John Stars traveled from Utah to upstate New York to play the bad guy, King Noah, in the annual "Hill Cumorah Pageant," which tells the story of the Mormon scriptures. "We really believe this happened," said Stars, "that these are true things that took place, that prophets actually talked to God, that we have a prophet on the earth today. It's not just a neat story. These things really happened." Stars is one of 680 Mormons -- none of them professional actors -- who pay their own way to come from all over the country and the world to spend two weeks acting out scenes of battle, at-sea adventures and religious visions. The story, which the actors lip-sync against a prerecorded soundtrack, is about ancient Israelites who, on God's orders, flee the Holy Land 600 years before Christ. They then travel to the Americas, where they eventually split into two warring groups. A Historic Journey Revisited According to the scriptures, after Jesus is resurrected, he comes to the Americas bringing peace. Following a period of harmony, however, war returns. Before these ancient people are essentially killed off, their history is recorded on golden plates and buried in a hillside. Hundreds of years later, in 1820, a 14-year-old boy named Joseph Smith is visited by God and Jesus. He is later guided to the hillside, where he unearths those golden plates, which he translates into the Book of Mormon. And it is on the Hill Cumorah where this pageant takes place. For millions of Mormons, this otherwise unremarkable patch of rural America is a holy place, comparable to Jerusalem, Rome or Mecca. Sarah Stankiewicz, a graduate student, came from Indiana to play a harvest dancer. "I know for a lot of members, it is almost like a pilgrimage of sorts," said Stankiewicz. "A lot of members like to visit the major church historical sites in their lifetime and bring their children. ... I would almost compare it to a pilgrimage of sorts. It's a spiritual journey." For two weeks, the cast members all live and eat together. Another cast member, Boyd Tuttle, brought his wife and seven of his nine children. 'Standards of Decency' While attending the pageant, people are expected to follow the church rules. That goes for visiting news crews, too. Before the interview, the church gave "Nightline" a contract asking that we "observe standards of decency, which includes being chaste" and "not using tobacco, alcoholic beverages, tea or coffee" while there. "Probably because I'm a college student, the thing I run into the most is, 'Oh, you're a Mormon. It must be so restrictive,'" said Stankiewicz. "[We] always sort of ... laugh about this. And we have constant amounts of fun. We actually have coherent conversations with one another." The pageant is also a case study in Mormon efficiency. Wardrobe director Deb Steele has to get hundreds of characters, including King Noah, in and out of 1,300 costumes a night. "We've got about 26 people, men and women who are working to get people costumed and the beards and the wigs and those things," said Steele. "It's a big job. During the pageant we do about six loads of laundry, just so that we're keeping up to speed." After they're dressed and before the show starts, the cast members mingle with the tens of thousands of people who come to see the show, both to socialize and evangelize. "There's one thing that is so unique about this religion," said Steele. "We just say to people, 'Just pray. Ask the heavenly father, and you will know. You'll know if it's true.'" Romney Attention Welcomed by Faithful Many of the Mormons at the pageant were keenly aware of the fact that the questions about their faith are likely to increase exponentially as Republican Mitt Romney's presidential campaign gains more momentum. Romney himself seems tired of the questions about his religion. This past week, as seen on a widespread video, Romney became increasingly agitated with a radio host's questions regarding Mormonism. In contrast, many of the Mormons at the pageant said they welcome the attention. "Personally, I think it's a good thing because I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about the church," said Tuttle. "And just with people, there's a lot of misinformation ... disseminated out there and a lot of people have, I think, very legitimate questions about the church." Steele agrees. "Often people will say, 'You know, I heard this and this about your church. Well, what's the deal? Do you really believe this?' And then it gives people the opportunity to explain and have open dialogue and to let them know, 'No, that's not exactly what we believe.'" The most common questions are about polygamy, even though the practice was banned in 1890, and the Mormon secret temple rituals, which still exist today. The temple is a very sacred place, and we hold it in special reverence," said Tuttle. "But we also tell everybody 'anyone is welcome to come to the temple if they meet the requirements. ...' So it's not closed to Mormons, or closed to non-Mormons, but it's closed to just people who are not prepared to enter therein." A Community Thrives Despite the Scrutiny "It's so very sacred, so deeply spiritual, and so transcendent," said Stankiewicz. "These are very important and very sacred things, and that they do have to be approached with a level of deep spiritual maturity. ... You don't just sort of flippantly take on these big covenants that you're making with God." "There's really a lot of anti-Mormon sentiment that's happening, and that makes people curious too," said Steele. "Why are so may people against this religion? We're not out fighting against any other religion." After the performance ends and the audience goes home, the cast meets for a late-night prayer session. The families all worship and sing together, even teenagers who ought to be at the peak of their surliness. And as Mormons head into a period of sometimes very tough scrutiny, this is the image they want to project.
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