In December 2016, I had the unique opportunity to visit the annual Christmas Concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. The concert featured Rolando Villazón, a well-known Opera star and entertainer. The performance was recorded by PBS for their annual Christmas special, and will be broadcast throughout the United States in December 2017.
The concert featured a couple of my favorite Christmas songs, and I discovered also some wonderful new ones. The music was also brought to life by several exciting dance performances. The stage of the conference center, the largest religious auditorium in the world, was beautifully decorated. The evening was sure to bring every one of the 21.000 attendees in the Christmas spirit.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is, however, not your typical church choir! It has 360 members and all of them are volunteers. The choir and orchestra are directed by Dr. Mack Wilberg and associate director Dr. Ryan Murphy. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has won several awards and has performed for several US presidents, such as President Reagan and President Trump.
The Choir is probably best known for its weekly broadcast of Music and The Spoken Word, which features uplifting music and inspiring messages. The program is the longest continuing program in broadcast history. I became a fan of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by watching the live stream of the program here in Belgium.
I had the unique opportunity to speak with Dr. Ryan Murphy who gave me a tour of the Tabernacle, and told me more about how the how the Choir is organized. I learned that becoming a Choir member is very prestigious, and takes a lot of practice and experience. A Choir member must reside within a 100-mile radius of Temple Square to be able to attend the weekly rehearsal and the weekly performance of Music and The Spoken Word. The application process consists of several rounds. Successful applicants have to undergo a sixteen week training and pass a final exam before they are allowed in the Choir. I was deeply impressed by the level of detail and the high standards that are maintained by everyone working for the Choir.
Dr. Murphy also introduced me to his mother, who grew up in Belgium and immigrated to the United States as a young adult. It was great to hear her speak Dutch and to discuss some cultural differences that we noticed between life in Belgium and the United States.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its headquarters in Salt Lake City. On Temple Square, visitors are welcome to tour several free visitor’s centers, free museums, Church buildings, and the largest genealogical library in the world. I spend a couple of days just touring the different sights.
Every December the Temple grounds are beautifully decorated with millions of Christmas lights. There were also several beautiful nativity scenes from around the world. I was really fascinated by the many different colors and lights! In addition to the lights, choirs from all over Utah came to Temple Square to perform Christmas carols.
My visit to Salt Lake City also provided me the opportunity to learn more about the beliefs of the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), colloquially known as the Mormon Church. Some young people in the Church volunteer to teach others more information about their Church and their Christian Faith during a mission. Young men usually volunteer for a 2 year mission and young women volunteer to serve a 1,5 year mission.
Mormon missionaries can be found all over the world, and they all share the same message. I had previously seen them walk down the streets of Antwerp, but I had never spoken to them in Belgium. I used the opportunity to talk to two sister Missionaries who were happy to answer all my questions about their faith. They taught me that the church was founded in the United States in 1830 by Joseph Smith. The LDS Church is believed to be the restoration of the ancient church, which was founded by Jesus Christ during his time on earth.
Some of the central beliefs of the LDS Church are that families can be together forever and that the church is led by a Prophet. Members of the church further belief that the original saving ordinances and Priesthood ordinances which were instituted during the time of Christ are restored. Central to the churches’ doctrine is the Book of Mormon, which is believed to an additional witness of Jesus Christ. This volume of scriptures serves for members of the church as an addition to the Bible. It contains the history of ancient people who lived on the American continent.
Throughout our conversations, I found that the missionaries were also sincerely interested to learn about my own personal beliefs. We had a wonderful conversation and I was very happy to have met them. Next time I see LDS missionaries walking in Antwerp, I will be sure to say ‘hi’ to them.
Religious freedom is one of the hallmarks of the American experiment. When travelling through towns and cities in the United States, you will immediately notice the immense religious diversity of the country. There are countless congregations and denominations, whereas in Belgium most of the places of worship belong to only a handful of different denominations.
I am glad that I was able to enrich my Fulbright experience by learning more about a church which found its origins in the United States. It has now become a worldwide Faith with more than 15 Million members. It is very interesting to learn about other belief systems, as this fosters mutual respect and understanding. Learning about a different faith really helped me to think more nuanced about the different religions and religious beliefs that I am confronted with at home in Belgium.
My visit to Temple Square and the Christmas Concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was an unforgettable and very rewarding experience. I can only encourage every Fulbright grantee, regardless of their own personal beliefs, to just sample the rich and diverse religious culture that the United States has to offer. Doing so has certainly enhanced my Fulbright experience and provided me with a deeper understanding of US culture.
– Joris Van Ouytsel
2016-2017 Belgian Fulbright Grantee