A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak in Sacrament meeting in my new ward, and didn’t realize at the time that I was agreeing to speak on ‘Pioneer Day Sunday’ – the day that Mormons celebrate the entry of Brigham Young and the first group of pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. June 24. Today. It’s not nearly as big of a deal here in the East as it is out West, so I didn’t think much of it until the Bishop sent me the email with the details for my assigned topic. In honor of Pioneer Day, I thought, why not? And decided to post the written form of the talk I gave today for anyone who’s interested. I was asked to speak about what it means to be a modern pioneer as well as give a sort of mission report about my time in California (yes, Bishop knows that I got home over a year ago and his comment was, “well, they don’t know that, do they?”). It’s rough and unpolished, because I tend to go off-script in my talks, so forgive me.
The kingdom-builder theme is one that I plan on expanding in the future (it’s hard to encompass it all in just one 15 minute talk), so if you have any thoughts, feel free to share!
When I was a sophomore at SVU, I had the opportunity to spend my spring break in Nauvoo with a few classmates in a travel study led by our Institute teacher, his wife, and two other couples. On our 15+ hour drive from Virginia to Illinois, we talked about where we were from, how flat Illinois appeared, what we hoped to gain from the week, and our backgrounds in the Church. I learned that most of my traveling companions were of what you might call “pioneer stock” – their ancestors were the early Saints who left New York, who left Ohio, who left Missouri, who then left Nauvoo and traveled to settle the west.
Brigham Young once said, concerning the seemingly continual exodus of the Saints, “We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire and into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay.”
Many of my traveling companions were going to Nauvoo to see the proverbial “frying pan” that their ancestors had experienced. When we arrived in Nauvoo, it was empty but for the senior missionary couples who greeted us with cookies and the brothers and sisters in the temple who greeted us with work to do. We spent the week touring the sites, attending the temple, traveling to Carthage and to the quarry from which they took the stone to build the temple, and wading into the cold Mississippi river. Many of my friends were able to track down the plots of land their ancestors owned and examined the documents they had written or signed, and read the journals that their moms had sent them specifically for the trip, written by their grandparents.
The night before we were to return home to Virginia, we had the opportunity to gather in the Seventies Hall where the early missionaries were taught, to hold a small testimony meeting. I listened as my friends shared stories of their ancestors and bore testimonies of those same eternal truths that they held dear that gave them strength as they travelled west. To be entirely honest, I felt a bit like an outsider because I did not share the same connection to Nauvoo and the early Saints – as a convert to the Church, I had no pioneer ancestors. In fact, my ancestors were likely a compelling force as to why the ancestors of my companions had been forced from their homes in the east in the first place.
Thankfully, I was reassured that there were no long-harbored ill feelings, and several people noted that as a convert to the Church, I was a pioneer myself.* I recognized that “there is no aristocracy of birth in [the] Church; [that] it belongs equally to the highest and lowliest,” as J. Reuben Clark taught, but the lesson from Nauvoo that has stuck with me was the realization that as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we lay claim not only to the genealogical and ancestral roots of the pioneers, but also are able to lay full claim to the spiritual heritage and inheritance of the early Saints.
This realization was powerful for me. All of a sudden, instead of feeling like a newcomer to the gospel, I felt that I was grounded the rich spiritual legacy of the pioneers, and threw myself into learning more about the early men and women who joined and shaped the church.
While my interest in the early history of the Church never waned, I honestly forgot about that singular moment until I was a missionary in San Fernando, California. I served in a diverse area with unique wards, members, investigators, and friends of the Church, as well as incredibly diverse missionaries. To give you an idea, I had the opportunity to work with the Korean branch as I trained a sister learning Korean, a few members of the local deaf branch (as well as being companions with 2 deaf and/or hard of hearing sisters), and served and taught people in English and people whose native languages were mostly anything but English despite their attendance in English wards. They were remarkable. Some had been born and raised in the same house where their grandchildren now played. Others emigrated to the United States from countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Jamaica, Pakistan, England, and Samoa. Some had been served in the military and had been deployed overseas, others were former mission presidents. I met and grew to love deeply former gang members, medical professionals, actors, musicians, FBI agents, writers, men and women who had been members of the Black Panther party, teachers, people who were homeless, rich, down on their luck, or recently arrived in Los Angeles. They were the only members in their family. They came from a strong, “pioneer stock” families. They weren’t members at all. They were newly baptized, they were prodigal sons, they were the Nephis and Sams and Mary and Marthas. Sometimes, they were the doubting Thomas, sometimes the Peter.
Despite how different we all were, we were bound by our beliefs and our covenants, but also by that spiritual heritage of the early pioneers, even if it wasn’t a conscious influence. I sat in sacrament meetings, in living rooms, in parks. I stood in dusty streets and knelt on bare concrete floors. We taught in libraries and on street corners. I realized quickly that I was watching people in California become or continue to be pioneers – people who forged ahead and made a path, people who shaped and moved an entire culture forward. They embraced the lessons of the early Saints and emulated their examples, largely without even realizing it. They were loyal, dedicated, faithful, and filled with belief. They were fueled by the Atonement on Jesus Christ as they yoked themselves to Him, as well as to their brothers and sisters as they strove to move the work in Southern California forward. They built on the foundation of those early saints who crossed the plains with love, sacrifice, and hope in their hearts. They exemplified, over a hundred years later, the description that President Clark gave of the men and women who crossed the plains:
“Back in the last wagon, not always could they see the brethren way out in front and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of dust from the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.”
I love the phrase ‘by their faith that God loved them, that the restored Gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the brethren out in front.’ My favorite principle to teach as a missionary was that God is our loving Heavenly Father. I believed, and still do, that if we can help people come to an understanding that God loves them so perfectly and individually, regardless of sins or flaws or shortcomings, that we have made an incredible difference in their lives and helped them to begin to understand the purpose of the Gospel. The knowledge that God is our Father, and that He loves us, is the foundation to every principle in the Gospel. Coming to understand the ‘why’ of the Gospel helps us to understand the ‘what’ of the Gospel, or the principles and doctrine, and the ‘how’ of the Gospel, or the prophets and apostles, both modern and ancient. The love of God is that very first ‘why.’
When we look at it that way, we see that we are not so different from the early pioneers of this dispensation. We realize that rather than that long wagon train being an abstract idea that we struggle to connect to, we are just another part of the caravan of this dispensation that has been called upon to help the Lord build the Kingdom of God. We are called upon to be Saints and kingdom-builders.
Before I graduated from SVU, I sat down the same institute teacher I had traveled to Nauvoo with. I talked with him about how I was concerned about not having a clear purpose in the Church for the first time since I was baptized. As a youth, my purpose was to learn the Gospel, to learn as much as I could, and to help to strength my brothers and sisters in the youth program. When I had first moved to Virginia, the first YSA stake east of the Wasatch front was organized, and we had a lot of work to do in establishing a stronger foothold for the kingdom of God in what was once an area hostile to members of the Church. As a missionary, my purpose was incredibly clear – to bring others to a knowledge of Christ and help them not only prepare to be baptized, but prepare to go to the temple. As a returned missionary in the same YSA stake, I had been called to be a gospel doctrine teacher and a member of the Relief Society presidency, and kingdom-building for me at that point was helping to create a strong and loving auxiliary that would help our sisters to move forward in the Gospel and in covenant-making as individuals.
With graduation ahead, I was worried about continuing to be a kingdom-builder. I’ve realized in the past few months that being a member of the church is entirely about being a kingdom builder and continuing to be a pioneer & wanted to share with you a little of what I have found that have helped me to start being a more conscious kingdom-builder and latter latter-day pioneer.
The first is that belief in God’s love President J. Reuben Clark talked about. When we come to understand that God loves us more than we can imagine, and that we call Him Father because He first called us sons and daughters, incredible things happen. We are happier. We are more focused. We are more obedient because we want to be obedient, not because everyone sitting beside us in Sacrament and in Sunday school is. We are filled with joy. The other principles and doctrines of the Gospel come more easily, and we understand them with more clarity. Understanding that God loves us is crucial.
The second is an understanding of and a love for the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We read in 3rd Nephi of the Nephites welcoming Christ with honor and with awe as the prophesied Messiah. But it isn’t until they have one by one touched the scars in His hands and feet, gaining a personal and powerful witness of His sacrifice for them, that they shout “Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God!” and fall down to worship Jesus Christ. It’s crucial for us to gain an understanding and love of the Atonement, one that drives us to our knees in worship and in prayer as we seek to use and be molded by Christ’s sacrifice. I have come to understand over the years that the Atonement is for cleansing us of sin, but it is also for transforming our weaknesses into strengths, helping us to forgive and be forgiven by those we have hurt, it is for sorrows and wounds and for worry and fear. It is for every step of the journey, not just for when we step into mud puddles or venture into dark canyons along the way. When I think of the Atonement of Christ I think of one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Come Ye Saints,” where we sing a line we often glance over – “Though hard to you, this journey may appear, grace shall be as your day.” Relying on the atonement every single day helps us to be pioneers and kingdom builders.
As the early pioneers pressed forward across the plains, so do we. The building of a temple nearby here in Connecticut and the recent creation of a new stake is a big deal, and it serves as a reflection of the Saints in the area. It proves that we have endured and thrived, that we are here in the middle of the floor to stay. We need to keep enduring and keep pressing forward “with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.”
A love of God and of all men. Love is so crucial to our journey, especially as we press further into the last days. All around us is uncertainty and temptation, and we see “wars and rumors of wars” every single day. But striving for a Christ-like and Christ-driven love for our brothers and sisters is what defines us not only as Christian people of faith, but as members of the Church. Countless times as a missionary I would ask people who we taught why they let us in the door, and just as many times they would tell us that they let us in because they somehow knew we loved them.
Loving God and all men requires hard work and strength. Heavenly Father isn’t asking us to build cities or pull handcarts thousands of miles. That part of our history has been finished. What He is asking is that today we build others up, that we work hard to provide for our families, and that we reach outside ourselves to help Him reach other people. He asks that we work hard on our relationship with Him, with our families, and with our friends and neighbors. This all requires strength, but we should remember that strength of mind, heart, and character all require training and persistence. No one is born a spiritual giant, and strong homes don’t appear overnight.
Becoming a kingdom-builder rests in discipleship. It is not simply following Christ, but following through with Christ – it is about obedience and faithfulness. When we are obedient to the covenants we make, we find greater strength than we ever thought possible. It is about covenant making and covenant keeping, both our covenants with God as individuals and our covenants with one another that we make at baptism to “mourn with those that mourn, yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness at all times, and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in, even until death, that [we] may be redeemed of God” (Mosiah 18:9). Obedience isn’t easy, but it becomes second nature over time and helps us to increase our faith as well as our faithfulness (there’s a difference). Obedience draws us closer to God and to our Savior, and it provides refuge when the storms come.
Discipleship, then, draws together all these things as we strive to be the modern pioneers the Lord has asked us to be, and as we seek to be kingdom builders. Discipleship encompasses love, hard work, obedience, an understanding of God’s love, embracing the Atonement of Christ, and so much more. Discipleship leads us to the temple, which was the pride and joy of the early Saints. The first thing the Saints did upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley was to begin drafting the plans and building a temple. As modern pioneers, our hearts and sights need to be focused on the House of the Lord, just like our ancestors.
As a missionary in the San Fernando mission, our motto was “exalt the valleys,” a reference to Isaiah 40:4-5, which reads “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked place shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” We took that to heart as we strove to help people not only feel the love of the Christ, but to be baptized and prepare to enter the temple and make eternal covenants. That was where I saw the vision of the pioneers of old the clearest – when we were able to walk through the temple doors into the house of the Lord.
Our temple being built nearby in Hartford gives us the opportunity to continue in the footsteps of the early Saints and pioneers as we strive to be dedicated and loving disciples of Christ, and as we help Him build up His kingdom here in New England. We don’t need to go west, we simply need to embrace the doctrines and principles of the Gospel that we have been taught and get to work, knowing that although we don’t always have the opportunity to see that big sky, that we are fulfilling the words that President Monson spoke as he dedicated the grounds for the temple here in Connecticut:
“When we build let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us.””
In closing, I wanted to share a question from President Uchtdorf concerning being a pioneer and a kingdom builder from his April 2014 conference talk.
“When our time in mortality is complete, what experiences will we be able to share about our own contributions to this significant period of our lives and to the furthering of the Lord’s work? Will we be able to say that we rolled up our sleeves and labored with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength? Or will we have to admit that our role was mostly that of an observer?”
*The Lord chastened me the morning I gave my talk via email. I opened my inbox about thirty minutes before Church to find a familysearch.org email outlining about a dozen of my ancestors who had been pioneers, including their handcart company details. Just goes to show that you never know til you’ve looked. And that Heavenly Father likes to say “yeah right, little girl, lemme show you” to me.