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Episode 125: Elder Kevin S. Hamilton and FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood on how RootsTech 2023 is ‘Uniting’ family history fans worldwide — virtually and in-person

For the first time since 2020, RootsTech 2023 will offer participants the option to join the global event online or in-person in Salt Lake City, Utah

RootsTech 2023 will be held in person for the first time since 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic moved the annual three-day family history event online, attendance spiked from 50,000 people in 2020 to several million participants worldwide in 2022. This year, RootsTech encompasses the best of both platforms with the theme “Uniting.” This episode of the Church News podcast features Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Family History Department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Hamilton is joined by Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch International, to talk about the importance and global reach of family history.

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Transcript  

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Almost every time we turn our hearts to our ancestors and begin to talk about, think about, organize, document or submit, temple and family history work, there’s a spirit that comes. It’s a feeling and it’s powerful. People all over the world feel this. And, interestingly enough, a lot of the people that are participating, again, are not members of our faith. They’re people that just feel the power of connecting, of being part of a family, ... of uniting people across the world through a global conference, of uniting people in person and then ultimately uniting on both sides of the veil, uniting with the living, uniting with the dead, uniting all of our Heavenly Father’s children, wherever they happen to be, whatever stage of life they happen to be in.

1:00  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The last time RootsTech hosted an in person event was in 2020, shortly before the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, more than 50,000 people attended the annual three-day family history gathering in Salt Lake City. Held virtually during the pandemic, participation spiked into the millions as RootsTech moved to an online platform. This year, RootsTech encompasses the best of both platforms, held in person and virtually.

Today’s Church News podcast features Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy, chairman of the board for FamilySearch International and executive director of the Family History Department and Steve Rockwood, President and CEO of FamilySearch International, and Managing Director of the Family History Department. Welcome, both of you, to the Church News podcast.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Thank you.

Sarah Jane Weaver: It is great to have you here. This is your second appearance on the Church News podcast.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: It seems like just yesterday.

2:18  

Sarah Jane Weaver: We were talking before we started taping and they were on episode 18. So we were all sort of learning how this was going to work. And so today, I want to start by giving our listeners — and all of us — some background about RootsTech. Elder Hamilton, can you start and talk about the history of this huge family history gathering? 

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Well, RootsTech began as a very modest endeavor in 2011. We had a group of technologists and a group of genealogists came together and that’s kind of the origin of the word “RootsTech.” And in those early years, it was a little bit more about technology. But it grew over the years to be, really, about anybody with an interest or a passion for family history. The industry has been very supportive as they come together. And FamilySearch is kind of unique, because we’re nonprofit, so we don’t really have a profit motive or a commercial motive. And so we can bring all these different players together, expose them to the public, invite the public to come. And it’s now, a worldwide global event held once a year, usually from Salt Lake City, but sometimes other places.

3:29  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And Steve, you’ve kind of had a front row seat to this growth of this huge, huge conference. What about it still makes you marvel?

Steve Rockwood: Well, the amazing thing, is we’ve learned that the spirit of Elijah, which is simply the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family, is felt by all. And so that’s why RootsTech had to grow the way it did. It definitely was being felt by the genealogists. That’s been happening for years and years, both in and out of the Church. And it started to be felt by technologists that enabled those genealogists. But now, we have everything from the mildly curious, to the professional and everything in between. They’re feeling this incredible feeling, even if they don’t know what it is. It’s the feeling that happens when you discover and gather and connect your family that’s so universal and therefore, beckons and calls for, “Let’s find ways for them to gather.” Now we have ways together online, but it’s quite unique when we can gather actually in person, as well.

Jinah Jeong, one of 15 emcees, is filmed for RootsTech 2023.
Jinah Jeong, one of 15 emcees, is filmed for RootsTech 2023 at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

4:27  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I want to talk what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. We mentioned it in the intro, but you have a conference that’s hugely successful, that suddenly just becomes accessible from tens of thousands, to actually millions. The last RootsTech in-person conference was held in February 2020, so just a month before the world shut down. Elder Hamilton, tell us what happened next.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Well, typically we have 25,000 or 30,000 people that show up to the in-person RootsTech. And when we were forced to abandon that during the pandemic, we thought to bring Rootstech to the whole world via a virtual Rootstech. And I remember thinking and people asked me, “Well, how many people do you think will show up?” And we really had no idea. It was, it was just completely uncharted territory.

That first year, 2021, we had one and a half million people from 242 countries. And, you know, I googled to see how many countries are there, and it’s 253 or so that are recognized by the United Nations as sovereign nations. And so we are virtually, from every country on Earth, places you would never dream of, people somehow heard about this and came and participated, and just this groundswell of interest all across the earth. The other interesting thing, is most of the people that come to RootsTech, in person, and virtually are not members of the Church. They’re not members of our faith. And they’re just people that are passionate about this, want to connect, want to know more or want to be part of something. And so RootsTech has become really this global phenomenon where people can participate, really from anywhere in the world.

6:04  

Sarah Jane Weaver: 

Well, and Steve, I bet there had to be sort of a hunkering down as March 2020 hit when you’re all thinking, “How can we do this? What could this look like?”

Steve Rockwood: Exactly. In fact, you mentioned the last one we did. It literally was just weeks before the whole world shut down. I remember waiting, making sure that our RootsTech, no one got sick while they were in Salt Lake City. And luckily, they didn’t. So it really was a matter of, “Do we just hold off on RootsTech for the next year or two or what should we do?” And we were so grateful that our leaders told us, “No, we need to continue to spread. In fact, people want to connect more now than ever. So find a way to help them connect.” And that’s when we went to the online event. And I will tell you now, it’s been three years since we are in Salt Lake City. RootsTech, now at its core, is a global online event. That’s what it is. It’s not a hybrid, per se. It’s an online event. That’s where the millions of people come. But now, we feel we’re ready to enhance the Rootstech online event with an in-person event back in Salt Lake City.

7:12  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And what is so great about being able to connect in-person?

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: I don’t know, there’s just this magic. There’s an excitement. There’s a energy, you know, as people come together and if you’ve never been, you’ve got to go. It’s really quite remarkable. We bring in some industry talent and a few celebrities, always, to kind of spice it up. But the core of it is people coming to learn more. It’s really kind of a, an opportunity to learn and to expand our knowledge of whatever it is, whatever particular field we’re interested in. And it’s been very well received over the years.

7:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, we were just talking about some of this year’s celebrities. Can you detail what’s on the docket for this year?

Steve Rockwood: Well, first and foremost, people come to feel the spirit of what it means to connect. And so this isn’t something you just come and listen to. You actually connect. Thus, we have some pretty neat opportunities for you to connect. One of the audiences that you love to connect with are with these keynote speakers, who are not necessarily genealogists per se, but they’re wonderful people who have their own experiences in discovering their family and they like to share that with us. RootsTech is known for that. And so we have some wonderful keynote speakers coming. We announced that Sean Astin is going to be our keynote speaker on Saturday. And he’s a good illustration of what we always tried to do. Some people heard Sean Astin. “Oh, Rudy is coming to Rootstech.” Others thought, “Oh, Lord of the Rings is coming to Rootstech.” And that’s exactly right. Really, it touches all generations. So that’s gonna be a fun one that we have.

Vendors and attendees move around the exhibit hall as RootsTech opens
Vendors and attendees move around the exhibit hall as RootsTech opens at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

8:52  

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Can I just interject? We also have these incredible opportunities. We have a feature that we call “Relatives at Rootstech.” And so if you’ll opt in, you have to agree to participate, you can see who you’re related to amongst all of those attendees at RootsTech. So I’m looking at my relatives at RootsTech page right here, I have 7,862 of my relatives have opted in to this relatives at RootsTech feature. And I can even view my relatives. I’ve got a whole list of second and third cousins here, people that I’ve never met before, but I’m planning to look them up. And then you can also see how many people are actually participating. And right now, as of 30 seconds ago, 99,470 people have opted in to relatives at Rootstech. You get to it on the homepage of FamilySearch, or the homepage of RootsTech.org, and just click the button, opt in and you can see all the people at Rootstech that you’re related to. It’s really remarkable.

10:00  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, is this sort of like the feature on the FamilySearch app that we’ve all used that says, “Relatives near me,” where you can be in a room and click on it and see who else in the room is related to you?  

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Very similar. That one uses a technology called “geofencing” to kind of draw a line or circle around the people that are in your area. This one just looks at all the people that are at Rootstech that have opted in and then it figures out the family relationships.

Steve Rockwood: And anywhere in the world. So it’s relatives around me on turbocharge, global relatives around me.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Worldwide relatives.

10:31  

Sarah Jane Weaver: So if I have a cousin in a different country who also cares about family history, this would be a great way to connect.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: You will see them and have the opportunity to message you to each other. And if they’re in-person you could arrange to meet. We’re going to have a little crossroads meeting area in the exposition hall this year, where relatives can get connected.

Sarah Jane Weaver: So as we speak about relatives around me, maybe we’re related.

Steve Rockwood: Well, let’s find out. Alright, so go ahead, pull out your phone, Sarah. And at the FamilySearch Family Tree app, you’ll click on “more” and you see relatives around me. So let’s all click on that.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: We’re all related.

11:15

Sarah Jane Weaver: All 11th cousins once removed

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Sarah, high 5, 11th cousins

Steve Rockwood: That’s awesome. That’s true. My mother’s line Sarah, which are the new converts, they came out to Utah, because the railroad not the Church.

11:27  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’ll tell you the Church is very, very small.

Steve Rockwood: It is, and you and I are related because of our shared ancestors in Scotland.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: For me, it’s through my mother

Steve Rockwood: So, nice to meet you, “Cuz.” Isn’t that fun?

Sarah Jane Weaver: It doesn’t get any better than that.

Steve Rockwood: And this happens by the millions, literally, when we do relatives at Rootstech.

Vendors and attendees move around the exhibit hall as RootsTech opens.
Vendors and attendees move around the exhibit hall as RootsTech opens at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

11:48  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that’s amazing. And it also goes along with the theme of Rootstech this year, which is “uniting.”

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Uniting is a word that has so many meetings. It’s a very doctrinal word. The General Handbook of instructions has now spelled out four divinely appointed responsibilities, of which uniting families for eternity is one of our core responsibilities or objectives in the restored gospel. But uniting, also, can be used for uniting families, uniting friends, uniting countries, uniting all kinds of diverse groups and peoples. And this idea of uniting people across the world through a global conference of uniting people in person. And then, ultimately uniting on both sides of the veil, uniting with the living, uniting with the dead, uniting all of our Heavenly Father’s children, wherever they happen to be and whatever stage of life they happen to be in.

Steve Rockwood: FamilySearch has always been known for connecting people. And especially during the pandemic, our themes were “choose connection,” for example. This takes connection to a whole new level. It’s not just connecting, it’s actually uniting as other Hamilton said, to actually achieve things that you wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. And that’s when we do unite our interests, our efforts, our records, access to our trees. It’s amazing what can happen in the divisive world when we decide to unite.

13:14  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m hoping we can take that theme one step further and have each of you share what that word means personally to each of you, when you contemplate your own families in your own faith.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: When I think of uniting, to me, it’s crossing over the generations. So I’ve got grandchildren, I’ve got children, I’ve got my grandparents, my great grandparents and beyond. And this idea of being able to span those generations to unite these diverse ethnic cultures and demographic cultures together, it’s so powerful to me, because although I may not know some of these people, I connect to them. And as I connect to them, I feel these family feelings, and I love them as if I knew them. So this is across generations, for me. That’s what uniting means.

Steve Rockwood: The Church does many things that transcend our differences. I think that the prophets and apostles are teaching us, find those things that were common amongst us and let’s really accentuate that, whether it’s humanitarian services, religious freedom. Well, family discovery and family connection is one of those things. It transcends all borders, all ethnicities, all politics, all religiosity. And once we’ve connected that way, uniting allows us to give to each other and to the world what it needs most right now. And that’s the loving kindness, that’s the similarities. And we actually have been charged to build the family tree of humanity. Now that’s a huge, huge objective. And the only way we could do that is by uniting all of Heavenly Father’s resources on the earth.

14:54  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that is amazing. When we talk about family history, uniting people and traditions and especially uniting families, I think all of us can understand the need to do that. For me, it feels personally overwhelming. Can you give me a pep talk? Tell me how I can participate more in family history.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: You know, a generation ago, it really was kind of Aunt Sally that did the genealogy for the family, and everybody else kind of gleaned what she’d learned and she was the professional and had all the skills. Today, it’s just not that way anymore. This is kind of the everyman approach. The technology has enabled us to make it easier, make it more user-friendly. It’s all available on a mobile device, so anywhere, anytime, anybody can participate. And a lot of the things we’re doing are more focused on people that aren’t hardcore genealogists. They’re just people that are interested in connecting to their family, past, present and future. So when we give people the ability, we enable them to connect to their families. It really takes it to a different level. People like you like me that aren’t really steeped in this and aren’t really gifted in this, we can do it.

One example, we have a feature in FamilySearch right now called “ordinances ready.” And so this is under the “temple” tab, which all members of the Church are exposed to. They can see that. If you click on ordinances ready, 100% of the time we’ll give you a name of someone you can take to the temple to perform an ordinance. And that, generally, will be somebody from your family, from your extended family. If we can’t find anybody in your family, we’ll go to the ward family or the stake family. But most of the time, we’ll be able to serve up to you the name of an ancestor that needs temple ordinances performed. And that is just simplified, revolutionized. With a few keystrokes or a few clicks of your touchscreen, you can be given a name to take to the temple. I can do that. You can do that, Sarah Jane. All of us can do that.

And there’s a spirit that comes when we engage. Steve mentioned the spirit of Elijah, President Nelson has described that as, really, the Holy Ghost. Call it what you will, but it’s very predictable and it’s very replicable. Almost every time we turn our hearts to our ancestors and begin to talk about, think about, organize, document or submit, there’s a spirit that comes. It’s a feeling and it’s powerful. People all over the world feel this. And interestingly enough, a lot of the people that are participating, again, are not members of our faith. They’re people that just feel the power of connecting, of being part of a family.

Elder Kevin S. Hamilton attends the final filming season of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the Book of Mormon videos
Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, a General Authority Seventy, attends the final filming season of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ production of the Book of Mormon videos at the LDS Motion Picture Studios South in Provo on Friday, June 17, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

17:46  

Steve Rockwood: I love that. So to follow Elder Hamilton’s teaching there, as members of the Church, we always start with the Savior, right? So I think the best way, Sarah, you can dive in is simply start with the Savior and say, “OK, I want to help bind myself and my family members to the Savior through covenants and ordinances. OK, I’m going to start with ordinances. So I’m gonna goto  ordinances ready. And when I click on that, I’m going to pick an ordinance. I’m starting with ordinances.” And I say, “I want to do an endowment,” or “I want to do baptisms and confirmations.” Then we’ll present to you the name of an individual. And you can take that name and do two things, click “view person,” and now that name transforms into an actually person, because you have found out they were born in 1853, in Scotland. OK, and then you click view relationship, and now you see if and how they’re connected to you. That’s how everyone in the Church can start. And then you might come to the point where, “Well, if I am getting names from my ward and stake members that need my help, well, I want those names to be my own names.” Alright, let’s now start talking about how we could help you start to build your family tree so that you can link into the trees and records. They’re just waiting for you to discover. But let’s start with covenants and ordinances as members of the Church.

19:04  

Sarah Jane Weaver: One of the greatest surprises to me, was the first time I took a family name to the temple was how much more meaningful my temple experience was, and I hadn’t even done what you’re talking about. I didn’t know anything about this person other than my mother, had said, “This is a family member.” But there was something that was more special about my temple experience when using a family name.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: It really changes. I mean, we talk about the veil between life and death. In the house of the Lord, that is a pretty thin veil and there is a lot of interaction, in my opinion, between both sides. And as we take our own family names to the temple, and we know a little bit about them and have some connection to them, it’s just a richer, more personal, more profound experience. And it really changes the way you think about the Lord, the way you think about the plan, the way you think about the house of the Lord and how you think about your family. It’s a very transformative experience.

Steve Rockwood: Yeah and as you do that, I think there’s another opportunity. There’s a wonderful example of this that all of us, as Church members, know very, very well. It’s the first few chapters of 1 Nephi, where Lehi was told to go back and get the records and he sent his sons to do so. That’s another podcast in and of itself as to what we learned from the fact that young people were asked to lead out and bless the whole family. But in chapter 5, it says that Lehi dead took the records and he searched them. And as he searched them, he discovered his family history. He discovered he was a descendant of Joseph. And he went immediately to the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt and being preserved by the hand of the Lord. And then it says, “And when my father saw these things, he was filled with the Spirit.” and began to testify, and prophesy. So that’s what we simply want. We now have the modern brass plates where you and anyone can sit down, search them and discover their family history and discover who they descend from, and feel the Spirit. And those brass plates are called FamilySearch. And so RootsTech and other means is a way for us to simply introduce you to your brass plates.

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 21:18  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we can find strength, personally and for our families, by connecting and learning from those who went before us?

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: And one of the things that’s been most interesting to watch is the uptake with the rising generation. So, I’ll give you a little context. In 2011, October general conference, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve, gave a talk called, “The Hearts of the Children [Shall] Turn.” And a lot of us remember this, because it was kind of out of left field, he said, “You were made, you were born to do this very thing. Your thumbs have been trained to text and to tweet, and to do the work of the Lord.” This was before my time, but Steve was in the department then. And as you have shared with me, Steve, we didn’t even have any apps, we didn’t have any way, we didn’t have a website, we didn’t have anything for the youth to do. And I went back recently and I looked in the year 2011. We just had a few hundreds of kids that actually participated in temple and family history work.

10 years later, 2021, 2022, it’s hundreds of thousands of our youth, are actually participating in the work through temple and family history. And they’re perfect. They’re the digital natives. They get it. They understand the technology. They’re they’re not afraid of it. It’s not like my mom or my dad, or somebody that doesn’t quite know what to do. They get it, they liked it, they like to use it, and they’re comfortable using it and they like to engage. They like to be involved. So we’ve seen this big uptake of the rising generation as they’ve increasingly. And if I could draw a chart, it’s just this big rising graph, a line that just goes up and up and up. And I think in the coming years, we’ll just continue to see more, more of the same. It’s, it’s an amazing thing.

23:09  

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m so glad that we’re talking about the youth and family history, and participating in the gathering, because in June of 2018, President Nelson actually engaged the youth in a unique way. He invited them to become part of the Lord’s battalion and gather Israel.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Yeah, he actually referred to it as “the greatest cause,” and you know, our youth, the rising generation, they love to be part of a cause. And this is the cause. And if you think about it, here we are, at this time in this place with this technology, and these youth, this rising generation, we always talk about the downside, the negative of technology. But think about this: This is the first generation ever that has had the scriptures, the words of the prophets and their family history on their person, almost 24/7. And that can’t be a coincidence. That can’t be an accident. The Lord, He knows what He’s doing. He’s got this. And He’s raising up this brilliant generation of young people that are skilled and willing and able and are just being blessed as they participate in what President Nelson calls “the greatest cause on Earth.”

24:22  

Steve Rockwood: The 12 year olds of 2011 are now 24. The 18 year olds are now 30 years old. We look at the youth and the young adults and it is incredible how they’re not just participating, they’re actually leading out and they bring life and vitality to everything that we touch, which is why, for example, at RootsTech this year, we have on Friday night, the RootsTech young adult after party.

And it’s your own “Night at the Museum,” but “Night at RootsTech,” hosted by Elder and Sister Gong. But then we’re going to have two bands playing, we’re going to have giveaways, of course food trucks and wonderful activities that you’re gonna do with your own brass plates, that you can go in and discover for the first time, or continue to dive deeper if you’ve already discovered before. And really see how this helps the young adults for, to find their true identity, their unique role in this work of gathering Israel on both sides of the veil and they’re gonna have a blast while they do it. The grand prize by the way, Sarah, is a, all-expense paid trip to one of your ancestral homelands anywhere in the world.

Steve Rockwood gives his keynote speech.
Steve Rockwood, managing director for the Family History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gives his keynote speech during the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

25:32  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we’re also going to see Elder and Sister Gong the following day at Family Discovery Day. Tell us what that looks like.

Steve Rockwood: Every year, we’ve been able to have a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and their family, lead by example, and just demonstrate how they discover and gather their own families and connect to their own families. This year, we are very blessed to have Elder [Gerrit W.} and Sister [Susan] Gong. Elder Gong has a Chinese background, as well as ancestral homelands elsewhere, but his family came through the state of Hawaii. And so we’re going to be able to see some of the discoveries and really tender moments of them in Hawaii. And Sister Gong, her family comes from Ireland. And so we’re going to see how they were able to make some discoveries, all with the hope that all of us would then say, “OK, how can I do this?” It doesn’t mean you have to hop on a plane and go to Hawaii or Ireland. But one of my homelands is Wyoming. So what could I do to have the same experience, feel the same Spirit? And you’ll see how this blesses the Gongs’ family. And so we love to just, to experience that with prophets and apostles. We’re blessed to do that again this year.

26:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Elder Hamilton, do you have any advice for people who want to start that journey? Who want to jump in and say, “Where can I go to look for my own family roots? Where can I go to connect to my family?”

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Well, this is going to sound over simplified, but one of the first things I would recommend is you sign up for a FamilySearch account. It’s free and it doesn’t cost anything. It takes about two or three minutes to sign up. And then either download the app or go to FamilySearch.org. And just begin to look, just begin to search and see what you can discover about your ancestors, about your family. There is something when people find a connection, that is very energizing. It lights them up like nothing I’ve ever seen.

And what we’ve learned, over the years, is sitting in a class learning about family history is probably less effective. Actually sitting with a temple and family history consultant from your ward, or a friend or a family member that knows how to do this and finding your own connections is very powerful. And again, the Spirit that comes is very intense feeling about belonging to a family and being part of a family. That motivates and oftentimes, people will then move on and become increasingly engaged. And it’s like any other skill. You can learn how to do it. It’s not rocket science. It’s just you, there’s a few techniques and a few things you have to pick up and you learn how to navigate the software and navigate the website. And that comes pretty quickly. To my friends that are my age or so I always say, “If you have any questions, just go talk to your grandkids.” They know how to do it. They’ll figure it out in a heartbeat.

28:36  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And a few years ago, my family had a family reunion. It wasn’t in Hawaii. It wasn’t even in any of the great European countries that we have in our roots. It was in Almo, Idaho. And I remember standing there thinking, “I can’t believe that anyone would have lived here.” I thought about the rattlesnakes. I thought about trying to farm or ranch or find any way to make a living there. And it certainly did deepen my appreciation for my ancestors. Is that part of this goal?

Steve Rockwood: Yes, it’s definitely part of the goal, Sarah. I’m so glad that you experienced it yourself. That’s exactly what the power of this. In fact, we often joke, “We don’t talk about family history. We do family history.” And you were doing family history and that’s how you were able to feel what you felt. And that’s, once again, one of the objectives of familysearch.org, the FamilySearch apps, the FamilySearch centers. It’s a place to do this, not talk about it. We’re taught that we learn by study and by faith. Well, faith is a principle of action. So you learn and feel what you felt by actions.

29:42  

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: I would add that it’s so interesting. People think of family history or genealogy as facts and figures and documents and trying to organize all this. But really, a lot of it is what you did. It’s being in the moment, being in the place, whether physically, or sometimes through stories, or sometimes through photos or sometimes through audio recordings. All of this helps to bring us closer and kind of melt the gap between the generations, so that we can feel connected as a family.

I always say, “Look, I don’t know my great-great-grandfather who died long before I was born. But if I did, I would love him, because he’s my father, my great-great-grandfather. I would love him. I would feel for him, the way I feel for my own father, because he’s part of me. He’s part of my family.” So these are the sorts of things that we can actually enable and help people experience as they turn their hearts to their fathers and their ancestors.

30:48  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, and I want to shift a little bit and talk about hosting a worldwide virtual event. This would entail multiple countries, multiple languages. For the first time, Rootstech 2023 is going to feature 15 emcees that will help facilitate this conference. Tell us a little bit about them.

Steve Rockwood: We have two key strategies: We want to make sure we can successfully hold the online core event for the millions of people and get that reach, but at the same time, capture that energy and that intimacy of an on-premise event. And so the key strategy for that is to make sure it’s relevant through localization. So there’s a number of things we’re doing through RootsTech to make sure it feels localized to you.

So if I log on in Spain, I feel like I’m logging onto a conference hosted in Spain. I’m not just on the outside looking in. So the way that you navigate the website; it’s a very localized experience. One of the fun experiments we’re doing is to actually have sideline reporters that speak your native language that are from your part of the world. And that’s what, who these emcees will be. They will capture that energy and navigate our guests from different parts of the world, in their native language, show them what’s most relevant to them. And we think it’s gonna be a great opportunity for us to learn how to make this more relevant in many parts of the world.

Elder Hamilton and his wife greet young people.
Elder Kevin S. Hamilton, General Authority Seventy, his wife, Sister Claudia Hamilton, greet students following a BYU-Idaho devotional on March 12, 2019. Elder Hamilton is the executive director of the Church’s Family History Department. | Photograph by Cami Su

32:16  

Sarah Jane Weaver: And so all of these international participants will actually be able to find RootsTech content in their native language.

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: Their native language and in their native culture. It’s more than just translating RootsTech into another language. It’s making it local and cultural. So as Steve said, if I’m from Argentina, it feels like I’m at a conference in Argentina. And it’s quite a task. Well, we’ve got this now broken down into lots of different cultures and areas across the world and these 15 emcees that you referenced, they’ll be part of that localization effort.

32:49  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and as you think about this upcoming RootsTech, what are you most excited for, personally?

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: I would have to say it’s Sean Astin.

No, we bring in these celebrities. Jordin Sparks is one of our keynotes this year, the youngest American Idol winner ever. She’ll sing. And Sean Astin. Kirby Heyborne is the emcee. We bring them in to add a little bit of fun and excitement and a little bit of electricity to the event. But having said that, the core of the event is simply being able to connect with lots of other people and being able to learn something new about how to find our family members, and just participating, being part of this great worldwide movement. And it really is a movement. There’s so many people involved in this. It’s fun to be part of.

33:38  

Steve Rockwood: Since we’ve been doing this since 2011, actually, I look forward to the exact same thing every year, Sarah. And it’s illustrated in the following. We love to see big, huge smiles with tears of joy. So I’m anxious to see that again, on an on-premise event, because they have felt something and they’ve learned something they had no idea before. The second thing is we’d love to hear them say what I just said, “I had no idea.” Whether it’s an archivist for the first time visiting and seeing this huge mass of people saying, “I had no idea this was something this big.” Or having a commercial industry friend come in and say, “I had no idea this was going to be so emotional.” Or to have someone online from Sweden or from Thailand say, “I had no idea.” Then we know that we’ve fulfilled the, what Rootstech is all about.

34:34  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I want to move to a place where family history and RootsTech is personal to each of you. When all of us think of our own families or our own family history journey, there are these moments, these snapshots in time, where we unite to use the word of RootsTech with our own family history. Can each of you share the moment when family history and RootsTech actually became real to you?

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Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton:  I think for me, I have some Native American ancestry, which has always been kind of hard to track. It’s, my great-grandmother was born on the reservation in South Dakota. And we kind of didn’t have much beyond her. And when we were doing some family work together, my sisters and brothers and I, and we were looking at, you know, some of our documents and journals that we have, we finally figured out who she was, and who her mother was, and even her grandmother. And that was such an electrifying moment to be able to connect back into a culture and a time and a place that, you know, you only see in the movies or books, and all of a sudden, it became literal, and it became real.

And then as we went and took those names and performed the ordinances in the temple, it was so tender, and just such a sweet experience. People asked me all the time, “Do you think people accept the temple ordinances?” And my answer is, “Of course they do. Who wouldn’t?” You know, this is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. But it was a wonderful, sweet, binding experience with my family. And I think this is before I even came to the department, but this was really where I first kind of became alive, for me, became a real thing. And it was very personal, and it was my family and that’s why it meant so much.

36:25  

Steve Rockwood: My experience was very similar too, not that we had a great discovery of research, like Elder Hamilton did, but the same experience he had when he was in the temple. What really hooked me to this is when I saw what this does for young people, and more specifically, what it did for my teenage boys, and my young missionaries in the field when they were able to use the spirit of Elijah in their efforts. And now it does for my grandsons and my granddaughter. That’s when I said, “OK, I am smitten with this cause. Anything I can do to help them discover who they are, and who they come from and to whom do they belong, much, much sooner than my generation who ages into this, when we get older.” I love the fact that maybe they can age into this when they’re really seven or eight years old.

Steve Rockwood gives his keynote speech
Steve Rockwood, president and CEO of FamilySearch International, speaks at the RootsTech conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 09, 2017. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

37:15  

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that’s amazing. We have a tradition at the Church News podcast, where we always ask the same question as we draw to a conclusion. And we always give our guests the last word. And so today, as we wind things up, I’m hoping that each of you can share your testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of family history work. And that you can answer the question, “What do you know now after helping RootsTech become a truly global family history celebration, reaching millions worldwide?” And let’s start with you, Steve, and then we’ll end with Elder Hamilton.

Steve Rockwood: Thank you so much. I’ve learned, and it’s been confirmed to me, that there indeed is a very unique manifestation of the Holy Ghost bearing witness of the divine nature of the family, that we often call the spirit of Elijah, and that the Church does not have a corner market on that manifestation of the Holy Ghost. It truly has been spreading across the world, ever since Elijah did come to the Kirtland Temple. Yes, the keys were restored, but also this Spirit was restored. And I stand all amazed at how universal it is, at how consistent it is, how easy it is to invite and how easy it is to share with members of our family and our friends, both in and out of the Church. And RootsTech is a great manifestation of that.

You can come to the Salt Palace or you can see online what’s happening and one might say, “Oh, that’s a conference about a hobby.” But then you put on the lenses of the spirit of Elijah, and you say, “Wow, this is the gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil, in vivo.” And I’m just so humbled by that and can’t wait to find how each of us, individually and as families and as a church can truly bless the world, as covenant children of God are the seed of Abraham. It’s through us. It’s through that through that Spirit, that all families of the world will be blessed. And that’s what RootsTech and FamilySearch and this one work of gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, has taught me. And I’m just humbled by it and can’t believe that we actually get to be a part of it. We pinch ourselves to think that all of us have this opportunity to participate personally.

39:41  

Elder Kevin. S. Hamilton: I would say that the thing that just strikes me, is how personally the Savior is engaged in this work. It’s His work. It’s not Steve’s work or my work. It’s His work. And He is out and about and engaged in a very personal and powerful way, as archivists and government officials around the globe open up their records to us and allow us to digitize their records, as a huge tsunami of non members comes and helps us build the tree of our Father in Heaven and as the good, faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints engage and find and submit names for temple ordinances. The Savior’s work is moving forward in a powerful and marvelous way. And He’s in charge. It’s His work. And I know that today more than I’ve ever known it. He is personally involved in seeing this work come to its conclusion. And I, like Steve, am just deeply grateful to be a part of it, to be able to participate in it and I feel a little guilty almost sometimes, because it’s actually pretty fun. We have a great time.

41:03  

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests to my producer, Kellie Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.

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