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31 January 2008

Our Brother and Prophet

Gordon B. Hinckley: 1910-2008

On Monday morning this week, 12 hours after the passing of the 97-year-old leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Gordon B. Hinckley, an extraordinary and spontaneous thing happened.

Young teenagers in Salt Lake City began showing up for school that day, dressed not in their usual jeans and winter clothing, but in their “Sunday best.” Young men sat in classes in white shirts and ties, suits and coats.

Thousands of them did this, with no prompting from parents or other adults and to the surprise of teachers. The idea, it seems, started with a few and then spread at unbelievable speed through text messaging, child to child. This was their way of showing respect to a man seven times their age and several generations their senior. Such was the power of this one extraordinary leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to touch the lives of ordinary people.

I think President Hinckley would have liked the spontaneity and simplicity of that gesture.

Whether in Africa or South America, the South Pacific or Asia, thousands would turn out to greet the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often filling stadiums, sometimes lining the streets to wave a handkerchief as he passed. He liked nothing more than to be out among ordinary people, shaking hands, looking into their faces, often sharing his legendary wit and humor in a light moment.

He was a tireless worker on behalf of the members of his Church, and right up until a few days before he died at the age of 97, was still coming into his office. His accomplishments were legion, and it seemed fitting in 2004 when he received his nation’s highest civilian award – the Medal of Freedom -- from President George W. Bush.

Yet President Hinckley would probably see his greatest accomplishments in the ways in which he touched the lives of ordinary people. He had an instinctive feeling for the goodness of people, and often urged on his Latter-day Saint congregations the charge to be better neighbors. Some samples:

• “May we bless humanity with an outreach to all, lifting those who are downtrodden and oppressed, feeding and clothing the hungry and the needy, extending love and neighborliness to those about us who may not be part of this Church.” (General Conference, October 2001).

• “We must not be clannish. We must never adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We must not be self-righteous. We must be magnanimous, and open, and friendly. We can keep our faith. We can practice our religion. We can cherish our method of worship without being offensive to others. I take this occasion to plead for a spirit of tolerance and neighborliness, of friendship and love toward those of other faiths.” (Pioneer Day Commemoration, July 2001).

• “We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making. We can be more tolerant, more neighborly, more friendly, more of an example than we have been in the past. Let us teach our children to treat others with friendship, respect, love, and admiration. That will yield a far better result than will an attitude of egotism and arrogance.” (General Conference, April 2000).

• “We can respect other religions and must do so. We must recognize the great good they accomplish. We must teach our children to be tolerant and friendly toward those not of our faith. We can and do work with those of other religions in the defense of those values which have made our civilization great and our society distinctive…” (General Conference, April 1998).

With the passing of President Hinckley this week, millions of members of his Church will reflect on the life of this unusual, accomplished yet modest man. As for me, the greatest personal tribute I can pay to him is to be the cause of a little more kindness, a little more generosity of spirit, a little more tolerance in the world.


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