And then there are the speakers – about 30 of them spread out over five two-hour sessions.
(In case you’re worried that all those speakers might be a bit much, we’re heavily into beautiful music too so there are a lot of lovely songs between all those speakers. AND, you get to see some gorgeous displays of spring flowers, a few videos, and even hear some pretty good jokes sometimes.)
I know, I know. It sounds long and boring — sitting for hours and listening to one Church speaker after another.
But I love listening to words on hope, faith, light and truth, parenting, building strong families and improving marriages, making wise choices, receiving personal revelation, sharing the light of Christ, and becoming a better person.
“Conference,” as we call it, is a uniquely Mormon experience, and being the odd bunch that we are, we relish every moment of it.
When it’s over, we feel some mixed emotions — buoyed up because we’ve been given a heavy dose of counsel and encouragement and spiritual rejuvenation, but sad because we have to turn off our TVs and move out of the warmth of our conference bubble and get back to real life.
While most Christians will be attending Easter services on Sunday, Mormons will be home watching television.
Something about that doesn’t seem right, but for us, it’s a form of united devotion. It happens the first weekends of October and April every year.
This year, it happens to fall on Easter Sunday.
While it might seem wrong that our chapels will be closed on Easter Sunday this year, we will be tucked into our cozy nests listening to every word from our leaders—all of which will testify of our love and devotion of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer.
In a way, we will get to enjoy the most intimate kind of Easter worship of all – surrounded by our families in the warmth of our homes.
We might not be in our Easter dresses, bonnets and white gloves this Sunday, but you can be sure we will be honoring our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and loving every minute of it.
Imagine spending eight to 10 hours of this beautiful spring weekend parked on the couch listening to about 30 religious speeches.
That’s how millions of Mormons will be spending this April weekend – glued to the television, listening to the radio or taking advantage of satellite and Internet broadcasts from Salt Lake City where more than 100,000 people will be watching it live.
We call this General Conference. And, we’ve been doing this twice a year since 1831 – every October and every April for all those years.
It’s a Mormon ritual and we love it. We happily, even excitedly, tune in to be taught and uplifted by the leaders of our church.
While growing up in Utah, I remember listening to General Conference on the car radio or watching it on our local CBS News affiliate station.
It sounds like drudgery, doesn’t it? Listening to one speaker after another for hours on end during two of the most beautiful weekends of the year?
Typically, the first weekends of October and April are beautiful, and most people want to be outside enjoying the weather.
Not us Mormons.
No, we turn on our televisions, set the DVR in case we miss something, pull out journals, pens and paper for serious note taking, settle in for each two-hour session, and soak it up like other people who are outside soaking up the bright spring sun.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? But, General Conference is a staple in our religious culture.
Silly fools that we are, we live for it. I think we spiritually thirst for it like nomads thirsty for water in the desert.
But, why, what do we get out of it?
For starters, spiritual sustenance and manna, hope, courage, strength, faith, knowledge, revelation, wisdom, peace, comfort, insight, love, compassion, understanding, a sense of belonging and well-being, and motivation.
What I like most is the feeling that pours into our homes as we watch it. I imagine it’s how an infant feels while being cradled by a loving parent singing a soft, melodic lullaby – safe, protected, and nurtured.
So, while it sounds crazy, we love conference weekends. It’s like church, but better because we can wear pajamas if we want.
Although I rarely do because my Great Aunt Anna would scold me good for being so slovenly during Conference. She sat up straight in her old rocking chair, dressed in her finest Sunday clothing and didn’t miss a word that was spoken. She loved and reverenced those prophets and apostles so much that she wouldn’t even consider not wearing her finest clothes around them, even if they were just on TV.
While I won’t be dressed in my finest clothes, I will be taking in every word, just like my sweet Aunt Anna. And you know what? I’ll be sad when it’s over. When the Tabernacle Choir sings the last hymn and the closing prayer is said on Sunday evening, I’ll feel like it all went by too fast, and I’ll want to run around my house and gather up all the sweetness that distilled on my home over the weekend and savor it until October when I can experience it all over again.
Last Friday, President Scott Wheatley, our church’s leader over the area from Vienna to Herndon, Virginia and everything in between, wondered what we could do as a community to help the Hurricane Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey.
He contacted Kevin Calderwood, a church member from Reston who is now serving as a mission president in the New York South Mission of the church, overseeing 200 LDS missionaries. President Calderwood quickly responded and said the people there needed warm clothing, blankets and coats.
We sent out the word last Saturday that these good people needed our help.
I sent an email out to my neighbors, and other members of our congregations in this Northern Virginia area did the same. We also invited some of our church members in surrounding areas to join us by bringing clothing items and gift cards in $25 increments to help our missionaries buy food because they have depleted their own funds eating out. They can’t get back to their own homes for meals and they are spending all their waking hours hauling furniture out of homes and helping people one house at a time.
Local bishops announced an “Emergency Gifts of the Heart” donation event to be held at one of our buildings the next day. One couple in Frederick, Maryland immediately left the church, rallied their neighbors and joined other church members, packing up vans, trucks and a long trailer they towed to Oakton, Virginia because they felt the urgency of the call to help.
On Monday afternoon, the day before the election, when I showed up at the donation site, Stuart and Trina Neel, who organize a similar non-emergency “Gifts of the Heart” event like this twice a year, were busy putting up signs to direct cars through an efficient drive-thru where donors could drive up, drop off their donations and exit the parking lot. Our church members know this drill extremely well after participating in it for at least the last 10 years. In fact, Kevin Calderwood, the NY South mission president, is the church leader who really built up this event in the area all those years ago.
Little did he know then that the giving model he perfected would be the same one that would benefit him and those he serves so many years later when faced with perhaps the most challenging assignment in his life as the leader in an area hit by the “storm of the century.”
Slowly the volunteers came. They picked up yellow “Helping Hands” vests, went to their posts and the work began. Volunteers then started coming in hoards and didn’t stop all night. The cars lined up from the drive-up and drop-off area, out the parking lot and down Hunter Mill Road. And the line never let up all night long.
Vehicles stuffed from floor to ceiling continued to be unloaded by teenagers who used their day off from school to gladly help. They rushed the items into the gymnasium where a woman from Rockville had positioned her wheelchair for the evening to direct the teenagers where to put their bags of donations.
Then, hundreds of volunteers hurriedly grabbed bags, tore them open and began the massive sorting. When stacks of clothing became too high, they piled them neatly below the tables — infants, boys, girls, young women, young men, men and women. We saw boxes full of brand new towels, brand new coats. Families came together and every child had a job to do. The biggest challenge of the night was tracking down enough boxes for all the donations.
Becky Probst from Reston walked into the church and asked Trina what she could do to help. “Do you have a van?” she asked. “I have a van,” Becky said. “Then go find boxes — as many and as fast as you can.” Becky left and wondered where she could go that hadn’t all ready been cleaned out of boxes by other volunteers. Finally, she pulled her car over to the side of the road and said a prayer. “Help me find boxes,” she pled. The name of a man she’d worked with on a different project years before popped into her head, and that led her to another man who owned a moving company. She emailed him and he responded promptly asking,”How many do you need and when?” Without hesitation, he offered all the boxes we needed AND trucks, and drivers.
In one night, we filled five 26-foot trucks with not an inch to spare and still had boxes we would send up later with another church’s load later in the week. We collected over $45,000 in $25 gift cards, had 400 or more volunteers receiving, sorting, boxing, loading, about 2,500 boxes, 10,000 diapers and over 100 bags of summer clothing we donated to the MS Foundation locally.
Channel 9 and Channel 7 news reporters joined us along with Sharon Bulova, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. Everyone was astounded at what we were able to do in 48 hours.
I put a collection bin on my porch and every time I returned home from an errand, I found more clothing. The bin overflowed, filled up my porch and the sidewalk leading up to the porch. The charitable goodness of my neighbors overwhelmed me. And, by far, the most frequent comment I heard was, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to help!”
We had no idea what our community could do in a weekend but when motivated purely by love and a desire to help others, we learned they could do miracles.
When the five-truck caravan arrived in New York and the back doors were opened, I hope the people there felt the love behind every jacket, pair of pants and warm quilt.
And you know what the second most often asked question was?
“What else can I do?”
I got emails from people wanting to take time off work to drive up and help. One was from a church leader in Mount Vernon that said, “I have people chomping at the bit to get up there and help! Just send me the word when it’s time and they’ll be off.”
For now, it’s hard for the rescue workers to accommodate extra people. They can’t feed and house more bodies with an infrastructure so badly ruined, but soon they will have need for manpower, and I have no doubt those calls for help will be answered swiftly and generously.
One of our church leaders was once asked how we get members of the church to do so much service. He wanted to know how we get young men to postpone college for two years while they serve missions and why older couples leave their grandchildren and aging parents to serve humanitarian missions. How do you get people to do so much?
The simple answer was this: We ask.
I’ve seen the same thing in good people everywhere over the last week.
To everyone who helped with this emergency service event, thank you.
It’s amazing how much good we can do in the world when we just respond to a simple call for help even if it’s as small as a $25 gift card, a coat, or a warm pair of mittens for a cold set of hands.