Belgian members `think big' in celebration -- Pioneer parade opens missionary doors

In a charming 17th century town named after King Charles II - a land made historic by Napoleon's defeat at nearby Waterloo - members of the Church banded together Aug. 23 to celebrate the Church's sesquicentennial by sponsoring a parade here.

"Smile," said Claude Ypersier, national director for the Church's public affairs in Belgium and organizer of the festivities, as a last word of encouragement before the parade began."Belgians should know that we are a happy people, and that we are proud of our Church," he said.

The parade committee touted the parade as the largest in Belgium's history. It wound through the streets of Charleroi for nearly a mile, then emerged at Place Charles II, the historic edifice surrounding a spectacular water fountain.

"Never before has there been so much power of the priesthood in Charleroi, never such open arms to the missionaries and their work as witnesses of Christ," said H. Ray Hart, president of the Belgium Brussels Mission.

More than 1,500 members from the 60 wards and branches in the two stakes comprising Brussels, Lille and Antwerp, and the Liege District marched through the streets.

The parade featured 37 wagons, 22 handcarts, horse and buggies, bands, as well as the 160 missionaries in their recognizable white shirts. Members were dressed in period clothing they had sewn.

"This [has been] the greatest pioneering experience in Europe," Brother Ypersier said. "It was not a simple thing to set up, but it will be an excellent opportunity for the world to be introduced to us."

Spectators, estimated by police to be about 6,000 on the street with others watching out windows, were visibly moved by the entourage. Merchants came out of their businesses to wave, while others were seen with tears in their eyes as missionaries and members would stop to sing, "Come, Come, Ye Saints."

For months, since Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Seventy and former first counselor in the Europe West Area presidency, urged members to "think big" about celebrating this monumental moment in Church history, members from across Belgium began building wagons and sewing pioneer attire.

Approximately 150 non-members hooked up their horses and carriages to join the parade, including a family that learned about the Church a week prior to the parade during a special program about pioneers that aired on Belgium television. The family was moved by what they saw and heard, and asked if they could participate, despite the late date.

They were heartily welcomed. Clothing was quickly sewn and the family was taught the hymns that would be sung along the parade route.

"They are enchanted with the Church," said Sister Hiatt, a sister missionary serving in Belgium.

The parade also caught the attention of the local and national media. Eleven articles about the parade and the Church were published prior to the event, with at least 15 newspapers running front page articles and inside spreads following the parade. Seven television stations and six major newspapers covered the event.

The parade entourage was greeted at the end of the route by the mayor, his assistants, and Pres. Hart and his wife on the balcony of Place Charles II.

"When we stood on the mayor's balcony that overlooks the beautiful square of Charleroi and saw hundreds of members and the people of Charleroi, I knew of the presence of the Lord and the great outpouring of the Spirit," said Pres. Hart.

Following the parade, Church and city officials went into the mayor's chambers where gifts were exchanged. The assistant mayor then went on national television where he extolled the virtues of the LDS members, calling them intelligent, moral and good citizens. The assistant mayor became acquainted with the Church several years ago after touring Church sites in Salt Lake City and meeting with Church leaders.

After the broadcast, missionaries and members went to a meetinghouse where 3,200 visitors viewed displays about the Church and talked with missionaries from mid-afternoon until late evening.

"Several missionaries told me they didn't eat the entire time because they were busy talking with visitors," Pres. Hart said. In addition to 7,500 cookies that were given out along the parade route, 220 copies of the Book of Mormon were distributed and 70 requests for missionaries were made.

After reflecting on the events of the day, Pres. Hart observed how doors had been opened to missionaries in unprecedented numbers, and that the media had been receptive to the Church, and that government officials offered appreciation.

"I know this [event] is going to be a great help in this part of the world," Pres. Hart said.

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