Latest from Mormon Land: Latter-day Saint pair stuck at border; tale of two gravestones.

Also: Ousted sex therapist Natasha Helfer loses her appeal; remembering the end of the priesthood ban.

(Fernando Llano | The Associated Press) A migrant leans on a fence of the Gateway International Bridge that connects downtown Matamoros, Mexico, with Brownsville, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Migrants, including a Latter-day Saint couple, seeking asylum in the U.S. wait in Matamoros just across the Rio Grande from Texas.

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.

Bordering on hope

A Latter-day Saint couple, fleeing religious persecution in Honduras, have been in northeastern Mexico for nearly a year and a half — waiting.

Waiting to cross the nearby Rio Grande.

Waiting for the United States to act on their request for asylum.

Waiting to be reunited with their two daughters, whom they walked to the border to seek asylum without them 16 months ago.

The father, “Felipe,” recalled for San Antonio’s FOX 29 the couple’s “hard decision” of sending their little girls into the U.S. ahead of them.

“Our biggest fear was that they were still being detained by [Customs and Border Protection] when the pandemic started,” he said. “They were able to get out before everything shut down.”

Now the girls, ages 8 and 11, are safe with relatives in Virginia, WOAI-TV in San Antonio reports, and their parents, still stuck in Matamoros, soon may be able to join them. The U.S. government, under a new presidential administration, is reopening their asylum case.

“They’re going to get a new hearing in immigration court,” their pro-bono attorney, Amy Maldonado, told FOX 29. “And when that case is reopened, they can apply to be paroled into the United States.”

Felipe and his wife credit their faith and their lawyer for this new ray of hope.

“We believe in the laws of the United States. … Our beliefs are that in life there are many big tests that we must pass,” Felipe said. “...But we feel protected because we have a great attorney.”

Mercy for migrants

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A mother and child relax at the Family Transfer Center in Houston, where they receive temporary housing, food and other essentials. About 225 migrants from Haiti and Venezuela traveled through Mexico and arrived at the center on Saturday, June 5, 2021

The church is teaming up with interfaith and other charitable partners to provide food and supplies to hundreds of migrant families a day at the Family Transfer Center in Houston.

“This center is an example of the tremendous good that can result when the community comes together as one to offer resources to ease the burden of others,” area Seventy Carlos Villarreal said in a news release. “We want these migrant families to feel safe, welcome and comfortable as they continue their journey.”

The short-term facility houses, feeds and cares for up to 500 migrants daily before they reunite with family or sponsors in the U.S.

Another gravestone’s temple tie-in

We reported last month that the tall granite shaft that one day will grace the grave of church President Russell M. Nelson includes a brass plaque with this inscription:

“This monument was crafted of stone from the Salt Lake Temple 2020 renovation.”

Not far down a hill from that headstone in the historic Salt Lake City Cemetery stands another granite marker with a similar notation:

“This monument was crafted from excess Salt Lake Temple and Conference Center stone.”

(David Noyce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inscription on the gravestone of Gordon B. Hinckley, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Sunday, June 6, 2021.

The grave belongs to one of Nelson’s predecessors, Gordon B. Hinckley, who oversaw construction of downtown’s Conference Center during his tenure as the faith’s 15th president.

Hinckley died in 2008 at age 97 as the longest-living Latter-day Saint prophet. Nelson, at 96, ranks second, a few months older than David O. McKay was when he died in 1970.

Sex therapist loses her appeal

Natasha Helfer — the therapist who was ousted from the church for “conduct contrary to the law and order” of the faith by publicly and repeatedly opposing its doctrines, policies and leaders on sexuality issues — says she “had a good cry” when she learned she had lost her bid to regain her membership.

She wrote recently on Facebook that the governing First Presidency had denied her appeal and affirmed the decision by lay leaders in Kansas to withdraw her membership. (The church used to term this penalty excommunication.)

Still hurting from the disciplinary action and how it was conducted, Helfer wrote that until she “can trust that the system follows its own protocols and teachings, I will not be able to feel confidence or safety in reengagement” with the church.

“Since I plan on continuing to practice my profession ethically and advocate for mental, relational, spiritual and sexual health,” she added, “how am I going to be able to not be in ‘clear, open and deliberate opposition’ to some of the stances certain church leaders have taken (i.e. support of gay marriage)?”

‘A new way of living’ for Black members

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gladys Knight sings at a dress rehearsal for “Be One,” the June 2018 gala celebrating the 40th anniversary of the LDS Church's priesthood ban.

Forty-three years ago this week, the church announced an end to the priesthood and temple ban that had limited Black members from full participation in the faith.

Read this Salt Lake Tribune story from the 40th anniversary that shows how that historic moment changed forever the lives of Black Latter-day Saints.

You also can rewatch the church’s entertaining, enlightening and emotional “Be One” celebration of the event. Do NOT miss Gladys Knight’s soul-stirring rendition of “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” each lyrical line — “we’ll find a new way of living, we’ll find a way of forgiving” — laced with fresh meaning.

There’s no place like home … for an MTC

While starting their missions, undergoing proselytizing training and learning new languages — all without leaving their homes — have proved challenging for many a pandemic-era missionary, not everyone is down on home-based “Missionary Training Centers.”

In fact, Times and Seasons blogger Jonathan Green says “home MTC was good” for his daughter and his family.

“We had our doubts,” Green concedes. “Would it be hugely disruptive to the rest of our family to live with a missionary-in-training? … I also had doubts ... about the effectiveness of online language learning. ... And could online MTC really prepare someone to serve a mission?”

For them, at least, it all worked.

“Constant companionship turned out not to be required, so schedule disruption was minimal for us,” he writes. “... It turns out that sufficiently motivated students actually can gain substantial proficiency in a foreign language in an MTC-sized chunk of time, even in an online format.”

So while COVID-19 wreaked havoc on proselytizers, Green concludes that “if you have to miss out on a few parts of the missionary experience, the MTC is definitely the part to miss.”

For others, no doubt, the gradual reopening of some MTCs — Provo’s flagship campus and centers in Ghana and New Zealand in as little as two weeks — comes as welcome relief.

This week’s podcast: Joseph’s last campaign

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church founder Joseph Smith

Late in 1843, top church leaders sent letters to the five leading candidates for the U.S. presidency, asking each what he would do, if elected, to address the persecution the faith had suffered and to protect it from future repression.

Unsatisfied with the responses, they turned to a new candidate: their own prophet, Joseph Smith.

Thus began the church founder’s quixotic quest for the highest political office in the land that ended with his assassination five months later.

While Smith’s short-lived, long-shot bid for the White House focused on securing the constitutional rights of religious minorities, he campaigned on a host of other issues as well, including the abolition of slavery, the expansion of the nation’s borders, the reestablishment a national bank and the elimination of prisons.

Spencer McBride, associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers project, explores that 1844 campaign, including the tug of war between federal power and states’ rights, on this week’s show and in his new book “Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom.”

Listen here.

General Conference shortened

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve begin General Conference in a socially distanced seating formation on Saturday, April 3, 2021. Come October, the conference's traditional Saturday evening session will be no more.

General Conference — like sacrament meetings and the Sunday block — is about to get shorter.

The governing First Presidency announced Monday that the Saturday evening sessions (in recent years dedicated to women in the fall and male priesthood holders in the spring) will be scrapped starting in October.

“This change is being made,” a news release noted, “because all sessions of General Conference are now available to anyone who desires to watch or listen.”

Some worry that the shortened conference, especially the loss of the women’s session, could lead to even fewer female speakers.

“I really want to believe [this move is] an indicator that there will be more gender parity in the sessions,” said Emily Jensen, the web editor for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, “but the church has shown as of late that even though they say we need to listen to women at all levels of church governance, they don’t actually show it publicly on a general level.”

Last April’s sessions, for instance, showcased only two female speakers and more than 30 men.

The church also announced that the Oct. 2-3 sessions will return to the Conference Center auditorium, which seats 21,000. But, alas, it will be closed again to the public.

Due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, this will mark the fourth straight all-virtual General Conference without an in-person audience. All four fall sessions — two Saturday and two Sunday — will be available online, on TV or on the radio.

Tours return to Conference Center

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun rises on an empty plaza outside the Conference Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 3, 2021. The center will reopen to visitors June 14.

While the Conference Center will be closed to the public during the fall conference sessions, it will reopen soon to visitors.

Come Monday, a 15-month, pandemic-induced shutdown will end and guests again will be able to tour the mammoth building.

The center features a replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s famous Christus statue, a cutaway model of the Salt Lake Temple, and views of the iconic temple and the square’s four-year renovation.

On July 6, the church plans to reopen the Assembly Hall and historic Tabernacle. The Family History and Church History libraries will welcome guests soon as well, along with the Church History Museum.

Kick-starting the kids program

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Camille N. Johnson, new leader the church's Primary program for children, speaks during “Supporting Children and Youth: A Broadcast for Parents and Leaders,” which became available online Sunday, June 6, 2021.

The church launched its new Children and Youth program to much anticipation in 2020.

Then, a few months later, thud. COVID-19 struck.

The pandemic sapped much of the momentum from the new global effort. To help revive it, church leaders aired a virtual one-hour broadcast for parents and lay leaders on how to create meaningful opportunities for youths and children to develop faith in Christ.

“As leaders and parents and stewards of this rising generation, we have an obligation to help them engage heaven,” President Camille N. Johnson, recently installed leader of the children’s Primary, said in a news release, “so that [young people] can prove successful and navigate the challenges ahead as we anticipate the return of our Savior.”

“Supporting Children and Youth: A Broadcast for Parents and Leaders” is available at ChildrenandYouth.Church Jesus Christ.org.

“We’re raising up the future leadership of the church,” senior apostle M. Russell Ballard said in the release.

“This has been such a challenging year with COVID,” added President Jean B. Bingham, head of the women’s Relief Society. “We just barely began the process, and then things shut down, so I think this is really a good time to help [parents] remember that they have the most important impact in their children’s lives.”

Finnish-ing up

For the first time in nearly four decades, Finland has a new Latter-day Saint stake.

The Jyväskylä Stake comes as the result of some congregational reshuffling, The Cumorah Foundation reports in its latest monthly newsletter, and “steady or increasing numbers” of active members in northern Finland.

The newsletter notes that the Nordic country, with nearly 5,000 members, three stakes and one temple (in Helsinki), carries “one of the highest member activity rates in the developed world (as high as 50% attending church regularly).”

Beehive State still buzzing with activity

The Cumorah Foundation’s newsletter also points to a statistic that shows yet again how the church’s home region helps bolster the global faith.

While the Utah Area’s 2 million-plus Latter-day Saints amount to 13% of the worldwide membership, it accounts for about a quarter of the church’s overall active-attendance totals.

Nonetheless, area President Craig C. Christensen told the Church News, that Utah leaders look to their colleagues abroad to see ways they can simplify and streamline operations near the faith’s headquarters.

“We’re trying to learn from international areas,” he said, “to see what’s the essence, what’s the simplicity, what would the Lord have us do and what really matters.”

The reel story in ‘Witnesses’

(Purdie Distribution) The movie "Witnesses" recently opened in theaters.

The new film “Witnesses” is at its best when it zooms in on, well, the witnesses.

So argues Tribune critic Sean P. Means of Mark Goodman’s newly released movie about Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer, all of whom testified to the sacred origins of the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

The film opens with a focus on Joseph Smith. “He’s larger than life, and such figures are more appropriate for statues, not flesh-and-blood movie characters,” Means writes. “...Eventually, as the title promises, the view turns to the three men who scribed for Smith, who saw firsthand the translation work and vouched for the miracle they believed Smith was performing. … It’s in the stories of these men where ‘Witnesses’ gets interesting. … They faced ridicule, angry mobs, death threats and — when they openly disagreed with Smith during the church’s early days — excommunication. The fact that they continued to trust in their faith, and their founder, is both spiritually inspirational and dramatically compelling.”

Read Means’ full review.

By the way, Deadline reports that “Witnesses,” the winning flick from this year’s LDS Film Festival, opened on about 90 screens last weekend to a gross of $155,000 — a “solid showing” of more than $1,700 a screen.

Also from The Tribune

• While nearly half of U.S. Latter-day Saints believe the “big lie” — that the presidential election was snatched from Donald Trump — and almost a quarter subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory, experts say it wouldn’t be easy for church leaders to persuade members to stop believing in such untruths.

“Latter-day Saints have been Republicans for a long time,” Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson tells The Tribune, “and that’s the identity that is at work here. Party identification is a strong drug.”

If the faith’s top leaders wanted to set members straight, Monson says, it would need to be specific, stating matter-of-factly that “there is no evidence of election fraud and church members shouldn’t buy into it.”

To debunk QAnon, church authorities would need to detail its false premises and assumptions.

“That would at least stem the tide of any buy-in at this point,” the political scientist says, “and likely would move opinion on it — especially since the church does this so infrequently.”

• Step back into the pioneer past by following the Mormon Pioneer Trail. This story explores those forebears’ footsteps just outside Salt Lake City.

Relief efforts

Latter-day Saint Charities, the church’s humanitarian arm, has awarded $5 million in grants to nine agencies to help them resettle more than 9,000 refugees.

The money, which continues a long-lasting effort by the faith to assist with refugees around the world, went to the following organizations: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; International Rescue Committee; U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants; Church World Service; Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS); Episcopal Migration Ministries; Ethiopian Community Development Council; World Relief.

“Over the years, [Latter-day Saint Charities has] helped thousands of refugees find a safe, stable home in the United States — from furnishing apartments for families to supporting refugee mothers struggling to keep food on the table for their children during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Megan Bracy, director of refugee and migrant services for LIRS, said in a news release. “We truly couldn’t do it without them.”

Temple updates

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) James and Christi Gray attend the groundbreaking ceremony Saturday, June 5, 2021, for the Tallahassee Temple.

• A groundbreaking ceremony Saturday launched construction on what will be Florida’s third Latter-day Saint temple.

The single-spired, one-story, 29,000-square-foot Tallahassee Temple, originally announced in the April 2020 General Conference, will join temples in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale in serving Florida’s more than 160,000 members.

One of those members, 94-year-old James Andrew Gray Sr. is especially grateful to see a temple coming to the Sunshine State’s capital.

“We have wanted a temple for a long time,” he said in a news release. “I didn’t know that I would live to see one.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rendering of the Lindon Utah Temple.

• Latter-day Saints now know what Utah’s Lindon Temple will look like.

The church recently released a rendering of the two-spired, three-story, 81,000-square-foot edifice.

No groundbreaking date has been set.

Utah has 15 operating temples — though at reduced capacity due to the coronavirus — with two pioneer-era structures (Salt Lake and St. George) undergoing renovation. Another 10, counting the one in Lindon, are in the works.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Helena Montana Temple

• A groundbreaking is set for June 26 for Montana’s second temple, the church announced.

The single-spired, one-story temple, 10,000-square-foot Helena Temple, along with the existing Billings Temple, will serve the Treasure State’s 50,000-plus members.

• This month and next, 60 temples — including all the operating temples in Utah — are scheduled to shift to Phase 3 of the church’s reopening plan by offering limited vicarious ordinances for the dead, along with all living ordinances, to members who make online reservations, according to a news release.

Quote of the week

“That Mormon leaders believed [Joseph] Smith could win the presidency did not necessarily mean that they believed he would win. It was merely one possible avenue through which they believed divine providence could work to restore the United States to its privileged place in God’s grand plan for the world and to help the Saints reclaim their promised land of Zion.”

Spencer McBride, in his new book, “Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom.”

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