The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Orchestra at Temple Square and Bells on Temple Square presented their annual Christmas concert in a series of shows Dec. 8, 9 and 10 in the Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Among the audience on Saturday were Terri Ard and her daughters, Jessica and Amanda, and their friend Emma. Emma, a refugee from the Congo who has been in Utah for about two years, had never been in the Conference Center before.
Even standing in line outside the Conference Center in the pouring rain with a pink umbrella, “she was so excited,” Sister Ard said.
As they walked inside, Emma stopped to stare. “She was dumbfounded,” Sister Ard said. “It was not what she expected.” The program started soon after they were seated and Emma watched and listened intently to the entire production.
In addition to the musical talents of the choir, orchestra and featured guest artist, international operatic tenor Rolando Villazon, the production included child, youth and adult dancers performing in festive costumes on a stage ornamented with bright Christmas decor.
Sister Ard said when the concert was over and they asked Emma what she thought, she threw her hands in the air and exclaimed, “It makes me just want to sing!”
“It was so fun,” Sister Ard said of the experience. “She thoroughly enjoyed it, and I was so excited to see her response to all of it.”
Emma and hundreds of other refugees were able to experience this year’s Christmas concert thanks to the generosity of individual choir, orchestra and bell members who donated tickets reserved for their family and friends to local refugees.
“We wanted [refugees] to come and feel the spirit of Christmas, or, even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, to feel the spirit of music and of goodness and of joy,” said Doug Furness, a member of the choir who helped organize the donation.
The idea to donate to refugees had its genesis in the choir’s recent tour to Europe — an area especially impacted by the Syrian refugee crisis, Brother Furness explained. Brother Furness serves on the choir’s social committee, which organizes a Christmas dinner for the choir as a “thank you” for their hard work throughout the year. The spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season “plus the choir and orchestra’s recent tour of Europe, plus reading about the donations the Church has made, all had an impact,” he said, and inspired the committee to add a service component to this year’s dinner.
Brother Furness said the response from the choir and orchestra was overwhelmingly positive. “I think choir members were hungry to do something service-oriented,” he said. “People have said to me ‘What a fabulous idea,’ or ‘I wish we could do this every year,’ or ‘What a wonderful opportunity.’ It’s been a great thing.”
The ticket donations were but one of several ways members of the choir and orchestra reached out to refugees within the last three months. First, in October they took an assortment of donations collected by the Granite Education Foundation and assembled thousands of school and hygiene kits that the foundation can distribute to refugees throughout the year.
Then, in November the social committee distributed a list of items needed by refugees for the cold winter months, such as shoes, socks, coats and other warm clothing.
“We set up four big bins in the basement of the Tabernacle that we filled with donations a couple of times a week,” Brother Furness said.
The third opportunity to serve came in December as the committee invited individuals to consider donating their personal tickets so local refugees could attend the Christmas performances.
To help distribute the 325 tickets they collected, the social committee reached out to the Utah Refugee Connection, who was “thrilled” with the idea of helping refugees participate in such a prestigious community event.
Many refugees struggle with feeling isolated, explained Amy Harmer, executive director of the Utah Refugee Connection. “For a refugee to go to an event and hear music and see part of our own beautiful culture of Salt Lake and to feel the joy of the holidays, how could they not feel happy? How could they not feel a part of things? It helps them know that people care,” she said.
The opportunity presented some logistical challenges, however. Transportation was an issue. “Many refugees don’t own cars or know how to use public transportation or even know how to get downtown,” Sister Harmer said.
And while some refugees come from very educated countries and backgrounds, others come from rural communities and have never held a pencil, let alone attended a concert.
“You might have some people who have never ridden an escalator,” Sister Harmer said. “If they were to go to a concert on their own, they might get to the door and [shut down] because they don’t know what to do. But if you have someone who can take them and hold their hand and help them through going to a social event, then they’re much more likely to go again. Then they can say, ‘Oh, I know where downtown is,’ or ‘Oh, I know what to do in an elevator.’ ”
For help, Sister Harmer reached out to Amy Wylie, who serves as the refugee specialist in the Salt Lake Inner City Mission. Sister Wylie in turn helped organize leaders and service missionaries to provide rides and accompany refugees to the performances.
“A lot of love and sweat and hard work” went into this gift, Sister Harmer commented. But helping refugees feel a part of the community “is really beautiful,” she said.
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