Ambassadors and diplomats and their families, representing six continents, donned Western wear and enjoyed various activities during the 7th Annual Western Family Picnic held Oct. 11. The event, designed to acquaint international diplomats with the heritage of the Church, is held each year at the Marriott Farm in Hume, Va., nestled in the foothills of Shenandoah National Park.
Elder Donald L. Staheli of the Seventy and second counselor in the North America Northeast Area presidency, and his wife, Afton, greeted international guests from 37 countries. Also hosting were Richard and Nancy Marriott of Host Marriott, and Ann Santini, director of the Church's office of International Affairs, and her husband, Jim.The diplomats came from Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Botswana, Cameroon, Croatia, China, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Egypt, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Iceland, India, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malawi, Moldova, Mongolia, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Thailand, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe.
Elder Staheli explained: "One purpose of the Western Family Picnic is to build bridges for future generations. The diplomats at this event are leaders of their countries. Their positive perception of the Church, gained through meeting its members and observing their values, will help the Church grow and prosper in their countries."
LDS participants included Senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Gordon Smith of Oregon, and Representatives Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, and Wally Herger and Buck McKeon of California. They and their wives spoke with the ambassadors and ranking embassy officials on topics ranging from their roles as representatives of their countries to pioneers and family unity.
"With diplomats from countries reaching the far ends of the earth present at the Western Family Picnic, one can clearly see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is indeed a worldwide church," said Senator Reid.
Abandoning Washington's "inside the Beltway" formality, guests could relax, square dance and feast against a backdrop of brilliantly colored autumn leaves.
Covered-wagon rides, face painting, lasso lessons, three-legged races and other games kept the guests busy throughout the day. After dancers from BYU's Living Legends performed Native American dances, the dancers taught the diplomats' children sign language to "Go, My Son." Members of BYU's International Folk Dance Team performed traditional square and clogging dances, and then helped guests learn various steps.
To help them get into the Western spirit, the international families wore bandanas emblazoned with the sesquicentennial logo "Faith in Every Footstep" and straw cowboy hats.
"This is one of the most effective communication events I have attended in Washington, D.C." said Ambassador Gyorgy Banlaki of Hungary.
"It is so good to get out of the city. The people here are so nice," added Darius Semaska, Counselor Political from the Embassy of Lithuania.
As the visiting families departed, they were presented with a "Lantern of Faith," symbolizing the Mormon pioneers westward journey.
Sister Santini said: "The children were beaming and smiling until they had to go home – then came a few tears. Strains of `see you next year!' seemed to be their only consolation."
The picnic gave Church members, government officials and diplomats a chance to become better acquainted and to celebrate their countries' achievements with one another. While honoring the arrival of the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley 150 years ago, Sodiq Safaev, ambassador of Uzbekistan, said his country was celebrating the 100th year of its settlement.
"We are so impressed with the quality of people who are members of the LDS Church. Your membership speaks highly of the organization of the Church," said Irena Kosminska, whose husband is the ambassador from Poland.
By the end of the day, adults and children alike made new friends and came away with a better understanding of Washington's international community, America's Western heritage and the pioneer legacy of the Church.
After attending the picnic, Victor El-Zmeter, the charge d'affaires of the Embassy of Lebanon, sent a letter to the Church's Office of Government Affairs in Washington, D.C. In the letter he wrote: "In this world, where principles of Jesus Christ are not respected on a large scale, I wish to see the message of your Church flourishing through the universe and the principles of fraternity, forgiveness and solidarity spreading between peoples and nations."