Tension mounts as a young man slowly ascends the 50-foot light tower. His safety harness is securely fastened, and his body is silhouetted against the night sky.
Questions fill his mind: Will I be able to precisely follow the cues given to me through the headset? Will I be able to remember all that I’ve learned? Can I succeed in something I have never done before?
These are questions which any of the 26 young men, ages 17 to 19, might ask who leave family and friends for a month to be the work crew for the Church’s Hill Cumorah Pageant in western New York.
To be part of the work crew, young men first submit an application. To be eligible, they must be able to pay their own way, do physical work, and observe missionary standards at all times. They must be obedient and willing to follow direction, have strong physical endurance, and be able to peacefully reside with 25 other young men in a bunkhouse.
Applicants also write a letter saying why they want to be on the work crew and what skills and experiences they have to be eligible. They also bear testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ in writing.
Each application is prayerfully considered by the Hill Cumorah Pageant’s president, technical director, and work-crew director. “The boys understand that they are chosen by the Lord for this assignment,” says Cheryl Ganoe, the work-crew director’s wife. “And they take their responsibilities seriously.”
When the 26 members of the work crew arrive at the Hill Cumorah a few weeks before the pageant begins, they discover among themselves many different personalities, backgrounds, and interests. Being away from home may seem strange to some, and they might feel out of place. But in this loving environment, it doesn’t take long to make friends, develop new skills, and become part of an essential team for the pageant.
“There is such a spirit of love here, and I’ve only known these fellows for a short time,” says Jim Puida, from the Hartford Connecticut Stake. “Already I feel like I’ve known them all my life.”
There is great spiritual preparation during the work assignments at the Hill Cumorah. Like full-time missionaries, crew members are assigned to districts of six to eight young men. District leaders have been on the work crew before and are chosen to return to the Hill Cumorah because of their leadership skills, spirituality, and work ethic.
Rather than wearing white shirts and ties like a missionary, the work crew are recognized at the hill by their dark green shirts and denim pants. From now on, they will be called “Brother” before their last names. They are expected to live a high standard of conduct for the month they are here.
“The new missionary standard of ‘raising of the bar’ is definitely manifest,” says Clark VanDenBerghe, 18, a returnee and new leader from the Rochester New York Stake. “The caliber of the young men is impressive. There’s lots of teamwork and an air of brotherly kindness. I really like it.”
Each morning at 6:30 they awaken to the work crew director’s cheerful voice: “Good morning, Hill Cumorah Pageant work crew.” Even though they may feel semi-awake and half disgruntled, the aroma of a hearty breakfast entices them to rise from their beds. They have daily personal scripture study and then eat at 7:00 a.m. Before each meal they sing a hymn, recite Doctrine and Covenants 4 or an inspiring quotation on missionary work, and then offer prayer.
After breakfast, they have companionship study in each district to help prepare them for proselyting in the audience before each pageant performance. At 8:00 a.m. they leave for the day’s work, returning after dark upon completion of that day’s varied assignments.
Before the cast arrives, the area around the Hill Cumorah needs to be prepared for the pageant. The crew must assemble eight gigantic outdoor stages on the west side of the hill. Most have never done any work like this before.
“It’s like putting together a giant Erector set. Each piece must be removed from a huge crate and assembled. You have to determine how each piece fits, and it has to be done correctly according to a map of the stages they give you,” says Jesse Heick, from Delaware.
They learn to work with different tools as they set up poles, siding, lights, and aluminum I-beams, and lay lots of cable, tubing, and pipes. “Working with all these things will definitely help with getting a part-time job,” says Steven Morley, from the Palmyra New York Stake. “Working together as a team makes it all happen. It’s physically demanding but rewarding.”
Upon reflection he adds, “I always seem to have plenty of energy, even with little sleep.”
The second week, when the cast arrives, the work crew divides into two groups: the stage crew or the lighting crew. It’s their choice. “The responsibilities of each group will be explained, and the boys will learn to govern themselves,” says Sister Ganoe. “The influence of the Spirit plays a big part in that.”
Members of the stage crew do the special effects on or under the stage. They set off live fireballs and operate a 24-foot waterfall and water curtains. They also provide the flames when Abinadi is martyred and create the “destruction” scene with water cannons and smoke before the Savior visits the Americas.
Members of the light crew climb the ten 39- to 50-foot light towers to shine the spotlight on the actors as they move around the stage after dark.
Brother Ganoe invites the 26 crew members to make this decision a matter of prayer. They reflect on this decision while they are busy working.
At the end of two days, they decide where they want to serve. As they raise their hands to indicate their choice, they discover that they have chosen the exact number needed for each group: 12 will be on lights and 14 on the stage crew. They are now ready, spiritually and physically, to rehearse with the cast.
Prayer punctuates performance at every turn. “I have never offered so many prayers in my life as I have since arriving,” says Paul Kendall, from Utah. “We pray constantly both in our groups and individually for the safety of crew and cast. We ask that our spirits be lifted when we’re down. I have gained such a testimony of prayer now.”
“You definitely learn to rely on the Spirit through prayer,” adds Chris Berrett, 17, from Utah. “One night before working on stage, I felt I should have a kneeling prayer before I worked with the special effects. My headset through which I hear all my cues went out during the performance. I was blessed to come in on time, even though I couldn’t hear any of the instructions.”
The crew members feel tremendous support as they strengthen and encourage each other in these new experiences. “We ‘circle up’ to receive instruction before performances, and we often kneel together in prayers both night and day and many times in between,” says Brother Kendall. “We feel such a bond of love. We always give a group cheer before we begin our performances.”
During the final week, the work crew takes down the stage and light towers to restore the Hill Cumorah to its previous pristine condition.
After a month of working, praying, studying, playing, attending the temple to perform baptisms for the dead, and just being together as a work crew, these young men feel different. They have learned new skills and increased their testimonies. They have made friends they will never forget.
The words to “Song of Cumorah,” sung by cast and crew during devotionals at the hill, could be a good motto for the work crew: “If you have felt the change in your heart and sung the song of redeeming love, then come unto Jesus our Savior.”
The work crew has come unto Jesus.