2016-07-27
Why do all Mormons wear black suits? Are they like the Amish?

In the years leading up to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, these are among the myriad questions LDS officials have fielded from a host of European, Asian, African, Australian and American journalists who have streamed into the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To help answer their sometimes peculiar inquiries, the church produced a 10-minute video titled, "Mormonism: Myths and Realities." Narrated by LDS celebrities Steve Young, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, and Charlene Wells Hawkes, former Miss America, the video deals succinctly with such issues as polygamy (they don't practice it), monogamy (they do), families (they are forever), and Christians (they are).

It is all part of what the church sees as its dual--and sometimes tricky--mission during the Salt Lake City Olympics: to inform the world of its history and beliefs but not turn it into the "Mormon Olympics."

Not long after Salt Lake City won the 2002 Games, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told administrators that Mormons would have to be gracious and work with others to bring the disparate elements of Utah society together, said Elder Henry Eyring of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, co-chairman of the Church Olympic Coordinating Committee. Hinckley's mandate: "To make our contribution in such a way that it would build unity in the community and that we not dominate the Games or seem insensitive to others," Eyring said.

To that end, Hinckley told LDS organizers there would be no proselytizing by Mormon missionaries or volunteers during the Olympics. No handing out of the Book of Mormon, no bearing testimony, no name-tagged pairs at Olympic venues or on the street. Only the Temple Square missionaries--all women--will be authorized to answer questions about the church. Even then, interested visitors will be encouraged to contact missionaries in their home state or nation. "It's all part of being good hosts," Eyring said.

It is clear some church leaders were stung by suggestions in news reports that the LDS Church was trying to exploit the Olympics for its own ends. Such talk "reinforced the wisdom of our original course," Eyring said. "President Hinckley always felt that people coming here would see us and who we are and that's all the influence we need. You don't need to proactively try to promote yourself."

Why not, asked marketing professional Kenneth Foster. "Many groups are trying to piggyback on the exposure of the Olympics, including my own," said Foster, also an adjunct professor at the University of Utah, home of the Olympic Athletes Village. "It makes sense to do that. It's a great media event." If the LDS Church is deliberately doing less than it could with media, it shows "some concern and political sensitivity," Foster said. "If I were them -- and this is the marketing guy talking -- I'd be extremely aggressive." For the church, though, criticism wrought caution. "We would look at each thing [we were doing] and ask, 'Could that be misinterpreted?' " Eyring said.

With those overriding philosophies in mind, the committee, which is made up of Eyring and fellow apostle Elder Robert Hales, two members of the Quorum of Seventy, a representative of the presiding bishop, a financial officer, three public affairs representatives and an LDS couple, became a kind of clearinghouse for the church's Olympic efforts. The committee saw its role as responding to requests from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee rather than initiating any participation, Eyring said. "We've said no a lot of times."

Initially, the LDS Church loaned a 10-acre block of its downtown real estate for use as the Olympic Medals Plaza and two large parcels near Park City for visitor parking; gave 16 acres of land for an access road to the Winter Sports Park; and encouraged its members to volunteer. The LDS couple, Ray and Janette Hales Beckham, helped with volunteer training. After SLOC had its 25,000 volunteers, many of whom were LDS, the church recruited 5,000 more of its own members to help at sites such as the Family History Library, Temple Square and church plazas.

Each volunteer must have a security clearance and attend a two- hour workshop in civility. "We want people to walk away and say, 'I saw warm and friendly people in Utah,' not 'I saw warm and friendly Mormons,' " says Janette Beckham.

Meanwhile, the church had its own facilities to tidy up and performances to plan. Hinckley asked for some kind of musical extravaganza at the church's 20,000-seat Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City during the Olympics. In the tradition of Mormon pageants and epics, what emerged was "Light of the World," an elaborate spectacle of technological wizardry involving hundreds of actors, singers and dancers.

It will showcase inspirational stories of individual achievement, Eyring said, but will also tie in some general religious notions. More than 150,000 tickets for the 10 performances have been sold for $5 each--probably to Mormons, who are the ones most likely to have heard of it -- but a significant portion have been held back for visitors and VIPs who just hear of it during the Games, Eyring said.

Mormonism's premier global ambassador, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, will offer four concerts in the Salt Lake Tabernacle with guest artists such as opera star Frederica von Stade and Grammy Award- winning percussionist Evelyn Glennie. In November, the 360-voice choir recorded "Call of the Champions," written by celebrated composer John Williams, and will perform at the Games' Opening Ceremony.

Next, the visitor centers on Temple Square needed to be renovated. "We had been planning to do this for years," said Richard Heaton, director of field services for the LDS Missionary Department. "The Olympics simply gave us a timetable." The costly project updated all the exhibits, cleaned the artwork and murals, recarpeted and painted, improved handicap access and knocked out a wall to give a better view of the Salt Lake Temple. Displays feature the church's beliefs about Jesus Christ, revelation, prophets and modern-day scripture, and its humanitarian and genealogy efforts.

Across the street, the LDS Museum of Church History and Art has exhibits on the church's 172-year history, contemporary images of Jesus Christ, award-winning quilts and Navajo rugs, children's art and international interpretations of LDS history and belief.

A special exhibit on the Mormon view about healthy living and exercise features photos of famous LDS sports figures.

As the Olympics draw near, the church's public affairs office has been bombarded with requests for interviews and information. It has produced 27 television clips and a list of "100 great story ideas," and the three members of the governing First Presidency have cleared their schedules to be available for interviews, Eyring said. Earlier this fall, the church showed its "Myths and Realities" video to 300 producers from NBC, which will broadcast the Olympics, and news anchor Tom Brokaw interviewed Hinckley for a piece to be aired in the first week of the Games. It is not clear which, if any, Olympic events the 91-year-old prophet of 11 million Mormons will attend.

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