ORLANDO, Florida — In the hours before President Russell M. Nelson entered the Amway Center here Sunday evening, June 9, Disney show director Ken Malquist looked at the electronic ribbon circling the arena and explained the pattern had its origins on the Orlando Florida Temple.
The logo of the event — Follow the Prophet — is on signage in the area.
Even the hashtag used to promote the devotional — #followtheprophetFL — with President Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy W. Nelson; Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf; and Elder Shayne M. Bowen, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Lynette M. Bowen, is deliberate.
Malquist, who plans huge events for Disney clients, spent the day overseeing the installation of thousands of linear feet of pipe and drape. He has only one objective — to transform the Amway Center, used for sporting events and concerts, into a chapel.
“My joy will be to sit with my family and watch them hear from the prophet,” Malquist said. “I think that is its own kind of magic.”
‘The greatest meeting’
Some 15,500 people filled the arena for the meeting, which was broadcast across Florida to meetinghouses of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Representing a growing and diversifying population, the meeting was also translated into Mandarin, Portuguese, Haitian-Creole and Spanish.
Local business, government and civic leaders also participated in the event in the city, home to more than a dozen theme and amusement parks and near where the Church owns some 295,000 acres that are Deseret Ranches of Florida.
Just as the crowds began lining up for the event, the skies opened, and torrential rain fell. The storm also delayed President Nelson’s plane from landing in Orlando.
As the meeting began, however, weather apps showed clear skies above Orlando in a state consumed with inclement weather.
“The culture of being host to people from all over the world is built into this part of Florida,” said Elder Victor P. Patrick, an Area Seventy. “This is the greatest meeting we could have.”
‘The Church is strong here’
Florida’s first official Church congregation was created in 1897. Church growth in the state was slow until Latter-day Saints from the West moved to Florida, drawn by a strong commerce and the aerospace and entertainment industry. Today the state has 160,000 members, two temples, five missions and 32 stakes.
Rulon Munns, a patriarch and sealer in the Orlando Florida Temple, has deep Southern roots; his mother is a sixth-generation Floridian, his father served as the second president of the Orlando Florida Stake.
In his lifetime, he has watched as the Church has grown in central Florida; for example, the original boundaries of the Orlando stake now encompass 15 stakes.
“The Church is very strong here,” he said.
Orlando is a place where people come to try to be happy, he said.
Munns said he has seen a shift in his lifetime in the way the community views the Church. Before the temple was dedicated in 1994, there was much opposition to the building.
Today, however, the temple is a landmark. “There are very few people in Orlando … who do not know what the temple is and where it is,” he said
The temple, built on the highest point in Orange County, has had “such an impact on the visibility of the Church in central Florida,” he added.
‘I needed this’
Prior to the devotional, President Nelson met with a dozen youth and thanked them for their faith. “You are doing the right thing — just do it faster and better,” he said.
Eva Burgoon, a member of the Palm Bay 2nd Ward, Vero Beach Florida Stake, who just graduated from high school, said the invitation to meet the prophet served as a reminder that the Lord is aware of her circumstances.
Eva’s father, John Burgoon, died of early onset Alzheimer’s last year at age 66; the devotional marked the one-year anniversary of his funeral. “I see Heavenly Father’s hand in this,” she said of meeting with President Nelson. “I see my dad’s hand in this. I needed this.”
Eva attended a virtual high school her junior year so she could help her mother, Wanda Burgoon, care for her father.
The youngest of six children, she plans to attend BYU-Idaho in the fall.
“I am grateful to be in the presence of someone who holds all the keys,” she said.
‘He was so kind to me’
Before addressing the congregation, President Nelson quietly acknowledged a dark day in this city known for theme parks and happy memories.
During a VIP reception, President Nelson spent a few minutes with the owner of the local business where 49 people lost their lives in a mass shooting three years ago this week.
Barbara Poma, the CEO and founder of onePULSE Foundation, said words from the highest-ranking Latter-day Saint official meant a lot.
“I was moved that he knew what we were doing, moved that he was so kind to me,” she said.
Poma said the community is still healing from the June 12, 2016, shooting at Pulse nightclub, a gay club in Orlando not far from the arena where President Nelson spoke. A memorial at the site includes tributes to those who died and to the 68 who were injured. A lizard climbed the wall of the quiet deserted building. Photographs, banners and messages communicate one resolve: “We will not let hate win.”
“Hate came to our city. He wasn’t from our city, but he came here, and he brought his hate,” said Poma of the lone gunman who was killed by police in a standoff. “But none of that mattered. Because what came from our community, from our country and the world afterward overshined that. Love grew. It was overpouring. It still is overpouring.”
Poma said that in addition to her interaction with President Nelson, she has felt the love and concern from local members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who “want to have conversations” that will better the community.
Elder Patrick said it is wonderful that Poma was willing to come to the reception.
“Orlando has really pulled together in response to the Pulse nightclub tragedy,” the Area Seventy said. “As part of the Orlando community, it is very meaningful to me that at the very highest level we can express our deep sorrow for what occurred and our condolences to the families.”
Orlando Florida Stake President Robin R. Smith and other local Latter-day Saints are planning to attend the onePULSE Foundation remembrance ceremony on Wednesday.
During a VIP reception prior to the devotional, President Nelson also met with the mayors of Orlando and Orange County, a school board member and other government and interfaith leaders.
Mayor Jerry Demings of Orange County praised the relationship between local government and the Church.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer called it an honor to have the highest-ranking official in any religion visit the city, especially when thousands gather to hear him speak.
The Church “has a large presence in central Florida,” he said.
Acknowledging Orlando is often referred to as the “happiest place on earth” in his devotional remarks, President Nelson said lasting happiness, even joy, comes to those who keep the commandments of God.
Certainly, he said, Orlando can claim to be the site of many happy memories for countless individuals. But where is the happiest place on earth?
“It is wherever the Spirit of the Lord dwells in the hearts of the people. It is inside any home that has become a sanctuary of faith and is filled with love. It is inside every House of the Lord,” said President Nelson. “It can be wherever you are when the Spirit of the Lord is with you.”