Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Cecilie Lundgreen and nine young women from a Mormon congregation in Norway will be among the more than 100,000 people who are expected to attend sessions of the 182nd Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the church's downtown Conference Center this weekend.
General sessions featuring sermons and instruction from LDS Church leadership will be held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, with a priesthood session for male church members age 12 and up scheduled for Saturday evening at 6.
Millions of church members and interested friends will be watching the proceedings via television, radio, satellite and Internet broadcasts. But for Lundgreen and her young friends and thousands of others who make their way to Salt Lake City and secure tickets to attend the sessions in the 21,000-seat Conference Center, conference attendance can be a meaningful — even life-changing — experience.
"I've been here many times for conference," said Lundgreen, one of the Fredrikstad Ward's Young Women leaders who travels extensively as a professional golfer. The last time she attended conference in Salt Lake City she says she was overwhelmed by the desire to help her young friends in her home ward feel the same spirit she was feeling.
"I had been fasting and prayer about what I could do to bless the lives of these girls, and I felt like I wanted to give them this experience," she said. "That was the impression I had."
So she went back to Norway and talked through the ideas with her ecclesiastical leaders.
"My bishop said, 'I think you're crazy, but if you want to do this I'll support you," Lundgreen said. Working closely with the girls' families, they came up with a plan: if the girls would find a way to earn $30 per week for a year, that would give them enough money to pay their tithing (Latter-day Saints are asked to donate 10 percent of their income to the church), buy an airplane ticket and their food and contribute to ground transportation in Utah.
"There are nine girls who are here because they were able to do that," Lundgreen said, her pride in their accomplishment clearly evident. "I can't believe that we're actually here!"
The group arrived in Salt Lake City last Friday, in time to participate in last Saturday's General Relief Society Meeting at the Conference Center. They have also toured Temple Square, climbed Ensign Peak, performed baptisms for the dead in the Salt Lake Temple, visited with general LDS Church authorities and Young Women leaders and participated in joint activities with area youth groups.
"They liked the idea of meeting American boys," Lundgreen said, chuckling. "Imagine that."
But the most important element of the extraordinary trip, according to Lundgreen, will happen this weekend.
"For me, it was important to come and experience conference," she said. "I had a testimony, I knew the church was true, but coming here and sitting in conference and listening to the prophet in person made it all more real for me."
And that's what she hopes happens for her girls Saturday and Sunday.
"I want them to understand that being active in the church isn't something we do because Mom and Dad say it," said Lundgreen, who joined the LDS Church 10 years ago. "I want them to have their own testimony — a firm foundation — and I want them to understand that you have to have that burning testimony.
"I don't expect that attending general conference in person will give them a testimony," she said. "But if they feel something here, it will strengthen the testimony they already have. And I wanted to give them the opportunity to feel that, and to be strengthened."
Dee Garrett, another fairly recent convert to Mormonism, said her one-time visit to Salt Lake City for general conference in April 2010 did strengthen her spiritually. But it just about did her in physically.
"I think it was the altitude," said Garrett, a lively and energetic 80-year-old who joined the LDS Church a few years ago in the Sacramento, Calif., area. "I was sick the whole time I was up there. I was so dizzy, I felt like I was spinning like a top."
Despite her illness, she was determined to attend general conference. And when Dee Garrett is determined to do something, you might as well get out of the way because it's going to happen. She grew up in rural Virginia, protected from the anguish of racial discrimination by her dynamic chauffer father and a mother who, in Garrett's words, "would have been the perfect Mormon Relief Society president." As she grew older she learned first-hand about discrimination and became intensely involved in the fight for civil rights. She walked picket lines with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had to lecture her about not lashing out when someone spit on her, and she single-handedly moved her family to California from Connecticut when her husband — a minister — cheated on her.
So when she said she was going to general conference, she was going — dizziness notwithstanding.
"They put me in a wheelchair and walked me right in there," she recalls of her first entrance into the Conference Center. "It was beautiful in there, and I had never seen so many people in one place in my life."
But the main thing she remembers about being in the Conference Center for general conference is the feeling she felt inside.
"It was just a whole new feeling," she said. "I forgot all about being sick. Anything that was troubling me just left. I forgot about all that stuff. I just kept thinking, 'It was worth it. It was really worth it.'"
During the session, she said, "I kept looking at the prophet and the apostles and everyone speaking, and I was thinking, 'Look what I would have missed if I had turned those missionaries away!'"
After the conference concluded and she returned to California, the feeling she felt in the Conference Center stayed with her.
"I came back and it was just a different feeling that I had — it's hard to explain," she said. "It stayed with me all this time. Coming to conference just made everything different for me."
And that's exactly what Jaime Velez is praying for this weekend: coming to conference, and making a difference.
Born and raised as a Latter-day Saint in Colombia, Velez says he didn't have the opportunity to watch general conference live on television or even listen to it on the radio. The only way he heard about general conference talks was a couple of months after each conference, when the Liahona — a monthly magazine published by the church in more than 40 languages — would come out with a conference report.
"We yearned to be able to see or hear general conference," he said. "We would have done anything to be able to watch it, or better yet, to be there."
So when he came to the United States and was a student at Brigham Young University, he took advantage of every opportunity he had to come to conference, or to listen to the words of church leaders during BYU devotionals.
"I always felt something special deep inside when I was in the presence of the prophet or one of the apostles," Velez said. "Being there in the conference center doesn't give you a testimony. Your testimony isn't based on that. But it gives you a wonderful, warm feeling. It strengthens you."
Today he lives in Las Vegas, Nev., with his wife, Kathy, and their seven children. He makes the seven-hour trip to Salt Lake City as often as he can to come to conference with his children.
"Mostly, I try to come to priesthood meeting with my boys," he said. "I want my children to feel what I have felt sitting in the Conference Center and listening to prophets of God."
But isn't that a long trip to make for a two-hour priesthood session that you can easily watch at your stake center, just a few minutes away from your home?
"There is just something special that you feel when you are there," he said. "I want my boys to feel that. So it isn't a sacrifice. It is a blessing to me that we live close enough that we can make that trip."
This year, especially, the trip is worth making.
"My eldest son is 17," Velez said. "You know how it is with boys that age. He's making important decisions about what he's going to do with his life. I want him to feel spiritual things, so the spirit can be part of the decision-making process for him."
So this weekend Velez and his son will make the trip from Las Vegas to Salt Lake together — a boy standing at a crossroads in his life, and a father with a prayer in his heart that coming to conference will make a difference.
And that he will feel something.
182nd Semiannual General Conference
Saturday general sessions will be held at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; Sunday sessions will be held at 9:30 a.m. The general priesthood meeting will be held in the Conference Center on Saturday at 6 p.m.
Tickets are required for admission to all sessions in the Conference Center. To obtain tickets, please contact your local priesthood leader.
For general conference sessions, the Conference Center doors open 90 minutes before the session start time. Those with tickets should be in their seats 30 minutes before the session start time.Heady goes here
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