PALMYRA, N. Y. >> In an auburn wig and skull earrings, Bryn Clark is a banner carrier in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ lavish annual pageant — a 750-actor, special-effects-filled portrayal of the Book of Mormon held for a week here at the religion’s birthplace.
But each night before the pageant begins, she has another role to play, bringing her faith into the crowd.
As the sun sets on the huge open-air amphitheater, she and the other cast members take their personal copies of the Book of Mormon and walk among the 7,000 attendees, greeting the faithful who have traveled here from around the country and beyond and seeking out any non-Mormons, to tell them about their religion and answer any questions they may have.
This is the 75th year that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been staging the Hill Cumorah Pageant, at the very place where, according to the church’s history, Joseph Smith found the golden plates on which were written the Book of Mormon in the 1820s.
But this year, the first in which a Mormon, Mitt Romney, is the presumptive presidential nominee for a major political party, the pageant is for many Mormons a spiritual oasis from the outside world, a place removed from the din of politics. It is also a place where they can answer the growing number of questions they face about their religion — some curious, some mean — on home turf.
On Friday night Clark, a public health student from Mendon, N.Y.,stepped from a bustling dressing room into the warm night air with a kaleidoscope of other actors, dressed in colorful ancient-Hebrew-meets-Mesoamerican-Indian garb. Her college roommate and partner for the evening, Chloe Buffum, 21, took her aside to offer a quick blessing.
“We are grateful for this day,” she said. “We are grateful for the Book of Mormon.”
As dusk fell, Clark and Buffum trundled down the sloping grass hillside and through the audience together. “Have you been greeted?” they said to person after person, receiving nods and smiles and having pamphlets waved at them. Finally, at the rear, they found Cindy and David Roza from nearby Greece, N.Y., sitting on lawn chairs with a bag of popcorn between them.“We just came for the show,” Roza said, identifying himself as a Methodist. “We heard about it for years.” Still, the couple was charmed as Buffum, a dancer in the performance, said politely, “Can we tell you a little bit about the show so it’s not so confusing? There are a lot of weird names and stuff,” and then gave an animated summary of the Book of Mormon followed, by a sentence of Scripture and what Mormons call her personal testimony.
“I go to college and I don’t really know what I want to do when I’m done with college,” she said, looking skyward. “But knowing that this Gospel is true and knowing that I have a Heavenly Father and a Savior that care about me and have a plan for me, that brings me such peace.”
They also encountered Amanda Urlacher, 18, and Amber Clayton, 17, from Mississippi, non-Mormon friends visiting a Mormon aunt and her family. “Can I just leave you guys with a quick Scripture?” Clark said to the girls, widening her blue eyes. God, she said, loves all of us, no matter who we are, wicked or righteous. “And that is such a comfort in my life, to know that he loves me no matter what mistakes I’ve made or what I do.”
While they are eager to talk about Scripture, the cast and the Mormon visitors here prefer not to talk about politics, in part because church elders, concerned about the religion’s nonprofit status, have firmly instructed church members to separate the sacred from the political, missionaries here said. Though support for Romney, a Republican, is strong, there are few Romney bumper stickers.
Instead, this normally sleepy town of 8,000 is the place where church members on a pilgrimage get emotional at the print shop where their prophet, Joseph Smith, worked when publishing the Book of Mormon, in 1830. After a movie that depicts Joseph Smith standing up for beliefs that others called fantasy, there is barely a dry eye at the visitor center.
Madie Kay, 16, teared up as she sat in the forest grove where Joseph Smith had his first visions, and said she was there trying to learn lessons for her own life. “Joseph Smith was just a boy, and through little things he restored the Gospel,” she said.
Her father, Dane Kay, 48, said that when he is asked questions about Romney and Mormonism, he responds, “He is who he is because of what he believes, it shaped his character,” he said. But, he said, he also tells people, “I don’t think there will be a red phone to the prophet,” referring to the current president of the church, Thomas S. Monson.
Debra Munk, 62, a high school principal visiting from Kensington, Md., said she saw both threat and opportunity in the added focus on the church. “It’s positive in that it helps people to understand us more, but negative in that it really exposes us, and anytime you put under a microscope things that people don’t understand, it can get misinterpreted,” she said.
She added that, “No one’s asked me about my underwear yet,” but said colleagues have asked her about polygamy and other aspects of Mormon history.
Outside the pageant, a small band of evangelical protesters drives around town in a yellow sign truck marked “WhatMormonsDontTell.com,” and shouts warnings of damnation near the performance each night.
“You need to repent Mormons, you are going to hell!” shouted one protester through a megaphone, from the roadside near the parking field after a performance ended. The lights of the local sheriff’s car flashed in the darkness.
The Mormon families ignored the noise. A light-up Frisbee flew through the sky. A blue sign by the barbecue tent reminded the families to meet criticism with kindness, and no one shouted back.
“As you enter and exit the Hill Cumorah Pageant,” the sign said, “please be courteous to those who may attempt to disrupt the special spirit you will feel at this historic site.”