The World Congress of Families IX opened Tuesday morning in Salt Lake City with calls from traditional family advocates urging participants to protect and defend religious freedom, and to engage in respectful dialogue with those whose opinions differ.
The session, which drew thousands to the Grand America Hotel grand ballroom, featured a keynote address by Elder M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with musical performances by the International Children’s Choir and Grammy-award winning violinist Jenny Oaks Baker and her children. A march of the national flags representing people worldwide conference participants set the tone for the session.
Hosts and speakers spoke of the perils the family faces today and the ways in which people worldwide can make progress defending beliefs in the traditional family but always loving others.
Elder Ballard said beliefs about the family don’t need to divide people with contrasting opinions; rather, they can encourage unity and goodwill.
LDS doctrine, he said, teaches that people on earth lived in heaven as a spirit family. Temples bind couples in marriage together “for time and all eternity, not just time,” he said. “This doctrine explains our strong position on the family. We also believe we are to reach out to all people.”
He used a video clip featuring family scenes and children singing the LDS Church Primary song, “I Lived in Heaven,” to help the audience understand four principles that explain why families are so central to the church and beliefs on immortality and eternal nature of families.
He said those principles include four key beliefs to the LDS faith:
- People on earth lived with God before life on earth with others, their spirit brothers and sisters
- God’s purpose is “to enable each of us to enjoy all his blessings”
- “Jesus Christ filled his father’s purpose and made it possible for each of us to enjoy immortality and eternal life”
- And that “marriage and family ties are bound by priesthood authority to endure beyond the grave if we are married ‘for time and eternity’ in the temple.”
Elder Ballard said these principles inform the world about how the church views the family as central in LDS theology, but that in dealing with others who hold different views, the guiding principle is love. People and organizations should not force personal beliefs on others, especially in educating children, but “we can love one another without compromising personal divine ideals,” he said. “And we can speak of those ideals without marginalizing others.”
He used Christ as an example of why people of faith should “extend a hand of fellowship to those with whom we disagree.”
“Just as we do not or should not shun family members with whom we disagree, we cannot and should not shun those who look or think or act differently than we do,” Elder Ballard said. “We demonstrate our best humanity when we show love and kindness to all of God’s children.”
“We can be specific and passionate about the benefits of man-woman marriage without disrespecting or injuring those who think otherwise,” Elder Ballard said. “Regardless of belief or practice, as brothers and sisters we should strive to understand one another. Remember, married or single, that in the end, we are each a unique part of God’s grand plan.”
Rabbi Avremi Zippel prayed over the assembled delegates that they would leave as “better human beings.”
Janice Shaw Crouse, executive director of the World Congress of Families, welcomed delegates as she spoke of how “we know we are in a pivotal moment” as fewer people get married and witness successful marriages. She said healthy marriages can improve economic conditions but also women’s safety and men’s roles. “Marriage is the social glue that binds people together,” she said.
After Elder Ballard’s address, Baker and her children performed a musical number, “Love is Spoken Here.” Baker and her daughter, Laura, played the violin. Daughters Hannah and Sarah played the piano and cello, respectively, and son, Matthew, played the guitar.
Stan Swim of the Sutherland Institute, who is chairman of this year’s event, presented Luca Volonte and Andrea Williams each with the Familia Et Veritas Award. Volonte is chairman of the Novae Terrae Foudation, and was recognized for his leadership in protecting the right to life and religious freedom.
Williams is chief executive officer of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Society, campaigning for legislation that supports traditional marriage in the United Kingdom.
Father Maxim Obukhov received the International Pro-Life Award. He is director of the Department of Family and Life in the Russian Orthodox Church and founder of Russia’s largest pro-life organization.
Theresa Okafor, CEO of Life League Nigeria and director of the Foundation of Cultural Heritage, was named Woman of the Year. She has organized numerous pro-family conferences.
The ceremony also honored Allan Carlson, the founder of the World Congress of Families, and former director of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society.
Nathan Osmond concluded the ceremony with a musical number, “The Prayer.”