SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – On a day when two Mormon leaders made history by delivering speeches in foreign languages, the church reiterated its opposition to gay marriage while urging members to be gracious toward those who believe differently.
The first non-English speech in the 184-year history of the church's biannual general conference came in Cantonese by Chi Hong "Sam" Wong of Hong Kong. He spoke of the importance of people in local congregations working together to help those in need. The second speech came several hours later in the afternoon session in Spanish from Eduardo Gavarret of Uruguay, who urged members to follow the voice of the Lord.
As they spoke, the 21,000 in attendance at the conference center in Salt Lake City read English subtitles on big screens. Thousands of people watching the live broadcast at home heard a dubbed English version. Leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have in the past given speeches in English, no matter their native language.
Both Wong and Gavarret are members of the church's Quorum of the Seventy, a group of high-ranking leaders from around the world.
Following Gavarret's afternoon speech, Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve said, "What a wonderful new element introduced into our general conference format." He then added, "Eduardo, bien hecho," Spanish for "well done."
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The foreign-language speech marked an important representation of the church's growing international reach, and it shined a light on the faith's increasing internationalization, Mormons scholars said.
"It's a hugely important symbol, because it reveals that the religion is becoming less and less a small, interesting American sect and more and more a diverse, global religion," said Matthew Bowman, a Mormon scholar and history professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
In 1997, the number of members outside the U.S. surpassed the number inside the country, and since 2000, there have been more non-English-speaking Mormons than those who speak English. Church leaders expect 65 countries to be represented this weekend when 100,000 people will attend five sessions Saturday and Sunday.
One of them was Juan Lint, who stood in a suit and tie outside the Mormon church's conference center holding a sign saying: "I am from Peru. I need four tickets."
It didn't take long for Lint, 48, a certified nursing assistant from Chimbote, Peru, to secure the free tickets from fellow Latter-day Saints happy to help make sure he and family could watch Saturday's opening session of conference.
"It's always been my dream to come to the conference and see up close the prophets and listen to the word of the Lord through them," said Lint in Spanish.
The comments about gay marriage came from Dallin H. Oaks of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, who said that the strong tide legalizing same-sex marriage is among current world values that challenge Mormon beliefs. He told Latter-day Saints "we must not surrender our positions or our values" but then spent considerable time preaching the value in being kind and understanding of others with different beliefs.
"Though we disagree, we should not be disagreeable," Oaks said. "Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious."
The church's stance on homosexuality has softened in recent years, but this is third consecutive conference in which leaders have said marriage should be limited to a man and a woman, as God created.
In October 2013, Oaks said human laws cannot "make moral what God has declared immoral." At this year's April conference, Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve said: "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not."
Speaking broadly and beyond just gay marriage, several church leaders instructed members Saturday to hold strong to their values and not lower their principles to adhere to the larger society.
"A God who makes no demands is the functional equivalent of a God who does not exist," said D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
While the speeches about social issues and gay marriage were noteworthy, the foreign-language discourses stole the spotlight, creating a lot of buzz and discussion among the attendees and on social media.
Hearing speeches in foreign languages including his native Spanish made lifelong Mormon Orson Zarate of Guatemala feel more a part of the church than ever before.
"It was awesome. I love listening in my own language," said Zarate, a 27-year-old who has lived in Utah for eight years and works in the health care industry. "I can feel more what they were saying from their heart."