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5 stories that give a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to put on President Nelson's devotional to 65,000

PHOENIX, Arizona — One Church president. Two First Presidency members. A Sunday night devotional drawing some 65,000 at an indoor football stadium in metro Phoenix, with another 64,000 watching a live broadcast in meetinghouses across the state.

Those are just some of the numbers that start to tell the story of the Feb. 10 devotional featuring President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his first counselor, President Dallin H. Oaks, at the State Farm Stadium.

Every person attending or watching has at least one story of preparation concerning the prophet's visit to Arizona — making for tens of thousands of anecdotes. Here are just a handful that represent the preparation that went into the Arizona Member Devotional.

Coming full circle

In 1878, Brigham Young called John Henry Willis to take his family — which eventually totaled two wives, 14 sons and four daughters — from their Kanarraville, Utah, home to help settle in what-was-then the Territory of Arizona. Willis crossed the Colorado on Lee’s Ferry en route first to Winslow, then the Tonto Basin, then the Salt River Valley (now metro Phoenix) and finally on to Snowflake in eastern Arizona to begin ranching and farming efforts there.

Fast forward nearly a century and a half later, as one of his great-great-grandsons — Elder C. Dale Willis Jr., an Area Seventy from Mesa, Arizona, whose profession is in commercial real estate and land development — heads the planning committee to organize the Feb. 10 member devotional.

See how Church members reacted on Instagram to President Nelson's message.
The Church in Arizona
  • Church members: nearly 430,000
  • Stakes: 117
  • Missions: 6
  • Temples: 6
The Church in the Greater Phoenix Area
  • Church members: 242,000
  • Stakes: 78
  • Missions: 5
  • Temples: 3
The Feb. 10 devotional
  • Tickets distributed: 70,000
  • Tickets per stake: 850
  • Tickets for special guests: 1,200
  • State Farm Stadium seating: 63,400
  • Floor seats for youth, YSAs: 9,000
  • Devotional attendance: About 65,000
  • Members viewing broadcast at meetinghouses: 64,000
  • YSA ushers: 400
  • Planning committee members: 16
  • Total planning man-hours: 3,500

“It’s a very humbling experience as I think of what my great-great-grandfather went through in 1878, accepting that assignment from the Prophet Brigham Young to help colonize northern Arizona in Snowflake,” said Elder Willis, whose great-grandfather in the 1910s homesteaded in Chandler, south of Mesa and Gilbert. “To see where the family has come since then in the Church as well as in our communities here in Arizona has just been humbling.”

And it now has gone full circle — from a Willis sent by a prophet to help settle Arizona to a Willis welcoming a prophet to speak in Arizona, where the Latter-day Saint membership is nearly 430,000 strong.

“I hope my great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather are proud,” he said, “and I look forward to the day of sitting down and visiting with them about it, comparing notes and making sure I have not soiled their name in any way or brought dishonor to the family.”

Notified in late November 2018 of a desire to have a Phoenix devotional as early as mid-January, Elder Willis described the assignment as “a revelatory experience.” From the immediate promptings of names of who to call to the planning committee to settling on a preliminary devotional plan in less than two weeks, everything came together in a miraculous way.

“Almost on a nightly occurrence, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I wake up,” said Willis. “There are strong impressions that I need to do this or that. For that I am so grateful for, that the Lord has communicated with him in such a holy and sacred way to help me with this assignment.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gestures to attendees at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Nelson is accompanied by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gestures to attendees at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Nelson is accompanied by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred

The result was a devotional planned in under three months — or less than half the time for the 2018 devotionals in Seattle, Washington, and San Antonio, Texas. The 16-member planning committee met weekly for about 90 minutes at a time, with nearly each committee member overseeing a subcommittee tasked with music, security, ushering, parking, publicity and the like.

Cementing a venue

One of the first individuals Elder Willis reached out to for his committee was Denny Barney, a sixth-generation Arizonan who at the time was a longtime elected Maricopa County supervisor (he resigned earlier this month to head a local coalition of civic, business, education and political leaders).

Barney was integral in helping arrange a venue for President Nelson’s devotional since his county position had him involved in related board assignments with the Chase Field baseball facility in downtown Phoenix and the football-oriented State Farm Stadium in Glendale on the metro area’s west side. Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium — an open-air venue — was ruled out because of uncertain winter weather.

No sites were available for an initially proposed date in mid-January. With all eyes now on February, Chase Field was booked for the proposed date, and Barney reached out to the Bidwill family that owns the Arizona Cardinals, the NFL team that plays in the State Farm Stadium with its retractable roof and retractable grass playing surface.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during a devotional at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks during a devotional at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“Within 24 hours, we had secured a date that fit with the prophet’s schedule — it came together so quickly,” he said. “The stadium people have remarked several times that to pull together this type of event in the amount of time we’re doing it has been pretty unique.”

Barney hoped his two teenage sons — 18-year-old Bryson and 15-year-old Bronson — would have a testimony-building experience as they occupied two of the 9,000 chairs set aside on the stadium floor for youth and young single adults.

“To have them sit, even in a large venue like this, and be in the presence of the prophet and to hear him testify — that’s what we want,” he said, “to cement the hearts of our children to this great man who is a prophet of God.”

Putting two and two together

Tabbed early as the committee’s executive secretary, James Jarvis of the Salt River Ward in the Mesa Arizona Alta Mesa Stake was all but sworn to secrecy in making initial inquiries and arrangements.

But family members noticed something was a bit off — he seemed a little distracted, a little preoccupied, and a lot busier. “He was very excited about something, and it definitely piqued my interested and I was watching very closely to see what was going on,” said his wife, Christy.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walks into the State Farm Stadium with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints walks into the State Farm Stadium with his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

When she couldn’t locate him one day, she used a smartphone app to see where he was at — it showed State Farm Stadium. “I started putting two and two together, and I thought, ‘I know why he’s so busy, I know why he’s so excited.’”

When her husband returned home, she asked “So when is the prophet coming?” and James Jarvis could neither confirm nor deny, never sharing any details until they were approved for public dissemination.

“We were here over the holidays with my parents, counting out 70,000 tickets on our dining room table,” recalled Christy Jarvis, sharing how her family separated and packaged an allotted 850 tickets for each of the 78 stakes. “We sat there with the bowl games on — we had football and food and counting tickets. And it was really fun.”

James Jarvis acknowledged the role of stadium managers and directors in organizing the devotional. “The people here at the stadium have been absolutely incredible to work with,” he said. “They’ve made our lives pretty easy.”

As a token of appreciation and an opportunity to share a message, Elder Willis, Jarvis and others arranged for hard-back, name-embossed copies of the Book of Mormon for each stadium official involved in the planning and organization of the devotional. “We had many come up to us and thank us for the gift of the Book of Mormon,” said Jarvis, adding “they were very pleased and gracious.”

In the same room

Jennifer Wheeler, of the Phoenix Arizona North Stake’s Royal Palm Ward, serves on the Greater Phoenix Public Affairs Council and is a point person for the devotional planning committee on handling media inquiries.

“A lot of the media have asked me, ‘Why is President Nelson coming to Phoenix?’” she said. “And it hit me — for many of these members, even though we are so close to Utah, this will be the only time in their lives when they will sit in the same room as the prophet.”

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to attendees after speaking at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to attendees after speaking at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Photo: Rex Warner

And like Jarvis, she anticipated the potential impact on her 15-year-old son, Gray.

“I want him to feel the strength of the youth and of the prophet, to help solidify his testimony,” she said. “We live in an area where there aren't very many members of the Church, so this will be a unique experience for him to sit with 9,000 youth who are members and feel that strength that comes from other people with shared values and a shared understanding of Christ’s role.”

Tacos, tickets and translating

About five miles away from the stadium in a parking lot off Grand Avenue, Hector Waldo, bishop of the La Joya Ward in the Phoenix Arizona Stake, had his taco truck positioned for another six-hour stretch on a Saturday night. Waldo’s Tacos has been a westside mainstay since 2005 for the family business.

From shuttling propane tanks for outdoor heaters on a chilly February evening to overseeing the production and sale of tacos, burritos and quesadillas, Bishop Waldo was kept plenty busy before the prophet's arrrival. He paused to talk about how the members in his congregation were looking forward to President Nelson’s devotional.

“They are very excited, very happy, very enthusiastic that the prophet has come,” he said in Spanish.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints waves to attendees with his wife Wendy after a devotional at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019.
President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints waves to attendees with his wife Wendy after a devotional at the State Farm Stadium in Phoenix on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred

However, only a fraction of his ward members were able to attend the event at the stadium, since his ward received only 93 devotional tickets.

“We have 40 youth, so I was focused more on giving them to the youth and to the families," he said. "The others will watch at the chapel."

While he has attended previous leadership and training meetings led by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Phoenix devotional was the first time Bishop Waldo has been in the presence of a Church president.

Bishop Waldo's two oldest children also helped provide Spanish translation for the devotional. Listening to the words of the Church’s two top leaders and their wives in his native tongue, via the efforts of his children, was something he was especially looking forward to.

“That,” he said, “is what gets me the most excited, the most emotional.”

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