An international group of men and women trying to make a difference sat in the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle choir seats last week and listened raptly as Elder L. Whitney Clayton shared a relevant story.

William Clayton, Elder Clayton’s great-great-grandfather, was camped in muddy 1840s Iowa when he received the good news that his wife had delivered a “fine, fat boy” back in Nauvoo, Illinois. Feeling inspired, William sat down on a log and penned the words to the famous pioneer hymn, “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”

The group sang a verse, then listened in awe as Richard Elliott, principal organist for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, performed a rousing solo arrangement of the hymn that rang and soared through the famed building. The heartfelt singing combined with the invigorating sound of the Tabernacle organ moved some to tears.

Richard Elliott, the principal organist for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, performs at the Tabernacle.
Richard Elliott, the principal organist for the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, performs at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 21, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“It sounded so wonderfully that it hits the heights of the heavens,” said Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, chairman of the AMAR Foundation.

The Latter-day Saint hymn of faith, resilience and hope related directly to why the multi-continental, multinational group had gathered for a two-day conference in Salt Lake City, Utah — to explore how music therapy that might improve the mental health of refugees who are under incredible stress and duress.

As part of their conference, the group also met with a senior apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What is the AMAR Foundation Windsor Dialogue Series?

For the past seven or eight years, Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies has been partnering with the AMAR Foundation and Baroness Nicholson, along with the church and Latter-day Saint Charities, on projects that are designed to help religious minorities, especially religious minorities who are suffering persecution, and in extreme cases, those who have suffered dislocation, said Brett G. Scharffs, ICLRS director.

“What we are trying to do is make sure that the understanding of health includes mental health. We are also trying to help the United Nations and other officials understand that one of the ways to facilitate mental health is through participating in music especially, but also other types of art and recreation,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that for persecuted people, music is very important. That is what this conference is specifically focusing on.”

What happened at this year’s AMAR conference?

That dialogue continued with the AMAR Foundation Windsor Dialogue Series Conference again this year, culminating Thursday with the powerful musical experience in the Tabernacle.

Conference attendees toured the renowned Tabernacle before sitting in the choir seats to learn about and sing hymns of various faith traditions that convey themes of resilience, hope and community building, accompanied by Elliott.

Before singing, selected panelists told each hymn’s backstory. They explained why it was personally meaningful. The list of songs included:

Elder L. Whitney Clayton, first counselor in the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square presidency and emeritus General Authority Seventy, sings with people attending the AMAR Foundation Windsor Dialogue Series Conference at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 21, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Scharffs was among those who introduced hymns.

So was Elder Clayton, who is the first counselor in the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square presidency and an emeritus General Authority Seventy.

Others included Sister Sharon Eubank, director of Latter-day Saint Charities and first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, and Andrew Methven, chief of staff for the AMAR Foundation.

Methven provided notes on three songs on behalf of Bishop Alastair Redfern of the Church of England, who was unable to attend but participated virtually in the conference.

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Methven described the experience as special.

“To come here and sing in this wonderful building and with a magnificent organ, I know how special it is to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it also ties in with what we’ve been discussing in the conference, which is the power of music, the power of faith, how it helps all our well-being and the power of spirituality,” he said. “We want to explore more about the whole issue of music and how music seems to reach people in different ways.”

The healing power of music has been a central topic with the Windsor dialogues for the last four years, but the experience of singing together in the Tabernacle was an exclamation point for Sister Eubank.

“I felt that intellectually but today, when we were sitting in the Tabernacle, singing ‘The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning’ or ‘Come, Come Ye Saints,’ you feel what it means inside you,” she said. “You want to reproduce that for other people who are in the middle of an extremity right now. We’re looking back on our extremity, but for them, we need to provide these emotional, spiritual pieces of solace.”

Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne, right, and others tour The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 21, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

The need to help millions of refugees

There are 82 million refugees in the world, and the number grows each day, Baroness Nicholson said.

“Every conflict produces refugees and the world is treating them very, very bad indeed, without realizing perhaps, ignoring them, isolating them, leaving them. By the time people come out a refugee camp, they are almost half the person that they were when they went in,” she said. “We want to do something about that. We work in refugee camps, all of us in this room in one way or another. So we are very literally a group of people who want to crack this facade that once you’re in a refugee camp everything is fine and dandy. I have to tell you it is the absolute reverse.”

During the conference, panels featuring leaders, scholars and experts discussed and brainstormed on legal issues, political processes and other topics.

Refugees and displaced persons from Ukraine, Myanmar and Afghanistan were invited to share their experiences as part of the conference.

One man described the heartbreaking moment when he had to decide to “stay and die or leave and live” as he grabbed a backpack and his laptop before escaping with his family. He reached a point in his story when he was overcome with emotion and couldn’t continue, pushing the microphone away and lowering his head.

The mental health of refugees is an issue that needs to be addressed, said Stan Parrish, president of US Friends of AMAR.

“Being a refugee is one thing, but most of these refugees are either separated from families or they are children or orphans. Can you imagine the trauma that they are going through, leaving their country, losing their family and then trying to get established somewhere else or in a different country?” Parrish said. “It’s an issue that we can’t address enough, I think, to bring peace and comfort these poor people.”

Elder Holland’s 3 meaningful hymns of faith

After their experience in the Tabernacle, members of the AMAR Foundation Windsor Dialogue Series Conference were treated to dinner in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, his wife, Sister Patricia Holland and other invited guests. 

During the dinner, Elder Holland spoke about three Latter-day Saint hymns of personal meaning to him, namely “Lead, Kindly Light,” “I Stand All Amazed” and “I Need Thee Every Hour.” 

Each hymn was performed in succession by a small choir of singers after Elder Holland related their significance to him.

“Each of these hymns has special meaning for me, personally and as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” Elder Holland said. “We sing in our quorum and council meetings, where often the text of the hymn matters as much as the melody. It goes without saying that the leaders of his church need God’s guiding light, need his constant companionship, and are forever amazed at his gifts, his grace and his love.”

‘A perfect marriage’

Sister Eubank applauded the inclusion of mental health in the efforts by the AMAR Foundation and ICLRS, as well as other partnering organizations.

“It’s a perfect marriage ... because these efforts go together,” she said. “We talk about protection under the law, we talk about expression of religious freedom, but we haven’t always talked about mental health, protecting for spiritual and emotional expression. This is a nice, rich addition.”

As the singing in the Tabernacle concluded, Scharff reminded everyone that what they are trying to accomplish is “deeply important and deeply human.”

“We know we are small, we know our power is limited, but we have to be ambitious because the task ahead is so daunting,” he said. “Only a very ambitious plan is an appropriate response to the measure of the challenge that we face.”

Who attended the AMAR conference?

Other participants in the conference, some virtually, included:

  • David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine, Oxford University.
  • Dr. (Abdullah) Nezar Ismet Taib, child and adolescent psychiatrist; former director general of health, Iraq. 
  • Siddik Bakir, director, oil and gas department, ministry of energy, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  • Michael Bochmann, professor of music at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
  • Dave Moore, professor at BYU Law School, associate director of ICLRS.
  • Alastair Ager, emeritus professor, Queen Margaret University; adjunct professor, Columbia University.
  • Ryan Koch, the church’s director of public and international affairs at the New York office.
  • Atallah Fitzgibbon, global advocacy manager, Islamic Relief Worldwide.
  • Michael Wiener, officer, U.N. high commissioner for human rights; visiting fellow, Kellogg College, Oxford University.
  • Erin Bailey, assistant professor of music education at BYU.
  • Lutforahman Saeed, visiting professor at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School.