Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and BYU President Kevin J Worthen spoke in the annual University Conference Aug. 24. Their remarks reflected the theme of the conference, “Be Not Weary in Well Doing.”
Their respective messages addressed contemporary criticisms of BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the importance of learning from the challenges the university has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both commended the university and its students and faculty for their many notable achievements.
President Worthen emphasized that many of these achievements were set in action before the pandemic hit Provo. COVID-19, though certainly a hurdle in the path of many plans, needn’t the university from continuing to pursue those goals, he said.
“We can act even while being acted upon, and because of Christ’s atoning power, the impact of our actions can overcome all things that act upon us,” President Worthen said. He repeated this idea several times throughout his address.
Not only can people forge ahead through the pandemic, President Worthen added, but they can use the difficult circumstances to grow and improve themselves and the university.
“This COVID experience, like all our mortal experiences — can and should — help us improve. If we emerge from the pandemic unscathed, but unchanged, we will have missed out on the full benefit of this unique experience,” he said, adding that he feels BYU was “built for this.”
The university has already begun to see the positive fruits of the refining pandemic circumstances, President Worthen said. For example, the university has considered more ways to expand online learning options as a result of COVID-19. This coming semester, BYU has seen a 35% increase in BYU Online courses offered and a 130% increase in enrollments in BYU Online courses.
Professors have also been considering new ways to best utilize their time in the classroom and create meaningful learning experiences for students.
The pandemic is also an opportunity to expand our compassion for the marginalized, President Worthen said.
“If we reflect on the loneliness almost all of us have felt at times these past five months because of physical separation, I think we will all be quicker to look for, and reach out to, those who experience that loneliness even when they are surrounded by people,” he said.
He assured that God would assist BYU in accomplishing its divine purposes, even while facing setbacks and constantly-changing plans for the coming months, and projected that BYU would soon accomplish many more things, such as increasing enrollment by 3,000 students within the next few years.
Elder Cook addressed criticisms frequently directed at the Church and the university, including recent comments on the Church’s history with regards to slavery and other race-related issues. The Church, he said, does not respond to every criticism because “many criticisms are not worthy of a response.” Other times, the Church chooses simply to “turn the other cheek” instead of engaging critics whose arguments against the Church are untrue or unfair.
“It is clear from numerous media reports and observed public comments that some people involved in today’s various movements are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith. This does not diminish the religious and secular reasons for equal treatment of all of God’s children,” Elder Cook said. “However, I am concerned when much of the discussion is an attack on faith and belief, often reframing and distorting our history.”
Elder Cook acknowledged the Church’s complicated history with regards to race, including controversial comments made by Brigham Young about Black people and tensions between some early Church members and Native Americans.
He also shared stories of diversity and inclusivity in the early and modern Church, such as the anti-slavery position held by many early members and the celebratory attitude with which members received the revelation to ordain Black men to the priesthood.
Elder Cook encouraged those in attendance to “correct falsehood and matters taken out of context in a loving and kind way,” and to defend their faith when necessary.
“My challenge to you today is that individually and as a university, you will need to tack against the prevailing winds of disbelief and division,” he said. “You will know best in your own fields and your own spheres how to apply this counsel and stand as a beacon of belief and unity in a world that often devalues both.”