SALT LAKE CITY — The realities of a pandemic are so unique, exhausting and overwhelming that sometimes even the nation's top scientists, doctors and political leaders cannot offer enough to persuade some people to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the community safe.
"There's a lot of fatigue going on and you start to see an erosion of grace," said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. "But the beauty of the non-politics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many other churches in our community, who are leading ... in asking members to wear masks out of love for each other, out of respect for their health, and a desire for us to be able to come back together sooner by getting through this in a more rapid fashion. It is so important and meaningful.
"To have a politician like myself tell people that that's what they should do only goes so far, and to have faith leaders step up is incredible."
Mendenhall's comments came as part of a conversation with Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson; Elder Craig C. Christensen, Utah Area President and General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and Relief Society General President Jean B. Bingham. The discussion ranged from finding new ways to celebrate Thanksgiving to keeping each other safe day to day, and the critical importance of partnerships between churches, government and private businesses during times of crisis.
"The poor mayor has had to deal with a lot of those challenges," Elder Christensen said, "but we were right there with her. We're going to do whatever it takes to support her so she can lead the way she's been leading."
Elder Christensen said this year hasn't just brought a pandemic. Utahns have also had to deal with an earthquake, hurricane force winds and economic struggles.
"One thing our members love to do is to serve, and serve as a community side by side with other faith groups," Elder Christensen said. "It's been amazing to see how kind of natural disasters and pandemics have bonded the community."
Matheson, who also hosts KSL's "Inside Sources," noted that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chose to bring missionaries back to the U.S., close temples and ask congregations to attend meetings virtually or worship at home before any government shutdown was imposed. Elder Christensen said it was all in an effort to keep the commandment to love "our fellow man."
"We view keeping our fellow men and women safe as part of our responsibility," Elder Christensen said. "So we were the first to suspend and close temples. And we've been very careful on how we go forward. We've been pretty vocal on supporting the state and local municipalities on safe practices."
He then addressed the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays: "If you look at the real meaning of Thanksgiving, it's to be grateful. And you don't have to all be at a big (table) all together to be grateful. Our family is trying to connect ... through technology, and really trying to get a new spirit of what Thanksgiving is all about."
Elder Christensen said he hopes unusual times will help people find new ways to love, to worship and to celebrate.
"I think every family, every individual, every citizen of Utah needs to think of ways that they can be grateful and celebrate, but not necessarily do it in a risky way with those that are around them. I think that's really the spirit of the season. It's unusual, but it's important that we not cause harm, especially to those that are most susceptible during this holiday season," he said.
If you look at the real meaning of Thanksgiving, it's to be grateful. And you don't have to all be at a big (table) all together to be grateful.
–Elder Craig C. Christensen, Utah Area President and General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintElder Craig C. Christensen, Utah Area President and General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint
The group acknowledged the fatigue and sadness people feel after months of having their lives restricted by pandemic precautions, but Mendenhall emphasized there has never been a more critical time to adhere to public health recommendations.
"The reality is we have not, over the course of this pandemic, been more likely to come in contact with someone with an active case of COVID than we are right now," she said. "We're at about a 25% positivity test rate. We know that there's a good portion of people who are asymptomatic, don't ever have those symptoms, may never even get tested, and are spreading the disease. And we know that our hospital system is also at the overwhelmed point, and we've heard from providers that this is not sustainable; they can't keep going this way."
President Bingham, who led an effort to organize volunteers and sew a remarkable 6 million masks in Utah during a six-week period early in the pandemic, said women can play a crucial role in their families and in society. She said she finds hope in service and in seeing others sacrifice and serve.
"When I am out in public and I do see people following through with the masking and the physical distancing, I have hope," President Bingham, who heads the 7 million member global Relief Society for the church, said.
"I think this is a particular time where you can look for the silver lining. There are many opportunities for serving others and reaching out, that makes you feel good. This is a real time when you could feel pretty depressed or anxious or alone. ... So when I see others reaching out, that gives me hope, that gives me a really good feeling, that we're going to come through this fine if we are unitedly working on this together and we care about one another in a deep sense."
Matheson said much has been politicized this year, including public health advice, and asked Elder Christensen how faith leaders can bring people together "as we try to move forward."
"Starting with the leadership of the church, we have been really assertive on trying to support safety guidelines — mask wearing, social distancing, all of the things that will keep our people safe. There are certain fringe groups that want to push back on that, and I've had some interesting conversations. ... But the fact of the matter is, we've led out on some of these issues, we've supported on some of these issues, and our goal is just to keep everyone safe. This is an unprecedented time for us."
President Bingham said she is grateful to be led by a church president whose science background and faith complement and support each other, referring to President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who was a renowned heart surgeon before being named an Apostle for the church in 1984. He became president of the church in January 2018.
"I'm grateful that we have a leader who understands the science of the problem, and has no problem connecting that with faith," President Bingham said. "I think modifying our holiday plans is hard for all of us, and it's been a challenge for everyone. And yet we know this too will pass."
The conversation will air on KSL Newsradio on Monday at 11 a.m. on KSL's "Inside Sources."