This week in Mormon Land: A virtual General Conference, new scripture videos, BYU Honor Code revolt

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Conference Center sits empty on March 11, 2020. The public will not be admitted to the 20,000-capacity building for next month's General Conference due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mormon Land newsletter is a weekly highlight reel of developments in and about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether heralded in headlines, preached from the pulpit or buzzed about on the back benches. Want this free newsletter in your inbox? Subscribe here.

Coronavirus crisis spreads

Church President Russell M. Nelson promised back in October that this April’s General Conference would be like no other.

He wasn’t wrong.

The governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles announced Wednesday that, as a safeguard against the spread of the coronavirus, the public will not be admitted to downtown Salt Lake City’s Conference Center to view any of the five sessions. Conference will be a totally virtual experience, with members viewing the sermons and songs on the internet and TV.

Flu outbreaks and global conflicts have canceled, postponed or limited attendance at previous General Conferences, but, unlike those in 1919, 1957 and during World War II, people around the globe still will be able to watch next month’s sessions in real time despite the closed doors.

Besides the conference shake-up, the newly declared pandemic has continued to wreak havoc with missionary and temple work — along with worship services.

The church announced this week that missionaries scheduled to enter the flagship Missionary Training Center in Provo and an MTC in Preston, England, will be “trained remotely by videoconference” and then head to their fields of service.

Cutbacks and curtailments already have been imposed in numerous missions, including ones in South Korea, Japan, Italy, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Temples have been closed in Rome; Seattle; Boston; Manhattan; Louisville, Ky; Fukuoka and Sapporo, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Copenhagen, Denmark; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Asunción, Paraguay. Temples in Hong Kong and Tokyo had previously been shut down for renovation.

Regular worship services have been suspended in Seattle, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and parts of the United Kingdom.

And now all stake conferences have been canceled in Utah and across the United States and Canada. Such meetings already had been discontinued in areas hardest hit by COVID-19, including Asia and Europe.

Coming attractions: New Book of Mormon videos

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Ammon serves and teaches King Lamoni in a new Book of Mormon video.

Get ready to binge on the Book of Mormon.

The next batch of videos in the church’s new live-action series about its signature scripture will start coming out this week.

From King Benjamin’s valedictory address to Alma’s conversion and Ammon’s adventures, the episodes will cover eight stories from the books of Mosiah and Alma.

The first 15 videos in the series have racked up more than 25 million views in 210 countries, a news release noted. And the YouTube channels (in English, Spanish and Portuguese) have 300,000-plus subscribers.

The eight new segments will be released one at a time on most Fridays until May 15.

Next up: The books of Helaman through 3 Nephi, which will be filmed this summer.

Mission MTC: From start to Finnish

(Tribune file photo) Missionaries come and go at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

Boston’s NPR station recently spotlighted Provo’s Missionary Training Center and how the church teaches its prospective proselytizers other languages.

“The key to Mormons’ language-learning success,” WBUR reports in a “Here & Now” episode, “may be a combination of immersion, motivation and their relative youth.”

The segment includes newbie missionaries muddling through a hymn in Finnish after spending only a week learning the “famously difficult” language, one of more than 50 tongues taught at the faith’s flagship MTC, and notes that many missionaries return home fluent in these learned languages.

Of course, the coronavirus is upending those rigorous and structured classroom settings, with the MTCs in Provo and England switching to remote training by videoconference.

Arwen Taylor, an assistant professor of English and world languages at Arkansas Tech University, is skeptical that online classes for missionaries will be very effective.

“You can do some online learning, like memorizing vocabulary,” said Taylor, who served a Latter-day Saint mission to Sweden, told The Salt Lake Tribune, “but for language acquisition, you need engaged feedback and someone modeling the correct pronunciation for you.”

An Apple a day — and an Amazon and a Microsoft ...

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Readers got a deeper look this week at the church’s stock holdings — think Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Disney and other blue chip companies — that make up a large chunk of its reported $100 billion rainy day fund.

The Tribune’s breakdown, gleaned from a February Securities and Exchange Commission filing, revealed $37.8 billion invested in 1,659 stocks and mutual funds.

The church teaches its members not to consume tobacco, alcohol, coffee or tea, and the portfolio reflected that. There were no cigarette or beer manufacturers, nor was there an investment in a coffee chain, such as Starbucks.

No money was poured into soda makers such as Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, either, even though caffeinated sodas are not part of the faith’s health code, known as the Word of Wisdom.

A faith fest

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Khemera Dance Troupe, a Cambodian Buddhist group, performs at an interfaith concert March 8, 2020, in the Tabernacle.

The evening began with a Muslim call to prayer and included a welcome from a Latter-day Saint general authority, the sounding of a Jewish shofar horn, Hindu and Buddhist dances, a Native American blessing, and music — lots of music.

The occasion was Sunday’s interfaith concert at the Tabernacle on Temple Square. It was hosted for the 18th year by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, a news release noted, and featured Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Jews, Native Americans, Presbyterians, Buddhists, Baha’i, Sikhs, Catholics and Hindus.

This year’s theme — “Many Faiths, One Family” — “is really telling, isn’t it?” said Walter F. González of the Seventy. “This event stands as a symbol that we can do things together to bless the lives of others. As we do so, we can enjoy mutual respect, understanding, appreciation — symptoms of harmony and love, which will lead all of us to a better society.”

To view more photos from this colorful event, click on the release here.

More BYU Honor Code fallout

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press)A protester joins several hundred students gathered near The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquarters Friday, March 6, 2020, in Salt Lake City, to show their displeasure with a letter this week that clarified that "same-sex romantic behavior" is not allowed on campus.

Rallies continued to rock Brigham Young University in the wake of its policy reversal on same-sex relationships.

• Hundreds gathered for a second straight day on the Provo campus followed by a protest the next day outside the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City.

“We’re hoping this demonstration shows we don’t agree with their decision this week to reinstate the homophobic, anti-homosexual relations clause,” said Jorden Jackson, one of the demonstration’s organizers. “Ideally, we want to be at least where we were two weeks ago with gay rights.”

• More than 2,000 miles away, a weekend rally drew dozens across the street from the faith’s Manhattan Temple. And Cougar legend Steve Young, a football Hall of Famer, tweeted his support for the LGBTQ students.

• The Honor Code about-face also has prompted some BYU students to consider transferring to other schools.

“I’ve had to hide who I am, and I just can’t do it anymore,” sophomore Ben Asplund, who is gay and plans to switch to nearby Utah Valley University, told The Tribune. “I pictured myself graduating from BYU, [as] my parents did. It was the only school I applied to and, when I got in, it was a dream. … There’s no question about it, though, I can’t stay here.”

• During a BYU devotional Tuesday, Steven M. Sandberg, assistant to the school’s president, spoke about forgiveness and specifically noted that the last month has been difficult on campus.

Black students were targeted with racist questions during a panel, while gay students felt whiplash over the Honor Code rollback.

Sandberg choked up near the end of his talk, saying: “Especially those of you who feel left out or not welcome or othered here at BYU, I want to tell you — my international sisters and brothers, my black sisters and brothers, my LGBTQ sisters and brothers … I love you.”

Supporting Women’s Day

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, delivers the keynote address at the fourth annual International Women-In-Diplomacy Day event in Los Angeles on Monday, March 9, 2020.

Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, helped celebrate International Women’s Day by giving a keynote address at a diplomacy conference.

“A great woman is not a woman who does the work of 10 women,” she told the female envoys, officeholders and business leaders gathered at the Los Angeles Temple Visitors’ Center, “but one who is able to inspire 10 women to accomplish their own work.”

Earlier, a news release said, Aburto met with consuls general from Afghanistan, Brazil, Costa Rica, Egypt, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa.

Quick hits

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle David A. Bednar meets with the Sufi Religious Council in Sudan.

• David A. Bednar became the first apostle to visit Sudan, holding multiple meetings last month with government officials and religious leaders in the capital of Khartoum.

“There is a great optimism as we met with people in a wide variety of settings,” Bednar said in a news release. “They’re very eager for freedom, more freedom than they’ve had in the past, and the government seems very determined to be able to fulfill that promise.”

In a video message near the Nile, Bednar, with his wife, Susan, noted a Sudanese tradition that if people drink from the legendary river, they will return to the East African nation.

“We’re coming back,” he said.

• Latter-day Saints in central Utah recently paid their respects to Ivo Peterson, who performed in and presided over the Mormon Miracle Pageant for a number of years.

Peterson, who died Feb. 28 at age 66, began his ties to the Manti show in 1993, when he played George Washington, the Sanpete Messenger reported, before rising to the pageant presidency and pageant director. He also took on the roles of onstage Jesus and offstage costume designer.

The pageant, a summer staple near the historic Manti Temple for more than half a century, staged its farewell performances this past June after the church dropped its support of most large-scale spectacles.

• Latter-day Saints helped with flood relief when rains recently swamped South Wales, the BBC reported, and two missionaries assisted a woman whose husband died after he had a heart attack during the deluge.

“So we were digging through all this sewage and muck and she was just so happy for these pictures that we were able to get out of the rubble,” Brendan Pricer of California told the news outlet.

“We've seen her many times since then,” added Ethan Farar, from Arizona, “and, honestly, every time we see her, there’s a smile on her face. I don't know how she’s been able to get through it all, but she’s a really strong woman.”

• Relief Society leaders are reaffirming church President Russell M. Nelson’s call from last October urging Latter-day Saint women to study the priesthood and understand that its restoration is “just as relevant to you as a woman as it is to any man.”

“Women have much in common, but we also have unique circumstances,” Relief Society general President Jean B. Bingham said in a recent Church News interview, “so we invite the women of the church to follow the counsel of the prophet and really study about what the priesthood means for them.”

The new church handbook points out that all Latter-day Saints, regardless of gender, exercise delegated priesthood authority when they are given formal service opportunities in their congregations. Only men and male youths, however, are ordained to priesthood offices.

• Latter-day Saint Charities has been given the 2020 American Red Cross Partnership Award for its efforts to relieve human suffering.

“I truly can’t think of a better partner than the church,” Gail J. McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, said in a news release. “ … The church just always steps up and helps us, whether it’s disaster response or our blood services business. ... And they’re always there to step up to help people in need. That’s what makes the relationship extraordinary.”

Quote of the week

“This [coronavirus pandemic] represents a moral crisis on top of a medical crisis. And this is a call for gospel action. … Our duty as Latter-day Saints is to not just undertake appropriate social distancing to help spare the lives of our vulnerable siblings in the human family. Our duty is also to assure that this social distancing does not harm them, does not betray our lovingkindness, our deep humanity.”

Sam Brown, an ICU physician who teaches pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine, in a By Common Consent blog post.

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this installment. Subscribe here.