Nelson makes history with his choice of Mormonism’s first Asian-American and Latin American apostles

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elder Ulisses Soares motions to someone in the audience, as he and Elder Gerrit W. Gong take their seats with the quorum of the Twelve before the Saturday afternoon session of the188th Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City, Saturday, March 31, 2018.

The second oldest man to step into the LDS Church’s presidency didn’t waste any time making history.

On the morning of his first General Conference as the top Mormon “prophet, seer and revelator,” 93-year-old Russell M. Nelson named the faith’s first Asian-American and Latin American apostles.

Then, for an evening encore, he announced a major reorganization of adult male priesthood quorums in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. High priest groups will be dissolved and combined into elders quorums in Mormon congregations around the world.

Nelson chose Gerrit W. Gong, an Asian-American born in California to Chinese converts, and Ulisses Soares, who hails from Brazil, to fill vacancies in the Mormon apostleship left by the deaths of church President Thomas S. Monson in January and apostle Robert D. Hales in October.

Unlike the 2015 appointment of three men who all were born and educated in Utah, the choice of Gong and Soares marked a potent break with precedent.

Though they had been serving as general authorities in the faith’s presidency of the Seventy, both men bring a wealth of LDS experiences beyond the Intermountain West’s so-called Mormon belt — and represent growing LDS populations in Asia and South America.

“This is the church leadership’s most important nod to global diversity since the priesthood revelation in 1978,” LDS historian Patrick Mason said. “For at least three decades, the most significant church growth has occurred in the global south.”

These appointments represent “an overdue step toward the church’s senior quorums looking more like its global membership,” said Mason, who oversees Mormon studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University. “Just as the face of global Christianity is increasingly people of color, so will the face of Mormonism become that in this century.”

The church reported Saturday that its worldwide membership has now surpassed 16 million.

Nelson has traveled in Asia and even speaks Mandarin. On April 10, the LDS president and his wife, Wendy, will embark on an 11-day world tour that will include stops in Asia, Thailand and Hong Kong.

Gong, 64, a Chinese-American, comes to top LDS leadership, with a background in international relations, especially in Asia.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University 1977 and has even quoted the famed Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard to Mormon listeners at a previous General Conference.

Gong then turned to international relations, earning a master’s in 1979 followed by a doctorate in 1981 from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

Four years later, Gong was named special assistant to the undersecretary of state at the U.S. State Department and, in 1987, as special assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Beijing.

Starting in 1989, he served in several positions at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and then became an assistant to the president for planning and assessment at BYU until April 2010, when he was tapped as a Mormon general authority.

From 2011 to 2015, Gong was in the faith’s Asia Area Presidency and lived in Hong Kong. He eventually became the area’s president.

Three years ago, he became a member of the presidency of the Seventy.

Provo resident Neal Kramer has known Gong for decades as a “very gentle and loving servant of the Lord,” he said. “He is also off-the-charts brilliant. He brings significant international experience to his position.”

Kramer believes the trailblazing Gong “will be a tremendous blessing to the church, as he already has been to people whose lives he has touched.”

Christina Ballif Parkinson knew the new apostle as a BYU undergraduate and has continued the friendship for these decades.

“All of my interactions with Elder Gong from college onward have been positive and affirming,” Parkinson said. “He is gifted with personal humility and a desire to build and encourage others in their good works.”

Gong and his wife, Susan Lindsay, model a multiethnic extended family with parents, siblings and their four children and three grandchildren.

“Gerrit is a third-generation American, but is still very Chinese,” said Becca Warthen, who knew the Gong family in Palo Alto, Calif. “The Gong family has immense pride in their Chinese heritage.”

When Gong was first chosen as an LDS general authority, Warthen said, his mother “expressed her awe and gratitude that her son could become a leader in the church after coming from such humble spiritual beginnings.”

Some Mormons — and plenty of others outside the faith — may remember the quiet Gong from internal church videos that were leaked to the public in October 2016.

In one video, recorded in 2011, Gong was presenting, ironically, the possibility of a hacker exposing private Mormon communications.

“Could WikiLeaks or a group like WikiLeaks embarrass or damage the church?” he asked the assembled apostles. The answer, of course, was yes.

Then there is Soares, the history-making apostle from Brazil, the biggest South American nation and home to the third-largest population of Mormons (after the U.S. and Mexico).

The 59-year-old LDS leader, who was born, reared and educated in São Paulo, earned degrees at the Pontifical Catholic University in accounting, economics and, later, business administration.

He is an example of the “maturity of the church in Brazil,” said Marcus Martins, whose father, the late Helvecio Martins, became the church’s first black general authority in 1990. The elder Martins served in the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1990 until 1995. Most of the nearly dozen Brazilians who served as Seventies, the younger Martins said, have been converts.

By contrast, he said, Soares is “part of the generation that grew up in the church in the 1960s, served full-time missions in the 1970s, and have occupied positions of considerable ecclesiastical responsibility since their young adulthood in the 1980s.”

Soares, also a member of the presidency of the Seventy before his elevation to apostle, began full-time LDS Church service in April 2005. He has served as a counselor in the Africa Southeast Area, president of the Brazil Area and a counselor in the Brazil South Area.

The Brazilian’s rise to apostle, Martins said, showcases “the quality of leadership training, the spiritual maturity, and the potential for international service found among members of the church in Brazil.”

Pumza Sixishe knew Soares in South Africa, where he was an area authority.

Sixishe was an LDS public affairs volunteer and met the now-new apostle when members put on a dinner for then-apostle Russell M. Nelson and government officials.

Soares was “friendly and down to earth with everyone,” she recalled. “We sat at the same table and got to know him even better. Every encounter with him was always good.”

Most of the missionaries Yenaiv R. Aspinwall sees in Mexico are from the United States. That “evokes the thought that the church is a [U.S.] religion.”

Seeing Latino leaders “makes me feel that language and skin have little or nothing to do with the dignity of the righteous in the kingdom of God,” the Mexican wrote in an email. “It makes me think that, for God, we all inhabit the same earth.”

Gong and Soares now become junior members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It’s a lifetime assignment and puts them in the line of succession — far down the list, for now — to someday become LDS Church president.