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Drizzle, chill fail to dampen first-time conference attendees' spirits

Published: Sunday, April 6 2014 12:14 a.m. MDT

Conferencegoers arrive at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 5, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Cold drops of water fell from the overcast skies and many shivered in 50-degree temperatures. But the Saturday noontime crowd near the LDS Church's Conference Center had the warmth you'd expect from the twice-yearly religious gathering known as general conference.

Of the thousands who filed out after the morning session of the 184th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and among the throng lined up for the afternoon meeting, those attending their first general conference were among the most buoyant of participants.

Filipe DiNiz, 24, originally from Recife, Brazil, but currently studying computer science at the University of Toronto, met up with his sister, Rebecca, 26, a physicist in Natal, Brazil, and other family members a few days before the event.

"We met in New York City and drove to Palmyra, Kirtland and Nauvoo," DiNiz said of the New York, Ohio and Illinois towns significant to Mormon history they visited en route to Salt Lake City. "We got here Friday night at midnight, but everything is perfect."

With more than 85 percent of the LDS Church's 15 million members living outside Utah, experiencing general conference in person is a cherished experience for those who can make the trip and find a seat in the 21,000-seat Conference Center.

"I love it, it was amazing, fantastic," Rebecca DiNiz said of her first time in the Conference Center. I started crying when Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland was sharing his testimony. Because of where I was sitting, I had to watch on the large screen, and I had the impression he was talking to me."

Felipe DiNiz said he "liked it when the prophet (President Thomas S. Monson) entered and everyone stood up. You could feel the (Holy) Spirit and the respect of the saints. We have a saying in Brazil that you could 'feel the spirit just like a knife.’ ”

Susanna Robinson of Kinston, N.C., came for her first conference, as well as a missionary reunion. "I'm here to see old friends and to aggravate one."

But Robinson's playful tone turned serious when she said she anticipated being "so close to a prophet, and to feel the spirit of so many" inside the building. "I'm in awe," she added. "I feel blessed and humbled to be here."

Devin and Dacia Shumate of Columbia, S.C., brought two of their children to conference because "it's important to bring our kids here, and especially conference. It's something they'll always remember," Dacia Shumate said.

Devin Shumate added, "In South Carolina, religion is very big, but our church isn't. It's good (for them) to see what the church is about."

Another pair of siblings, 12-year-old twins Rebecca and Andrew Todeschini of St. George, joined their parents at the Conference Center for their first experience of the meetings.

"It was really spiritual and I loved it," Rebecca said. Her brother said he was impressed with how big the church is, and the number of temples that are in operation.

Alex Eybuomian, 22, from Benin City, Nigeria, is a mechanical engineering student at BYU-Idaho and also attended conference for the first time Saturday.

"It was awesome," he said of the morning session, "most especially Elder (Neil L.) Andersen, smiling and giving me hope all the way through" his message.

In a scene usually spied outside a Utah Jazz basketball game, LDS members lined up at the intersection adjacent to the Conference Center to try to get tickets for the afternoon meeting. BYU freshman Amber Nelson, 18, said she "thought it would be cool to come" to the conference in person.

"Hopefully I won't fall asleep, since I can't hit the 'pause' button" on a DVR, she said. "I want to pay attention more and listen."

And Arlen Herbst, retired after 21 years as a linguist for the U.S. Army, stood on the same corner, hoping to gain entry for the afternoon session.

"It feels incredible" to be here, he said. "My wife and I are going on a military relations mission, and I've never been to conference (in person) and I said, 'I want to go.’ ”

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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