Insiders at the Church say that as the new leader of 13 million members, President Monson will hit the ground running. The man who can quote a scripture on any topic, pull out an applicable poem or remember details and names from his personal history, while ours has blurred away, uses that same intellect and incisive memory to accomplish a mountain of work every day and still leave, according to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “an astonishingly clean desk.”
He’s comfortable with anyone conversing on any subject, and his leadership was recognized while he was still, like Nephi, exceedingly young. He was called as a bishop at 22 in a ward that had the largest welfare load in the Church, including 85 widows. He was called as a counselor in a stake presidency at 27, a mission president at 31, an apostle at 36, and a member of the First Presidency at 58 (the youngest in this century).
Yet, for all this remarkable capacity, the hallmark of President Monson is his pure love of Christ, and his uncanny ability to hear the voice of the Spirit and respond instantly. He said, “In my patriarchal blessing as a boy, I was promised that I would have the gift of discernment. I have to acknowledge that such a declaration has been abundantly fulfilled in my life.”
His has been a ministry to the lost battalions of the faltering, the lonely, the sick, the struggling, the forgotten, the widow, the uncared for, those who fall by the wayside. His has been a call captured in this scripture: “Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5).
In Monday’s press conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf noted, “President Monson has such a feeling for the needs of individuals and the needs of all the world.” In this article we want to give you a story representing both – one when President Monson reached out to a single heart as he has so many thousands of times (this one a member of our own family) – and one when he opened the door to a nation.
Touching One Heart
We had an uncle, Keith Facer, who was easy to love. Gentle and unassuming, stalwart and true, he would be anyone’s dream uncle, his face lighting up with delight when he saw us like he’d just been waiting for this moment to fold us in his arms and give us hugs.
His smile was infectious. He was always a student of the gospel, coming in his 80’s to our adult Institute classes, even when he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and his legs began to quake beneath him. The diagnosis turned out to be false, and he took the year of trauma granted him by the doctor’s inaccuracy like the good sport he always was.
His daughter, Laraine, died in her mid-fifties of Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that ravaged her mind and memory, and stole her away too early. Keith watched helplessly as the young grandmother forgot her family members’ names, forgot who she was.
At her funeral, Scot sat down by Keith. They had pulled a little away from the crowd and were sitting on a couch alone, facing the casket. Scot asked, “Keith, you’re sitting alone. You are looking at your precious daughter in the casket. You’re away from your family. How do you really feel about this loss?”
Keith said, “Scot, I have trusted the Lord all my life, and I feel to trust him now.”
With moments like these stored in our soul, it was wrenching to hear that Keith had developed a particularly rare and vicious kind of cancer – Merkel-cell carcinoma. This was one where the tumor grew not inside his body, but on the exterior – from a nasty red lump first appearing on the left side of his face, on his cheek, then around to his ear and his neck to grow into a hideous, enormous, almost reptilian-like growth that crawled across his face, first closing off an ear and then an eye, and then finally his ability to breathe or eat at all. The face we had loved was distorted, unrecognizable, and his suffering nearly incomprehensible.
The bright red of the now-enormous tumor, which seemed to grow daily, looked angry, burning. His torso was covered with dime and nickel-sized sores. Radiation treatments were attempted but only burned his body, making the pain even more intense.
We could not have recognized Keith as anyone familiar except for the affectionate tone in his voice, while he could still mumble out a few sentences.
Keith did not live far from President Monson. In fact, at one time they had been in the same ward, before boundaries had been redrawn. President Monson got word about Keith’s illness and called immediately, wondering if he could come by that very early evening to cheer him and give him a blessing on his way home from work.
I don’t know what else might have been on President Monson’s schedule that day – surely many pressing things, a desk full of urgencies. Yet, nothing is so urgent for President Monson as the soul of the distressed. It calls to his sympathies; it stirs his love.
We had been visiting Keith that day before President Monson arrived. He was surrounded by his wife, a son and daughters who loved him, but the situation was so grim, it was hard to be anything but teary. Life just seemed too hard if someone like Keith could be so afflicted and we struggled to say anything besides a pitiful, “I’m so sorry, so sorry.” We felt heavy, grayed over with the burden.
Then, at the appointed moment, President Monson arrived, and it was like the sun came up on a new day. It was not only that the Spirit was with him, which we all felt immediately; it was that his very presence was buoyant. A tangible sense of joy and assurance had entered the room.
Here was someone seasoned in the sickroom and knew what we didn’t. He didn’t look surprised or shocked to see Keith’s condition. He didn’t put on a long face in sympathy. He smiled that large, warming smile and with enthusiasm said, “Keith it is good to see you.”
President Monson then began to give Keith what he needed most. It was the same thing any very sick person needs, whose once energetic and perfect body has been ravaged by an illness until he can’t recognize himself anymore. President Monson gave him back his identity, and a sense of himself.
“Keith,” he said, “Do you remember when you were in the bishopric and I had just moved into the ward and you assigned me to head up the committee to build a new meetinghouse? I told you that I didn’t know anyone in the ward, and you said, ‘That’s OK. Just call them Gunderson and you’ll be right 40% of the time.”
At that Keith laughed out of the corner of his mouth not yet smothered by cancer. We all laughed, our laughter cascading through the sick room like a blessed relief. President Monson continued the banter about everything he knew about Keith, a heartening conversation about how dedicated and committed Keith had always been.
We were swept away by a series of delightful memories. Each one drove the gray and gloom further and further from our hearts.
Then President Monson did a remarkable thing. He changed the subject to something even lighter. (How completely delightful for a sick person to finally get to hear something besides how sorry all the rest of us are and how sick they are.)
He started to tell us the story about when he recently went to lunch with the chairman of the board of Parker Brothers who said that Monopoly was still their best-selling game, and he had asked, jokingly, if President Monson could remember the names of any of the properties of the game. He told him that he could indeed remember them – all of them – IN ORDER. We were all laughing then, and President Monson, with his perfect memory, named them all – right there beside the sick bed – Mediterranean, Baltic, Reading Railroad and continuing all the way around, he ended with Park Place and Boardwalk.
With all of us now is a happy mood, he said gently, “Now, Keith, let’s give you a blessing. Scot, will you anoint?” The Spirit continued to illuminate our hearts.
Then he laid hands upon Keith’s head and gave him a blessing of power and comfort, promising him in a powerful voice that, “This is only temporary.” (And it would be. Keith died ten days later.)
The joy that filled the room, the Spirit comforting every wounded heart, was tangible.
Some of us went in the living room with him, thinking he would quickly be on his busy way. But before he left, he also gave us the complete lineup with their positions of the 1948 Salt Lake Bees (a minor league baseball team). I’m sure he must have been in a hurry, but he didn’t seem like it. For those moments together, we were his entire focus.
This grim sickroom had been transformed by a priesthood blessing and by a spiritual emissary who knew just how to minister with love. That bright moment stayed with our family for the days and weeks ahead and will never be forgotten.
Many thousands have known just such bright moments in their grim times from President Thomas S. Monson.
Reaching a Nation
President Monson’s love for the one also expands to fill a nation. For years during the Communist era, Latter-day Saints in East Germany kept the Church alive and vibrant with no temples, no patriarchal blessings, no print literature and manuals, no visits from Church headquarters, no missionaries, no mission calls – and yet their activity level had been the highest in the Church.
Frank Apel, who had been the first stake president in East Germany, said their longing was so great for the temple blessings that they used to let their imaginations run wild with the possibilities. “I used to wonder if there could be a ship on the Baltic where a room could be set aside for us to receive our temple blessings.”
In this world where a wall barred them from the rest of the world, very few were allowed to leave to go to the temple in Switzerland, and then, suspicious that they might not return, the government rarely let a married couple go. The government learned over time that the Saints were obedient citizens and could be counted on to return, but for decades that didn’t help most of them who lived without the fullness of the blessings they so deeply desired.
Elder Monson was assigned to shepherd the East German Saints, and made a visit to meet with them in 1968. At his first meeting in Dresden, the German Saints sang this beautiful song:
If the way be full of trial; Weary not!
If it’s one of sore denial, Weary not!
If it now be one of weeping,
There will come a joyous greeting,
When the harvest we are reaping – Weary not!
He said, “I was touched by the sincerity of these wonderful Saints. I was humbled by their poverty. They have so little. My heart filled with sorrow because they have no patriarch, they have no wards or stakes – just branches, they have few teaching materials. They cannot receive temple blessings, neither endowments nor sealings. They are forbidden to leave their country. Yet they trust in the Lord with all their hearts and lean not unto their own understanding.
Elder Monson said, “I stood at the pulpit with tear-filled eyes and a voice choked with emotion and made a promise to the people: ‘If you will remain true and faithful to the commandments of God, every blessing any member of the Church enjoys in any other country will be yours.'”
He continued, “When I got back to the old hotel that night – it was really dreary – I knew I had promised what I could not deliver. I got upon my knees, and I prayed to our Heavenly Father: ‘Here I am. Thou knowest what I said. Wilt thou honor the promise?’ I remembered the revelation where the Lord said, ‘Whether by my own voice or the voice of my servants, it is the same.'”
During the next years, Elder Monson made many trips to the Saints in East Germany (the Democratic German Republic), giving them love and encouragement and growing in heartfelt attachment to the people.
“I never go to the Dresden mission but that I am uplifted,” he wrote. He felt compassion for their plight. Werner Adler had been a district president for 19 years, and he and his wife had been invited to General Conference – a remarkable opportunity that could include their chance to go to the temple and be sealed. However, they had no children, and the government was worried that they would not return. Sister Adler was not granted permission.
During that meeting Elder Monson “noticed that Brother Adler’s clothing, though well kept, was rather old. I struck upon the idea that perhaps my suit would fit him. I tried upon him the suit jacket. He was so pleased and said that it fit just fine. I then put on a pair of slacks and a jacket and left my suit with Brother Adler. I also left several ties and a shirt. He was overjoyed. I then turned to Brother Lehmann, the patriarch, and placed my shoe along one of his and said, ‘Would these shoes fit you?’ He looked and then said sadly, ‘No, they’re a little large.’ Then his eyes brightened, and he said in English, ‘They will fit my son!’ I then gave him the shoes for his son.”
The promise Elder Monson had given the Saints in Goerlitz would gradually and steadily be fulfilled. Elder Monson (there with other local Church leaders) wrote, “On Sunday morning, April 27, 1975, I stood on an outcropping of rock situated between the cities of Dresden and Meissen, high above the Elbe River, in the German Democratic Republic. I responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and offered a prayer of dedication on that land and its people. That prayer noted the faith of the members. It emphasized the tender feelings of many hearts filled with an overwhelming desire to obtain temple blessings.
A plea for peace was expressed. Divine help was requested. I voiced the words: ‘Dear Father, let this be the beginning of a new day for the members of Thy church in this land.'”
Officials of the Democratic German Republic came to know the Latter-day Saints. Partly, it was because Church members were always asking to go to the temple in Switzerland, and were usually denied. Yet mostly, it was the honesty and integrity of the Saints who kept their word about returning to East Germany when they left, that impressed the Germans.
Elder Monson and other leaders worked closely with the government of the country, understanding that the goal of building the Church couldn’t be done without the acceptance of the government.
On April 23, 1983, miraculously, Elder Thomas S. Monson broke ground for the Freiberg Temple – behind the Iron Curtain. His prophecy in 1968, combined with steady years of patience and love, had paid off.