Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God

The following is the text from a speech President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency gave April 24, 2015, at the John A. Widtsoe Symposium at the University of Southern California.


Thank you for extending this invitation for me to be with you on this beautiful and storied campus of the University of Southern California. It is a joy and privilege to be among friends, distinguished guests, and so many people of goodwill who have made this evening possible.

In particular, I would like to thank all those whose efforts have been so instrumental in establishing the John A. Widtsoe Symposium and Chair in Mormon Studies.

I am grateful to see descendants of Elder Widtsoe, our friends from the major religions of the world, and distinguished diplomatic representatives from across the globe in attendance today.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, joined religious scholars and leaders of other faiths at the inaugural John A. Widtsoe Symposium at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles on April 24, 2015.

So many people of distinction have walked the halls of this university. I had the privilege of meeting Neil Armstrong, who inspired the world by walking on the moon. I have admired George Lucas, who inspired the world with tales of the stars. And I have a great regard for many of the stars of the silver screen such as John Wayne, who in role after role inspired the world to stand up for what is right.

In preparing for this opportunity, I was pleased to learn that the University of Southern California has much in common with my Church. You have an astounding international influence—I understand that USC has more international students than any other university in America. I have also learned of your wonderful philanthropic efforts—that half of the students here volunteer in community service.

I congratulate you for that outreach and for your commitment to give of yourselves to lift those around you.

I am honored to be with you tonight, among people who believe that what we have in common is of far greater significance than that which divides us.

The effort to throw off traditions of distrust and pettiness and truly see one another with new eyes—to see each other not as aliens or adversaries but as fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, and children of God—is one of the most challenging while at the same time most rewarding and ennobling experiences of our human existence.

I commend the University of Southern California for its desire to advance dialogue in religious studies and for this effort to seek out commonalities and discover shared values among people of different faiths.

John A. Widtsoe

Eighty years ago, the president of the University of Southern California extended an invitation to the President of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City to send someone to teach a class on Mormonism during the 1935–36 academic year. Dr. John A. Widtsoe was asked to fulfill that assignment.

John A. Widtsoe

Elder Widtsoe was a European, so that alone made him special—at least to me. From an early age he valued education, and he ended up attending Harvard University, where he graduated with honors. Later, he earned his PhD in biochemistry at Göttingen, Germany—yet another reason to esteem our dear Brother Widtsoe. He was obviously a man of good judgment, and I am very happy that these symposia and the chair in Mormon Studies will bear his noble name.

The Growth of the Church

When Brother Widtsoe was teaching about Mormonism on this campus eight decades ago, the Church he represented looked quite different from the way it looks today. I hope you will allow me an opportunity to give a short infomercial on how the Church and its people have changed over the last 80 years. I do not wish to brag (even though it may sound like it). I hope to establish an understanding of the path we have traveled and where we are headed in the 21st century.

When Brother Widtsoe taught at USC, LDS Church membership numbered fewer than 850,000.[1] Today Church membership exceeds 15 million. While this number is admittedly small compared to many of the other great religions of the world, our numbers continue to grow and expand. Church population in Brother Widtsoe’s day was centered primarily in the Western United States. Today, more than half of LDS Church members live outside the U.S. and Canada. In fact, members of the Church reside in 190 countries and speak 123 different languages. We have 80,000 missionaries in the field worldwide. Fifty-five different languages are taught to our missionaries.

As the Church expands, so too does the need for new meetinghouses, and the Church today is building them at the rate of two each week.

Eighty years ago, the Church was more insular, concerned primarily with the well-being of its own members. This was particularly true during and immediately after the difficult years of the Great Depression, when so many throughout the world were struggling to survive. Nevertheless, it was during that trying time that the Church’s welfare program emerged. As a part of this program, the Church created farms, ranches, and orchards that today produce everything from bread to cheese, from peanut butter and jam to pasta.

Each year, members of the Church volunteer four and a half million hours, working on farms and in canneries and storehouses to produce needed items for those who are in distress. These items end up in 135 bishops’ storehouses—small grocery stores—where the commodities are freely distributed by our bishops to families and individuals in need. It is said that the food in these bishops’ storehouses is the best food that money cannot buy.

In addition, the Church has established more than 100 domestic employment offices and has established thrift stores called Deseret Industries in 42 locations. Through these services, those who have difficulty finding or keeping a job receive individualized coaching and are surrounded with a support staff that helps them find employment.

All this has happened since Elder Widtsoe explained Mormonism to his classes here at USC. 

Over the years, as the Church and its members became more prosperous, they began to reach out in a great humanitarian effort to assist those of other faiths or of no faith at all. In the last 30 years, tens of thousands of Church members have extended themselves in more than 180 countries of the world, engaging in a range humanitarian endeavors, such as providing wheelchairs, training medical personnel in how to deliver newborns safely, assembling and distributing hygiene kits, providing villages with clean water, funding and organizing immunizations, and teaching farmers and home gardeners to grow more and healthier food.

A familiar image in the wake of disasters throughout the world is the ocean of Church members, in their yellow “Helping Hands” shirts, sacrificing their own comfort and time to reach out to those in distress, wherever they may be.   

In the aftermath of a devastating hurricane in the south United States, the mayor of a Louisiana city gave the key to his city to the Mormon Church.

In the aftermath of a tornado in the midwestern United States, one public official made a point of recognizing those organizations that had been especially helpful in coming to the aid of those in distress. “In particular,” he said, “there are two groups I especially want to mention: the Latter-day Saints and the Mormons.”

Church members seek to create goodwill among people of all religious beliefs, political persuasions, and of every race, President Uchtdorf explained.

Today, the LDS Church connects cultures, nationalities, languages, and people of every socio-economic status. It encourages people to be good citizens, to care for those who are in distress, to be kind to others, and to nurture and build loving, respectful families.

Today, Church members seek to create goodwill among people of all religious beliefs and political persuasions and of every race. One of our articles of faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”[2]

We Mormons know what it means to be a minority. Throughout our history we have been discriminated against and persecuted as a result of our religious beliefs. More recently, we are experiencing the growing pains of becoming a majority in some areas—which creates its own challenges. In both cases, we understand that the rights of all men—whether they are in the minority or the majority—must be preserved and safeguarded.

Although we do not know what the coming years and decades will bring, we trust that because of our sincere beliefs and strong faith, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be numbered among those who are a force for good and advocates for peace and brotherly love among all nations.

 That concludes the infomercial.

Auschwitz

For a long time my wife Harriet and I felt a need to visit Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp and the site of the brutal murders of millions during World War II. So when we were in Eastern Europe recently, we made a point of making a pilgrimage to the site.

President Uchtdorf shared with religious scholars and faith leaders three powerful insights he learned during a visit to Auschwitz.

One cannot visit such a place without coming away from it changed. We walked along the same paths that so many others had walked. One could almost see weary mothers holding the hands of terrified children, the hobbling steps of the elderly and the infirm, the despair in the eyes of those caught in a cold and terrible nightmare—the immeasurable sadness in the eyes of those who understood what was about to happen. I can imagine them looking at one another—families, parents, children, loved ones, friends, and strangers—their eyes filled with fear, grief, and resignation.

To this day my wife and I have a difficult time talking about the feelings we had in that place of unimaginable horror. In many ways, it is too painful to talk about.

As I stood there, I wondered yet again, “Who could have done something like this?”

I had learned about the Holocaust and Auschwitz all my life. In Germany, this is not something that is talked about once every few years. It is addressed regularly. Harriet and I, our children, and our grandchildren all attended German schools that ensured we understood the cruelty and inhumanity that happened during this time.

So although I was not surprised by what I saw, at the same time it all seemed so incomprehensible. How could anyone be so heartless and beyond feeling that they would do something like this? Who but a demon could do such evil?

The commandant of Auschwitz for much of the time of its operation was Rudolf Höss, a man who grew up in a strict, religious family. His father wanted him to enter the priesthood, but Rudolf abandoned the thought as he became immersed in politics.

What kind of a person was he?

Rudolf Höss described himself as “gentle, good-natured, and very helpful.”[3] His daughter remembers him as “the nicest man in the world.”[4] Later, at Nuremberg, his defense rested on the fact that he was only following orders—that he was doing his duty.

Rudolf Höss supervised the murders of perhaps millions of people.[5]

The first Jews to be executed at Auschwitz were from Upper Silesia. I was born in Ostrava, not far from Upper Silesia. I am troubled to know that at the very time when I was taking my first steps, not far from my hometown, soldiers from the Gestapo were rounding up terrified families and transporting them in railroad cars to that horrible place where they were destined to take their final steps.[6]

Although I was only a small child during the war, I still recognize that the actions of my people affected me and the entire world. They left an inexpressible sorrow and an inextinguishable agony that is still felt to this day throughout the world.

As Harriet and I walked away from that place that has been hallowed by the blood of so many innocents, we felt changed. We were different.

We had learned and relearned important lessons that we must never forget.

Today, I would like to speak about three insights that forcibly entered my heart and mind on that day.

The First Insight: We Hate Those We Do Not Really Know

As I reflect on what happened in Germany years ago, it breaks my heart to think of the hatred of my countrymen toward those of the Jewish faith, the Gypsies, the political opposition, and many other groups. That this hatred led to such horrific atrocities is something I still cannot completely understand. Historians, politicians, and sociologists have all attempted to explain what happened and why. And yet how can one truly understand such evil?

We must love all of God’s children, President Uchtdorf said, because they are our brothers and sisters, even—and perhaps especially—those who are different from us.

I am convinced that one of the major reasons these atrocities happened is because it is human nature to be suspicious, envious, distrustful, and even hateful of those we do not really know.

I suppose we are all guilty of this to one extent or another. Do we really know even our neighbors and colleagues—people we greet daily? It is one of the most disconcerting qualities of being human to distrust or dislike those who are different from us in a variety of elements.

The great tragedy is that if only we could take the time to truly know a person, we would discover that perhaps we are not so different after all.

He who once was our enemy can become our friend.

The Church that I represent has two conferences each year where members of the Church assemble to hear the word of God. We have a beautiful Conference Center that is across the street from the Salt Lake Temple. It seats 21,000 people, and members of the Church come from around the world to fellowship with one another and hear the word of God.

But at each conference, street preachers of opposing religious views assemble outside of our Conference Center. Some of them are polite and desire to engage in rational conversation. However, many are provocative. They shout insults and engage in in-your-face confrontations, all the while attempting to escalate conflict.

Not long ago, one member of my Church decided to do something that actually terrified him. He went up to one of the most vocal protestors and nervously asked him if he’d like to go to lunch later in the week.

This simple act of offering to spend time with an adversary changed both of their lives. They ended up becoming friends.

Now, when this street preacher comes to Salt Lake twice a year to protest at our conferences, he stays at his Mormon friend’s house. He prays with him and his family. The two of them have “lengthy, honest, and sincere conversations about the realities of [their] doctrinal differences, but [they] always show each other friendship and respect.”[7]

These two men exemplify an important lesson: the more we get to know those who are different from us, the more we learn that perhaps they are not so different from us after all. And the more we understand this, the more likely we are to set aside our distrust and dislike of others.

The Second Insight: We Must Speak Up

We all have a responsibility to speak the truth, to stand for what is right, to lift up our voices in support of that which is good.

Too often evil rises in the world because good men and women do not find the courage to speak against it. And sometimes terrible, preventable events happen because we fail to open our mouths.

In January 1990, Avianca Flight 52 approached New York City. One hundred and fifty-eight people were on board the Boeing 707, including several children under the age of two who were coming to the United States to be adopted. In a terrible tragedy, the plane crashed, and 73 of the people on board lost their lives.

Why did it crash? What caused this terrible tragedy?

The short answer is that the plane ran out of fuel.

Fog and wind conditions had caused inbound delays and airspace congestion. And so the plane circled in the holding pattern, waiting for its turn to land.

The crew reported to air traffic control that they were low on fuel but failed to communicate the seriousness of their situation. In addition, the cockpit crew was reluctant to question the judgment of the 51-year-old captain who had logged nearly 17,000 hours flying the Boeing 707. The captain and first officer, perhaps out of respect for the air traffic controllers, failed to demand the absolute need to get a short approach for landing. When one air traffic controller passed responsibility for the flight to another, he neglected to state the nature of the emergency.

One person after another did not speak up clearly—perhaps out of respect for others or because of timidity or because of neglect. 

And so the engines of the Boeing 707 flamed out, and the airplane crashed into a Long Island hillside.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about this event is that it could have been prevented if only someone would have had the courage to speak up for the truth forcefully and courageously.

President Uchtdorf said that standing in defense of what is right is not easy, but we must have the courage to do so.

In a world where intolerance, meanness, and hatred are so easily accessible, we have a responsibility to speak up and defend what is good and right. We have all heard the profound statement attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

This applies to us today. We have a responsibility to speak up for goodness, for virtue, for kindness and understanding. We have an obligation to defend the weak and stand up for the downtrodden.

In this age, perhaps more than any other since the beginning of time, we are exposed to bullies and braggarts—people who belittle others and preen themselves in prideful arrogance.

We can and must stand and let our voices be heard. We don’t need to be provocative or belittling, but we must not allow our fears to prevent us from lifting our voices in defense of what is right and good and true.

I wonder how history might have been changed had the people of Germany spoken with one voice against the evil that rose around them? Perhaps future generations will ask the same of us today.

It is not easy to stand in defense of what is right. We will likely face insult and ridicule. We will likely risk opposition and discomfort.

Nevertheless, we must have the courage to do so.

President Uchtdorf said that we all have a responsibility to speak the truth, to stand for what is right, to lift up our voices in support of that which is good.

The Third Insight: Divine Love Is the Answer

As I walked along the paths of Auschwitz, I wondered if there was any hope. Was mankind destined to reenact the same tragedy over and over, each generation writing its own verse and adding to the song of grief and sorrow of the ages?

I so desperately wanted to hope it wasn’t true that what we really learn from history is that we often do not learn from history.

The question that struck deep into my heart was “Is there hope?”

I believe there is.

I know there is.

And what is that hope?

Must we all believe the same creed? espouse the same political opinions? root for the same football team?

No. That will never happen.

Nevertheless, there is one virtue—one quality—that could solve all the world’s ills, cure all the hatred, and mend every wound.

If we only learned to love God as our Father in Heaven, this would give us purpose in life.

If we only learned to love our fellowman as our brothers and sisters, this would give us compassion.

Love is not merely the goal of religion, President Uchtdorf taught. It is also the path of true discipleship. It is both the journey and the destination.

After all, these are God’s great commandments—to love God and to love our fellowman.[8] If we distill religion down to its essence, we nearly always recognize that love is not merely the goal of religion, it is also the path of true discipleship. It is both the journey and the destination.

If we love as Christ loved, if we truly follow the path He practiced and preached, there is a chance for us to avoid the echoing tragedies of history and the seemingly unavoidable fatal flaws of man.

Will compassion for others bring light into the darkness? Will it allow us to part the clouds and see clearly?

Yes. For though we are all born blind, through the Light of Christ we can see past darkness and illusion and understand things as they really are.

My esteemed friends, my brothers and sisters, I am convinced that had my countrymen felt and applied the power of divine love and compassion, the Holocaust never could have happened. The evil that befell the world could have been prevented. Such heartache would not have descended upon the planet.

It is easy to love those who wear the same color of jersey that we do.

It is easy to forgive those who are like us.

But what about those who are not on our team? What about those who hate us? Who curse us?

We are to “love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use … and persecute [us].” For as we do this, as we love our enemies, we truly begin to be worthy of our heritage as “children of [our] Father which is in heaven.”[9]

We must love all of God’s children because they are our brothers and sisters, even—and perhaps especially—those who are different from us or just appear strange.

This conviction and resolve to overcome our lower instincts and truly love all mankind regardless of race, religion, political ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances is one of the grand objectives of our human existence.

It is the essence of pure religion.

It may not be an easy thing to do.

But it is worth doing, and we can do it.

We Are All of One Family

I would like to end my remarks on the same note as I began. It truly is a joy and privilege to be among people who believe that what we, the people of the world, have in common is of far greater significance than what divides us.

If we only learned to love God as our Father in Heaven, this would give us purpose in life. If we only learned to love our fellowman as our brothers and sisters, this would give us compassion.

Once again, I commend you for taking a significant step in this direction. We must try to really understand and really know one another. We must raise our voices in defense of what is just and good. We must increase our genuine love for God and our fellowman.

This is our greatest hope of preventing the ever-repeating catastrophes that have plagued this planet since its earliest days.

It is my hope that we will look past our differences and, instead, see each other with eyes that recognize who we truly are—fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, pilgrims walking the same path that leads to becoming more enlightened and more refined, as our Father in Heaven intends us to become.

Thank you, my friends.

May God bless you all.

Thank you!


[1] Elder Widtsoe’s class notes and supplementary material were later published in a book titled Program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The membership statistic is taken from his lesson on “Activity for All.”

[3] Rudolph Höss’s final letter to his wife and children, in Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Steven Paskuly, chapter 26.

[4] Brigitte Höss, in Mandy Oteng, “Rudolf Hoss Daughter Pictured” USA-UK Online, Sept. 9, 2013.

[5] The Auschwitz museum states that nearly 4 million people died at Auschwitz. Others estimate a number between 2.8 and 3.5 million. See Paskuly, Death Dealer, footnote 30, chapter 1.

[6] Paskuly, Death Dealer, chapter 1.

[7] See Bryan Hall, “How I Became Friends with a Conference Protester,” LDS Living, Oct. 1, 2013.