COLUMBIA, S.C. Herb Michels, elders quorum president of the Orangeburg Branch, Columbia South Carolina Stake, was emotionally overwhelmed to be within arm's reach of President Gordon B. Hinckley during a regional conference in South Carolina on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 20-21. Thousands of other members throughout South Carolina and Georgia were also uplifted by the visit of the president of the Church, most through satellite broadcast to various meetinghouses.
Nearly 12,000 members listened as President Hinckley spoke in the West Columbia South Carolina Stake Center in the general session Sunday morning. He began by commenting on the tie he was wearing. Its design incorporated the symbols of the South Carolina state flag the crescent moon (an emblem sewn to the caps worn by South Carolina soldiers during the Revolutionary War) and the palmetto (the state tree).
Then he delivered a message on the pillars of righteousness, using an analogy of the pillars holding up the roof of the soon-to-be-renovated Salt Lake Tabernacle.
The Church's audio-visual department provided the resources to broadcast the regional conference via satellite to meetinghouses in 11 other stakes outside West Columbia. They included the other five stakes of South Carolina Charleston, Columbia, Florence, Greenville and Greenville East, and six stakes in Georgia Albany, Augusta, Columbus, Douglas, Macon and Savannah.
Joining President Hinckley at the conference were Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve, and his wife, Barbara; Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy, and his wife, Kathy; and Elder W. Blake Sonne, Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Kay.
President Hinckley also spoke in Saturday's priesthood leadership meeting and at a missionary meeting.
It was at the leadership meeting that Brother Michels, sitting on the front row, awaited with eager anticipation to see President Hinckley. Before the meeting began, Brother Michels spoke with enthusiasm of the testimony he gained that led to his baptism five years earlier, just in time to participate in the dedication of the Columbia South Carolina Temple. As President Hinckley entered the chapel, and passed by him in the aisle, Brother Michels stood reverently with the rest of the congregation.
The response to President Hinckley's visit was overwhelmingly positive inside and outside the Church. Brother Alan Clemmons of the Myrtle Beach Ward, Florence South Carolina Stake, is a member of the state legislature and said South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was aware of the event but his schedule prevented him from accepting an invitation to attend. At least two major newspapers in South Carolina reported on the conference with President Hinckley, Elder Ballard, Elder Christofferson and local leaders briefly answering questions Sunday morning.
Elder Christofferson conducted the general session on Sunday, welcoming those gathered in the various meetinghouses "into one great congregation."
Speaking in the general session, Elder Ballard continued the theme of missionary work from the previous conference meetings. He said that his Salt Lake City office is graced with portraits, as well as busts, of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. "It has turned my heart these past years of being a General Authority . . . to them in this sense that they gave everything they had to this work of the Restoration." He told members of the congregation that they, too, ought to have "the desire and strength and courage to share what you've come to know to be true."
Elder Ballard listed questions members might be asked by their friends and neighbors about the Church and gave references from the Book of Mormon where the answers can be found.
"If you haven't been able to write fast enough (to write all the references)," Elder Ballard continued, "invite the missionaries to come over and teach you the first discussion. Then they can show you the page in Preach My Gospel (a recently introduced missionary handbook) that gives the answers."
In his address, Elder Christofferson referred to the fact that a good share of his education and career had been spent in this part of the country. He talked of raising a son from birth when he was totally dependent to an adult who now makes his own contributions to society. He compared that to the need to nurture new members of the Church through friendship, giving them a responsibility and nurturing them with the teachings of the gospel so that they can make increasing contributions. "The process can happen quickly," he said.
He and his wife learned quickly about southern hospitality, he said, when they moved to North Carolina where he attended law school. Driving through the state, they were pulled over by a policeman. Elder Christofferson said he didn't know what he could have been doing wrong. The officer approached, announced he was a member of the local Rotary Club and was asked to find a car with out-of-state license plates and invite its occupants to the club's luncheon that afternoon.
Elder Christofferson told the congregation that the club simply invited him and his wife to an activity they were doing anyway. He said that in the same way, members don't need to make special plans to be missionaries. "Just invite others to join you in what you are going to do anyway," he said.
Sister Ballard noted the approaching Christmas season and summarized the story of the Savior's birth. There was no room for Him in the inn, she said, then asked, "How many of us find room for Him in our homes, in our lives?"
Sister Christofferson also spoke and told the youth of the importance of families and encouraged them to "put parenthood first and foremost" in their lives. "You learn more about how God feels about you when you become a parent," she said.
At President Hinckley's invitation, Elder Sonne also bore a brief but firm testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel, and the importance of apostles and prophets.
Saturday's priesthood leadership meeting included six stakes at the West Columbia meetinghouse and leaders from six other stakes watching and listening to the broadcast in meetinghouses in their own areas. Missionaries of the South Carolina Columbia Mission attended the missionary meeting in West Columbia while those of the Georgia Macon Mission received the broadcast in Macon.
For the general meeting, members started arriving at the West Columbia stake center in the early hours of Sunday morning and the building was full shortly after the doors were opened three hours before the meeting began. A light rain overnight gave way to a pleasant day in Columbia. Working under the direction of Elder Christofferson and Elder Sonne as co-chairmen of the conference's organizing committee were West Columbia South Carolina Stake President John R. Jensen and Columbia South Carolina Stake President Brad Holt. Other stake presidents handled the planning for the broadcast in their own stakes.
The thrill of President Hinckley's presence was shared by many. As soon as he stood to speak Sunday morning, tears began to flow in the eyes of 17-year-old Amanda Geddings of the Newberry Branch, Columbia South Carolina Stake, and she continued to weep throughout his talk.
"It's the most wonderful experience I've had in my life," she said after the meeting. "I've never felt the Spirit so strong and I am so thankful that I can be a member of this Church."
The family of Emile Pinson of the Orangeburg Branch felt especially blessed because four members were able to sing in the choir he and his wife, Arah; daughter Erica, 14; and son Brian, 17. In an interview after the meeting, Brother Pinson said that he was the first member of his family to join the Church, but many others followed. One was his father who, himself a popular performing musician and college music teacher, inspired music in his family.
"These have just been really marvelous experiences for us," remarked Brother Pinson, who said he was also able to sing in the temple dedication choir in 1999. "This experience has been kind of the crowning experience of our singing together."
For President Hinckley, it was his third visit to South Carolina, including the temple dedication and a conference while he was a counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball. The state's first stake was organized in 1947.
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