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Strength in numbers: 12,000 Mormon youths celebrate Gilbert Arizona Temple

By Evelyn Hendrix

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

Young men and young women perform a hoedown number paying tribute to the early Arizona pioneers during the cultural celebration Saturday, March 1, in advance of the Gilbert Arizona Temple dedication on Sunday, March 2. It rained during most of the celebration.

Gerald Ferguson

GILBERT, Ariz. — For the past four months, an army of 12,000 youths has been training in the Arizona desert. With sticks and ukuleles as weapons, they waved their banners in the dry air without a drop of rain in sight.

On Saturday, the heavens opened.

In one of the largest — and possibly the rainiest — LDS cultural celebrations ever held, the teens welcomed their new temple in Gilbert in heavy showers at Discovery Park. The temple, which stands 195 feet tall, overlooks the park and provided a striking backdrop for the event.

The script and music paid tribute to heroes — both ancient and modern — who remained true to their faith in spite of persecution and trials. As the rising water turned the field into a swamp, the 12- to 18-year-olds continued to sing and dance, proving that today’s teens can overcome trials, too.

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, watched the event from a canopy above the field that doubles as a retention basin. A few days earlier, weather forecasts were grim with a 100 percent chance of rain, but Roseanne Tidwell, celebration chairperson, was not discouraged.

“I totally trust the Lord,” Tidwell said. “We have done everything we can possibly do. Rain or shine, the show will go on.”

Tidwell wrote the script, along with Jason Barney, Richard Madsen and Robert Madsen, who composed all but two songs. Work on the program began long before the temple announcement in 2008. A few years before that, the group was working on an idea for a church dance festival. It evolved into a musical about Daniel, an Old Testament prophet.

“Daniel made the decision to pray even though it carried the sentence of death,” Robert Madsen said. The Bible story inspired him to write a song titled “I Choose This Day.” Tidwell entered the musical in a church contest.

It didn’t win, but after learning of the newtemple, the group continued to work on the script and Robert Madsen composed more songs in hopes that it might be a good fit for the cultural celebration.

The musical was approved by church leaders, and planning began.

“I was excited about the possibility of a faith-based celebration,” said Madsen, a professional musician who lives in Mesa, Ariz. “It is pointed to the theme of living true to the faith.”

The temple serves an area with approximately 100,000 Mormons that encompasses most of the southeast portion of the Phoenix area. The youths were divided into six regions with about 2,000 teens each. In addition to the large group numbers, many youths sang solos, played instruments and danced in small group numbers.

High school seniors Bryant Black and Katie Lesueur provided narration for the program. Their speaking parts were pre-recorded in the desert surrounded by saguaro cactuses.

“It really opened my eyes to what some of these heroes had to go through,” said Lesueur, 17, whose ancestors were early Arizona settlers.

Participating in the celebration has taught both teens to better relate to people of all backgrounds: “I’ll definitely be a better missionary because of this,” Lesueur said.

“I’ve learned how much our church honors and respects all cultures,” said Black, 18. “I really read and studied the scriptures we talk about (in the program) so I’d know what was going on.”

Black is particularly fond of the first heroes portrayed in the program — Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The young men were thrown into a “furnace” while dancers twirled fiery torches around them.

Cultures that played prominent roles in Arizona history were highlighted in the program, including Native Americans and Latin Americans. Gabriel Scabby, a Young Men leader in the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, performed a traditional tribal dance with his children and other youths.

“I’m glad to share our heritage with everyone,” said Scabby's daughter Shaylee, 13. “I want them to know that we’re part of Arizona.”

The state has truly become a melting pot of different cultures, but the celebration’s theme, “Live True,” applies to each of the 12,000 youths.

“It has changed lives,” said Tidwell. “I see it every single day. I’ve received so many letters from people saying ‘this is changing my child.’ ”

President Eyring reminded the youths that their ancestors “struggled to build Zion in the desert for their families. Some of you who perform tonight are such heroes yourselves.”

“These kids are fighting a war,” Tidwell added. “The cultural celebration gets them excited and changes their goals.”

This modern-day army withstood the storm and welcomed its temple in a heroic way.

Evelyn Hendrix lives in Arizona, where she is never forced to scrape ice from her windshield. She often writes about family, education, health and quirky people who simply make life better.

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