Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

German apostle embraces world

Elder Uchtdorf is eager in his new calling to serve God's children in every land
Published: Saturday, Oct. 16, 2004

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As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf stood after having his photo taken on a sidewalk in front of the Church Administration Building, a well-dressed man approached him. Just five days removed from his call as an apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Uchtdorf beamed at the approaching brother — Elder Carlos H. Amado of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Photo by Tom Smart/Deseret Morning News
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, have served faithfully in the Church since their youth in Germany. They are now committed to continuing that service in his new calling as an apostle. He has been a General Authority for 10 years.

In greeting, Elder Uchtdorf said, "Buenos Dias." Then the tall, silver-haired native German conversed briefly with his shorter, dark-haired Guatemala-born friend, a cheerful exchange tinged by emotion from both.

Thus there, on a sidewalk in Salt Lake City, the meeting of two foreign-born General Authorities was a personification of the Church's worldwide reach.

Elder Uchtdorf is the first member of the Quorum of the Twelve in many years who was born outside the United States. He sees that fact as simply an indication of the ever-growing Church.

During a Church News interview Wednesday, Oct. 6, Elder Uchtdorf and his wife, Harriet, talked about the new calling and their testimonies of the gospel, mostly in the context of their feelings about members throughout the world. They said they love their homeland and their family, friends and fellow saints in Germany and Europe. But they indicated that their love for members of the Church has no borders.

During his previous 10 years as a General Authority — he was called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in April 1994, the First Quorum of the Seventy in April 1996 and to the Presidency of the Seventy in August 2002 — Elder Uchtdorf has served in area presidencies in Europe and the United States. He said he has had other assignments, as well, that have taken him and his wife to such places as Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand, Tahiti and Russia.

"I feel immediately at home when I am with the saints, even if they speak different languages," Sister Uchtdorf said. "I love everyone," to which Elder Uchtdorf added, "Irrespective of nationality, of political orientation, of color, of language" because of the understanding that all people, as children of God, are brothers and sisters.

He shared two experiences he has had as a General Authority that exemplify the scope of the Church in the world.

One was a tour of the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"There we were, speaking to those people as Germans in English, translated into those three languages plus Russian," he said. "And the mission president was from Australia. If that isn't the international Church. . . ."

The other experience was during a recent seminar he conducted for the mission presidents of the North America Central Area at Omaha, Neb. The group toured the visitors center adjacent to the Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple, learning about the pioneers and their faithfulness and sacrifices.

He said the story of the Mormon Pioneers was being told to the Uchtdorfs and 17 mission presidents and their wives by a sister missionary from Moscow, Russia.

Those experiences are signs of the growth of the Church he said, then referring to Ephesians 2:19: "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God."

A man of impressive stature and dignified demeanor, Elder Uchtdorf speaks with a voice that is gentle and loving. That voice is sometimes nearly inaudible as he sincerely and humbly bears testimony.

It was important to him during the interview to share some favorite scriptures that he had been dwelling on since his latest calling. They included John 15:16 — "You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain. . . ." He said, "This charge and challenge given there is a great thing that I have put on my daily agenda of life."

The Uchtdorfs spoke with enthusiasm about the missionary programs that brought their families into the Church. Elder Uchtdorf was quick to point out that his family joined the Church through the efforts of a member missionary while his wife's family found the truth through full-time missionaries.

He repeated the story from his general conference talk during the Sunday morning session about a kind, elderly lady inviting his grandmother to Church in East Germany. Through that invitation, his family joined the Church and he was baptized two years after the rest of his family when he turned 8 years old in 1948.

By the time he was a deacon, his family had moved to Frankfurt and was attending a branch there.

At that time, Sister Uchtdorf's family was mourning the death of her father from cancer. Eight months after he died, the missionaries knocked on the door of the Reich household.

"When the missionaries came and taught us about the plan of salvation . . . it was something I hadn't heard before, but it was familiar to me. And for my mother (still grieving over the death of her husband), it was a revelation."

Sister Uchtdorf remembers the first time her family attended Church, and her impression with one of the hymns sung that day: "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel."

Elder Uchtdorf doesn't remember the specific meeting, but says it is very likely he was there because his family was active in the same branch.

Sister Uchtdorf, baptized at age 12, said she has always loved to attend Church. Elder Uchtdorf said he was also happy that the new convert was in the meetings because he was attracted to the beautiful young girl with large dark eyes.

They learned to dance together at Church but, through their teen years, she did not feel the same affection for him that he felt for her. And besides, he said, "Everybody loved Harriet."

As an older teenager, at a time when he would have been drafted into the military anyway, he joined the German Air Force to fulfill his dream to be a pilot. Germany did not have a training program for fighter pilots at that time, so he earned his wings in both the German and U.S. air forces in Texas and Arizona.

Returning to Germany, he found that Harriet Reich was still single and this time he was able to win her heart. "I endured to the end," he said with a smile.

They were married in the Swiss Temple (now the Bern Switzerland Temple) in 1962.

After leaving the military, Elder Uchtdorf became a commercial pilot for Lufthansa German Airlines in 1965, a career in which he would rise to the top levels of management.

He was chief pilot and senior vice president for flight operations for Lufthansa when he decided to retire in 1995. A member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, he wanted more time to spend on his Church calling. Shortly after that, President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency extended a call to him to serve in the First Quorum of the Seventy.

"President Monson said, 'By the way, you'll have to retire now from Lufthansa,' " Elder Uchtdorf recalled, to which he replied, "I already have."

With faith that his call is from the Lord through His prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, Elder Uchtdorf is willing to serve to the best of his ability. Sister Uchtdorf has pledged to support him in the new calling.

It is a bit of a challenge for them, because their two children and five grandchildren are in Germany, and Elder and Sister Uchtdorf will continue their service while living in the United States.

That is a reversal of another key element in Elder Uchtdorf's life, he said. As a young man, he felt some lure to move to the United States where there were economic opportunities as well as additional Church blessings — such as stakes and temples — not then available in Germany.

But he said that Elder Theodore M. Burton, then serving as mission president in Europe, counseled him to stay home and build the Church there. Faithfully following that counsel, he became an important instrument in the building of a stake and temple in Frankfurt, steps toward the calling he now embraces.

E-mail to: ghill@desnews.com