The world lost more than a great religious leader when President M. Russell Ballard, the acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, died on Sunday.

It lost an effective community builder, an ecumenical unifier who reached out to other faiths, and a leader with a keen eye for history, whose volunteer efforts helped to create a lasting memorial for pioneers of all faiths. Even in the realm of commerce, where, for many years, he owned and operated a car dealership — among the more competitive business environments — President Ballard developed lasting friendships.

His life and work were powerful antidotes to the ubiquitous divisions and tribalisms that infect so much of modern society. He thoroughly understood the dangers of such divisions, as well as how social media can sometimes exacerbate it. 

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But rather than telling people to avoid the internet, he urged church members to fill it with positive messages, and to defend and promote truth and goodness through blogs and other means.

That type of proactive positivity is a legacy that will long outlive President Ballard, as faithful people continue to spread light in a sometimes dark world. It is a legacy bound to demonstrate how goodness emanates far beyond its origins.

But make no mistake, President Ballard was, indeed, a great religious leader, a powerful witness of Jesus Christ who was dedicated to sharing the gospel and helping people in need. His service and commitment to unity grew out of that faith and a desire to honor the Savior Jesus Christ.

His ministry stressed the need for missionary work, the value of councils at all levels of church governance and, always, the declaration that Jesus Christ is the son of God.

His ministry was global — he, along with church President Russell M. Nelson, met with Pope Francis, an ecumenical first in the history of both faiths. He gave interviews to The New York Times and The Associated Press and spoke with international ambassadors and political leaders about numerous issues, including how to improve humanitarian efforts.

But his ministry was also personal and local. He was passionately involved in issues vital to the Wasatch Front. His involvement as a member of the Alliance for Unity was a powerful example. 

The alliance was formed as a way to bridge divides along the Wasatch Front. Its statement of purpose was released shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and right after hate crimes, such as an arson attack on a Pakistani restaurant along State Street, had shaken the Salt Lake area. 

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That statement said, in part, “We ask Utahns of every background to cast a broader look at diversity and to nurture a deeper respect for our differences. It is only when we respect differences that we can be united in a healthy community.”

At the time, the Deseret News editorial board said, “The statement is not the end to a process. Rather, it is a beginning.” That soon became evident. Not long after, President Ballard’s involvement was key in solving a contentious issue surrounding the church’s newly constructed plaza on what used to be Main Street north of North Temple.

President Ballard helped broker a compromise in which the church gifted the city 2.17 acres for construction of a community center.

Two decades later, it may be easy to forget just how vital this was to the health of the community. This was a contentious time. The solution softened angry feelings and helped neighborhoods move forward.

But President Ballard understood keenly that a healthy community not only looks forward, it must pay a healthy respect to the memories of those who came before, as well. 

He was passionate about honoring the legacy of pioneers of all faiths and backgrounds. He volunteered to help the development of This is the Place Heritage Park, devising a “walk of pioneer faiths.” This includes some nine monuments, representing the various faiths that at different points came to Utah and the Salt Lake Valley seeking religious freedom.

In 2022, President Ballard dedicated a new monument located at the This is the Place Heritage Park, specifically honoring Black Latter-day Saint pioneers. 

“It was his concern that this be the park for everyone,” the park’s executive director, Ellis Ivory, said. “He had a tremendous respect for the other churches.”

And, while his interaction with the pope and with international ambassadors helped bridge divides on a global scale, he did not neglect the ecumenical needs on a local scale.

Episode 162: President M. Russell Ballard, 1928 — 2023: Celebrating his life in his own words
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President Ballard developed close, genuine friendships with local religious leaders, including Archbishop John C. Wester, who led Catholics in Utah for many years. As Archbishop Wester told us before leaving Utah for his next assignment, the friendship was important for community relations.

“Elder Ballard would let me know that something was going to come out of a momentous nature, perhaps in the near future, from the LDS Church, and I would call and let him know from our perspective on the Catholic side — because so many times people misrepresent what’s really happening,” Archbishop Wester said. 

To some, the world may look bleaker today than it did on Oct. 8, 1928, when President Ballard was born. But in many other ways, it looks far more hopeful and bright because of him, his hard work, his faith and his example.

Those attributes, and his relentless efforts to unify a world of differing opinions, beliefs and faiths, will outlive him as they continue to bear fruit.

President Ballard not only taught his faith, he lived it with energy and zeal. Today, many communities mourn his death, and yet he lived a life well-worth celebrating with gratitude.