INDEPENDENCE, Mo. After being closed for more than a year of planning, construction and major remodeling, the Church's Independence Missouri Visitors Center opened its doors to the public March 3. And although virtually everything inside the exterior walls has been changed, the first thing that is noticed by many is not just the totally new look, but the warmth and strength of the Spirit that radiates from within.
Phil and Sue Shipp of the Lenexa Kansas Ward were among those invited to the priesthood leadership open house on March 2. He said, "We felt the Spirit so strongly that when the evening was over, we just didn't want to leave." Their experience is not unique.
Independence Missouri Mission President James Hacking explained: "What has been accomplished here is the creation of a place where we can share our doctrines, beliefs, family focus and eternal perspective in a non-confrontational, non-threatening way. The sisters can bear their testimonies when moved upon by the Spirit and take teaching opportunities here that will make this the best missionary tool we have."
Community leaders, news reporters, tourism attractions representatives and leaders of other churches commented on the strong spirit as well. Some have been moved to tears during their tours. Cathy Decker, representing the Bingham-Waggoner Estate historic site, put it simply when she exclaimed: "My visit here just took my breath away."
Elder Robert Poll, new director of the visitors center, pointed out that major renovations have substantially changed the interior on both the first and second levels.
"The only feature of the former visitors center that has not been changed is the interior stairway to the lower level," he noted. Twenty-three new exhibits have been installed, covering more than 14,000 square feet of display space. He said that walls have been moved and rooms changed.
Elder Poll referred to the larger-than-life statue, "Christus," based on the original by the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen, which has been a highlight of the North Visitors Center at Temple Square for many years. Even before visitors enter the building, their eyes are immediately drawn to the striking statue, visible through the glass exterior walls.
"We've heard comments from many members and local leaders that they think this marvelous statue makes (a strong) statement about our belief in the Lord Jesus Christ."
"With such high-tech innovations as directional speakers, touch screen kiosks, high-definition projectors, powerful new speakers on the exterior of the building, plasma screens and enhanced theater audiovisual components, we have been told that this is one of the most up-to-date facilities operated by the Church anywhere in the world," Elder Poll said.
Ground floor highlights include a themed display on "God's Plan for His Family," consisting of a six-room journey through a home that illustrates one's journey through life.
Other areas of focus on the main floor are three large Book of Mormon displays highlighting stories of Lehi and his family, Helaman's warriors and Moroni.
A separate display on temples includes informational computerized kiosks that allow people to explore such topics as the purpose for temples and how they differ from meetinghouses.
A Joseph Smith display includes an encased first edition of the Book of Mormon and leads into the room on continuing revelation and prophets.
The lower level offers two theaters, with more than 30 films available on request. The highlight film is the major new movie, "Joseph Smith the Prophet of the Restoration," released in December 2005.
A panoramic Missouri frontier "set" includes trees, a log cabin and a frontier family dressed in period clothes using tools and artifacts common to farmers, millers, blacksmiths, tailors and ferrymen of the time.
Exiting from the cabin, one sees a full-sized office "set" of the Times and Seasons printing office owned by W. W. Phelps which operated in 1830s Independence. In this print shop, the Book of Commandments and various revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in Missouri were printed. Visitors may watch clips on a number of these, including historic and present-day applications on revelations about tithing, the Sabbath day, caring for the poor and missionary work. Around the corner is an area based on the theme of exodus from Jackson County to Clay County, to Nauvoo and finally, across the Great Plains. Five large screens are coordinated to share videos of modern-day programs and humanitarian efforts of the Church worldwide and the Church in Missouri today.
The center has an interactive children's room, which has proven to be very popular with families. "Here, children engage in imaginative play with a small-scale furnished log cabin, covered wagon pulled by a horse and a large floor to ceiling tree, which offer a perfect setting for children's games and activities of the frontier."