Scott Taylor: How an impromptu BYU Jerusalem Center organ performance softened visiting reporters

On an early March 1993 morning in Jerusalem, Israeli tour guide Aviad Sar-Shalom announced a change of plans for a handful of religion writers visiting from the United States. He told the participants in a nine-day Holy Land press tour that he had cleared itinerary events to accommodate an unscheduled visit to the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

The religion writers shot a collective glare at me — the participating representative from the Deseret News, the Salt Lake City daily newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which also owns and operates BYU and its Jerusalem Center. (The Church News is a print and online product of the Deseret News.)

The connection was not lost on any of them.

After crisscrossing the Holy Land from Caesarea to Carmel and from Nazareth to Galilee, the press group had finally arrived in the storied city steeped in history, religion and tradition and revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jerusalem awaited with the Old City and its four quarters — Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian — along with the likes of the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Garden Tomb and more.

Instead, the tour was headed to the BYU Jerusalem Center — and the others weren’t all that happy.

It wasn’t by my request, although I welcomed the chance to visit the multi-arched, eight-level building on Mount Scopus that had been open and operating for a half-dozen years.

Cassidy Heaton and Chelsea Neubert, students at the BYU Jerusalem Center, look over the view of the Old City in Jerusalem on Friday, April 13, 2018.
Cassidy Heaton and Chelsea Neubert, students at the BYU Jerusalem Center, look over the view of the Old City in Jerusalem on Friday, April 13, 2018. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

Sar-Shalom was familiar with my faith, having for years not only guided Latter-day Saints among his tourist groups but also having taken Israelis to U.S. national parks, including stops throughout Utah. Also, he had worked in-country with numerous visiting Church department groups and film crews, since Israel required outside groups to be accompanied by a licensed guide.

Arriving that morning at the BYU Jerusalem Center, the religion writers were welcomed by Elder and Sister Cundick, the directors of hosting. After showing a brief film about the center and its purpose, the couple guided their guests throughout the building and then onto the garden terraces with views of the Mount of Olives to the left and Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley and Old City front and center.

A similar view awaited at the final stop — the center’s spacious auditorium, surrounded by glass on three sides, with each of the 250 seats providing a breathtaking view of the Old City as the stage’s backdrop.

Inviting the group of writers to sit, Elder Cundick offered to play the large, silver-piped organ at the back of the auditorium, suggesting we gaze over Jerusalem and, while listening to the music, think of the Savior Jesus Christ and His life events there.

Elder Robert M. Cundick, a former Tabernacle organist and then a director of hosting at the BYU Jerusalem Center, plays the center's organ for a visiting religion writer from New York City in March 1993.
Elder Robert M. Cundick, a former Tabernacle organist and then a director of hosting at the BYU Jerusalem Center, plays the center’s organ for a visiting religion writer from New York City in March 1993. Credit: Scott Taylor

No sooner had the first notes sounded than the organ/Cundick connection finally clicked — I realized why our host’s name seemed so familiar. The man making the music by manipulating the organ’s foot pedals, three keyboards and 3,165 pipes was former Tabernacle organist Robert M. Cundick.

Following his 1991 retirement after 27 years as Tabernacle organist, he was called with his wife, Charlotte, to their BYU Jerusalem Center positions. In addition to hosting and organ playing, the Cundicks also helped sustain the center’s ongoing series of near-weekly concerts and recitals held in the auditorium.

As he played that morning, I quickly whispered to the other press-tour participants to let them know this Elder Cundick was a Tabernacle organist for nearly three decades.

I don’t remember the names of the selections he played that morning in the BYU Jerusalem Center, but I do remember the feelings, impressions and confirmations of the moment, doing as he suggested by listening, viewing and pondering.

As for my fellow tour participants, Elder Cundick — who passed away in 2016 — had captured their attention and appreciation; they took photos of and with the Cundicks, engaging them in post-performance conversations. The visitors who had arrived somewhat wary and rather begrudgingly at the Jerusalem Center earlier that morning now were about to leave with opposite attitudes. A writer for a Catholic publication in New York City asked if I would send her a Church hymnal after our return to the United States.

Robert Cundick acknowledges the audience's applause at the Robert Cundick Tribute Concert at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 9, 2015.
Robert Cundick acknowledges the audience’s applause at the Robert Cundick Tribute Concert at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 9, 2015. Credit: Laura Seitz, Deseret News

A postscript: By the end of the nine-day Holy Land press tour, each participant pulled me aside in a private moment, first admitting his or her initial reservations when told of the itinerary adjustment to visit the BYU Jerusalem Center — and then acknowledging the time spent there ended up being one of the personal highlights of the entire trip.