Imagine camping for two weeks in July with eight children ranging in age from 4 to 19 while trying to keep them on a demanding schedule and their "Sunday-best" behavior.
That's exactly what Ray and Sandy Henrichsen are doing as they and eight of their nine children participate in the 1989 Hill Cumorah Pageant.The pageant, "America's Witness for Christ," opened July 21 and continues July 22 and 25-29. Starting time is about 9 p.m., and the performance time is 67 1/2 minutes.
Members of the new Tonawanda Ward of the Buffalo New York Stake, the Henrichsens lead a full life with family, Church and school responsibilities. Ray has been called as bishop of the ward. Sandy is a Primary pianist.
However, when July 14 rolled around the Henrichsens put aside the usual schedules to spend their two-week vacation in Palmyra (about an hour and a half from their home) as part of the cast of one of America's largest outdoor productions. They feel the experience is well worth the efforts.
This will be the seventh performance for many of the family members. It is a treasured family tradition, largely due to Bishop and Sister Henrichsen's first experiences in the pageant, which last year celebrated its 50th year.
"We were electrified the first time we saw it," the bishop said. The couple had just married and moved from the Salt Lake Valley to New York State for Ray to attend Cornell University in Ithaca.
The following year, 1968, the Henrichsens were cast in the crowd scenes. They camped in a borrowed tent and worked the long, hard hours following what he called a "missionary-style" regimen. In preparation, the couple read the Book of Mormon aloud together.
"This was the first time I really caught the vision of it being a second witness of Jesus Christ," Sister Henrichsen reflected. "At the pageant I could see how everything fit together."
The next time the Henrichsens participated in the pageant it was with five young children. Matt, now 19, and Mark, 17, said that in 1977 they got a sense of missionary work when they sold copies of the Book of Mormon to audience members.
They remembered that was the year their brother, Michael, had a dramatic role – portraying the object of an ancient sacrifical rite. None the worse for wear of this rather dubious honor, Michael, now 20, is serving in the Puerto Rico San Juan Mission. Matt is expecting his mission call this summer.
Impressed by the full-time missionaries serving at the pageant and as part of the cast, Mark remembered, "I found some great role models at the pageant."
At the age of 3, when she first heard the sound system booming forth the Savior's words "I am the light and the life of the world," Ann Marie said, "Mama, Jesus is shouting." Though she may have been startled by the sound, she understood the message, her mother said. For weeks afterward, in her prayers, Ann Marie would say, "And always help me to remember that Jesus is the light and the life of the world."
Now 15, Ann Marie said of the pageant, "It will always be there as a part of my life. It helps our family grow closer."
Her sister, Diana, 12, equates joy and fun with the time spent in Palmyra. She also speaks of the reverent feeling she has when performing in the pageant.
"It feels like you belong and you know what happened there is real, that you are doing what is right and true," Diana remarked.
Ten-year-old Sonnet was only a year old during her first performance at the Hill Cumorah. She said one of her favorite parts of the pageant is the story of Ammon because "he's such a good missionary." She too is thinking of serving a mission and said her participation in the pageant has helped her gain a better understanding of the Book of Mormon.
Caroline, 8; John, 6; Christie Sue, 4, are looking forward to being part of the excitement this year with the family. They have never been in the pageant before but have enjoyed watching it in previous years. Christie Sue said she especially likes the scenes with Jesus.
When the Henrichsens reminisce about their involvement with the pageant, their memories cover a variety of experiences. The stories range from the fun and trials of camping out with a large family to the spirit of the devotionals and the study groups and, in particular, the moments on stage when they feel the importance of their work.
By making the pageant a part of their lives, the Henrichsens agreed, they have found a powerful way to enhance each person's appreciation for and testimony of the Book of Mormon.