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5,000 flock to arena to hear Church president

Gathering is contrast to Mardis Gras revelry

While revelers were enjoying their Mardi Gras parties and parades, beads and bangles a few miles away, members of the Church enjoyed the peace and serenity of a meeting with President Gordon B. Hinckley in New Orleans.

Nearly 5,000 attended the Church meeting in the University of New Orleans Lakefront Arena on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, oblivious to the hundreds of thousands celebrating Mardi Gras on that Sunday evening, March 2.

President Hinckley was aware of the situation and said, "I'm glad to be here at Mardi Gras."

At the arena north of the city, members arrived in cars, vans and buses on a pleasant afternoon in a pleasant setting. One parking lot was bordered by a grassy-green levee dotted with palm trees on the lake shore. Nearly 5,000 poured into the arena to hear the president of the Church.

President Hinckley told them the story of the resurrected Savior's encounter with the apostle Thomas as recorded in John 20:25-28, including His charge to "be not faithless, but believing." (See John 20:27.)

Then President Hinckley said, "My brothers and sisters, I'd like to leave with you those great words of the Lord spoken on that occasion. 'Be not faithless, but believing.' "

He spoke about what they should believe in, beginning with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. He bore a fervent testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the restoration of the gospel in the latter days, and of the Book of Mormon. He continued by speaking of the restoration of the priesthood and the organization of the Relief Society, and discussed several principles of the gospel.

As he finished his talk, he said: "To all of you, now, in conclusion, be not faithless, but believing in yourselves, in your capacity as a son or daughter of God, to do great and good things, to be neighborly and friendly in every respect."

Accompanying President Hinckley at the meeting were his wife, Marjorie; Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve and his wife, Barbara; Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy and president of the North America Southeast Area and his wife, Janelle; and Elder Jon M. Huntsman, an Area Authority Seventy, and his wife, Karen. Elder Ballard, Elder and Sister Cook, and Elder Huntsman were the other speakers in the meeting.

Many who attended the meeting had traveled long distances even before making their way through the Mardi Gras crowds in New Orleans. LDS chaplain Kim Bowen brought more than a dozen members serving in the U.S. Air Force — young men and young women — stationed at Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Miss. He said it was a special experience for them; they had just arrived at their first assignment after finishing training and still didn't have many privileges.

Others attended from Texas on the west, but among the furthest traveled were members from the the Buchanan Branch, Powder Springs Georgia Stake. Gail Clements, Barbara Acker and her children Emery and Karen said it was worth the trip — seven hours each way across Alabama and Mississippi — to see the president of the Church, even though they had to leave immediately afterward to get the children home for school the next morning.

A local member, Freddie Lee Brown was overjoyed to have several of her family members with her at the meeting with President Hinckley. She grew up a member of another faith and said, "It wasn't doing anything for me, so I stopped going. I thought I was better off at home praying."

She said, "I often wondered why the Lord loved people in the olden days more than He loved us, because He gave them prophets."

When the missionaries knocked on her door she invited them in and they "asked me if I knew there was a prophet on the earth today. . . . I just knew it and believed." She was baptized, and eventually five of her children joined the Church and now she has a large family, including grandchildren, attending with her in the La Place Ward, New Orleans Louisiana Stake.

She was overjoyed to have seen President Hinckley and said with a wide smile and enthusiasm, "Ever since I found out the prophet was coming, I've been doing my housework better and everything."

The day after the meeting, New Orleans Louisiana Stake President Scott N. Conlin was showing Elder Cook some of the Church historical sites in the city where early pioneers landed by ship from Britain and Europe to make their way up the Mississippi River to Nauvoo or to continue their journey to the Salt Lake Valley. They discussed the growth of the Church in the area and the impact of the meeting with President Hinckley. Elder Cook commented on the simple gospel truths President Hinckley spoke about and said, "Who knows the number of souls that were touched, not only by what was taught, but by who was teaching it."


Be believing

At the beginning of his address in New Orleans, President Gordon B. Hinckley said the children had given him many Valentines and he thanked them for their thoughtfulness. Then he noted with a smile, "One of those Valentines said: 'I love you, President Hinckley. Thanks for not being dead.' I guess the writer of that Valentine thought it was time I was dead. When you get as old as I am, you are expected to be dead. I'm grateful that I am alive."


E-mail: ghill@desnews.com