PANAMA CITY, PANAMA
Moments after the conclusion of a historic youth cultural celebration here, hundreds of cast members walked out of the spacious Figali Convention Center and into Panama's steamy tropical night. Many of the young men and women still wore the folkloric dress they had danced in earlier that evening. A few exited, arms locked, with new friends they had met just a day earlier.
All left with memories that would last a lifetime. A prophet's promise fulfilled.
"I love to see young people have these great memory-building experiences," said President Thomas S. Monson at the beginning of the Aug. 9 cultural celebration that included music, dance and a cast of some 900 LDS youth gleaned from across Panama. "You will never forget them — and you will teach your children about them."
Many of the thousands who attended the colorful event arrived hours early, securing seats with the best view of the many sambas, cumbias, merengues and other dances that would be performed by the youth. The celebration's central message of family, fellowship and faith would help many prepare for the next day's dedication of the picturesque Panama City Panama Temple.
A few minutes before the event began, the excited cast members gathered near the front of the convention hall to cheer the arrival of President Monson. The Church president was joined at the celebration by his second counselor in the First Presidency, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, along with Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve. Members of the Central America Area presidency also attended, along with Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, and Sister Ann M. Dibb, President Monson's daughter and second counselor in the Young Women General Presidency.
Despite having spent more than four decades traveling the globe as an apostle, President Monson's trip to Panama marked his first real visit to this Central American nation. (In 1969, a plane he was on made a brief stop in Panama City; he didn't leave the airport.)
"I'm here because I've long wanted to come to Panama," said President Monson in a brief message before the entertainment began. "I've read the history of Panama, and yet I've never been here. So since I make the assignments, I assigned myself to come."
The Church leader said he is a "great advocate" of such cultural performances because they offer precious memories. The fellowship of music and dance also strengthens lives.
"An event such as the one we have planned tonight eliminates the weakness of one man standing alone and replaces it with the strength of many young men and many young women meeting together."
President Monson delivered a simple message to the Panamanian members: "The Lord loves you." He gave thanks for the evening's many performers and their leaders.
"Let this be a wonderful beginning of the marvelous dedication of the temple, which takes place tomorrow," said President Monson.
The temple will provide many opportunities to serve, he added. Panamanian families will also be blessed because a temple operates in this beautiful land. "When you come to be married you will know that you are in the house of the Lord and that you have kept His commandments and He will bless your marriages."
President Monson repeated counsel he received himself in a temple on the occasion of his marriage to his bride, Frances Johnson Monson: "Every night when you retire, kneel down together by the side of your bed and offer your prayer of thanksgiving to your Heavenly Father, and as you pray together any differences of opinion will fade away. And when you arise from your knees, you will know that your prayer has been heard of God."
He then encouraged all to live their lives in ways that would always qualify them to enter the holy temple.
"Let's have a wonderful time together," said President Monson. "And may God bless you in every way."
Miracles, said San Miguelito Panama Stake President Isidro Vergara, were witnessed long before the first steps of the event's opening dance "Viva Panama."
President Vergara was enlisted to coordinate the cultural celebration with the charge to involve the youth of the Church from across Panama. The 900 young men and women who took to the stage traveled from points as distant as the San Blas Islands and the Changuinola region in northeast Panama. The trip to the capital city for the San Blas youth exacted three days of travel over land and sea.
It was impossible for the entire cast to rehearse together prior to traveling to Panama City for the dedication festivities, so stakes and districts practiced on their own. Leaders and young performers sacrificed countless hours to travel, gather together and practice, practice, practice. Many of the youth who joined the cast had not always been active in Church activities, but the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime cultural celebration helped them build new friendships and ties with others in their wards and branches.
President Vergara said any sacrifice was a tiny price to pay for the privilege to perform in the famed Figali venue in front of the Lord's prophet. "The youth all wanted the opportunity to see President Monson face to face."
The many performances included traditional Latin rhythmic dances such as the cumbia and the conga, along with more contemporary jazz, swing and hip-hop selections. The costumes were colorful and ornate. Meanwhile, a multi-stake choir performed familiar LDS hymns. The evening concluded with a dramatic presentation of the Plan of Salvation and its message of eternal families. A large model of Panama's first temple was lowered to the cheers of the thousands who attended.
"We practiced for a year, learning all the dances — but we were able to perform for our prophet," said Velvet Penalba, a young woman from the Tocumen Panama Stake.
Velvet's good friend, Ivonne Aponte, said she was indeed grateful for new memories, just as President Monson had promised. "It was so special to be together, with all of the youth of the Church from Panama."
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