It was at a memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995, that Dave Checketts, the president of Madison Square Garden and a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was struck with inspiration.
"I was sitting in the Garden filled with devout Jews, and I thought I would love to see a meeting like this someday to hear the current prophet and president of the church," Checketts said the other day. "So I wrote to him and asked him if he would be willing to come."Sunday, Checketts stood on a podium in the arena, before a gathering of 24,000 LDS Church members, to welcome Gordon B. Hinckley, 87, the president and prophet of the church, and to invoke blessings for his presence.
The free event, billed as a "fireside," was the largest assembly of the church in New York City - so large, in fact, that the arena's luxury suites were opened to accommodate the overflow at the 20,000-seat arena.
The crowd at the Garden was respectful and neatly dressed, with men in suits and ties and women in dresses. Checketts saw to it that the Garden was equally respectful - its Budweiser and Coca-Cola signs were covered in deference to church members, who do not drink alcohol and avoid caffeinated beverages.
In his discourse, Hinckley focused on what the church expects of its adherents and on the glories of belief. "Ours is not an easy religion, but out of it comes great strength and great loyalty," he said.
With the family as the central unit of devotion in the LDS Church, Hinckley talked about the importance of parents and children gathering for prayer at home. "We have paid a terrible price for the deterioration of the family, not just here but worldwide," he said.
He also urged the numerous young people in the audience to avidly pursue learning, both secular and religious. "Get all the education you can possibly get, and the world will recompense you," he advised them. "The knowledge we gain rises with us in the resurrection."
In addition, he dwelled on the necessity for tithing and on fasting for two meals a month, donating the cost of the food to the needy.
"People look on us as a church of great wealth, but we are actually a church of consecrated means," he said. "We fund education, construction of temples and meetinghouses and are building more than 400 a year. With the blessing of the tithers, we are able to do what we need to do."
Many people at the event said they had heard Hinckley by satellite, but seeing him in person was a completely different experience.
"It is a great privilege to see the prophet of God in New York City, a city where the gospel is needed." said Radhames Navarro, who was there with his wife, Yelitza, and their four young children.
Katie Silva of San Antonio, Texas, said she heard about the event when she came to Torrington, Conn., to visit her mother who is suffering from a brain tumor. "This is the thrill of my life," she said.
"Without crying, it is hard to put into words what this means," she said. "This is Christ's true church, and to be near so many other people who feel that way is just incredible."