Jeffrey R. Holland hasn’t been this alone for more than 40 years, back before the 79-year-old Latter-day Saint apostle was the president of Brigham Young University.
No in-person meetings. No jetting across the globe. No public speaking. No church services.
COVID-19 has forced this self-isolation and social distancing on millions of people worldwide, but few are as gregarious — by position and personality — as the 12 apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“How unusual it is for some of us, including me, to be self-quarantined … spending time with myself that I don’t often have the opportunity to do,” Holland told Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein with The Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem. “Some things I like about Jeff Holland … but some other things need work, need improvement.”
He has “suddenly become very, very anxious about the well-being of other people,” the apostle said in the videotaped interview. “In this moment, I’m concerned about specific people — my 90-year-old neighbor, my 95-year-old prophet and president of the church. That’s personalized it more than I have been conscious of doing in the past. … They are real people with real faces. … I see them for who they are, as children of God. I always did, but now with a threat in the air we can't even see … it’s made it more personal. I am a little more fixed on them than I am in normal times.”
In his regular job as an apostle, he has prayed, fasted, and engaged in religious rituals that are all designed to “enhance reflection and spirituality,” Holland said, but all that has been magnified during these past months.
“It’s been day after day after day, and not minutes but hours,” he said. “That’s a luxury that, in my age and station in the organization, I didn’t think I’d ever have again.”
When some sense of normal returns — “whatever normal is going to be,” he added — “I hope I don’t lose the feelings I’ve had.”
‘Jerusalem talking to Zion’
The New Testament often describes Christ’s need for withdrawing from the crowds that swarmed him, Holland said. “I’ve always been impressed that so frequently Jesus sought solitude, not to retreat or hide, but to reinforce and gather strength to return.”
The apostle’s 51-minute Zoom exchange with Goshen-Gottstein — “this is Jerusalem talking to Zion,” the rabbi quipped — was one of 40 video interviews with religious leaders. Participating were authorities from seven religions spanning 15 countries, including Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading Muslim imams, chief rabbis, swamis, cardinals and teachers.
“Surely the world needs more than masks at this moment. It needs meaning. It needs direction. It needs hope. It needs tools to overcome not only the physical challenges presented by the coronavirus but also the spiritual challenges,” institute Director Goshen-Gottstein wrote in his introduction to the series. “If the crisis is global, the teaching too must be global. While every teacher addresses his or her community, no one had sought to bring together voices across religious diversity in order to offer teaching, meaning and hope.”
What was the overwhelming spiritual message offered by different speakers from different faiths?
Life is precious. All humanity is one.
Holland echoed those sentiments.
The virus is “one of the great reminders” of the fatherhood of God and the unity of everyone as brothers and sisters.
“God cares about all of us,” he said. “That’s a universal message from heaven. This is a sacred opportunity that doesn’t come very often.”
In these moments, “we draw a little closer to God, and to each other,” Holland said, and let go of the “meaningless, unnecessary issues of our lives.”
Holland, who has led a team of Latter-day Saint authorities coordinating the Utah-based faith’s COVID-19 response, has faced personal trauma in the past, but this is the first time he’s had to worry “about members in 115 nations or the movement of 32,000 missionaries at one time in one week and care for their health and their protection.”
It’s been a “pretty good preparation for latter-day calamities,” he said. “ … In the chronicles of time, we are a latter-day organization in a latter-day world.”
In his most recent sermon, during April’s General Conference, to Latter-day Saints across the globe, Holland addressed his hopes for a better world emerging after the pandemic.
“We pray for those who have lost loved ones to this modern plague, as well as for those currently infected,” he said. “When we have conquered it — and we will — may we be equally committed to freeing the world from the virus of hunger and freeing neighborhoods and nations from the virus of poverty. May we hope for schools where students are taught — not terrified they will be shot — and for the gift of personal dignity for every child of God, unmarred by any form of racial, ethnic or religious prejudice.”
Now, Holland looks forward to gathering again with his fellow church leaders and exchanging notes about the experience.
“This has been a provocative, rich period for me,” he said. “What I’m feeling virtually all my other colleagues are, too — they are all in self-isolation of their own.”
Holland hopes they don’t forget what they learned and how they felt during the “COVID crisis.”
It’s made “us more universal,” he said. “I am more conscious of people well beyond our faith, have been aware of them in the past, but this has made it more poignant.”
In the end, Holland and Goshen-Gottstein offered separate prayers in their respective faith traditions — another symbol of their shared connections.