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Your Enduring Identity

Brothers and Sisters, Aloha kakou.

I am so grateful for Monica and the message she just shared. I love her and I am so happy every day to know that I am her eternal companion.

I love you as well and I’m grateful to see so many of you here today, although I can't actually see anything right now which maybe makes it easier to give a devotional. But I know it takes time and energy and sacrifice to come here to the CAC, especially right now with all those construction fences up, and I'm glad you made the walk.

To everyone, welcome back! It has been a great holiday. I hope everyone is refreshed and ready to work hard. Ready to have fun. We're excited to welcome just over 400 new students to our campus. Nearly 100 of you came after completing a program in BYU-Pathway Worldwide. Congratulations to all of you! We are thrilled to have you here as part of our collaboration with that thriving program of the Church Educational System.

Last spring, President Russell M. Nelson addressed the young adults of the Church in a worldwide devotional. This devotional was the first time the President of the Church has addressed all young adults since President Hinckley's devotional in November of the year 2000, almost 22 years ago. Monica and I were in the Conference Center for President Nelson’s address.

We were lucky to be there. It was an incredible experience. The Conference Center was completely full, and given the circumstances of the last few years, it was the first time the conference center had been full in several years. There were thousands of young adults gathered outside the Conference Center and all around Temple Square , and in fact in several other buildings, in Salt Lake City. There was a spiritual energy and excitement that united us all in anticipation of hearing President Nelson's message for us--and we were not disappointed.

President Nelson’s message was significant, and not just because he showed a photo of him and Sister Nelson wearing BYU–Hawaii sweatshirts! 

Now about that, I heard that there was some cheering here in the CAC when he showed that slide! When I saw the slide, I nearly cheered too, and I looked down the row and saw all the other university presidents and I restrained myself and I limited my response to a celebratory fist-pump and barely audible “yessah!”  It was awesome.

I actually spoke briefly about President Nelson’s remarks during my address to our Spring 2022 graduates at commencement last summer. Today I would like to revisit those remarks with you in more depth.

President Nelson urged us to understand three fundamental truths as we prepare for the future. First, know the truth about who you are; second, know the truth about what Heavenly Father and His Son have offered you; and third, know the truth related to your conversion.  

Regarding the first point, he taught that you are, first and foremost, a child of God. Then, as a member of His church, you are a child of the covenant. And third, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. He also shared some labels that are important to him: honored titles such as “husband and father, then Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ,” as well as medical doctor, surgeon, researcher, professor, Lieutenant, captain, PhD, and American. He then warned us that we should not replace the three paramount identifiers with any others and that we must be careful about using other identifiers because we can't possibly want to embrace every aspect of them, something such as our nationality, political affiliation, or some other worldly label. He warned us that these labels often "divide us and restrict the way we think about ourselves and others.” He continued and said that “other labels will disappoint you in time because they do not have the power to lead you toward eternal life in the celestial kingdom of God.” [1]

Upon hearing this talk, I reflected on how I label myself, how I might prompt others to label me, and the priority I give to each of those labels. I realized that my social media profile was a place where I, and perhaps many of you, have directly and indirectly specified and influenced those labels.  

On my Instagram profile, it read, “President of BYU–Hawaii, husband, father, kānaka maoli, fisherman, member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  

It seems I was missing at least one of those enduring designations and the ones I had listed are not in the right order!  

As I prepared this talk, I felt the desire to update my Instagram profile. It now reads, “Child of God, member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, husband, father, President of BYU–Hawaii, scientist, kānaka maoli, waterman.”

Perhaps we should take a short break and contemplate- If you have decided to use social media, what does it say to others about your identity? Could you revisit what it says? Could you revisit what you post to clearly and intentionally define who you are? As you do so, are your primary identities clear? Are the other identities you embrace being represented in ways that are appropriate? Think about those things and the influence they could have on your life, the way others view you and the way you view others.

As I continue to ponder President Nelson’s words, I have realized that it hasn’t been, and isn’t always, easy to ensure that these other identifiers are fully compatible with those three enduring designations.

I have also realized that it is those unique characteristics and interests, in alignment with my enduring designations, that have allowed me, personally, to contribute to the world in unique ways and have brought me joy and satisfaction in my personal and professional life.

You come from different family backgrounds, countries, and cultures. You have diverse interests, strengths, and talents. These things are, rightfully, important to you. Some of you are right now hearing voices telling you that these identifiers are the most important part of you, maybe even that they should be more important than your relationship with God as His daughter or son and more important than the covenants you have made with Him.

President Nelson’s warnings about these other identities were clear. But he also took special care to teach us more deeply about their role in our lives. He said,

“There are various labels that may be very important to you, of course. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that other designations and identifiers are not significant...

“I am simply saying that no identifier should displace, replace, or take priority over these three enduring designations: “child of God,” “child of the covenant,” and “disciple of Jesus Christ.” [2]

So, if you’ll bear with me, let's examine some of my experiences with my personal identifiers together. In doing so, I hope that you will see some of my struggles and perhaps find insights into how to navigate your unique path. Let’s begin with my Hawaiian heritage. Shortly after my inauguration, an Instagram page with tens of thousands of followers that is focused on lifting up Native Hawaiians and advocating for the preservation of their land, culture, and independence posted a picture of me. They congratulated me and highlighted the unique nature of my new leadership role here at BYU–Hawaii. While many people on social media were congratulatory, there were many negative comments. Those comments claimed that I could not possibly be a Christian and a Latter-day Saint while also being engaged in issues important to Native Hawaiians. They claimed that my identity as a Hawaiian could not be compatible with having faith in Jesus Christ.

We know that these voices are incorrect. I am grateful for the examples we see here in Lāʻie, of honoring our heritage and culture in ways that are compatible with our enduring designations.

One striking example was highlighted by Joseph Spurrier who wrote that in the 1880’s, “Laie became one of the centers of interest for the preservation of Hawaiian dance and chant. Each [church] conference included demonstrations and eventually competitions in these arts. Many of the prominent dance instructors and performers look back to find their origins at Lāʻie.” Cy Bridges, a dearly beloved member of our BYU–Hawaii family, is a descendant of those faithful Latter-day Saints who worked to preserve Hawaiian cultural practices. He has honored and extended that legacy in wonderful ways. I am grateful for Uncle Cy and all the other Latter-day Saints from many cultures who have demonstrated that they can accept Jesus Christ in their lives and prioritize Him while still having deep respect for, honoring and preserving the values and practices of their heritage. [3]

I grew up in both Utah and Hawaii. Wherever I lived, my dad taught me the best ways to catch fish, whether it was in the mountain streams or the ocean. Whether it was with a spear or a fishing pole, a throw net or a lay net, fishing has always been an important part of my life.

Wholesome recreation is important and leads to greater physical, spiritual, and emotional health. But it can also become unhealthy when it interferes with our personal or professional responsibilities or begins to tempt us to use our time unwisely and perhaps fall short of honoring our covenants with our Heavenly Father. In the case of fishing, I faced frequent pressure to fish on the Sabbath day. As a teenager, I lived in a small home on a steep hill overlooking the ocean with a really big window, and every Sunday morning, I woke up to a perfect glassy ocean that was asking me to go spear fishing. And every Sunday morning I had to make a decision. While everyone needs to develop their own approach to Sabbath day observance in communication with their Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost, I know that for me planning fishing trips over Sunday is not a good idea. I know that missing church meetings and responsibilities and time with my family is just not acceptable. I know that I missed out on many great fishing trips where amazing fish were caught, and great times were had. However, I have also found that I have been blessed with more than my fair share of incredible opportunities when I do take that time to go fishing on terms that honor my covenants and are properly prioritized with my enduring designations.

Finally, my life as a scientist has deepened my faith in God in many ways. But many do not view faith in God and science as compatible endeavors. Several years ago, I was invited to a conference for promising young scientists in Alzheimer’s disease research. It was a competition and we each submitted our best grant ideas and then we met together to evaluate and rank each other’s proposals. The winner would take home a $50,000 grant to carry out their proposal. The meeting organizers and participants worked together over two days, and we got to know each other really well during the meetings and discussion as we evaluated and critiqued each other’s work. At the closing dinner I was seated with several other participants and one of the senior faculty who was on the board for the conference. After some brief pleasantries, the board member looked at me and said, “Brigham Young University, huh?” (That’s where I was employed as a faculty member at the time.)

“Yes,” I replied. 

“So, you believe that stuff?” they said. (Remember this in front of a whole table of people.)

A bit surprised, I said, “Yes, I do.”

They looked me in the eyes, and then said, “But Keoni, you seem so smart. How do you believe that stuff?”

I paused, thought for a moment, and replied, “Yes, thanks. I have had several experiences in my life that make me a person of faith, and specifically a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” 

The person rolled their eyes and said, “Ugh…like what?”

At that moment, the meeting organizer tapped his glass with his knife and announced that my proposal was ranked number one in the competition. That was the end of our conversation.

There are voices all around us that would make light of believing. They are practiced, polished and persistent. As you face these kinds of challenges in your life, please remember President Nelson’s powerful words, “I promise that you will experience spiritual growth, freedom from fear, and a confidence that you can scarcely imagine now. You will have the strength to have a positive influence far beyond your natural capacity. And I promise that your future will be more exhilarating than anything you can presently believe.” [5]

I know that that promise is real. I have experienced it. Since that day, where I was challenged at that dinner table, I have had a scientific career with success that I can hardly believe: millions of dollars of grants and over a hundred research papers and work from my lab that matters that significantly influenced our knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease. I am even blessed to be part of a team that is developing a promising new drug that humans are taking right now. It’s amazing and I know that it’s because of that promise of the Lord.

I hope when you wrestle with what it means to be a member of your social group, your community, or your culture AND be a covenant keeping Latter-day Saint, that you will remember the courage and confidence that is promised to you. I hope when you strive to be an exceptional scientist, historian, social worker, or businessperson and have faith in Jesus Christ that you remember the exhilarating future that is promised for you. I shared some of my personal stories with you today and I want you to know that I have felt the blessings and influence of the Spirit amplify my efforts in ways that are simply miraculous. I have experienced every aspect of President Nelson’s promise in my personal and professional life. I testify to you that when we follow Jesus Christ and strive to live like him, these promises truly do come to pass.

There are a few scriptures that can guide you as you consider who you want to be.

First, 3 Nephi 13:24: "No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." [6]

You must candidly consider whether an identifier you wish to embrace can be compatible with your three enduring designations. Some identifiers are not. Some can be but require careful planning and powerful resolve if they are to be and remain compatible. The world has constructed many identities based on one's desire to break covenants and commit sin. Certainly, such labels are not for you. I would suggest that no label that is based on your desire to break covenants or commit sin can be compatible with those designations.

Second, Doctrine and Covenants 46:12: “For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.” [7]

Remember that there is no particular mold that you have to fit. You are a child of your Heavenly Father with unique skills, talents, and capacities. You are entitled to revelation to find what He wants for you. As you look for what works for you, trust your Heavenly Father. Trust your Savior. They love you more than anyone. They know you better than anyone. Their promises are certain. And you can follow their direction for you and your life with perfect confidence.

Third, Ecclesiastes 3:1: “To every thing there is  a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...” [8]

Those identifiers that you choose to embrace may only be appropriate and compatible during certain times and seasons of life. Right now, you are student. And there are demands on your time from family, school, your community, and your Heavenly Father that are specific to these conditions.

But “to every thing there is a season.” Your circumstances will change, and you must be capable of adjusting your priorities over time if you are to continue to thrive in your personal and professional life.

For me, to get back to fishing…I love fishing. It’s been my life, but it turns out that it requires time and commitment that I don’t have right now. I have to prioritize my time for my family, for studying, for exercise, for repose.

So, I’ve adapted. Surfing gives me the opportunity for exercise along with my recreation and important personal and spiritual time. It is just better for me right now. So, I don’t do much fishing. This might seem like a small change, but I’m asking you to be open in times and seasons to make the changes that will make your life happier and more successful.

Finally, 2 Nephi 2:25: “ are, that they might have joy.” [9]

Remember that life is joyful, so enjoy it! Know that when you keep your other labels compatible with your enduring designations that they can be a meaningful part of your personal, professional, and spiritual life. Our professions and our interests are an important part of this temporal life. A great example is our Academic Vice President, Isaiah Walker. In his devotional last year he said, “The Lord used BYU–Hawaii to shape me into a better version of myself: a husband, a scholar, a person of faith. The Lord was even kind enough to open doors for me to combine my intellectual and cultural interests as a part of my research included components of Hawaiian and even surfing history. Ultimately, the Lord knew my heart and allowed my lifelong passions to coexist. This blessing is evidenced in the fact that I am often involved in professional surfing circles as a historian, scholar, and commentator.” [10]

We can make priorities. We can make these identifiers a part of our lives in meaningful ways and find great joy. On Sunday night Elder Holland gave us a little challenge that I’d like to remind you of. He said, “Of all the encouragement Christ extends to us in the scriptures, of all the hope he repeatedly offers to us, that which we repeatedly fail to accept is the encouragement to be of good cheer.”

He continued and said, “May we please take Christ at his word in that regard? Could we just try it? May we embrace that happy, hope-filled invitation tonight as we seize yet another chance to start a new year and make of our life exactly what we want it to be.” [11]

Finally, President Nelson also taught us that you should know the truth of what Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have offered you. He said, “Through His Atonement, the Lord Jesus Christ overcame the world. Therefore, He is ‘mighty to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.’ He will deliver you from your most excruciating circumstances in His own way and time. As you come unto Him in faith, He will guide, preserve, and protect you. He will heal your broken heart and comfort you in distress. He will give you access to His power. And He will make the impossible in your life become possible.” [12]

President Nelson promised that the Lord will guide, preserve, and protect you. And the Lord is doing that for you now. BYU–Hawaii is a wonderful place. Members of the Church, through their generous and willing donations, subsidize the education of EVERYONE who comes to school here. Faculty and staff are devoted to helping you develop personally and be successful in your professional endeavors. This community supports and embraces you in many wonderful ways.

You have an important role here as well. I believe that no one on this campus can make a bigger difference for your fellow students than you can. Find someone who is hurting and serve them. Find someone whose faith is wavering and strengthen them. Find someone who is lonely and help them find the Savior and be their friend. Each of you focusing on serving and loving your neighbor is what makes BYU–Hawaii such a unique and wonderful place!

Here on this campus, we are truly being given “access to [God’s] power” and He is making “the impossible in your life possible.”

The final message in President Nelson’s May devotional was that God, “cares deeply that all His children have an opportunity to hear the glad tidings of the restored gospel,” and that we have an “essential role” in the gathering of Israel.  

No single effort can gather all of Israel from all the world. Consider the diversity of languages, customs, and faith traditions that must be understood to effectively teach the gospel to all the world. Missionaries are carefully trained and assigned work in restricted geography to ensure they are gathering Israel in ways most appropriate for each person.

The Church Educational System is part of the Lord’s work to gather Israel. Within that system, the employees, students, and graduates of BYU–Hawaii play a special role. Each of us are blessed to learn, grow, and labor to gather Israel, through their own conversion and that of others, here at BYU–Hawaii. It is a privilege and responsibility.

Finally, as Monica just reminded you, President Nelson urged you to know the truth related to your conversion. He asked you to “engage in daily, earnest, and humble prayer.” He asked you to read and heed the words of ancient and modern prophets. He asked you to “make your testimony your highest priority” and “watch for miracles to happen in your life.” [13]

Your education at BYU–Hawaii is built upon the three truths that President Nelson talked about in his devotional. Here you have a special opportunity to pursue your college degree and prepare for your productive future WHILE making your testimony and its development your highest priority.

What does that mean? It can start simple. When your alarm goes off, do you turn it off, and then check your Instagram? Or do you kneel in prayer? Make sure that you take a few moments to be conscious about this. Memorize a scripture or hymn while you're walking to class. Turn on a conference talk while you're exercising. As Monica just taught you, these small efforts will make all the difference.

As you strive to honor your covenants, please remember that honoring your covenants doesn’t mean perfection. When you struggle and make mistakes, please remember that Jesus Christ is merciful and forgiving. His Atonement is there to give you strength and hope. He can heal all wounds and forgive all sins.

I testify to you that we are children of God, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that our covenants with God are real, and that He fulfills His promises. I love you and pray for your continued success and happiness.

President Nelson taught us that “There is nothing happening on this earth more important than gathering Israel for Him. Let your Heavenly Father know that you want to help. Ask Him to put you to work in this glorious cause. And then stand back and marvel at what happens when you let God prevail in your life.” [14]

It is a new semester, for many of you your first. It is time.


In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.  


[1] Russell M. Nelson, “Choices for Eternity,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, May 2022
[2] Nelson, May 2022
[3] Spurrier, Joseph (1980) "Family Life In Hawaii During The Hawaiian Monarchy," Mormon Pacific Historical Society: Vol. 1, Article 8. 
[4] David A. Bednar, “But We Heeded Them Not,” General Conference Address, April 2022
[5] Nelson, May 2022
[6] 3 Nephi 13:24
[7] Doctrine and Covenants 46:11–12
[8] Ecclesiastes 3:1 
[9] 2 Nephi 2:25
[10] Isaiah Walker, “Your BYU–Hawaii Legacy,” Campus Devotional, January 12, 2022
[11] Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Sister Patricia T. Holland, January 8, 2022
[12] Nelson, May 2022
[13] Nelson, May 2022
[14] Nelson, May 2022