The Mormon church’s newest — and most diverse — apostles say they’re just regular people humbled by the calling

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Mormon apostles Elder Ulisses Soares and Elder Gerrit W. Gong spoke to members of the media in Salt Lake City, Thursday June 28, 2018.

Mormons across the globe cheered the appointment in March of two apostles who seemed to represent the faith’s growing diversity — Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, and Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian.

But Gong and Soares don’t necessarily see themselves that way.

Rather than as exemplars of a particular ethnicity, the pair said Thursday in their first media interviews since their appointment that they represent Jesus Christ to all the peoples of the world.

“The apostles have different responsibilities than others who serve in the church,” Soares said, “but not because we are different or better than others. We all have our weaknesses; what we have in common is our faith.”

Both apostles are well-traveled — Gong said he has spent time in Asia, Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East and even Antarctica — and are fluent in several languages.

And the newcomers expect to contribute such wide-ranging experiences to their leadership positions in the 16 million-member LDS Church.

But they wish to speak to, with, and on behalf of all variety of members.

When Gong served in an area presidency in Hong Kong, for example, the district included 22 countries and an array of cultures.

In every one of them, the Chinese-American leader said, they struggle with the common challenge of being too busy, keeping life in balance, setting priorities and “maintaining an eternal perspective.”

You know, Gong said, human problems.

Still, both apostles appreciate their personal heritage.

Soares, 59, comes from Indian and Portuguese ancestry and relishes that racial and cultural brew.

Gong points to his three names — Gerrit (named for Dutchman Gerrit deJong, a family friend), Walter (American) and Gong (Chinese) — as evidence of his multifaceted approach.

“I am proud of being in the 34th generation from the first Gong,” the 64-year-old Mormon leader said Thursday. “But I fit across all three identities.”

Both have been humbled by the apostolic calling, Gong and Soares agree.

“We are regular people, no different from anyone else,” the Brazilian said. “People have respect and love for the calling of apostle — they approach us kindly and beautifully, but it’s not about us.”

When asked if having a gay son had affected Gong’s views on LGBTQ issues, he replied, “We love each member of our family. We feel the need to be compassionate to all. Even though there are many things we don’t understand, we know in God’s plan there’s a place for every person in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In speaking to Brady McCombs of The Associated Press, Gong and Soares echoed recent comments by top leaders that the religion has “zero tolerance” for abuse.

Soares said that when abuse “comes to light, the church acts” and tries to support the victim of the abuse as well as the person who is accused.

“The purpose of the church is it brings all God’s children back to him,” Soares said. “Sometimes discipline is to help the person who followed this kind of behavior to repent, to change. We are interested in him as we are interested in the ones who have been abused.”

Gong said most church leaders are concerned for children, women and those who are vulnerable and said Mormon parents can be confident that their children are safe.

“We take care of each other,” Gong said. “When there are mistakes, we catch them when we can and immediately take action.”

Gong, who worked for the U.S. State Department and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies until 2010, spoke about the current climate of political tension in the United States.

“There’s never been a time where we needed greater civility, greater bipartisanship, greater vision for the future,” he said. “I think it’s in shared vision that sometimes we find the capacity to make the kinds of accommodations and compromises that constitute politics. Politics is the art of the possible, where we give up things in order to gain things for the greater good. If there’s ever a time we needed some of that, it is now.”

On the most important issue of the day — who will win Monday’s World Cup match between Mexico and Brazil — Soares remained resolutely neutral.

His son-in-law and, thus, his grandchildren are Mexican, while his daughter and her kids are Brazilian.

“I will,” the Latino apostle said with a mischievous grin, “cheer for both.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.