What the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is up to when they're off the stage

Before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s final concert on its 1991 tour to Eastern and Central Europe, Beth Monson looked at the interior of Philharmonic Hall in Leningrad, Russia, now St. Petersburg. She wiped her eyes and said, “I know we’re here physically, but I keep thinking, ‘Is there any earthly reason why we should be here?’ The answer is, ‘No, there is no earthly reason. We are here for a heavenly purpose.’ ”

A few days earlier, I shot pictures of members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Red Square in Moscow (Church News, July 6, 1991; June 17, 2018). While shooting some other photos, I saw two young men serving in what is now the Russia Moscow Mission walking across the square. I snapped a few candid shots and then asked them to pose for more pictures.

Although I didn’t get any photos of them with the choir, the picture is emblematic of the purpose of the choir’s eight-country tour that concluded in Moscow and Leningrad. Those two young elders and the 300-plus members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir were in Russia for a common heavenly purpose: to share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elder Hans B. Ringger, then a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church’s Europe Area, traveled with the choir for much of its tour, which was June 8-29, 1991. He told me, “It’s not so much what the choir members sing, but the spirit they bring with them. You can go almost everywhere and hear good music. As great as the Tabernacle Choir is musically, it is greater spiritually.”

Choir members audition to gain entry into the world-renowned musical organization. Their dedication as missionaries is more important than their musical ability, however. Part of their spiritual greatness comes from a commitment that goes beyond concert stages. During the 1991 tour, they mingled with crowds, doing their own brand of missionary work. They gave numerous referrals to missionaries serving in the cities where they performed.

Evidence that missionary work was an important element of the choir’s tour is the fact that it had its own missionary committee, headed by Garth Wakefield, former Spain Bilboa Mission president, and his wife, Kay Lynn. I met them as we stood beside our bus during a long wait at the Austria-Hungary border. By the time we reached Moscow, the Wakefields and I had become good friends.

Garth said that the committee made great efforts to help choir members prepare themselves spiritually for the tour to Eastern and Central Europe. “We knew that verbal communication would be difficult because of the many languages we would encounter, so our challenge was to prepare ourselves to communicate by the Spirit with a smile, a warm handshake and eye-to-eye contact.”

The committee printed some 65,000 Articles of Faith cards and missionary referral cards, with some in each of the languages of the countries on the tour.

Many of the singers reported to the missionary committee that they, themselves, felt a great spiritual edification by sharing not only their music but also by going out in the crowds after concerts and mingling with people to help spread the gospel message.

“They shared gifts, tears and hugs with people they met,” Garth said. “They were invited into people’s homes. Choir members who have always wanted to go on a mission felt, at last, their dream had been partially realized.

“I’m a firm believer in the power of the hymns of the Church, that they will spiritually change the hearts of the people. … One gentleman in Czechoslovakia told me, ‘I enjoyed all the concert, but I was most moved when the hymns were sung.’ ”

Pat Culverwell told me, “When we were singing ‘Come, Come, Ye Saints’ on the Bolshoi stage, I thought of the Mormon pioneers. It occurred to me that members of the Church here in Russia are just as much pioneers. I thought, ‘We’re living a miracle.’ It seemed incredible that we were able, on a Russian stage, to praise the Lord openly through song.”

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