SALT LAKE CITY — FamilySearch is using technology to take a new, innovative approach to family history work — and it’s already generated one special experience for two sister missionaries.
FamilySearch, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, opened the doors of its new Family Discovery Center in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Wednesday afternoon. The announcement came in advance of this weekend's RootsTech Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
In a press release, the new center is described as a "Star Trek-meets-genealogy" type of experience. A visitor can grab an iPad, log in to FamilySearch, choose from a number of hands-on stations and use technology to learn about his or her family’s roots. The center is free and provides engaging genealogy-related activities for children and adults.
“We have tried to create experiences where everyone, regardless of age, can learn more about themselves and their family in new and interesting ways,” said Dennis Brimhall, CEO of FamilySearch, in a press release. “Patrons who are attending as families can make fun new connections and strengthen their family bonds.”
Based on family and historical data, patrons can learn about the origins of their surnames or follow the immigration trails of their ancestors on a world map spread across a large flat-screen television.
Families or individuals can enter two video-recording studios and record memories or favorite stories.
There are also a few “nontechnology” activities, such as a game reminiscent of Jenga where a person can share a family story based on prompts engraved on large wooden blocks. Another station helps patrons to better appreciate what life was like for their ancestors.
According to the news release, the idea for the Family Discovery Center came about two years ago when FamilySearch decided it was time to give its 4,800 family history centers worldwide a makeover.
“We wanted to get families and youth more engaged and excited about their family history,” Brimhall said in the release.
Two LDS sister missionaries recently became more excited about family history work after making a powerful discovery at the new center in January during the final weeks of their 18-month missions.
Sister Emily Hansen of McKinney, Texas, and Sister Valerie Christensen of Yakima, Washington, good friends but not companions, were both invited to the Family Discovery Center during a final testing phase.
While Christensen was at one of the stations, a photo of Peder Jensen, her fourth great-grandfather, caught her eye and she began reading. She learned that Jensen, baptized in Denmark in 1861, was one of the earliest Latter-day Saint converts in her family. Jensen’s biography also revealed he was baptized by two new converts from the same country — Hans Christian Hansen and Lars Swensen. She finished up and moved on to another station.
Unaware of what Christensen had learned, Hansen sat down and pulled up the story of her fourth great-grandfather, Hans Christian Hansen. He was baptized in Denmark in 1851 and later served as a missionary in his native land.
The two missionaries connected the dots a short time later as they discussed their experiences. Christensen casually mentioned she learned about the missionaries who baptized her ancestor. Hansen was intrigued.
“What was his name? She said, ‘Hans Hansen,’ ” Hansen said. “I was like, ‘What? That’s my grandfather.’ ”
They hustled back over to the station, connected their iPads and compared notes. They also learned that Hans Hansen had helped Jensen immigrate to America.
“Everything lined up, and we realized it was my fourth great-grandfather that converted her fourth great-grandfather,” Hansen said. “Amazing.”
Christensen said the realization of what they discovered didn’t take long to sink in. Tears followed as they imagined their ancestors smiling down on them from heaven.
“We looked at each other and started crying,” said Christensen, who served as an indexing instructor before her mission. “Finding this out was not a coincidence.”
Before going home the following week, both women agreed their testimonies of family history work had been strengthened by the experience. Both vowed to continue learning about their family roots at home.
"Who cares if you have to sit in front of a computer for hours and hours? When you feel the spirit of your ancestors, that makes it all worth it,” Hansen said. “Why not do family history? You learn from your ancestors and hear stories that enrich your life. … I was able to see how it applies to me personally in my life, and it gives you a craving and a desire to do it.”
Christensen said the concept of the Family Discovery Center was inspired because it is so easy and fun.
“It will bless and impact countless lives,” Christensen said.
FamilySearch plans to install a new Family Discovery Center in Seattle this summer.
Brimhall said the Salt Lake City center will be used to brainstorm and test new ideas that can be utilized at other sites.
While walk-ins are welcome, FamilySearch recommends families or youth groups schedule an appointment at FamilySearch.org/discoverycenter.
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