Yesterday, a Relief Society teacher in a neighboring ward wrote to ask if I would be willing to document some of the origins and experiences of our ward's year-long focus on the theme "Savior of the World" for her upcoming lesson on "The Vision To Do The following is a slice of what came to mind as I contemplated her request.
In November 2009, when meditating on the subject of ward unity and how it might be increased in the Kentlands Ward, an image came to my mind of the solidarity that seemed to come into a ward—particularly to its youth—during the production of what we used to call “road shows.” From that mental image sprang the following thought: You know a little about these things. You should lead your ward in the production of a musical. This seemed like an odd thing for a bishop to contemplate but I let the idea play out, mentally checking off the list of musicals I had seen over the years, when a follow-up thought came to me: You should do the Church musical "Savior of the World". With that insight, I instantly experienced, in that timeless way we glimpse what I have to come to regard as heavenly things, the end of everything that would eventually flow from it, absent any of the intervening detail. I also experienced an unarticulated confidence that if I were to respond to that push, the actual making of the thing would take care of itself. Between that glimpse and the two ward productions that spanned the next 13 months, hundreds of tiny details would eventually make their way into my mind, usually in the quiet of the early morning, just as dozens of tiny miracles would come into the lives of those who helped bring about what I now consider one of the transformational experiences of my life. Following are examples of how an initial vision turned to line-upon-line ideas, and then to deliberate action, between November 2009 and December 2010.
At a Stake Conference training meeting a few days after the initial idea was sprung, Bishop Edgely of the Presiding Bishopric challenged bishops in the stake to devise ways to increase their ward council’s capacity to act as a complete leadership team, particularly in areas of responsibility not exclusive to the bishop’s stewardship. The next stage of the vision, then, was that the production needed to be led not by me, nor by a specialist committee, but by the entire ward council. This notion led to a guiding principle that the show was not to be about just a performance but an all-encompassing program whose message about the Savior’s birth and resurrection was to be the central focus of the ward for the next year, a focus of such magnitude that it would eventually require a sustaining vote from the entire congregation.
Although the primary objective for taking on the program was to strengthen ward unity, there were three other formal and often reiterated goals that would also be at work throughout the year: Invite the Savior more fully into our lives; Open our building to the community; and Increase our exposure to wholesome cultural art. At every step, the ward council was guided by these four objectives as they made decisions about things like inclusivity—Do we invite those outside our ward to audition? About participation—Given everything else going on in their lives, how involved should the youth be encouraged to become? And about overall ward involvement—Since only about half the families in the ward would be involved in the production side of the program, how might our meetings, lessons, talks and other activities reflect a comprehensive ward focus on the “Savior of the World”? From these decisions emerged another guiding principle, that participation in all aspects of the project throughout the year would be far more important than the theatrical performances that would occasionally punctuate it.
During that year I learned again that the ethereal things that come into our minds and hearts—like ideas, vision, creative energy and even hope—are of themselves only sparks that quickly flame out without the fuel of deliberate action. With everything bishops have going on, my role in the actual show was essentially over once the idea of a musical production was born. (To stay close to the members, I did put on a costume, memorize my single line and basically tried to stay out of the way of the real heroes of this story.) The strength of the idea was delivered by the individuals and families who got behind it, took it to heart and put in the time needed to make it a reality. Most noticeable, though certainly of no greater value than those of participants "born to perform", were the efforts of ward members whose natural inclinations would otherwise have been to keep to themselves and remain as far away as possible from stage and spotlight. Because our ward unity decision required that every part be filled by members or non-members living within our boundaries, and because there were many male acting parts called for by the script, even the quietest and most unassuming men eventually found themselves on stage, in costume, speaking and singing. One sister told me that her husband, who was cast in a leading role as the apostle Peter, but who had never in his life been remotely interested in standing up in front of even small groups, agreed to get involved because (a) he had been asked, and (b) he had raised his hand with the rest of the congregation. A few weeks after the first performance, the family moved to a different state where this once reserved "Peter" was immediately called to be bishop. After the call his wife wrote to say that thanks to the transformative influence of that wonderful musical "he is today a changed man."
The miracles and blessings that flowed from the sacrifices made that year are too numerous to mention more than just a sample: One family decided to make Savior of the World their family odyssey for the year, replacing vacations and other fun for the chance to share together every rehearsal and the solving of every technical puzzle. Primary children who participated felt and expressed the wonder of being around the special characterization of the Savior whenever the actor that played that role was in costume. A brother who had always wanted to perform on stage, and who, unbeknownst to anyone outside his family, had been preparing to fulfill his lifelong dream by taking private voice lessons, was cast in a singing role. The same was true for a sister who had lately been feeling melancholy about her life choice to marry and raise a family for whom she had willingly given up her childhood dream of showcasing her singing and acting talents. The ward Relief Society president--from the only other family in the ward that had actually seen the musical, and who had been hoping for years to someday participate in it--organized instead a "Kids Camp" so that other families, with small children, including those of her own sons and daughter, could attend rehearsals. A young man who moved into the ward not 30 days before everything began, age 18 and admittedly not mission-bound, brought to the show deep technical experience gained touring with a rock band. He threw himself into the show—and the Church—receiving a mission call before the year was out.
The list goes on and includes many small but meaningful tender mercies: like the one extended to the costume director who, while hosting a wedding reception for her daughter, inexplicably ended up setting aside an extra ultra-white table cloth whose properties would later match those called for by the fabric spec of the costume worn by the actor playing the role of the Savior; or when during preparations for the second show, which required an anchor talent we were scarcely hopeful of finding in the ward, we watched in wonder as a professional actress moved in just in time for auditions.
My particular favorite involved a bizarre phone call I received during a ward council meeting nearly 15 years earlier. I was sitting closest to the phone and picked up when the Church facilities management group called to say that a shipment of professional grade, portable theatrical lighting equipment heading for a stake center in Norfolk, Virginia had to be turned back because there was no place to store it. Since the Kentlands building, which otherwise has virtually no storage space at all, just happens to have an odd size outdoor shed that might accommodate the stuff, did we by any chance want to have it? When I relayed this information to our ever-optimistic bishop, he just said, “Why not?” The equipment was delivered and promptly forgotten until 15 years later when we desperately needed a solution for illuminating a “gym floor musical” in a building with no theatrical stage.
With respect to our third goal—to open the ward building to the community—my experience in inviting neighbors to attend the performance parallels that of many whose friends—numbering into the hundreds—also witnessed the show. The musical depicts the birth and resurrection of the Savior and many sacred moments that occurred along the way. After the show, my Catholic neighbor, who we have known for over 20 years but with whom we had only rarely discussed religion, hugged me, and exclaimed through tears, and in a tone that distinctly sounded like relief, "I’m so happy! We believe the same things!"