Virginia church group experiences tender mercy after rare Hill Cumorah Pageant cancellation

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On the evening of July 19, young men and women from the Winchester Virginia Stake (similar to a diocese) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wandered the grounds of the Hill Cumorah Pageant awaiting the start of the nightly performance. Approximately 140 youth and leaders from 9 congregations had traveled nearly 400 miles by bus and car to visit the Palmyra New York Temple, see nearby LDS Church history sites and to enjoy the annual summertime pageant.

The outdoor spectacle, with its special effects and cast of hundreds, would be the pinnacle of a youth conference that was 11 months in the making and the sweet result of significant sweat equity by many leaders and families. But for many youngsters, and even some adults, the sacrifice would pay off with an uplifting, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As the 9:15 p.m. performance time approached, so, too, did ominous clouds. With the pageant set to begin, a storm lit up the sky like a tardy July Fourth fireworks display.

The crowd of nearly 9,000 listened quietly as a voice announced a 15-minute delay in hopes the electrical storm would pass and the show could safely begin. But 15 minutes later, the voice returned and made the announcement that broke hearts.

The show could not go on.

According to pageant president Dwight Schwendiman, for just the second time in 15 years and fifth time in 37 years, a performance of the Hill Cumorah Pageant was cancelled.

Eleven months of careful planning, penny pinching and prayer had led to this: a mad scramble back to a soggy parking lot. The young men and women were devastated. A tender, confused 14-year-old girl stopped me in the dash to the two charter buses. “So, we don’t get to see the pageant?”

My heart ached. If I could have found a costume and climbed to the stage, I would have.

The next morning, our two buses and a caravan of chaperones made the short drive from our lodging at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y., to the Peter Whitmer farm in Waterloo for a final stop and a testimony meeting. From there we would make the eight-hour drive home. The sting from the night before had eased, but all were still disappointed to have missed something some had waited years to see.

Then, just as quickly as the show had been cancelled, a tender mercy arrived from heaven in a most unusual way.

At one point during our tour of the grounds, I noticed both drivers huddled around the back of one of our buses with parts strewn across the ground. We learned that one of the buses had experienced a major computer malfunction and wouldn’t start. It didn’t take long for them to determine the bus would not be going anywhere but on the back of tow truck.

The drivers called their main office in Virginia, half-jokingly ruled out sabotage, and began hunting for a plan B, C and D to get us home. However, there were few options and no replacement buses to be found nearby. The best solution was for our charter company to send a new bus all the way from home. It could arrive no sooner than 8 p.m.

After counseling with conference leaders and chaperones and with unanimous support of the youth, inspired stake President Randall Bartlett announced we would remain in the area all day, attend the pageant that evening at 9:15 p.m. and return home immediately after.

We needed to call every single parent or guardian to let them know the change in plans and seek permission to adjust the schedule. But they couldn’t have been surprised — they must have heard the cheers and tears all the way from Virginia.

Creative leaders sprung into action to arrange additional meals, activities and new transportation plans to get our youth back to the pageant grounds with half as many seats. Every time a new wrinkle rose to the surface, prayer and faith ironed out an answer.

At 9:15, under gorgeous skies that looked like the set designers painted them, the pageant began and our church family settled into the massive crowd to watch the story of the Book of Mormon unfold.

As expected, the pageant was magnificent!

After 11 p.m., we boarded the buses and began the long drive home. The buses arrived at 7 a.m. and parents quickly hugged their children before racing off in all directions to attend their respective congregations in places like Luray, Virginia and all the way to Petersburg, West Virginia. Even the weary leaders who’d driven all night went straight to church.

Since our return, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with many of the youth. They learned in a most mature manner that even if they hadn’t seen the pageant, life would have rolled on. The gospel would still be true, God would still love them and the trip would have been valuable and memorable in other ways.

They also learned that tender mercies take the form of many things. Sometimes they look like patient parents, careful and alert drivers, strangers willing to lend a hand and leaders willing to go the extra mile — even in the middle of the night.

Of course, they also learned that sometimes heaven doles out tender mercies that look a lot like broken buses.

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