Who are they? Where do they come from? Why are they here?
MANTI�One of the largest, and some say most spiritual, gatherings of Latter-day Saints in Utah is the Mormon Miracle Pageant each June in Manti.
By Suzanne Dean
But people from non-Mormon, evangelically oriented churches and missions in Utah and around the country view the pageant as one of the best opportunities to contact LDS Church members and tell them they�re being deceived.
Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have been showing up at the pageant for a long time. But over the past few years, some have become more confrontational, such as people who carried �JosephLied.com� signs at this year�s pageant.
That�s led to hostile, and in some cases, physical encounters between LDS pageant-goers and evangelicals. Pageant officials, Manti City officials and the Sanpete County Sheriff�s Department are concerned.
�There is a concern�
�We acknowledge that here is a concern and actually a problem,� says Manti Mayor Kim Anderson. �We need to deal with it above-board so we are in good standing if challenged.�
Based on interviews with Pastor Chip Thompson of Solid Rock Ministries of Ephraim, who is familiar with many of the evangelical groups and individuals, and with a number of evangelicals in 2005, it appears 300-500 non-Mormon missionaries show up at a typical pageant.
The majority are mild-mannered and conform to a code of conduct that Thompson disseminates among visiting groups. They avoid contention, talk to people who are willing to listen and don�t carry signs because, says Thompson, signs can be misinterpreted as a �protest of the pageant.�
A typical practitioner of what one online Christian magazine describes as this �culturally sensitive� approach to trying to draw Latter-day Saints away from their church is Rebekah Fajguru, 19, a community college student from Arlington, Texas.
She came to the 2005 pageant with about 10 people from two Protestant churches in her town. She explains that her church has a program called �Evangelism Explosion.� Two components of the program are proselyting door-to-door in the Arlington area and making a �mission trip� to the Manti pageant. Her church found out about the pageant, she says, when a non-Mormon couple from Utah moved to Texas and joined the congregation.
While in Manti, she passes out tracts, talks to people and joins in prayers and singing in the street. �Our goal is to witness to Mormons, to open their eyes about what the Bible says about the LDS teachings,� she says. �As Christians, it�s our duty to express our concern about the teachings of the LDS Church and to share the truth�I don�t necessarily agree with every method that is used out here. I�m just here to do what God wants.�
From Iowa college
Tim Wilkins and Jack Swarm, students at Faith Baptist College in Ankeny, Iowa, came on their own to the 2005 pageant. Thompson is an alumnus of the same college. He told people at the college about the pageant, and college-affiliated people have been coming ever since, Wilkins said.
The students combined evangelism with pleasure, stopping to hike and camp in the San Rafael Swell on the way to Manti. Wilkins says he came �basically because I was excited to tell the Mormons about the gospel.� Swarm says, � When you get to share your faith, it makes you stronger. You�re doing what Christ asks to you to do��
Not responsible for most
While Thompson, who founded Ephraim Bible Church but recently left the church to focus on a Christian ministry to Snow College students, says he has invited a few groups to the pageant, �the majority of people in the street, other than the fact they�re Christian brothers and sisters, we�re not responsible for.�
In fact, he says he got involved in evangelism targeting pageant visitors partly because he didn�t like some of the things other visitors were doing. �Because we�re the local Christian church, we have a bit of influence. We can advise them, let them know what we think is profitable.� One of his first steps was drawing up the suggested code of conduct.
Same as LDS missionaries
Beyond trying to influence behavior, Thompson expresses the same motivation as other evangelical visitors. Christians come to Manti �for exactly the same reason the LDS Church sends out 60,000 missionaries,� he says. �We have major differences with the LDS Church. We don�t believe LDS teachings correlate with the Bible.� Evangelicals, he says, are exercising their freedom of speech to let Latter-day Saints know �why we question the LDS doctrine.�
Many of the non-Mormon visitors gather each morning while at the pageant at the Ephraim Bible Church for worship and training. At a typical session prior to the last day of the pageant, the church was packed. Several people wore T-shirts saying, �I can�t die until I tell you the truth.� Other shirts showed an open Bible with the word �evidence� written across it.
Participants could pick up LDS general works and Christian tracts as they entered the church. Inside, following words projected on a screen, they sang praises to Jesus. Some lifted their arms into the air as they sang. Then they broke into groups of two or three and scattered around the church building and grounds to pray.
Evangelicals who were interviewed believed they were achieving results. �It�s amazing to see God�s power,� said Fajguru. �He�s worked mightily here�Being here has really confirmed my heart for the LDS people. A lot of them are really sincere about their faith but I see how they are struggling under the weight of their faith.�
One young woman, who only gave her first name, T.J., said she had been �Mollie Mormon,� and had performed in the pageant numerous times between age 3 and age 15. Then she met a non-Mormon student at Manti High School, now her husband, and started questioning Mormonism.
�Saved� at pageant
Talking to evangelicals at the pageant further influenced her, she says. �Stuff started clicking. People showed me what the Bible taught. People went through it all and explained it to me. I got saved here at the pageant two years ago�right over there on the steps of that house.� After that, she says, �My life changed drastically�I felt whole finally. I finally felt the peace that was missing.�
She and her husband now live in Branson, Mo. They spent $800 to come to Manti and evangelize at the pageant. �I�ll be walking by and I know half the people here,� she says. �I lost most of my friends, but Jesus is the best friend you can have.�
Other end of the spectrum
At the other end of the spectrum, and the source of the concerns Mayor Anderson described, are evangelicals who openly describe their approach as confrontational. The prime case is Rob Sivulka of Salt Lake City, who carried one of the JosephLied.com signs. He has attended the pageant every year for many years. He typically sits near one of the gates and reads loudly from the Bible as people enter the pageant grounds.
Sivulka says he got interested in Latter-day Saints as a young man when his uncle, a pastor in Texas, invited him on a summer mission trip that included a week and a half in Utah. The group proselyted door to door in Utah County. That�s when, he says, he discovered a �love for the Mormon people� and found he enjoyed �trying to persuade them to believe as I believed.�
Carries signs near temple
Ultimately, he moved to Utah, and for the past several years, has devoted most of his time to confronting Mormons. He carries signs near the Temple Square gate, boasts on his mormoninfo.org website about �crashing� President Gordon B. Hinckley�s 95th birthday party, and says on his site that his next stop will be the dedication of the new LDS temple in Newport Beach, Calif.
Since 1999, he says, he has been a �professional missionary,� living off donations friends, family and strangers make to his cause, some via a PayPal link on his site. He is also a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Utah. When interviewed Tuesday, he said he was currently taking several months off to focus on his doctoral work.
Regarding his approach, including his signs, Sivulka says, �It�s not that I want to give Mormons a bad time or ruin their day�[But] I know that controversy sells.� He believes some Latter-day Saints who are initially offended by the sign �will go home and in the privacy of their home look up the web site.�
While Pastor Thompson says he would �never do what Rob does they way he does it,� he defends him. There are numerous instances in scripture where �people who believed there was a problem got out and yelled, cried out to people to repent,� says Thompson. One example in LDS scripture, he notes, is Samuel the Lamanite, who is depicted in the pageant.
But others, inside and outside the LDS Church, decry tactics used by Sivulka and other confrontational missionaries. John Morehead, an evangelical who has attended pageants, writes in Cornerstone, an online magazine, �We don�t have to shout, or share in ways that are culturally and personally offensive to Mormons, in order to adequately proclaim our message. In fact, we may be causing needless offense and preventing our message from being heard.�
Tery Robertson, Mayfield, a member of the Assemblies of God Church in Richfield, says non-Mormon visitors to the pageant, especially people carrying signs, only deepen rifts between Mormons and non-Mormons in Sanpete County.
Her church presents concerts in a Richfield city park, she says. �We wouldn�t want a bunch of Mormons standing around protesting.� Targeting the pageant is �totally inappropriate,� she says. �It�s not changing anybody�s mind. It�s just causing people to judge non-Mormons by the way these people [evangelicals] behave.�
At the 2005 pageant, a Manti High School student satirized Sivulka�s sign by carrying his own sign saying, �Johnny Appleseed lied.� The student explained that no one could possibly have planted as many trees as Johnny Appleseed claimed to have planted.
Signs and yelling
In some cases, provocative signs and yelling seem to be triggering confrontations. At last June�s pageant, Sivulka says, three people went after his sign. �It was simply the sign, and not my preaching that made them really snap�.But the cops were really awesome,� he writes, saying they quickly restrained one person who tried to take his sign away.
Pastor Thompson says that in 2004, a driver jumped out of a car and attacked some visiting missionaries, and a middle-aged, mild-mannered missionary couple were hit by rocks.
Mayor Anderson said Manti City explored establishing a free-speech zone where evangelicals would be separated from other pageant visitors. But the city could not find an ordinance enacted in any other city establishing such a zone and wasn�t sure such an approach would stand up in a legal test.
The city council decided the best approach was to turn problems over to the Sheriff�s Office. �We made it a function of the sheriff to just control the crowd,� he says.
�There�s no doubt about it,� he adds. �It�s pretty sensitive. It�s a hot button down there. We need to keep our cool and stay away from physical confrontation. We need to not let what they�re saying or doing boil into a confrontation.�