This week in Mormon Land: Church opposes Arizona marijuana measure; Utah bishopric rocks out; Black milestone is remembered.

(Don Ryan, AP file photo) This May 24, 2018, file photo shows a marijuana plant in Oregon. This fall, Arizona voters will decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana use.

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.

Pot shot

(Richard Vogel | AP file photo) This Monday, May 20, 2019, file photo, shows a marijuana leaf on a plant at a cannabis grow in Gardena, Calif. This fall, Arizona voters will decide whether to legalize recreation marijuana use.

The church opposed a 2018 Utah ballot measure for medical marijuana — it passed anyway — but ultimately endorsed compromise legislation that permitted it.

Now Arizona voters are considering a proposal that would legalize recreational marijuana use.

That’s a nonstarter for the Utah-based faith.

“The church strongly opposes Arizona Proposition 207, the Marijuana Legalization Initiative,” area Seventy C. Dale Willis Jr. writes in The Arizona Republic. “...The church’s support for that specific medical marijuana proposition [in Utah] should not be misconstrued as a halfway step to eventually supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana.”

The recently updated General Handbook states that the church “opposes the use of marijuana for nonmedical purposes.” Cannabis use is seen as OK as long as it is deemed “medically necessary by a licensed physician or another legally approved medical provider” and the recipient follows the prescribed dosage.

In the beginning

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Deborah Bonner leads the Genesis Group's choir in 2016.

Forty-nine years ago this week, the Genesis Group was officially born — and the support organization for Black Latter-day Saints has been around ever since.

On Oct. 19, 1971, Ruffin Bridgeforth was named the president of the fledgling group with Eugene Orr and Darius Gray as his counselors. The historic move came four months after they began meeting privately with apostles Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and Boyd K. Packer.

“Our existence was brought into being by the direct actions of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve,” Gray explained in a church history biography. “...Genesis is by design not like any other unit of the church, but there is beauty in that special calling.”

Mary Lucille Bankhead, a descendant of Black pioneers Green Flake and Jane Manning James, became Genesis' first Relief Society president.

After the church removed the priesthood and temple ban for Black members in 1978, the history bio notes, Bankhead served as proxy for the temple endowment of her James.

In fact, Green Flake died 117 years ago this week, on Oct. 20, 1903, in Idaho at age 75.

Bishopric ballad

A Utah bishopric welcomed back congregants to in-person services by quoting from the Book of Joel.

Billy Joel, that is.

Penning and performing new lyrics to the pop singer’s doo-wop hit “For the Longest Time,” Highland 19th Ward Bishop Shawn McLelland and his two counselors posted a parody that has drawn more than 437,000 YouTube views.

“First we felt heroic, then it soon felt claustrophobic,” the trio croons about all those months of strictly home-centered worship. “Cuz now we’ve been there for the longest time.”

The ballad then rejoices at the prospect of returning to the pews.

“Now we have some good news for you all,” they sing. “Church resumes each week at least this fall.”

If the three harmonizers are ripe for a challenge, perhaps they can pull off a parody of the Piano Man’s ode to promiscuity, “Only the Good Die Young.” After all, lyrics like “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints” may be begging for some latter-day lampooning.

Sun worship

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The town of Fairfield, Utah, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.

The church is interested in turning its green thumb into green energy.

Farmland Reserve Inc., the faith’s for-profit agricultural arm, may unload hundreds of acres in and around a Utah hamlet to make way for sun farms, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Not all the neighbors are thrilled, fearing the project could change the nature of their tiny town, but Farmland Reserve has been looking at some of its agricultural holdings to identify lands that may be better suited to solar arrays.

“We try to get the highest and best use of the property,” G. Wesley Quinton, the company’s director of land and government affairs, said at a community meeting. “We will continue to produce agriculture, but there are locations that are prime for solar, and we want to participate in that. The church has an interest in energy, particularly clean energy.”

The global faith has stepped up its efforts in recent years to build “green” meetinghouses and energy-efficient temples.

Gongs are in the clear

Apostle Gerrit W. Gong, the highest-ranking Latter-day Saint leader known to have contracted COVID-19, has resumed his duties.

The 66-year-old authority spoke Tuesday in a speech broadcast to students at Brigham Young University-Idaho, the Church News reported, marking his first assignment since emerging from quarantine.

On Oct. 8, the church noted that Gong and his wife, Susan, had been experiencing “very mild symptoms” and were recovering at home.

“We are very moved and grateful for the many well-wishes and prayers we have received from you from around the world,” Gong tweeted Friday. “Thank you for your faith on our behalf. Our doctors indicate we have now both successfully completed our quarantines.”

The faith’s first Asian American apostle said the couple would continue taking precautions — wearing masks, frequently washing their hands, and practicing social distancing.

When Gong was diagnosed in early October, other top Latter-day Saint leaders, including 96-year-old President Russell M. Nelson, were tested “out of an abundance of caution.”

“All members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were tested,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said, “and all tests were negative.”

‘Real leader’ reelected

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gives a Book of Mormon to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Wellington, New Zealand, on Monday, May 20, 2019.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a former Latter-day Saint whom church President Russell M. Nelson lauded as a “real leader” after meeting her last year, has won a second term leading the South Pacific nation.

Ardern captured world attention for her committed and compassionate response to mass shootings last year at two mosques in her country and her aggressive science-first public health campaign against the coronavirus.

Dubbed “Saint Jacinda” by the Financial Times, Ardern has become a darling of the global political left, The New York Times reports, and “cemented her position as New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in generations, if not ever.”

Nelson met with her in May 2019 during his nine-day, seven-nation Pacific tour. He gave Ardern a leather-bound copy of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture, with her name embossed on the cover.

“It’s an unlikely scenario; a young mother leading a great nation, a peacemaker, a policymaker, consensus giver,” Nelson said at the time. “We’re very impressed with her. She’ll have a great future.”

He lived for peace; now he rests in peace

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) University of Utah law professor Ed Firmage in 2005.

Ed Firmage was another peacemaker.

Four decades ago, the longtime law professor at the University of Utah — a grandson of the late apostle Hugh B. Brown — persuaded top church leaders to line up against a U.S. plan to deploy MX missiles in the state’s West Desert, ultimately dooming the nuclear project.

“It was his greatest achievement,” son Ed Firmage Jr. told The Tribune.

But it was hardly his only achievement. The elder Firmage, a Latter-day Saint who died earlier this month at age 85, also ran for Congress, joined the civil rights movement, worked for refugee and LGBTQ advances, championed women’s equality, became a mentor to generations of attorneys, and pushed for other progressive causes — “always,” said a Catholic ally, “peacefully.”

This week’s podcast: Abortion and LDS voters

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) Anti-abortion activists outside the Supreme Court in June 2020.

For many voters, including a number of Latter-day Saints, this year’s presidential election comes down to one issue: abortion.

They may not like Donald Trump’s style, but they believe he will support the cause of protecting the unborn.

At the same time, many other voters, including, again, a number of Latter-day Saints, have a more complex view of abortion, with some pointing to the more nuanced stance of the church on the topic.

So how might this debate play out among Latter-day Saints in this election? And how might the current battle over the Supreme Court — and talk of toppling Roe v. Wade — affect the outcome?

Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, discusses those questions and other issues dividing Latter-day Saint voters.

Listen here.

(The topic of abortion and Latter-day Saints also garnered attention this week with an article from scholar Terryl Givens in Public Square Magazine and reaction blog posts by his son, Nathaniel Givens, in Times and Seasons and by tax law professor Sam Brunson at By Common Consent.)

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP file photo) In this May 21, 2019 file photo, Planned Parenthood's then-president, Leana Wen, speaks during a protest against abortion bans outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

‘Faith is as essential as food’

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, discusses the role of faith in disasters during the G-20 Interfaith Forum on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.

The head of the church’s humanitarian arm shared a dire warning recently about a starving world amid the coronavirus:

“If we do not address this crisis in a coordinated manner,” Sharon Eubank, president of Latter-day Saint Charities, cautioned Saturday at a G-20 Interfaith Forum, “it is projected to grow to be among the worst famines in human history.”

Addressing the global group for the third straight year, Eubank, first counselor in the general presidency of the women’s Relief Society, cited U.N. figures showing 265 million people now face “acute food insecurity” — twice as many as last year — and argued that religions can be a powerful force in responding to disasters and easing world hunger.

“Faith communities can do more than identify people in greatest need. [They can] match their needs to local strengths and provide the ongoing support to families,” she said in remarks delivered virtually from her Utah home to the forum hosted by Saudi Arabia. “... Faith is as essential as food.”

President Russell M. Nelson said in General Conference earlier this month that the Utah-based faith “has provided pandemic humanitarian aid for 895 projects in 150 countries,” making it the largest charitable effort in the church’s 190-year history.

Translation vs. transformation

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The power of the Book of Mormon comes not from the unconventional means by which church founder Joseph Smith says he translated the record but rather from the unparalleled ways it has transformed millions of lives.

So said Brad Wilcox, second counselor in the church’s Young Men general presidency, in a recorded speech at BYU’s Education Week.

“It’s the supernatural way that the book came forth that backs us up against a wall and says, ‘Are you going to take a leap of faith?’” Wilcox said in a Daily Universe article. “And the minute we take that leap, then our lives are changed forever.”

Wilcox pointed to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which modern scholars have translated. Though widely accepted academically, the BYU religion professor said, those writings haven’t reshaped a single life while the Book of Mormon has remade millions.

Thus saith Brigham’s biographer

(Tribune file photo) Brigham Young, second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Biographer John Turner says Brigham Young earned immense loyalty from early Latter-day Saints because, in leading them to Utah, “he saved the church in its darkest hour.”

“At times, he displayed an intense spiritual fire, whether that manifested itself in speaking in tongues or through his discourses,” Turner, author of “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” told Kurt Manwaring in a recent interview. “He could also be incredibly down to earth. He danced with the Saints in the Nauvoo Temple and at Winter Quarters.”

The Mormon Moses had “character flaws,” said Turner, but then so did biblical prophets.

“Look at Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s blundering lies about Sarah, or even Joseph, who reduces people to a state of slavery,” the historian said. “And those are the heroes!”

Turner, who is not a Latter-day Saint and is working on a biography of church founder Joseph Smith, said church members “maintain that their leaders are fallible and also that they will not lead the church astray.”

“The question,” he added, “is simply the extent of their fallibility.”

Relief efforts

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Mason Sagers of Canton, Ga., along with other volunteers help clean up debris and fallen trees caused by Hurricane Sally in Pensacola, Fla., on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.

• When the red alerts go out ahead of hurricanes, the yellow shirts aren’t far behind.

The church’s Helping Hands volunteers press into action even before the winds and waves arrive, establishing command centers, lining up supply shipments and mobilizing crews. Afterward, they distribute food, help with cleanup and offer emotional and spiritual support.

A news release and video explain how the faith’s army of relief workers responded recently to a string of hurricanes that pounded the Gulf Coast this year.

“It’s just a godsend, a coalition of Jesus' followers,” Scott Mandel, whose Pensacola, Fla., property saw more than a dozen trees toppled by a storm, said in the video. “I’m Catholic, and I have Mormons and Baptists helping me clean my yard.”

Temple updates

• This week, 149 of the church’s temples were providing marriage “sealings” under Phase 1 of a worldwide reopening plan. By next week, 122 temples also will be in Phase 2, offering “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” No temples have begun Phase 3, which would make “all living and limited proxy ordinances” available by appointment.

Quote of the week

“I find that as I draw closer to [Jesus], I have an ever-increasing desire to be like him. And the more I am trying to be like him, I think it’s easier for him to communicate with me.”

Apostle Dale G. Renlund in a “How I Hear Him” video

Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.