Latter-day Saints around the world have been anticipating April 2020 general conference ever since President Russell M. Nelson promised a bicentennial celebration of the First Vision and a general conference that would be “not only memorable but also unforgettable” for those who prepared for the event.
María Elena Ponce Lacayo of Guatemala bought a plane ticket to Salt Lake City so she could be in the same room as the prophet and apostles for the historic occasion.
Hiroko Furukawa has been looking forward to the messages from general conference in Sendai, Japan, with high expectations.
And Victor Ukorebi was planning on flying from his home in Ghana to participate in the planned celebrations, having previously worked as a translator for general conference for 13 years.
But general conference will be different from what these and other Latter-day Saints were anticipating as COVID-19 impacts communities and countries worldwide. From suspended sacrament meetings to closed temples to changes in missionary service and a broadcast-only general conference, the weeks leading up to the occasion have been filled with fear and unknown for Church members everywhere.
And yet while the 21,000 seats in the Conference Center will remain empty this April, Lacayo, Furukawa, and Ukorebi say there is still plenty to be excited about—and much to be grateful for.
Faith in Uncertainty
Lacayo remembers the first time she attended general conference in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. She and her daughter went to a corner of the building to give a prayer of gratitude that they were able to be in that “holy place,” and Lacayo recalls the powerful Spirit she felt there.
“Our tears rolled with gratitude and we enjoyed every moment, every message, and in a very special way the Tabernacle Choir, which for me, prepares our hearts to receive from spirit to spirit the messages of our leaders,” Lacayo wrote in Spanish in an email to LDS Living.
Lacayo purchased her plane ticket in order to attend April 2020 general conference in January of this year. A psychologist who works as a teacher at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, she planned to take advantage of the Easter work holiday and travel to the United States from April 1 through April 12.
But when Lacayo heard the news from the First Presidency that there would be many changes to the upcoming general conference, she realized she would have to cancel her flight.
“At the beginning when the [virus] was announced I did not pay much attention to it, because there have been other pandemics and our country had not been so affected,” she says. “It was not until the Church took preventive actions that I worried and believed in the situation that was developing around the world.”
Although it was a difficult decision to change her plans, in retrospect Lacayo says the First Presidency’s announcement was meant to be.
“Now I have understood that it was the best decision and that President Nelson was inspired to recommend that we take our vitamins for months,” she says. “I can see the great importance of all the warnings that our leaders have recommended to us.”
So instead of watching conference this year from the auditorium of the Conference Center, Lacayo will view the proceedings with her daughter and son-in-law at home. And while things haven’t gone according to plan, the convert of 36 years says the messages from Church leaders are more important than ever.
“Without a doubt, this time of crisis has made us value being members of the Church,” she says. “It has called us to seek the Spirit of God to have our own revelation to know how to face the challenges we are experiencing . . . the messages of general conference will answer many of our concerns and also our fears. They will instruct us in our appeals and we will receive messages that will give us peace in the face of so much uncertainty.”
There have been many changes to general conference this year—one of the most recent being the announcement from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that sessions would be broadcast from a small auditorium on Temple Square. And yet, Lacayo says, because the Church has emphasized personal holiness and making the home a sanctuary, Latter-day Saints are prepared for their current circumstances.
One way Lacayo continues to prepare for general conference is by participating in family history work as much as possible. Lacayo worked as a temple worker in the Guatemala City Temple prior to its closure due to the coronavirus. Since then, she has been training with mentors on FamilySearch and studying Come, Follow Me on her own and with her family. She says she is prepared to listen to April 2020 general conference with questions that she is eager to find the answers to.
“In this critical moment [due to] the coronavirus, I have realized that I dedicate the best time of each day to my spiritual development, that my prayers are constant,” she says. “I have recognized that I am a fragile human being and I need instruction from the Lord, so I have written many of the questions that have come to me . . . and I am very excited to hear and receive advice from the servants of the Lord, to have that connection from spirit to spirit, and [to] also have personal revelation. I also pray for the leaders of the Church, that they will be instructed from above and their talks will help us prepare ourselves better every day as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.”
A Conference Worth Celebrating
Although the coronavirus may have affected the physical gathering of Latter-day Saints in the Conference Center this year, Furukawa isn’t letting it dampen her hopes that this April’s sessions will be worth celebrating.
“At the last conference, President Nelson told us to wait for the next conference expectantly. I'm so excited,” Furukawa says. “My husband and I have been reading the scriptures together every night. Of course, we read and study the scriptures individually, too. The textbook, Come, Follow Me, gives us more opportunities to share our impressions and testimonies so that we are able to invite and feel the Spirit more than before.”
Between the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that hit northeastern Japan in 2011 and the current COVID-19 pandemic, Furukawa, who has worked as an English teacher, translator, and narrator on radio, says she has come to have a better understanding of what it means to live in the latter-days. It has also impressed to her the importance of food storage and listening to the prophet.
“It is a great blessing and consolation that our living prophet encourages us with home-centered programs,” she says. “He has prepared many new programs for us before this pandemic. It means that he is the real, living prophet who guides us to the right way through revelation and prayers. He is our hope and light.”
This conference, Furukawa says those who listen to the messages will “understand charity and [the] mercy of God more and feel how much He loves us,” despite current fears circulating in society today.
Hiroko Furukawa poses for a photo with two missionaries. Furukawa often serves those in her area by cooking food for conferences attended by special guests, general authorities, and missionaries.
“The general conference will be held in such a scary and complicated situation next month,” she says. “I think God hopes all of us [will] strengthen our faith and show our love and compassion to everyone in this hard time. I believe Heavenly father will show us some ways . . . to hold up through all sorts of hardships through the conference.”
An Unforgettable Experience
For 13 years, Ukorebi has translated at general conference. Originally recruited for the task in October 2005, he served as a translator each conference for 13 years, translating the sessions to a Nigerian language called Efik.
“Translating general conference proceedings requires great spiritual preparation,” he says. “It requires prayers, fasting, and prayers, again, and again. You have to be in tune with the Spirit to convey the words of the brethren to the people in their languages. It is a serious responsibility that requires faith, hard work, dedication, and studying.”
In the past, Ukorebi’s translation work helped a large population of Church members who live in West Africa, specifically the Cross River and Akwa Ibom states of Nigera. Although he wasn’t planning on translating general conference this year, he was looking forward to attending the event in Salt Lake City.
“Our preparation for general conference for April started last October. We took seriously the words of President Russell M. Nelson to prepare for a different experience during the April 2020 general conference, and that it would be different from any other conferences. We have been studying and learning about the life and the ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” he says.
Although the coronavirus has prevented Ukorebi—who currently serves as a bishop in Ghana—from attending, he’s maintaining a positive perspective about the situation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has halted our trip to attend the general conference,” he says. “We love and sustain the prophet and will follow his counsels to participate in the general conference via technology. Like President Nelson warned, this is going to be a different conference from what we have ever experienced. We look forward to it with great optimism.”
As members around the world tune into conference and listen to the session in their own language (currently conference is translated into 93 languages), Ukorebi says it’s clear that “this is a global church, and Jesus Christ is at the head of the Church.”
From left to right: Imo Eshiet, Victor Ukorebi, Agnes Stockdale, and David Okonah translated Efik for general conference.
“It means the world to them,” says Ukorebi of the translation work that goes on behind the scenes at general conference. “It makes them feel loved and remembered. Listening to the proceedings of the general conference in their language is a sign that the Lord and the prophet care about them, and the messages are important.”
And while conference might look a little different this April than past sessions, the messages of the prophet and apostles will still be shared to Latter-day Saints around the world in their own tongue. So, while Ukorebi was hopeful to be in the Conference Center this year in person, the conference ahead will be memorable for reasons he hadn’t first anticipated.
“I am prepared to make this general conference unforgettable by staying positive and participating in all the sessions of the conference through technology,” he says. “I will pray for the Spirit to be as strong as if I was listening to the conference at the Conference Center in [Salt Lake City]. This would be the first time I will be home with my family to enjoy general conference. Therefore, I will make it count.”
As conference quickly approaches, there are plenty of opportunities to make the April 2020 sessions meaningful from your own home. From personal spiritual preparation to serving others during social distancing, there are many ways to connect with people and with the Savior prior to the Church’s bicentennial celebration of the First Vision. It's also not too late to participate in LDS Living’s activity-based advent calendar and count down the remaining days before conference begins.
President Nelson promised this conference would be unforgettable. And while that might be the case for more than one reason this year, it is, as he said, our own personal preparation that matters—and it is what will truly make this moment in history one worth remembering.
“Select your own questions,” he said. “Design your own plan. Act on any of these invitations to prepare yourself for sharing the important messages of the ongoing Restoration. It is your personal preparation that will help April’s general conference become for you not only memorable but also unforgettable. The time to act is now. This is a hinge point in the history of the Church, and your part is vital.”