Elder Bednar, a centuries-old church, Donny Osmond and Twister wrap up RootsTech London

LONDON  — Near the famed King’s Cross Station in central London just north of the River Thames, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife stood at the front of a centuries-old Anglo-Catholic chapel, admiring the building’s intricate stonework and the falling autumn leaves in the adjacent churchyard.

Elder David A. Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar crossed the building’s threshold to look inside and then walked around the outside as Whitney Peterson, a FamilySearch content strategist specializing in the British Isles, detailed the historical setting and background for the St. Pancras Old Church.

The Bednars’ interest was far more personal than admiring a postcard-perfect setting of what is considered one of England’s oldest sites of Christian worship. Rather, Elder and Sister Bednar wanted to visit the St. Pancras Church where Elder Bednar’s great-great-great-grandparents, Luke Syphus and Christiana Long, stepped out of the St. Pancras Church as a newly married couple. on Dec. 25, 1851.

Whitney Peterson, a FamilySearch content strategist specializing in the British Isles, gives historical background for the St. Pancras Old Church to Elder David A. Bednar and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, on Oct. 25, 2019, in London.
Whitney Peterson, a FamilySearch content strategist specializing in the British Isles, gives historical background for the St. Pancras Old Church to Elder David A. Bednar and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, on Oct. 25, 2019, in London. Credit: Scott Taylor

“This was an incredible experience for us — to ‘walk where they walked’ and imagine what they must have been feeling, which helps us connect to those who have passed before,” said Elder Bednar.

The day before, Elder and Sister Bednar visited the City of London Archives to see the actual marriage record and the book containing the record. They viewed the handwritten signatures of Luke and Christiana, as well as the signatures and the listed occupations of their fathers and the supervising priest’s annotations.

They learned that typically Christmas Day was the only day the working class could manage to gather as families to celebrate such an important event.

The big picture of how London is the gateway for RootsTech’s global reach

And the day after the St. Pancras visit, Elder and Sister Bednar participated in the concluding event of the Oct. 24-26 RootsTech London family history and technology convention held in the London ExCel Convention Center. They related their discoveries surrounding Luke and Christiana’s marriage — sharing video clips of their experiences at the archives and the old chapel — to a large gathering of local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder and Sister Bednar encouraged the attendees to take similar opportunities to connect with their ancestors through their own family history efforts.

‘Exceeded our expectation’

Almost 5,000 participants pre-registered for the three-day event, RootsTech London. But attendance practically doubled the final day, with Saturday more conducive for families and individuals — free from work or school commitments — to attend meetings conducted specifically for local Latter-day Saints.

The total of nearly 10,000 participants — representing 42 different countries — was many times over the 1,500 attendees of the inaugural RootsTech in Salt Lake City a decade ago.  In addition, there were 1,300-plus live-stream views online.

“RootsTech London has exceeded our expectations in nearly every way,” said Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Family History Department. “For a first-time event, we were thrilled to see the response of the industry and the attendees. The most common question I received from those attending was ‘When will RootsTech London be held next year?’ ”

A RootsTech London attendee looks at a Luke Skywalker family pedigree chart — an effort to draw some attention and smiles from those participating in the neighboring Comic Con at the London ExCel on Oct. 26, 2019.
A RootsTech London attendee looks at a Luke Skywalker family pedigree chart — an effort to draw some attention and smiles from those participating in the neighboring Comic Con at the London ExCel on Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

Beside the public visibility of keynote addresses and classes, and the flurry of activities in the exhibition hall, RootsTech London also extended FamilySearch’s reach into the archivist community, as many heads of state-owned archives from across the continent attended, Elder Hamilton explained. “This gave us a chance to further our relationships and to develop plans to digitize key collections we have not previously had access to.”

While FamilySearch has developed an industry-leading reputation in North America with RootsTech Salt Lake City, RootsTech London helped to establish FamilySearch as a credible industry leader in Europe and beyond, Elder Hamilton said. “The presence of FamilySearch as the sponsor of RootsTech London firmly establishes it as the umbrella organization under which the entire industry can come together to showcase its technology and services for the amateur and professional genealogist.”

‘We can do this’

Luke Syphus and Christiana Long may be familiar names to RootsTech enthusiasts. Elder Bednar introduced them during RootsTech in March 2019 in Salt Lake City and told their story. The Latter-day Saint converts immigrated as newlyweds to Australia, befriending another English couple, Joseph and Adelaide Ridges, en route on the ship.

Impressed with Luke and Christiana, the Ridges later joined the Church in Australia, where the two men entered into a lumber business together. After Joseph Bridges crafted an organ there that was recommended for donation to the Church in the Salt Lake Valley, the two couples disassembled the organ, packed their belongings and immigrated via California.

The well-traveled organ was placed in the old adobe tabernacle, with Brigham Young later asking the Ridges to construct another organ for a future tabernacle — the organ in the present-day Salt Lake Tabernacle.

In the Oct. 26 “An Evening with Elder and Sister Bednar,” the Apostle and his wife emphasized a “you can do this” theme, as they invited members to help others on both sides of the veil take a step toward making covenants with God and receiving essential ordinances.

Elder David A. Bednar and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, speak in the ExCel auditorium during the concluding "An Evening with Elder and Sister Bednar" session of RootsTech London on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Elder David A. Bednar and his wife, Sister Susan Bednar, speak in the ExCel auditorium during the concluding “An Evening with Elder and Sister Bednar” session of RootsTech London on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

Building on President Russell M. Nelson’s teaching of “while salvation is a personal matter, exaltation is a family matter,” Elder Bednar said: “As we all engage in our own temple and family history service, our individual efforts quickly become family efforts and lift us from the realm of ‘you can do this’ to ‘we can do this’ — together, as families.”

Sister Bednar pointed to the unique interests and skills different family members can offer in the “we” effort — grandparents, parents and older relatives know the stories, have the photos, possess the heirlooms and provide the memories; children and youth more comfortable and capable with technology can help collect, enter and compile.

“Each of us is a link in the chain of our generations. … Each person plays a role,” Elder Bednar said, adding the Bednars’ oft-repeated updated phrase of the evening, “together, we can do this.”

“While salvation is a personal matter, exaltation is a family matter.”

Sister Bednar highlighted Book of Mormon lessons of Lehi and Sariah and their sons, including Nephi’s commitment to act on the Lord’s commandment to retrieve the plates of Laban by being “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6), as well as the joys and long-term blessings from Lehi’s family having the genealogies of their fathers contained on the plates.

She also shared anecdotes and photos regarding several of her English ancestors, including her great-great-grandfather John Robinson, a convert from Manchester who later served as president of the London Conference and oversaw 35 Church branches.

“We invite you to have your own family discovery experience — in person or online,” Elder Bednar said. “It does not have to be as grand as this experience with a camera following you to your homeland. You can have an experience like ours without leaving home.”

The St. Pancras Parish's book containing the marriage record of Elder David A Bender's great-great-great-grandparents, Luke Syphus and Christiana Long, as shown to the apostle at the City of London Archives on Oct. 24, 2019.
The St. Pancras Parish’s book containing the marriage record of Elder David A Bender’s great-great-great-grandparents, Luke Syphus and Christiana Long, as shown to the apostle at the City of London Archives on Oct. 24, 2019. Credit: Brian Cordray

The Bednars identified Google Earth — a computer program offering a 3D representation of the Earth — as a family resource for making a virtual-reality visit to one’s homeland. They also encouraged the use of FamilySearch’s Family History Activities, which are home-centered efforts aligned with the new children and youth program.

They then had the audience take out their smartphones and led attendees in calling up the Family Tree app, walking them together through features such as Find a Relative, Find a Person, and Ordinance Ready.

‘A great opportunity’

Elder and Sister Bednar sponsored a “Young Adult Face To Face” event the night of Oct. 25, an unscripted question-and-answer session. They both answered anonymous questions sent to them via text to his iPad.

In the “Youth Experience” conducted the afternoon of Oct. 26, Elder and Sister Bednar met onstage with a panel of eight youth, visiting with them about their previous involvement in and experiences with family history. Then the panelists and all the audience’s youth were dismissed to spend 90 minutes participating in 15 “discovery activities” before returning for an ensuing discussion on what they had discovered and how they would apply their learning.

With Elder David A. Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar featured own the video screen, eight youth participate in the panel discussion with the Benders during the "Youth Experience" session at RootsTech London on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
With Elder David A. Bednar and Sister Susan Bednar featured own the video screen, eight youth participate in the panel discussion with the Benders during the “Youth Experience” session at RootsTech London on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

The concluding event, “An Evening with Elder and Sister Bednar,” and the young adult meeting the evening before were live-streamed throughout the Church’s Europe Area.

Elder Hamilton said the presence of Elder and Sister Bednar at RootsTech London and their interaction with the members of the Church was a great blessing. “Their counsel and testimony will long be remembered by those who attended or watched the various events that were held,” he said.

Elder Gary B. Sabin, president of the Europe Area and a General Authority Seventy, said RootsTech London served as “a great opportunity to provide helpful tools, educational forums and inspiring messages from Church leaders to further the message from President Nelson to participate in gathering on both sides of the veil. It shows we are also equally focused on both sides of the ocean.”

And President Christopher B. Stephenson, president of the London England Hyde Park Stake, said, “My hope is that this event will draw the hearts of Church members and friends closer to family history and help those who have not been involved before gain a love for this great work.”

RootsTech London, he added, “has created the opportunity to have conversations with our children and youth in ways we haven’t had in the past. We hope that our attendance and volunteering instill in them a desire to do their own family history work.”

‘Go and do’

The eight youth participating in the panel discussion with Elder and Sister Bednar, shared how memorable the opportunity was.

“I was like, ‘Oh my word, that’s an Apostle, and I’m going to be on stage,’ ” said Rebecca Cooper of the Watford England Stake, adding her apprehensions dissipated once the discussion started. “I felt blessed I was put in a position to help people and give a message to someone — hopefully, I did that.”

Paige Drummond of London’s Wandsworth stake said she was surprised “seeing how many people were out in the audience, how many people are here to learn about family history — it’s something a lot of people tend to take for granted.”

Lily Bull of the Staines England Stake said she felt “really blessed” to have the interactions with Elder Bednar. “It was exciting, and I knew that everything he says is true, everything about the Lord.”

Elder Bednar invited the eight — along with all attending youth — to “go and do,” rather than simply “sit and listen,” and to participate in as many of the 15 different activities staged through RootsTech’s exhibition hall and open areas.

Youth play in a family history-themed version of Twister in a RootsTech London discovery activity on Oct. 26, 2019.
Youth play in a family history-themed version of Twister in a RootsTech London discovery activity on Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

Activities included posting a selfie portrait on FamilySearch, comparing one’s face to ancestors or to British royalty, identifying one’s homeland and recording an audio story on the Family Tree app. Games with a family history spin included variations of Twister, an escape room and ancestral games of marbles, corn hole and more.

Matvey Nikitichev of the Hyde Park stake said he learned family history is not always a simple, straight-forward effort. If something’s not online, he said, “it might actually be somewhere else — on paper or something from that era of old technology, or if they are really old ancestors, it might still be in a journal.”

Added Zach Prawitt of the Staines stake: “I was taken away by just the amount of resources we have available to us for family history, and it’s incredible to see it all laid out in front of us — something I had never imagined before.”

“Eagerness and curiosity” are two words Beemnet-Yesus Kibron of the Wandsworth stake used when considering the range of resources. “That’s what I felt most today, from finding out in a deeper way through different formats, whether it be on the internet or through voice recordings or in a newspaper or any other different format.”

Maria Araujo of the Hyde Park stake said she hopes to put the “familiar” in “family.” “I feel like by coming today, it has inspired me to get to know more things about my family that I didn’t know.”

Pedro Martins of the Watford Stake felt two sensations from the discovery activities. “It’s a weird feeling because you’re learning about people you’ve never met — but they’re your family. And it’s a heartwarming feeling at the same time in that you can have love for someone you haven’t met in this life,” he said.

‘Everyone’s got a story’

Donny Osmond, a Latter-day Saint entertainer whose career spans more than a half-century, now holds the honor of being the first RootsTech keynote speaker in both Salt Lake City and London. On the ExCel auditorium stage Saturday, Oct. 26, before an enthusiastic crowd, he paraded a collection of songs, entertainment video clips, personal stories, anecdotes about his ancestors and his own penchant for family history.

Donny Osmond entrains the London ExCel auditorium crowd during London RootsTech on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.
Donny Osmond entrains the London ExCel auditorium crowd during London RootsTech on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Credit: Scott Taylor

Adding photos, stories, audio recordings and videos to recorded names, dates and statistics provides personality, he said. “That person comes to life. You realize, ‘That was a real person with real experiences in life, and those experiences came down to me. I am who I am, because of that individual I’m looking at and reading a story about.’

“Everyone’s got a story. And they may not realize how important their stories are — they may think, ‘I’m just so insignificant,’ ” said Osmond, admitting his life has been well-documented over the decades by Hollywood and the like. “They may think, ‘Well, I’m just me.’

“Well, ‘just me’ is good enough,” he continued. “Because what you think is insignificant in your life, to your posterity is very significant. … Everyone’s got a compelling story, and it’s important for their posterity to know who they were, what they did, the decisions they made in life and how they overcame adversity.”

Spending all three RootsTech London days visiting with ambassadors and interacting with attendees, Osmond said he appreciates learning others’ backstories.

He remembered one instance from one meet-and-greet with fans — something he did Saturday afternoon at RootsTech — when a girl from the waiting line came up and promptly broke down. From a brief conversation without specific details, he learned she had weathered a difficult, abusive childhood.

“She said, ‘The only reprieve I had was to go into my closet and listen to your albums. You are the person that got me through life,’ ” Osmond recalled. “ ‘I wanted to take my life many times because of what I’ve been through, but every time I put your album on. You literally saved my life.’

“How do you hear something like that and not be affected by it?” he asked. “That’s an album — there could be in other people’s lives a mentor, or just a hug, a smile, a handshake, whatever. It could literally save life.”