The lady from Waukegan elbowed her way through the crowd up to the booth by the Kodak display.
“Can I buy film here?” she asked.
“No, ma’am, but we do have a film shop just across from the Mormon pavilion.”
It was July 24, Pioneer Festival Day at Expo ’74 in Spokane, Washington, and not only was the Book of Mormon Pavilion useful as a convenient focal point when giving directions, but the Church-sponsored activities and programs were the center of a week’s worth of excellent entertainment and testimony-inspiring experiences.
That week at the world’s fair there were jugglers and a carver of totem poles from Alberta, a metal-drum band from Latin America performing on the platform over the river, a comedy show starring Jack Benny, and many more professional acts and entertainers. But the real stars of “Mormon Week” were the 2,000-plus colorfully clad young dancers, singers, and performers from more than 21 stakes of the Church in the West and the Northwest.
They were stars not only as they whirled about in the spotlight or sang in chorus on stage, but their faces also shone with the happy light within them as they rehearsed for long, hot hours in the Spokane Coliseum, sat in friendly groups talking and resting, visited the international displays at the fair, and soaked weary feet in the river that runs through the fairgrounds. They sensed themselves being watched 24 hours a day and had long ago resolved to be the kind of representatives the Church would be proud of. They succeeded.
“We’re always being watched,” said a young man from the Lewiston Idaho Stake, “especially if we make it a point to tell people we’re Mormons. And we do. So we learn to always remember that to our friends, not only do we represent the Church, we are the Church.”
Representing the Church well is a habit they’ve formed over all the years of their lives, and it was superbly demonstrated during the months of preparation that went into the program they presented at Expo. Active young people—they hold jobs, serve the community, and are busy and well-liked at their high schools—they found that practices had to be scheduled at 6:30 in the morning or 9:30 at night in order not to conflict with their other responsibilities. Many cut down on their summer earnings because of their active support of the dance festival. But that didn’t seem to be too important to them.
Denise Crump of the Spokane Washington Stake summed up their feelings when she said, “Just get involved. Some kids say they don’t have time to do it. But they should just take the time. It’s worth it.” And a chorus of her friends voiced their agreement.
Some had to drive for hours to attend rehearsals, but when you agree with Pat Ream of the Coeur D’Alene Idaho Stake (“The Church is great! It’s just great!”), any sacrifice seems worth it. And Pat’s story is a special one.
“The dance festival had a lot to do with my conversion,” she said. “I was a dancer before I was a member. I was able to get a lot closer to the kids than I ever had before, and it really helped in my decision to join the Church. I’ve been a member for one year, four months, and 24 days!”
Practices went on for months in the individual stakes, with leaders traveling from one group to the other to make sure that all of them were doing the dances the same way. Months and months of man-hours were involved. And it all came together on Tuesday morning, July 23.
The 2,000 young people met with Johnny Whitaker, the D’s, the Grandland Singers, and the leaders, and they took a million pieces of puzzle and created a beautiful, finished product. They rehearsed all day.
“And it worked,” said Bruce Nelson of the Spokane Stake. “One of the greatest experiences happened when we performed for the first time on Tuesday evening. Everything came off like it was planned. It was really fantastic! The theme of the whole thing was ‘Catch a Happy Feeling!’ And we caught it!” And so did those who came to observe. Favorable comments were heard on every side, and the young performers’ enthusiasm grew as the 24th and their second performance approached.
They were jubilant over their success, but the next morning their cups ran over. President Spencer W. Kimball was attending the fair, and he called a special devotional for their benefit. They gathered in the coliseum as early as their dance-weary bodies allowed them. They sat on the floor, in the bleachers, and anywhere they could find a space, all straining to see the prophet. They listened. He counseled.
“Today make up your minds,” he said. “You don’t wait until next Sunday and say, shall I go to priesthood meeting? You decide today. You don’t wait until you get a call from the Brethren to go on a mission. You start to save money now; you start today. You don’t wait until marriage is facing you, and you have made your proposal and decided the date, to decide where you are going to be married. That is all present in your minds from the time you are little. … Wouldn’t it be a great loss of time if every Sunday you had to say, shall I or shall I not go to sacrament meeting today? Shall we or shall we not have home evening today? What a lot of wasted effort! Settle it once and for all. I am going to go on a mission; I am going to be worthy to go on a mission. I am going to get the degree that I desire. I am going to live the commandments of the Lord and live for the glorious light.”
“I think my greatest thrill in being here,” responded Brenda Barrus of the Coeur D’Alene Idaho Stake, “was being around President Kimball. He portrays the spirit of it all.” And Pat Ream chimed in: “I love him.”
After the devotional some of the young people had more rehearsing to do because they had been asked to present a special number at a program honoring the Mormons that was held in the amphitheatre on the fairgrounds. And then the afternoon was theirs to use for relaxing, visiting the fair, making friends, and talking to people about the Church.
And at some point in the day they all came, in small groups and large groups, singly or in couples, to the golden structure built out over the Spokane River. Here they met another group of young Mormons who were taking part in the activities at the fair. They were not there to dance or sing; as a matter of fact, they came when the fair was opened in May and will serve there until it concludes this month. They are the 24 elders of the Washington Mission who teach and testify two-by-two in four-hour shifts at the Book of Mormon Pavilion. Theirs is a more serious assignment, but it is carried out with all the joy that comes from serving the Lord full-time.
“There are three groups of elders, eight in each group,” explained Elder John Barlow of Visalia, California. “The morning shift goes from 10:00 to 2:00. Then another group of elders will work from 2:00 to 6:00, and then another from 6:00 to 10:00. After we’re through with our shift here at the pavilion, we go out and do regular missionary work. We all have areas and wards we are assigned to, but for part of each day we have been called by the Lord through our mission president to labor here.”
All of the people who go through the pavilion are given cards to fill out. On those cards is a place for questions and a box to check if they are interested in hearing more about the Church. The missionaries have been able to contact many interested people in the area this way and also send some referrals to other missions.
Some weeks the ratio of members to nonmembers who visit the pavilion is very high, and some weeks there are very few members in the lines of interested fair-goers. On July 24, Pioneer Festival Day, the elder waiting in front of the pavilion asked the crowd, “How many of you are Mormons? Raise your hands.” Many hands went up.
One of the members from North Dakota who was waiting at the front of the line said, “Elder, you should be asking who the non-Mormons are.”
“Okay,” said the agreeable young missionary. “How many of you are not Mormons?”
Again many hands were seen waving in the air.
“Go to it, elder,” encouraged the man who had made the suggestion.
And that’s exactly what the elders do. Many visitors are touched by the impressive Book of Mormon display and by what they hear. One of the elders told of an older man who visited the pavilion. Suffering from an ailment that was causing him to slowly lose his sight, he asked, after seeing the presentation, if he could buy a copy of the Book of Mormon so he could read it while he was still able.
Another day two young children bought a copy of the book to give to their parents because they felt that what they had heard was true.
One of the participants in the dance festival who went through the pavilion remarked, “I especially liked the way they handled the introduction to the Book of Mormon. Because they spoke about other records on metal plates that have been found by archaeologists, people in my group had much less difficulty accepting the truth of the Book of Mormon story.
“At the end, instead of asking the elders if they really believed all that, several wanted to know where the plates are now and if copies of the translation are available to nonmembers. The elders sure answered those questions, especially the second one, in a hurry!”
And then there are those who are less profoundly affected, but who are affected favorably nevertheless. Many people who visit the pavilion, say the missionaries, are surprised and pleased to learn that Mormons are Christians and that they believe in the Bible. “One of the important things we have accomplished here,” said Elder Barlow, “is to change people’s attitudes toward the Church. They leave here with a good feeling.
“The theme of the fair,” he added, “is more or less environmental cleanup (‘Progress without Pollution’), and you can’t clean up the environment unless you also clean up your people. I usually tell visitors that one of the interesting things about this fair is that after it’s over everything is going to be recycled. What we are trying to do at this pavilion is to recycle people.”
Later that evening many of the people who were impressed with the Book of Mormon presentation, and many who just wanted to be delightfully entertained for an evening, gathered in the Spokane Coliseum to see the young Mormons who had performed to such acclaim the night before. They started arriving early. The Grandland Singers were there, Johnny Whitaker was there, the D’s were there, and so were the dancers. “Catch a Happy Feeling” they encouraged, and smiles of pleasure and enjoyment certainly seemed to be a contagious virus throughout the audience as the young people danced, and sang, and joked, and cheered.
All too soon the finale arrived. All of the performers rushed out onto the floor of the coliseum. A rainbow of talented youth whirled, and waved small green and gold flags, and danced their hearts out. They were answered with an ovation from those in attendance, but they were not quite through with the evening’s program. There was one more thing they wanted to do.
And there, standing before the capacity audience, the 2,000 colorfully costumed young dancers stood and sang from their hearts, “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet To guide us in these latter days.” As the hymn continued, the lights in the house were lowered, and a single spot shone on an elderly, white-haired gentleman in the audience. He rose to his feet and smiled his acknowledgment.
Then, with whoops and cheers, the dancers ran from the floor. The evening was over, and after several minutes of applause, the appreciative audience stood and started filing out. One nonmember remarked to his wife as they stepped out into the cool evening air, “I wonder who that gentleman in the spotlight was? Those young kids certainly seem to love him.” A festival participant who had hurried into the departing crowd to listen for comments and answer questions heard the statement and replied with quiet conviction, “He’s a prophet of God, sir.”
That’s what Mormon youth participation at the fair was all about—testimony building and testimony sharing, remembering the past and building for the future.