PALMYRA, N.Y. — We live close enough to upstate New York, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints originated and was organized, that we can get there in a five-hour drive.
Latter-day Saints from far and wide flock to Palmyra, N.Y., every July for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Also, there is the Sacred Grove, Grandin Press (where the Book of Mormon was first published), Whitmer Farm and the Joseph Smith log home.
This year, we're holding our stake youth conference in western New York, where our youth will go in small groups to do baptisms in the Palmyra Temple and visit all the Church sites.
Youth conference opened Wednesday evening with registration, a dance, then assignments for host families for the evening.
Thursday morning, we met at the stake center again for breakfast, followed by a devotional by our stake president, Ahmad S. Corbitt, before we boarded our buses for upstate New York. The devotional started without Pres. Corbitt but when he was introduced, he suddenly appeared from a side door to the chapel wearing full period costume and introduced himself as Joseph Smith, having just arrived in a time machine.
Initially, the kids giggled, but Pres. Corbitt played it straight and petitioned them for questions they might ask the Prophet of the Restoration.
One of the first questions elicited laughter because of the obvious (Pres. Corbitt is black): "Wow, Joseph, you're really tan. How'd that happen?" Pres. Corbitt played along with a funny quip of his own but he deftly changed the mood by asking for more serious questions. The kids responded and what followed was an amazing discussion that allowed Pres. Corbitt to discuss in great detail his knowledge of the martyred prophet.
It was a unique way to prepare our youth for a trip that many have never taken, and also served as an introduction for a group of a dozen or so of their invited friends who aren't LDS.
Our devotional concluded with Pres. Corbitt, a convert who grew up in the projects of North Philadelphia, reciting the entire first section of the Doctrine & Covenants, verbatim. Line for line. Word for word. We were mesmerized. And it was powerful.
Before we boarded our buses for Keuka College, a small liberal arts college in the Finger Lakes, about an hour from Palmyra where we are staying till Saturday, I persuaded Pres. Corbitt to pose for pictures with the youth in his Joseph Smith period costume.
I'll be among roughly 50 adult leaders chaperoning about 150 youth until Saturday at the birthplace of my faith.
Salt Lake City is now headquarters for a global church that numbers in the millions. But it started in Fayette, N.Y., with six.
Its reach was so expansive, as it was prophesied by Daniel and other ancient prophets, that it reached my family in Tonga two generations before my birth.
In 1997, I brought my two grandmothers here for their first and only visit to the birthplace of the Restoration.
While walking with them quietly in the Sacred Grove, I momentarily lost them for a few minutes like they were young children.
I found them about 20 yards away standing together, holding each others' hands for support, softly crying under a canopy of trees just off the trail. As I approached them, I sensed they were both having a spiritual experience.
They reached out to me and both pulled me in. I was a grown man, but even grown men feel like little boys in the embrace of their grammas.
My maternal grandmother, Salote Wolfgramm, who passed away nearly 10 years ago, whispered in my ear: "I was 6 when I first heard the story of the First Vision — as a child in Tonga.
"Almost 75 years later, I'm standing on this very spot," she continued. "But I don't know any more now than I knew then as a little girl on a remote island, that what Joseph said happened here, really did happen here."
The LDS Church has and will continue to use some of its resources acquiring properties that played a significant role in the Restoration and early Church history.
We've brought our youth using our own valuable and limited resources with the hope it will spark an interest, that they might gain an appreciation and love for — and honor the miraculous events that occurred here nearly two centuries ago.
All the while, I'm reminded of what Grandma Wolfgramm said to me 14 summers ago, that being here was a luxury that she appreciated, but it only confirmed what she had already known with some certainty since she was 6 years old, in a place farther from upstate New York than Joseph Smith could have ever imagined.
Our youth committee has worked for nearly a year planning this trip with help and guidance from adult leaders, but it's been mostly youth-led. Despite the complexity of adding temple baptisms, the youth leaders worked out a matrix for shuttling small groups to and from the temple with enough priesthood leadership not to strain the temple staff — all while moving a small army from one Church site to the next, with stops for meals along the way. It's really quite remarkable, if they pull it off.
We're off to a great start.
Pray for us.