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.
‘The Book of Mormon’ turns 10
Can you believe that “The Book of Mormon” musical is 10 years old?
It’s true. It has been a decade since Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) first took to the Broadway stage to joyously sing about getting his own planet as his nerdy companion, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), lovingly lied his way to convert after convert in the jungles of Uganda.
Since its March 24, 2011, premiere at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre — after some preview performances — the bawdy but beloved musical went on to earn nine Tony Awards and pack playhouses across the globe, including in the heart of Mormonism, Salt Lake City.
Even as the show celebrates its diamond anniversary, not everyone sees the play as a gem. Plenty of people cringe at its vulgar vocabulary, merciless mocking of members and denigrating portrayal of Africans.
Hollands return to their roots for RootsTech
Last week’s RootsTech Connect family history conference made history.
All virtual and all free for the first time, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the online gathering drew a record million participants.
It included a Family Discovery Day video presentation by apostle Jeffrey R. Holland and his wife, Patricia Holland, discussing their rural roots in southern Utah.
Viewers may have noticed something different about the 80-year-old apostle. He was using a walker.
“Elder Holland had some health challenges about a year ago, and this left him with some numbness in his legs,” church spokesperson Doug Andersen said. “This is gradually improving, but from time to time he will use a cane or a walker to provide some stability as he grows stronger.”
The video showed Holland at a St. George candy store — a gathering place when he was a teenager — with some of his children and grandchildren.
“Are you kids getting treats? Grandpa’s buying,” he said. “Load up. This is your chance.”
Holland then offered his grandchildren some nourishment for the soul.
“When push comes to shove, when you’re in difficulty in this world,” he said, “you have three things. You have your faith. You have your friends. And you have your family.”
Missionary work may never be the same
Like many others, apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf is calling for a new normal after COVID-19 — at least with proselytizing.
“When restrictions to our missionary work ease again, don’t just go back to the old ways. Go back to the future,” Uchtdorf counseled the church’s full-time missionaries in a global digital devotional. “Move forward and upward as you apply what you have learned during the pandemic.”
Technology, missionaries have learned, is in; tracting is out. Smartphones can be a smart tool.
“You will find people of any nation or language, of any religious or socioeconomic background — everyone,” Uchtdorf said. “With the help of technology, people might even find you.”
Most missionaries these days are doing their contacting and teaching via technology from their apartments — and discovering creative ways to do so.
Of course, not all “old things are done away.” Members and missionaries alike look forward to the safe and widespread resumption of in-person lessons and communal worship.
“Don’t neglect proven principles and practices from before the pandemic,” Uchtdorf said. “But learn, add and adapt technological advances that the Lord has provided to accomplish his work in your time and in your season.”
His wife, Harriet Uchtdorf, echoed that advice, encouraging the missionaries to “use the wonders of modern technology to find and teach the gospel with creativity and guided by the spirit.”
In a Brigham Young University devotional this week, apostle Gary E. Stevenson also talked about how missionaries go about their work in the time of COVID-19.
“In some instances, they teach outside, socially distanced. In other places, where greater restrictions are in place, missionary teaching originates from missionary apartments, done virtually,” he said. “For several months now, newly called missionaries have completed their [Missionary Training Center] training in an online virtual framework from their homes.”
Before the coronavirus struck, 62,000 full-time missionaries were serving around the world, a news release noted. Within weeks, that number plummeted to 40,000 and has gradually rebounded to 54,000.
This week’s podcast: BYU report on campus racism
BYU released a 64-page report from a faculty committee last week on “Race, Equity and Belonging” at the Provo school.
It exposed widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students, who say they often feel “isolated and unsafe” from racism they encounter at the church’s flagship university.
Many students of color end up transferring or dropping out as a result of experiences that leave them “disillusioned, brokenhearted and struggling.” The report noted that “current systems at the university are inadequate for coordinating services for students seeking assistance with challenges related to race” and recommended 26 changes as “first steps” toward addressing the problems.
On this week’s podcast, BYU law professor Michalyn Steele, the committee’s only Native American, discussed the report and why she remains optimistic that meaningful changes will occur to make the school a better place for all.
Witness the women
From Eve to Mary to Emma and beyond, women have always been “powerful” witnesses to the Christian and Mormon message.
So write Amanda Freebairn and Hanna Seariac in a recent essay for Public Square Magazine in which they review the role women have played as witnesses in ancient scripture, pioneer times and today’s church.
“While it is clear that our Heavenly Parents have always trusted their daughters to play an important role in the work of salvation,” they write, “it is also the case that too many women in the church sometimes feel undervalued.”
The church is striving to change that, Freebairn and Seariac note, by seeing that women’s stories are prominently shared.
Witness, for instance, that:
• “About 40% of the names mentioned in the first volume of ‘Saints’ are women,” the co-authors state, “a significant improvement over past church history volumes.”
The piece in Public Square, an online outlet published from a Latter-day Saint perspective, also points to the 2019 policy shift that allows women to act as official witnesses at baptisms and temple “sealings.”
And the winning films are ...
The 110-minute movie tells the story of the foundational Latter-day Saints who swore to the coming forth of the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.
The audience, however, chose Spanky Dustin Ward’s “The Santa Box” about how a girl, feeling cursed by Christmas, changes her view of the holiday.
The judges and the crowds agreed on the other winners:
• Feature documentary: “Remembering Heaven,” Sarah Hinze and Tom Laughlin .
• Short film: “The Stranger,” Kurt Hale.
• Short documentary: “The Most Beautiful Trail in America,” Dave Baumann and Davis Yates .
• Music video: “Wonder,” Ryan Stream and Alex Brinkley .
Revisiting a Russian affront
Two years ago this week, Russian authorities burst into a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse near the Black Sea and detained a pair of young Latter-day Saint volunteers-cum-missionaries.
Kole Brodowski and David Gaag were accused of violating their visas by teaching English without a license, a charge they repeatedly denied.
It would take nearly three weeks for the two elders to be released and deported. Brodowski, nearing the end of his mission, returned home to California. Gaag, who had been in Russia for barely a month, flew to New York for several days before being reassigned to the Baltics.
“From the moment the police walked [in],” he said at the time, “I felt God reassuring me that everything would be all right. I felt his comforting hand as I prayed day and night.”
Nearly three years ago, church President Russell M. Nelson famously stated that a temple would be built in a “major” Russian city. That location has yet to be announced.
Equality vs. fairness
The church reaffirmed last week that it backs legislation that protects LGBTQ people as well as religious individuals and institutions.
Patterned after 2015′s so-called Utah compromise, the Beehive State Republican’s proposal would shield LGBTQ individuals from housing and employment discrimination while also allowing schools to follow religious standards without being defunded and small-business owners to refuse to participate in activities contrary to their beliefs.
Civil and gay rights groups argue Stewart’s bill would erode existing nondiscrimination protections.
In 2019, the church complained that the Equality Act “provides no protections for religious freedom.”
“It would instead repeal long-standing religious rights under the  federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, threaten religious employment standards, devastate religious education, defund numerous religious charities and impose secular standards on religious activities and properties.”
In its latest news release, the church expressed confidence that a “balanced, fair and unifying approach can be achieved.”
Helping LGBTQ youths
The contribution will help Utah-born Encircle expand its resource centers into neighboring states.
Smith lauded the nonprofit organization’s “amazing work.”
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to contribute to their mission of creating more inclusive communities and providing much needed hope and support to youth,” he said. “Encircle is an incredible example of the entrepreneurial spirit and drive that motivates people to create a better, more accepting world.”
For his part, Reynolds, the Imagine Dragons frontman, has been out front in his LGBTQ advocacy, launching the highly successful LoveLoud fundraising concert.
“I don’t feel a need to denounce Mormonism,” Reynolds said during an interview in the 2018 documentary “Believer.” “I do feel a need as a Mormon to speak out against things that are hurting people.”
Encircle, which opened its first resource center several years ago near the Provo City Center Temple, now has operations in Salt Lake City, St. George and, soon, Heber City. It is raising money to build eight more homes in Utah, Arizona, Idaho and Nevada.
$20M for COVID vaccinations
The church is partnering with a familiar friend to take on an all-too-familiar foe: COVID-19.
Latter-day Saint Charities is kicking in $20 million toward UNICEF’s push to procure and distribute 2 billion vaccines in nearly 200 countries by year’s end.
The grant from the faith’s humanitarian arm, the United Nations agency reported, is the single biggest contribution so far from a private-sector partner toward the effort.
The shots will be given to front-line health care and social workers, as well as those who are at high risk or vulnerable to serious complications from the coronavirus.
“COVID-19 is the first truly global crisis we have seen in our lives. No matter where we live, the pandemic affects every person, including children,” Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said a joint news release from the agency and the Utah-based faith. “There has never been a more urgent need to work together.”
This is hardly the first time the church has joined hands with the United Nations to fight the pandemic. Last year, it gave $3 million to help UNICEF provide water, sanitation and hygiene services to countries struggling to cope with the virus.
UNICEF’s team and organization “have done so much to care for children and their families and help them meet basic needs and fulfill their potential,” Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who oversees the faith’s financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, said in the release. “As more adults in vulnerable communities are vaccinated, critical health, nutritional and educational services for children in need will be able to resume. We hold hope in our hearts not only of overcoming the pandemic, but of seeing a brighter future for all children and their families.”
• The biblical petition to “give us this day our daily bread” is being answered for tens of thousands of refugees in northeastern Syria, courtesy of a collaboration between a Catholic nun and Latter-day Saint Charities.
With the help of other innovators, the partners developed an ingenious mobile bakery capable of producing 120,000 pieces of Arabic bread in a 24-hour period.
“We thank, with all our hearts, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for all their support in conceiving and in executing the mobile automatic bakery,” Agnes Mariam de la Croix, affectionately known as “Mother Agnes,” said in a news release. “We hope that we will have more than one so that we can cover all the needs of all the people starving in Syria and maybe elsewhere.”
That’s the plan. Two more of the roving bakeries — housed in standard shipping containers — have now been built, the release stated, and soon will be supplying bread in neighboring Lebanon
Mike and Liz Freckleton, former Latter-day Saint Charities representatives, praised Mother Agnes, their “good friend,” for her years of discipleship to displaced people.
“It was a marvelous experience to work with such devoted people,” Mike said in the release. “We felt the power of the Lord in everything we did.”
• When a Texas-size winter storm slammed the Lone Star State, Latter-day Saints responded with Texas-size relief shipments.
The church sent 36 semitruckloads of food, water, mattresses and other supplies from its Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City to Texas and Oklahoma, a news release said, amounting to nearly 400 tons of food and more than 17,000 cases of water.
A truck delivered 20 pallets of water, for instance, to Uvalde, a city of 16,000 residents in southwestern Texas.
“We are so grateful for this help right now, and we’re going to be able to help so many people because of it,” Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said in the release. “...We are going to send a lot of this shipment out to places … where they’re still boiling their water.”
In Houston, Latter-day Saints united with interfaith volunteers to bring food to those in need — and just in time.
“We’re running out of basic items,” Les Cave, CEO of Northwest Assistance Ministries, said in a separate release, “and now here you are with what we need.”
• Fourteen temples are in Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan, offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a news release. On March 15, they will be joined by five more temples, in Cardston, Alberta; Kona, Hawaii; Laie, Hawaii; Papeete, Tahiti; and San Salvador, El Salvador.
Most other temples are in Phase 2, providing “all temple ordinances for living individuals.” Starting next week, 12 temples will be in Phase 1, allowing only marriage “sealings.”
Meanwhile, nine temples have “paused” operations due to “local COVID-19 restrictions.”
See this list for the status of all temples.
Quote of the week
“When I began writing for The Trib, I wrote mainly about Mormons and Utah culture. It was a target-rich environment. Mostly because, as Walter Lippmann once said, ‘Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.’
“While most people appreciated the humor, I did receive angry feedback from fellow Mormons accusing me of light-mindedness, heresy, and being in desperate need of excommunication or blood atonement.
“...You’ve given me a lot of laughs over the past 26 years, as well as support when I wrote about my wife’s cancer, my dad’s death, my brother’s suicide and the death of a friend. I can’t thank you enough.
“But it’s time for me to go. I’m retiring….Please continue to support The Salt Lake Tribune. Being informed is important, even if it means that you don’t always like what you read.”
Mormon Land is a weekly newsletter written by David Noyce and Peggy Fletcher Stack. Subscribe here.