Provo • Latter-day Saint apostle M. Russell Ballard said he has been carefully following the news about Brigham Young University in recent weeks.
For example, in early February, when panelists were targeted with racist questions during a Black History Month event. Or, shortly after, as students reacted to the school removing from its Honor Code the section on “homosexual behavior.” Both have drawn national attention.
And the reports, Ballard said, prompted him to speak at the school Tuesday about the need for love and acceptance.
“In the past few weeks, as I have read news stories and social media posts about what has happened on campus, I knew why the Lord wanted me to speak on this important subject,” said Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “He is anxious to heal any wounded souls.”
Thousands of students and staff at BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, filled the seats of the Marriott Center to hear him speak. Throughout his devotional, Ballard only specifically mentioned “racism” once and remained somewhat vague on alluding to those “recent events.” But his message focused on respect, inclusion and acceptance while warning against discrimination.
“Marginalizing and persecuting people based on age, gender, nationality, religious preference or anything else can be hurtful and misunderstood,” he said. As Ballard, 91, read from a teleprompter, he appears to have changed the last word in that part of his prepared address from what it said on the screen: “evil.”
The apostle has previously addressed LGBTQ concerns within the conservative faith, including at a similar devotional at BYU in 2017. Then, he said, all members have a place in the church, regardless of sexual orientation. And the faith “must do better than we have in the past until all feel they have a spiritual home.”
Still, BYU had long kept in its Honor Code — strict rules for campus that also include a dress code and a ban on drugs, alcohol, coffee and tea — a prohibition on “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings." Those who acted on such feelings could be punished or suspended from the school.
Last month, the religious college quietly removed that section.
Students have said that staff in the Honor Code Office told them it meant they would no longer be disciplined for dating, holding hands with or kissing people of the same sex. But BYU officials said there “may have been some miscommunication.” Ballard didn’t clarify the questions that remain, though he told all students to “build bridges of understanding” and love one another.
He urged those on campus to love God and their neighbors and follow the example of Christ.
“What this provides is the antidote to anger, ill feelings, distress, hate and demonizing one another,” Ballard said. “This does not deny the need for open and honest discussions on campus to resolve issues and deal with challenges.”
He warned against bigotry and attacking others based on how they identify. The senior church leader mentioned the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz as “a grim reminder of what can happen when people are categorized in groups and persecuted.” More than 1 million people were killed there, he noted. Those targeted were primarily Jewish, but the victims included gay individuals and ethnic minorities, he said.
Ballard also quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., saying those on campus should “not be judged by the color of their skin.”
On Feb. 6, during a campus panel on the black immigrant experience, several individuals in the crowd submitted racist questions anonymously to those on stage. They included: “What is the percentage of African Americans on food stamps?” and “Why do African Americans hate the police?”
Both the panelists and BYU condemned the comments. But some students said they didn’t know how the school would be able to really address what they saw as a growing issue on campus with discrimination.
Ballard said Tuesday that racism “stops us from progressing” and discouraged it. “We consider every person divine,” he added. “To love your neighbor is to have compassion — even if they belong to a different group and are at times identified as our enemies”
The divides, he said, can include political parties, religious affiliations, race and gender. But students should remember, Ballard cautioned, that they are all inhabitants of the world and that unites them.
The senior church leader also talked about the younger generations at BYU — joking about their love of smartphones and TikTok — while saying they will lead the church in the future. He said he appreciates their love of authenticity and their commitment to sustainability. He asked them to be more accepting of one another.
“Of all the universities in the world,” he added, “BYU should be where Jesus’ teachings and commandments are proclaimed and discussed and lived.”