Warm greetings were the order of the day as Church members welcomed 47 diplomats to a western-style picnic at the Mariott Farm in Hume, Va.
Hosting the ambassadors and deputy ambassadors were Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Vaughn J Featherstone of the Seventy, Richard and Nancy Marriott, Pierce and Beverly Campbell, and members of the International Advisory Group.The occasion was the sixth annual Ambassadorial Western Family Picnic, where each guest was presented a cowboy hat and bandanna.
Ambassador Fayez Tarawneh of Jordan and his wife came wearing BYU T-shirts, gifts from a recent trip to Utah.
Ambassador Tarawneh said, "I look forward to this event. From it, I have learned that our areas of commonality are far more significant than our differences."
Newly-appointed Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben-Elissar arrived early with his wife and his delegation from the Embassy, saying that they had been advised that this event should not be missed.
The senior Chinese Embassy official, Ni Yaoli, commented, "I come to this event every year because, through our friendship, I am reminded of the significant values that we share."
Assembled at the Marriott Ranch were diplomats from 50 nations.
Elder Holland welcomed the diplomatic hosts as the picnic began.
"This is a big, warm welcome to you and your families from western America," he said. "The thing all of your hosts and hostesses have in common is that we are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members of our Church live in virtually all of the countries represented here today. This is one way to say `thank you' in their behalf for the kindness and consideration your governments extend to them."
Elder Holland spoke of the contacts he and his brethren have developed in the countries represented and the importance of this on-going contact with them. "This may be the first exposure some of these diplomats have with the Church. Great good comes from this kind of relaxed association and exchange."
Elder Featherstone spent his day in one-on-one activity with both children and adults. As he left, he remarked, "It is one thing to read about this event, and another to attend and watch what happens as our values and gospel living become real to these diplomats."
Church Public Affairs Director Bruce Olsen agreed. "I believe that this is by far the best international relations project our Church has anywhere in the world."
"The Western Family Picnic is designed to develop relationships and to acquaint the diplomatic community and their families with the Church's values, history, and heritage," explained Sister Campbell, International Affairs director.
It has become tremendously popular not only with diplomats, but also with their families, as was evidenced by the mother of a 7-year-old who confided, "My daughter has been sleeping with the invitation since it arrived."
There was indeed much for families to anticipate: stagecoach rides, square dancing, lasso lessons, hayrides, candlemaking, pony rides, face painting, and plenty of games, including sack races and a watermelon-eating contest.
For many of the diplomatic guests, a highlight of the day was a performance by select members of two of BYU's premier dance troupes, the Folk Dance Ensemble and the Living Legends.
The quietest moment came when the ambassadors and their families watched members of BYU's Living Legends dance troupe perform numbers that conveyed the message that diversity, education and refinement are important parts of gospel living.
When the Living Legends taught some of their repertoire to the diplomats' children, ambassador Jalbuu Choinhor of Mongolia observed, "Our 6-year-old daughter is over there learning Native American dance. We are so grateful. When else in her life will she have the chance to do this?"
After a typical western barbecue lunch, the ambassadors danced with rare form, led by members of the world-class BYU Folk Dance Ensemble in a traditional hoe-down.
After being enchanted by a spirited square dance demonstration, the diplomats, LDS Congressmen, and members of the host committees linked arms and do-si-doed around the pavilion.
Congressmen Buck McKeon and Ernest Istook, both members of the Church, related to the guests that such lively times were part of the Latter-day Saints' heritage, since the early pioneers relied on dancing and singing to sustain them as they struggled on their westward trek to Utah.
"I had no idea about this part of your history," remarked Ambassador Mircea Geoana of Romania. "What strong people these pioneers must have been."
As the day's activities drew to a close, event co-chair Susan Faust and other members of the International Advisory Group and the Congressional Wives Committee expressed how pleased they were with the record turnout and the positive comments.
Many of the guests lingered after the event. Ambassador Archibald Mogwe of Botswana asked to be taken for a closer look at the Marriotts' cows, as cattle had been a part of his youth.
But the most endearing sight of the day was the diplomats' children as they left, faces painted with cheerful flowers, holding up the candles they had made, just like the pioneers.
"What a great welcome to Washington this was," declared the Canadian deputy ambassador, Douglas Waddell, assigned to Washington just a few weeks ago.
"You are such warm people. We shall be seeing much of you in the future."