Hill Cumorah Pageant holds different meaning for volunteers

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From its humble beginning in 1937, the Hill Cumorah Pageant has become a shining tradition that now attracts 700 cast members and 35,000 spectators from all across the nation each year.

Every year, more than 1,000 volunteers get together to create the masterpiece that is the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which takes place in Palmyra, N.Y. Volunteers submit applications to take part a year in advance and dedicate 17 days of their summer to participating.

Every volunteer is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, and they come from all across the United States. Some have participated in the Hill Cumorah Pageant for more than 20 years, while others are first-time volunteers.

Parry Winder dressed as Abinadi at the Hill Cumorah Pageant
Parry Winder dressed as Abinadi at the Hill Cumorah Pageant

Playing one of the Twelve Disciples when Christ comes to visit the Americas is Michael Campbell, who has been participating in the pageant for 20 years. His wife and children have shared in this great family tradition.

The strong feelings of reverence and peace that are present at the pageant keep Campbell returning year after year and his love for the pageant is always growing.

“It’s like a Mormon pilgrimage,” Campbell said. “You’re coming back to where the Restoration began, so it gives you an opportunity to see the church sites, and it gives you an opportunity to share what you know is important to you and your family.”

Melissa Lund, a 21-year old BYU student from Virginia, is volunteering with her family for her third time. Lund especially enjoys the missionary experiences she gets to be a part of.

“The performances are really fun, and it’s cool to get dressed up and talk to the people in the audience,” Lund said. “You get to share your experience and realize you’re part of something that’s a lot bigger than just you as a person.”

For Parry “Pee-Wee” Winder, this summer marked the first year of his participation in the pageant. His is a story of miracles and a dedication to be involved with the time-honored program.

Winder lives in Providence with his wife, and felt impressed that he should join the Hill Cumorah Pageant when he saw a special on it during the October 2012 General Conference.

Winder had a spinal cord injury that severely restricted his activity. Through a miracle, the following March he was able to have a spinal-cord stimulator implant that reduced his pain by 70 percent, allowing him to travel to Palmyra to participate in the pageant.

As July arrived, Winder and his wife, Connie, packed up and headed to New York to join the pageant. Both expected to hold minor roles.

“We joined the pageant with great faith, knowing we would be sustained,” Winder said. “For some crazy reason they cast me in a very important role as Abinadi.”

Nicknamed the Miracle Pageant, the Hill Cumorah Pageant is a production put together within a week. Over 1,000 volunteers get together under five different directors, and roles are learned and practiced for 12 hours a day.

“It’s such a miracle because the cast is about 700 people and you put on this huge production in just a week, and then you go out and perform in it for a week,” Lund said. “No one really knows what they’re doing except for the director.”

Winder said there are three aspects of the pageant that make the experience so special.

“The people, message and place just come together with such great power,” Winder said. “All of these people come together for a single good to make this pageant work and it’s a miracle.”

The pageant is a spiritual experience for members and non-members alike. Missionaries in the Rochester, NY, mission are heavily involved in the pageant experience as well.

“These incredible missionaries are very well trained, understand the importance of the pageant and have given us training on how to engage in healthy conversation about the church,” Winder said. “They give us incredibly detailed workshops on how to do (missionary work).”

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