Dear President Albright,
As the Reverend of a Christian church in Western Australia, (and the Mayor of Busselton, Australia) I was contacted by representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints in Perth, who had made overtures with respect to how they might become further engaged within the life of the wider Christian community. These discussions focused on the common commitment of all Christian people to the well-being of God’s Creations. Principal amongst those leading these discussions was Mr. Peter Meurs, President of the Warwick Stake of the LDS Church in Western Australia and Mr. Philip Baker, the Director of Public Affairs for the LDS Church in Western Australia.
In the conversations undertaken, it was clearly understood that there was little possibility at this stage of the wider Christian community welcoming the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as Mormons, into the broader ecumenical fellowship. However, in the process of our conversations it was mutually agreed that there was a great deal that the LDS Church had to offer to the broader community of Perth and Western Australia in general. For example, there is in the LDS Church a complete and unequivocal commitment to the social welfare of all people in need, and for open dialogue amongst all races, nations and people of goodwill.
As a consequence of these conversations, an invitation was extended for me to visit Salt Lake City in order to experience something of the way in which the Church was structured, how it worked and an open opportunity to explore its educative life; its response to human need through its social welfare programs, and the way in which its outreach program was geared through its world-wide mission.
I arrived in Salt Lake City on a Tuesday. What took place in the following five days can be described as nothing short of remarkable, in terms of the experiences encountered, love shared, and people of deep commitment and faith opened their hearts, their homes and their lifestyle.
I was met on arrival by Art Brown and also by Marvin and Dorothy Wallin, old friends of Philip Baker. (Art Brown had been serving a Mission in Adelaide, South Australia when he had been instrumental in converting Philip Baker and his family to the LDS Church.)
On the first day of full activity it was first to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building with my “day” hosts, Dr. Robert and Carol Crist. Robert has been a clinical psychiatrist for most of his professional life and both had been members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir until quite recently and were well familiar with Australia.
In the coming days many a valuable discussion on theology and sociology ensued, but that is another story. It was quite something to be able to experience something of the way in which the Church is structured and established. There was the tour of Temple Square, the Memorial Museum, the experience of preparation for worship in the Tabernacle and the viewing of the very moving film “Legacy”, which tells the story of the trek of the early Saints.
This was followed by a superb luncheon in the Gold Room, hosted by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who was responsible for oversight of the whole area of Oceania, including Australasia. Amongst those attending the luncheon were Allen Swan and Marvin Wallin, who were former Mission Presidents in Australia and Marvin’s wife, Dorothy. Also present were Dale and Elaine Ensign, Directors of Church Hosting, Clark Hirschi and Jaynie Brown. At that luncheon there was the opportunity to have a free and frank conversation with respect to observations of the Church, and equally I was asked for my understandings of the work of the Latter-day Saints.
This luncheon was followed by a tour of Welfare Square. I learned that welfare Square is the social welfare activity that is organised throughout the world and largely administered by the Relief Societies, which are the main branch of women’s activity within the LDS Church. What we were able to see in this program was not only a fully established welfare shop, in effect a supermarket without cash registers, where people in human need could come, having visited their local church bishop, the equivalent of their local parish minister in a parish church. The bishop would have discussed their needs and if the bishop felt there was genuine need, he would issue an order slip for the people to be fully clothed, and fed in a way that would not cause any embarrassment, or bring undue attention to their situation.
The beauty of this program is that all the items for sale in the store had been made by “Deseret Industries” (based on the industrious honey bee symbol of the State of Utah), which is part of the LDS Church’s production activity, where all their own bread, foodstuffs (both perishable and non-perishable), and dairy products are produced and distributed to those in need as and when required by a bishop. In fact, everything necessary for a family’s survival was available for distribution.
Items would be indicated on a sheet authorized by the bishop and people would be given these items, but equally it was not a “handout.” Members of the Church who were in destitute circumstances and received the help of the Church were equally expected or required to respond in some kind, by offering back some form of service for the charitable goods which they had received. Initially, one would think that this had aspects of condescension, but in fact it was, in my understanding, the way forward for social welfare programs, where need is acknowledged and responded to, but equally not a “handout,” but a mutual contribution one to the other.
This visit was followed by a tour of the Humanitarian Services Centre, where goods and clothing of mammoth proportion are received not only from within Salt Lake City area, but further afield. Clothing is sent to many different parts of the world, as are library books, school books, medical equipment, building equipment and other requirements, particularly in areas of destitution, desolation or basic human need, mostly in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia.
The Humanitarian Services Centre covered many floors and the scope of its activity was, at first, very difficult to comprehend. Approximately fifty full-blown seagoing containers per week are dispatched from the Centre for destinations to the five continents of the earth. This was followed by a tour of the Family History Library, fascinating to the extent that it is the largest depository of records with regard to people living and dead from all the continents of the earth.
Even I was able to discover aspects of my own heritage, particularly in Australia, by being able to trace back to five generations on my father’s side and learn awareness of my forebears, which previously had remained hidden to me.
This in turn was followed by a tour of the LDS Church Museum, where the story of the early pioneers and pilgrims, who traversed the land mass of the United States from their foundation in the 1830s, eventually arriving at the Great Salt Lake, which now can only be described as a Mecca in the wilderness. The sheer audacity, determination and willpower, driven by the unwavering faith and commitment of these early pioneers, is difficult to express adequately in words, yet is essential to comprehend. Their travel by sea and overland, tells of faith unwavering, resolution complete.
On Thursday, there was the opportunity to meet at the Brigham Young University Campus in Provo, where the Director of Public Affairs and Guest Relations for the University, hosted us. Our host was an absolute credit to his Church and to the Institution he represents, being both the epitome of a good host and an advocate of open and creative dialogue.
The University began from small beginnings at the instigation of Brigham Young in the mid-19th Century. Even in the early 1940s, the BYU still consisted of only three buildings and several hundred students. Brigham Young University today has grown to one of the premier universities within the United States, with a combined enrolment in excess of 30,000 students from throughout the world. Of the 30,000 students attending the University in a variety of course work, 75% are bi or tri-lingual. Students from a wide diversity of Christian backgrounds are enrolled, as well as Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus and some who profess no religious allegiance at all. All spheres of human endeavor as one would experience in a normal university are studied, in addition to the presence on campus of the LDS Missionary Training Centre. We saw much of the campus activity, from engineering, science, technology, medical science, library resources and a range of post-graduate and research areas, as one would expect a university of this size and stature to be engaged in.
The visit to BYU culminated in a visit to the nearby Missionary Training Centre (MTC), where young missionaries from all over the world are brought for a two month training period and sent out to the diverse and numerous Missions in all parts of the globe. At any given time there are over 3,000 young people in training for Mission activities overseas. Once having attained the age of 19 years, every young man in the LDS Church is encouraged to give two years of missionary service. Eligible at 21 years of age (now 18), the women are also encouraged to apply for missionary service and go throughout the world for periods usually in the vicinity of eighteen months.
The President of the MTC accompanied us on the visit to the Centre, providing the opportunity to meet with a wide variety of missionaries in training. One experience in particular remains quite vivid in my mind. In encountering a group of approximately twelve young people in the foyer outside one of the classrooms, I jokingly asked, after initial greeting, where were they being sent for their mission activity. They replied in unison: “Brazil!” Then they indicated they had only been in training one day. Further down the hallway, Portuguese vocabulary could be heard being learned by rote. This group of young people, men and women – also indicated that their destination was Brazil. They were now six weeks into a two-month training program. Our guide, a fluent speaker of Portuguese himself, immediately engaged in dialogue. It was almost incomprehensible to think that these young people, six weeks further down the track than their impressionable young colleagues a little way back up the hallway, were filled with enthusiasm for the task they were about to undertake, fluent in the language of the country that would become part of their life map.
People coming into the MTC as bright-eyed young people, with little experience of the world, entering into this intense environment, having a sense of the spirit guiding their destiny and with their colleagues, being empowered to learn and study together in a disciplined way. Two months later, they are able to totally commit themselves to their mission without fear and with little sense of foreboding, and communicate in their assigned language. All this only underlined to me something of the true nature of their calling.
In the latter part of the afternoon, there was a trip to the “This Is the Place” Monument, high above the valley floor, overlooking Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Valley. This was the place where Brigham Young and the early advance party came and indicated that this was the location they believed God had called them to settle in, a place which would be free from oppression. The nature of the Monument, its scope and inspiration, draws people to seek to understand more of what drove those people in the first place. To come hundreds of miles across a hostile environment in order to fulfill what was believed to be their God-given destiny inspires all those who share in the story.
Late in the day, there was the opportunity of meeting Michael Otterson, the Director of Media Relations for the Public Affairs Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Michael is an Australian citizen, who came to Australia as an migr from England. He is now in charge of the media relations opportunities for the Church worldwide. I was able to speak to him extensively of my work within the Christian community, seeking windows where the media ministry of the LDS Church might be able to contribute to the wider Christian community. Areas being explored were: finding aspects of faith that doctrinally or in other respects are held in common, which would enable the expansion of ministry in Christian media. This could be a most genuine area of mutual ecumenical ministry.
Three and a half days of intense activity, very full and very complete. Each day, at the conclusion of the day’s activities, there was gained a deeper understanding of the way in which the LDS Church operates. After such an intense visit I thought my knowledge bank was very full, but then there was exposure to another aspect of hospitality in being able to be welcomed again to the Brigham Young University for their annual homecoming football game.
On the final day, Sunday, it was the Tabernacle Choir Broadcast. It was truly a miracle of media awareness in the life of the Church. The television and radio presentation was executed in the most professional manner, and from my background in media development, it was something I marveled at, that here is a church, which so totally embraces media, God’s gift to the world in our Century.
This was followed by a sacramental meeting at the local stake – a house of worship or parish church – as it might well be described. At this particular service there was the farewelling of Portia Plumb, who was the next day entering the service of the Missionary Training Centre, in preparation for her missionary service to Brazil. In itself this service was one of the most moving I have attended in many a long day.
There are many things, more of which could be said. However, I wish to begin my conclusion with a remark that summarizes my own experience. It was expressed by Rodney Stark of the University of Washington in writing an article on “The Rise of New World Faith” in the “Review of Religious Research”, where in Stark concluded his article: “I am quite aware of how easy it is for one person’s faith to be another’s heresy. Indeed, that was the basis of my work on religion and Anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, one does not really expect to find hard line particularism among scholars of religion. Thus I continue to be astonished at the extent which colleagues who would never utter anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, or even anti-Muslim remarks, unselfconsciously and self-righteously condemn Mormons. It’s time we did better.”
Equally, I could well be associated with a Press Release from the Virginia Regional Board of National Conference on Christians and Jews which states: “The National Conference is particularly concerned with the growing number of attacks on religious beliefs and practices by a number of groups and individuals within our society. Such attacks, that utilise false and misleading information that is intended to promote religious bigotry, are acts of intolerance and prejudice. They are both irresponsible and anti democratic in nature. The recent attacks from a number of sources on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) reek of the same prejudice that, in the past, we have often seen used against Jews, Catholics, Muslims and many others. This kind of behaviour needs to be identified and condemned for what it is: religious intolerance and blatant bigotry.”
The opportunity of being able to visit Salt Lake City, held in suspicion or scepticism by so many, including myself, prior to my coming, bears witness and testimony (to which I can amply add my word), to the activity of this Church. Its sense of mission and sense of purpose are a shining example to the entire Christian community. The Latter-day Saints in their openness to dialogue and their willingness to be accepting of the difference of theological understanding of other churches, demonstrate a true spirit of ecumenical understanding.
Whilst every member of the LDS Church understands the revelation of the “Latter-days” to be absolute, there is nevertheless a common commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ. This must be held to be the most important heritage we all hold in common, as we further contemplate the challenges God has for us in this new Millennium.
One was left but to marvel at what has taken place in the intervening 150 years, from such humble and persecuted beginnings, to a Church which today numbers in excess of 14 million adherents. It would be churlish in the extreme to suggest that the hand of God has not been present.
I wish to express my thanks to the Leadership of the Church for the opportunity to have again participated in their story of life and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I also have deeply appreciated the open way in which the presentations and observations made by me have been accepted in the interests of developing further dialogue and understanding between those who claim the name of Christ.
I commend others to “Taste and see that the Lord is good…”
Rev Wesley H. Hartley
Editor’s Note: A week after his return to Australia, the Reverend Hartley sent his report summarized above (as General Secretary of the Western Australia Council of Churches) to every head of church in his organization.