PALMYRA, N.Y. Talents, testimony and willing hearts converged when more than 1,000 volunteers participated in "America's Witness for Christ," the pageant set on Hill Cumorah that just completed its 67th year.
Near the end of each performance was a portrayal of the Resurrected Christ descending from the heavens to visit the inhabitants of ancient America.
After his lighted descent in the black of night, Parker Hansen, 18, from Fresno, Calif., who portrayed the Savior, carefully selected the children to whom he reached out in one scene.
"I love little children anyway, but this role has really enhanced my feelings for them. To be cast as one of the two (actors portraying the) Savior has definitely been a life-altering experience," he said.
The message of the Savior's love was felt in abundance at the pageant. Those wishing to receive missionaries in their homes increased 30 percent from last year.
Rodger Sorensen, director of the pageant for the last seven years, will be leaving the Hill Cumorah after 27 years of service at this historic site.
Reflecting on his experiences, he said he recognized the hand of the Lord.
"I have watched the Lord change hearts of both cast and audience," he said. "I have also witnessed the community come to embrace this pageant as their own."
He felt this year's volunteer cast of 638 members was particularly spiritual. "They were sensitive, obedient and focused," he said. "Without those qualities, the Spirit can't work to carry the message of Christ's love to those who attend. The Spirit becomes the thread that weaves the tapestry of the show."
Brent Hanson, a teacher at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, will be the new director of the pageant.
Tremendous preparation precedes the cast's arrival a week before performance. Costume designers, seamstresses and wig makers often work 18-hour days for a week.
"God's miracles are always around us," said Rory Scanlon, costume designer and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University. "The Lord continues to work His miracles here, and we watch as observers to see how He blesses us."
A common experience among volunteers is learning to do things they have never done before.
Megan Wilcken, from Parowan, Utah, began as a member of the cast, but when assistance was needed in the wig shop, she was invited to switch responsibilities.
"I had no experience, so I had to learn on the spot," she said. "I started out washing and hanging 156 wigs to dry, to learn about handling them."
She learned how to comb synthetic hair, which had to be done after every performance. She also learned how to make headdresses for the Nephite and Lamanite dancers.
"I knew I could learn this new skill because I felt the Lord's guiding hand helping me through the entire process," she said. Casting for Broadway shows would typically require at least three months, said Dick Ahern, Hill Cumorah pageant public affairs director. Here at the hill, the casting is done in three hours on a Saturday morning.
Applications to participate in the cast are given close spiritual scrutiny by the presidency of the pageant: Ray Crystal, James Petery, Frank Pallo and Rodger Sorensen, artistic director and counselor in the presidency.
"Being able to apply on-line this year at: hillcumorah.org/Pageant/ has helped facilitate our applications," said Brother Crystal. Selections for the cast are made by year's end.
After attending the temple, the presidency prayerfully considers the applications. They meet again to review family by family, and name by name. The presidency tries to create a balance in the cast. The largest segment ranges in ages from 15-30, but all ages are represented, including families with newborns.
Greg and Sylvia Armstrong from Little Rock, Ark., have returned after eight years to be in the cast again. "So many things have changed," said Brother Armstrong, "the landscaping, the visitors center, and now there's a temple. What hasn't changed is the Spirit, which is still here in abundance."
Kevin Giddins, choreographer, is here for his fourth time. His job at the pageant is to help make the story of the Book of Mormon more clear. "I'm so struck with the dedication and sacrifice that so many people are making to tell this story. They don't feel it's a sacrifice. It is a service," he said.