Church history was happening in real time in Rajahmundry, India — and the people collecting inside the stake center on May 26 likely sensed it.
For the first time, a latter-day apostle was in their city. What would he say, they surely wondered. What counsel would he share? What would we learn?
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostle’s first words to the Rajahmundry congregation were, at once, simple, profound and unforgettable: I love you.
They were the words, he said, that the Savior would likely say if He were visiting the “pioneers” of Rajahmundry. Three words — I love you — framed all else Elder Bednar taught during his four-country tour of a Church Area that contains half of the world’s population.
Elder Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar’s recent visit (May 16-28) to a variety of cities in Mongolia, China, Cambodia and India was defined by firsts. Most of the people who gathered for, say, a member or missionary meeting, were seeing an apostle in person for the first time.
But it was also a trip of firsts for the Bednars. The well-traveled couple had never been to Mongolia, Cambodia or India. And each meeting offered them maiden opportunities to listen to individuals ask their own unique queries.
“You invite people to ask questions because their questions help you learn where they are, what they are concerned about and what they need help with,” Elder Bednar told the Church News. “The greatest beneficiary in a question-and-answer session is not the people posing questions — but the person listening to the questions.”
And there’s the happy paradox.
The Bednars’ Asian travels placed them in some of the most densely populated nations on earth. But their ministering typically happened with “the one” — face to face.
In an overflowing meetinghouse of the new Rajahmundry India Stake, for instance, “Elder Bednar ministered to the one as he taught basic gospel principles,” said Elder Randy D. Funk, a General Authority Seventy who presides over the Asia Area.
“He spoke specifically to the many investigators who were there, to those who had not attended for some time and to faithful members who were striving to live the gospel. All were edified and blessed by this special opportunity.”
Almost a century ago, one of Elder Bednar’s apostolic predecessors, Elder Melvin J. Ballard was living in Argentina, working to establish Church roots on the vast South American continent.
There were not many local members and missionary work was largely unfruitful. But Elder Ballard was not discouraged. He was not overwhelmed. Instead, he looked forward — envisioning a prolific future for an area of the world that is today dotted with temples and millions of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Bednar feels Elder Ballard-like optimism for the Asian countries now writing their maiden chapters of Church history. “There is a Kirtland today, but it’s not just in Ohio. It’s in Cambodia and in Mongolia and in India.”
And in Kirtland-like fashion, the measuring strength of the members in each nation is quality, not quantity.
There are presently only two stakes in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “But when you meet with the [Cambodian] members,” said Elder Bednar, “there is a depth and a devotion and a desire that are striking.”
Recall the horror and crippling rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, when simply singing the “wrong” sort of song could get a Cambodian killed. Today, members sing the hymns of Restoration with unified joy.
“It’s an emotional thing to witness the Cambodian Latter-day Saints singing with all their hearts,” said Elder Bednar.
Meanwhile, in Hyderabad, India, where some 500 youth were participating in a “For the Strength of Youth” conference, the Bednars traced the Lord’s hand working in the lives of a rising generation.
“The group demonstrated a spiritual maturity that was remarkable,” he said. “You see the very beginnings and the first units being established. You don’t have to look hard to see the limitless possibilities in these places.”
Children of destiny
In 2011, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke to a gathering of missionaries in Mongolia that included several native-born elders and sisters. He called them “children of destiny,” envisioning the roles they would play building the gospel in their homeland.
At a May 19 meeting for returned missionaries and their wives in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, Elder Bednar was with some of those same young men and young women. They are claiming their destiny as the Church in Mongolia continues to grow “not fast, but steadily.”
“Many of those returned missionaries now have children of their own, and the cycle continues. It’s an indication of increasing maturity.”
The Bednars’ travel itinerary included several traditional gatherings such as missionary and stake member meetings. Accompanying them at various stops were Elder Funk and his counselors in the Area Presidency, General Authority Seventies Elder David F. Evans and Elder Peter F. Meurs, and their wives, Sister Andrea Funk, Sister Mary Dee Evans and Sister Maxine Meurs.
But other events, such as the May 24-25 youth gathering in India, ministered to a more specific audience facing unique challenges and opportunities.
“The youth were reverent and prepared to be taught,” said Elder Funk. “They eagerly engaged and asked questions that were exceptionally thoughtful. That allowed Elder Bednar and others to teach principles that lifted and blessed all of us.”
While in Hong Kong, the Bednars met with a group of immigrants consisting primarily of Filipino women, who came to China for work opportunities. Many were away from their families and knew loneliness. They were hungry for spiritual nourishment.
The Savior never leaves us comfortless, promised Elder Bednar. “Jesus Christ knows us as individuals. He knows each of us and He knows our circumstances.”
Meanwhile, at a May 27 Sabbath-day stake meeting in Rajahmundry, India, more than 60 percent of the stake members of record squeezed into the stake center to be with the Bednars and the other visitors.
“That to me is a powerful reflection of an eagerness to learn and to live the gospel,” said Elder Bednar.
Asia: a land of gospel promise
Perhaps the promise of the Latter-day Saints in the vast Asia Area is best captured by a 14-year-old Indian girl’s question to a visiting apostle:
“Brother Bednar,” she asked, “with the announcement of a future temple here in India, what should I be doing to prepare for a temple?”
Answering, Elder Bednar encouraged the girl to become familiar with the temple recommend questions and “to learn to love living the gospel.” But her thoughtful, spiritually savvy question also helped answer any question Elder Bednar might have had about the future of Church in the nations he visited.
The Asian Latter-day Saints, he concluded, “are engaged in the work and they are rejoicing in the gosepel of Jesus Christ.”