is a constant invitation to changing, growing and become more pure.

“It is a gospel of hope, of healing and of progress,” he said. “Thus, the gospel is a message of joy. Our spirits rejoice with every step forward we take.”

Six other leaders spoke during Saturday’s morning session, the first of five sessions this weekend being streamed online and broadcast by TV networks in more than 70 countries, an increase from 31 a year ago. They taught about the Savior’s message, about sharing it and about kindness.

Outside the Conference Center on Saturday morning, Utah was warming up to break a temperature record on Easter Eve. With the sun shining in a cloudless blue sky, the moon was visible in the southwest and the afternoon forecast was for 79 degrees, which would break the mark of 76 set in 1961.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said kindness is a fundamental, healing gospel principle and applied it to current political events and news.

“We have a primary responsibility to set a tone and be role models of kindness, inclusion and civility — to teach Christlike behavior to the rising generation in what we say and how we act,” he said. “It is especially important as we observe a marked societal shift towards division in politics, social class and nearly every other man-made distinction.”

He asked children and teens to work against bullying and cyber-bullying and said church leaders and all followers of Christ are dismayed by reports of people being mistreated based on their race.

“We have been heartbroken to hear of recent attacks on people who are Black, Asian, Latino or of any other group. Prejudice, racial tension or violence should never have any place in our neighborhoods, communities or within the church,” he said, echoing anti-racism talks from the previous conference, in October 2020, by President Nelson and President Dallin H. Oaks.

“The Lord expects us to teach that inclusion is a positive means towards unity and that exclusion leads to division,” Elder Stevenson added.

He finished by saying Jesus Christ is both the leader and caregiver the world needs.

“On this Holy Easter weekend, I find abiding peace in knowing that ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ and that each of us is known by him and under his kind watchcare,” he said. “When we confront life’s wind and rainstorms, sickness and injuries, the Lord — our shepherd, our caregiver — will nourish us with love and kindness. He will heal our hearts and restore our souls.”

Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles referred to the church as Christ’s inn, one with room for all.

“In this Easter season,” he said, “Jesus Christ invites us to become, like him, a good Samaritan, to make his inn (his church) a refuge for all from life’s bruises and storms,” adding that “He entreats us to make his inn a place of grace and space, where each can gather, with room for all. As disciples of Jesus Christ, all are equal, with no second-class groups. … We rejoice that God loves his children in our different backgrounds and circumstances, in every nation, kindred and tongue.”

Elder Gong said people come to the inn, or church, both with imperfections and needed contributions, and he encouraged members to counsel together and listen to the Spirit and to one another, “including each sister,” he said.

He also said Christ trusts church members “to help make the inn the place he needs it to be.”

He outlined the scope of the increasingly international nature of the church. More members have lived outside the United States and Canada than in them since 1998.

“By 2025, we anticipate as many church members may live in Latin America as in the United States and Canada,” he added.

As of the end of 2019, the church had 6,920,086 members in the United States and Canada and 6,677,596 in Latin America, including Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

“Disciples of Jesus Christ come from everywhere, in every shape, size, color, age — each with talents, righteous desires and immense capacities to bless and serve,” he said.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on April 3, 2021.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, speaks during the Saturday morning session of the 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on April 3, 2021.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Elder Gong also said Christ brings his people to his inn and to his house, the holy temple, to prepare them to return to him and unite eternally in his family.

President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, said the ordinances of the temple provide the only way to return to live with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ “and with our family.”

He said personal revelation comes easily in temples because they are holy places, if church members go with open hearts and worthiness. Temples also provide, he said, hope, joy, optimism and “the assurance of loving family connections that will continue after death and last for eternity.”

“My hope for you and for all your beloved family,” President Eyring finished, “is that you will grow in desire and determination to be worthy to go into the house of the Lord as often as your circumstances allow.”

The refugee experiences of his childhood provided the arc of a message about Jesus Christ’s perfect love and Atonement by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

When Latter-day Saint missionaries found his displaced family, they taught them a message that transcended politics, history, grudges and grievances, said Elder Uchtdorf, who is the chairman of the church’s Missionary Executive Council.

“The message was that God lived and cared about us, even in these hours of turmoil, confusion and chaos,” he said.

Referring to “this joyful Easter season,” he added that “because of Jesus Christ, our failures do not have to define us. They can refine us. … If we repent, mistakes do not disqualify us. They are part of our progress.”

He said Christ’s teachings today continue to be to love one another, to be his hands to help others, to share the gospel, to build temples and serve in them, to be his disciples and seek joy, enlightenment, peace and truth.

Elder Uchtdorf said that if Christ were to visit a congregation or home today, he would know each person as they are.

“He would know your heart’s desires,” he said. “The meek and the humble, he would lift. The sick he would heal. The doubting he would infuse with faith and courage to believe. He would teach us to open our hearts to God and reach out to others. He would recognize and honor honesty, humility, integrity, faithfulness, compassion and charity.”

Gospel teaching was the subject of back-to-back talks by President Joy D. Jones of the Primary general presidency and Brother Jan E. Newman, second counselor in the Sunday School general presidency.

President Joy D. Jones, general president of the Primary, speaks during the Saturday morning session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on April 3, 2021.
President Joy D. Jones, general president of the Primary, speaks during the Saturday morning session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on April 3, 2021.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Primary not only refers to the church’s organization for children and their earliest spiritual learning, President Jones said.

“To our Heavenly Father, children have never been secondary — they have always been ‘primary.’ He trusts us to value, respect and protect them as children of God. That means we never harm them physically, verbally or emotionally in any way, even when tensions and pressures run high. Instead we value children and do all we can to combat the evils of abuse. Their care is primary to us — as it is to him.”

Childhood is a sacred time for parent and child and for gospel teaching, she added.

“Accidental conversion is not a principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Becoming like our Savior will not happen randomly. Being intentional in loving, teaching and testifying can help children begin at a young age to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost.”

She encouraged parents to help children build spiritual resilience early and properly equip them for challenges.

“As we nurture and prepare our children, we allow for their agency, we love them with all our heart, we teach them God’s commandments and his gift of repentance, and we never, ever, give up on them,” President Jones said. “After all, isn’t this the Lord’s way with each of us?”

Brother Newman said children inherit much from parents, but not their testimonies of the gospel.

“We can strive to create ideal conditions so that our children — and others we love — can find place for the seed, ‘(hear) the word and (understand) it’ and discover for themselves ‘that the seed is good,’” he said.

In fact, in President Nelson’s opening remarks, he said, “Testimonies are best cultivated in the home.”

Brother Newman issued an invitation to leaders and teachers throughout the church to work with parents and youth to dramatically improve all teaching in congregations and homes. He suggested reading and studying Christ’s words and teaching, unleashing the powers of families by making homes into sanctuaries of faith and remembering that conversion is personal.

“You have to go there yourself,” he said. “Conversion is a personal journey. A journey of gathering.”

The session used previously recorded music by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, which has not practiced or performed together since March 2020. The hymns were “The Morning Breaks,” “Arise, Oh, God and Shine” (2017), “Choose the Right” (2018), “High on the Mountain Top” (2018), “Teach Me to Walk in the Light” (2017) and “The Spirit of God” (2015).

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, conducted the session. The prayers were provided by Elders Robert C. Gay and James B. Martino, each a General Authority Seventy.