When the Young Ambassadors, a musical performing group from BYU, recently went on tour to Russia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, they did more than present songs and dances. They contributed directly to missionary work and helped strengthen members in an area of the world where the Church is practically new.
As of July 13, little more than a month after the return of the group to Utah, its leaders had received reports of several baptisms - six in one city - as a direct result of the Young Ambassadors' performances. More baptisms are expected as missionaries are busy teaching others who first learned of the Church through the Young Ambassadors' performances.Working closely with the Europe Area Presidency and mission presidents, the group's leaders arranged for performances in cities where the Church has been established only since 1990. While most of the audiences were in major cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, some performances were in cities where missionaries have been working less than a year: Nizhny Novgorod, Samara and Saratov in Russia, and Vilnius in Lithuania.
The tour group - 18 performers, nine stage and technical crew, four band members, and six tour leaders - left Utah on May 3 and returned June 5. Along the way, they were buoyed by the presence of General Authorities, mission presidents and local branch leaders. Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve spent some time with the group in Nizhiny Novgorod and participated in a special fireside program and television interview there. He also attended a performance in that city.
Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Seventy and president of the Europe Area and his counselors, Elders Dennis B. Neuenschwander and Robert K. Dellenbach, also of the Seventy, spent time with the Young Ambassadors along their tour route, as did Pres. Herbert Creel of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission and Pres. Gary Browning of the Russia Moscow Mission.
Peter Codella, president of Young Ambassadors, told the Church News that some of the most rewarding moments came in places such as Saratov, Russia. He said: "At the end of all our performances on the tour we sang `I Am a Child of God.' As we began singing that song in Russian in Saratov, the branch president and his wife stood up in the audience and began singing with us. One by one, all the members of the branch spontaneously stood and joined in singing. The missionaries haven't been in Saratov very long, and there aren't many members of the Church there. But when that handful of people stood and started singing `I Am a Child of God' with us, I felt the Spirit was so strong. It was as if they were standing to bear their testimony, to witness that they, too, are Latter-day Saints. There were many moments during the tour when I found it was impossible for me to continue singing. That was one of them."
During the tour to 10 cities, the Young Ambassadors presented 16 musical performances to an estimated live audience of more than 11,000. In addition, some performances were televised to a potential audience of more than 369 million in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A major part of the tour included firesides at which members of the area presidency and mission presidents spoke and members of the performing group bore their testimonies. "We shared our feelings about the Savior and sang hymns about the Savior," the group's president said. "The best thing about the firesides was that people could hear our music and feel our spirit up close. We had the chance to meet and talk with them afterward."
Tour manager Rex L. Barrington said he has been impressed with the caliber of all BYU performing groups, but he was particularly impressed with this year's Young Ambassadors and the way they conducted themselves on this tour. "Nearly every member of the group is a returned missionary, and it seemed as if they all considered this tour as an extension of their missions," he said.
"Our experience was just phenomenal. We stayed in the homes of some of the people, mostly non-members, and formed great friendships. They seemed so open to what they could learn about us. They asked a lot of questions about our background and about the Church. It seemed as if they were saying, `We have been kept in the dark so long; now we want to learn all we can.'
"One evening I was sitting in the auditorium as the group was taking down the equipment after a performance. I was tired and thought I would rest a few minutes. A group of teenagers came up and said, `Can we ask you a question? Tell us about your faith, about what you believe.' They were so sincere; they had an open desire to know what I could tell them. For 20 minutes, we talked about the most important things the Church teaches. Everywhere we went, we had that kind of response."
Just as audiences were impressed with the Young Ambassadors, the performers were impressed with the people they met. "I will remember most the saying of `Goodbye' to our friends made in each city," remarked Heather Riggs, a member of the group's stage crew. In every city the Young Ambassadors became fast friends with their interpreters, bus drivers, tour guides, security guards and host families.
Tearful goodbyes were especially the case in Kaunas, Lithuania, where the Young Ambassadors spent three nights with host families from the Neamanus Folk Ensemble. "We walked down their streets with them, ate in their homes, performed for each other, and even had a dance together," Peter Codella said. "Being in their homes, sharing and caring together - it was very hard to say goodbye when we left."
Native Lithuanian Laima Mogeniene, coordinator for the visit to Kaunas, summed up the entire experience when she said, "We loved you even before you arrived."
"I was impressed with the pride of the people," said Jeff Marshall, the tour group's drummer. "They have such difficult circumstances they live under, yet they are warm and anxious to give of themselves. They are eager to learn and improve their situation." Jeff, whose ancestors come from Belarus (formerly Bylorussia), learned to speak directly to the people in Russian. He often shared his feelings of visiting his native homeland with the people he met.
The tour also included many varied public relations activities, such as special visits to mayors, ministers of culture, radio and television interviews, community workshops reviewing the history of American music and exchange opportunities with dance groups in Samra, Russia, and Kaunas, Lithuania. The Young Ambassadors also visited nursing homes and hospitals.
The Young Ambassadors' programs on the tour were specially designed for the people of the former Soviet Union. Broadway and stage musical presentations focused on values applicable to the challenging times. Numbers particularly emphasized concepts such as courage, community and family support, holding on to endure through adversity, overcoming hardships, and the value of integrity. - Rex L. Barrington and Gerry Avant