I just returned from a luncheon where the 45th anniversary of the performing group previously known as Lamanite Generation, now Living Legends, was being celebrated. As I’ve navigated the path from devout, believing Mormon to non-believing humanist there are times when I feel like a man without a country. I don’t feel at home in the Mormon community like I used to, and I often feel out of place in the post-Mormon community. It can be very lonely at times. What often divides these two communities is an “Us vs. Them” mentality. Part of the reason is that these two communities are trying to carve out identities and those identities are based on what they do or do not believe. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but what often gets sacrificed are relationships with people. Relationships with family and friends can be strained. Devout Mormons distance themselves from those who now believe differently, either because they don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Post Mormons feel awkward or uncomfortable at church functions or family gatherings where testimonies are shared or theological beliefs are discussed.
As my wife and I navigate a mixed-faith marriage there have been many bumps and setbacks along the way. The strength of our marriage has been stretched to the limit more than once as we try to make it work. I’m sure, at times, we’ve both sincerely contemplated if we could make it work, or even if we wanted to make it work. One thing that keeps me anchored are the terrific memories we’ve forged, together with our children, over nearly 25 years of marriage. There are a lot of them. We’ve connected deeply to each other and our children.
I went to this luncheon to support my wife, who was a member of Lamanite Generation when we got married in 1991. We were actually lucky enough to go on a 3 week Lamanite Generation tour to Berlin, as newlyweds, that same year. I expected a nice lunch but did not expect to be moved to tears, more than once. After eating we were treated not only to a variety of performances, but remarks from administrators and former members of the group. Now certainly there were some spiritual beliefs shared, and more than one mention of the atonement or being a child of God, vernacular which does not resonate with me as it once did, but to me that theme was secondary to the theme of connecting with and loving other human beings.
First to speak to us was a Native American gentleman named Terry Goedel who recounted finding himself on an Indian reservation at the age of 16 years old without a real sense of identity. He witnessed a performance of the hoop dance and was so excited he stood up clapping at the end, and for the first time embraced his Native American roots, saying to himself, “I am an Indian,” and feeling a light within himself. Through some providence he found his way to Brigham Young University and promised his stepmother he would find Janie Thompson when he got there. Janie Thompson was the founder of Lamanite Generation. He fulfilled that promise, became a member of Lamanite Generation, and now in his 60’s has been performing the hoop dance for almost 45 years. He passed this skill down to his daughters and his son, as you can see in this incredible video, and we had the honor of seeing a short performance during this luncheon. Through this incredible skill, he has made a deep, lasting connection with his children, and to others who he has shared this talent with. Who knows for how many generations this skill will continue to be passed down.
John Shurtleff has run the technical crew for over a quarter of a century. He is the guy behind the scenes that makes all the magic happen. He spoke very tenderly about watching the performers interact with audience members and seeing their eyes light up with wonder and awe as a human connection was made. Of course those performers couldn’t do what they do without his support. It appears he has passed the torch down and now two of his daughters are members of the technical crew for the current Living Legends group, another “Lamanite” generation.
Burton Rojas was the alumni representative who spoke and I admit, his remarks touched me the most. He talked about performing in various places around the world and having little children come up to them as they sang and danced and stroking their arms or costumes with deep admiration and tender love in their eyes. He displayed a picture of himself as a child having that same look in his eyes and he interacted with his sister, also a member of Lamanite Generation back in the day. It appears the torch had been passed down from her to him.
He displayed a picture of a bus driver named Otto, surrounded by Lamanite Generation performers. On a previous tour to Eastern Europe this driver was the one who drove them around to several different countries. They had forged such a deep bond with him that several months later, on a different tour to Berlin, they just happened to run into his bus, flagged him down, and everyone piled out to take a picture with him. There was no story about a miraculous conversion, or placement of a Book of Mormon they hoped would one day change his life, just a story of a guy named Otto who they loved, and he loved them. That’s it. A simple story of a deep and lasting human connection that was made.
Burt spoke of time they were in Bulgaria and there had been contention among several members of the group. They were on the way to give a fireside to a ward in Bulgaria but arrived late and missed it. After their regularly scheduled performance, officials from the government approached them, and stated they had never seen anything like it in their lives. He then spoke about how that performance pulled the group together and unified them and any contention they had experienced melted away. They got the chance to give the fireside they had missed previously and many who attended their performance were also able to attend the fireside. They were not only able to deepen the connection and love between themselves as performers, but with the Bulgarian people as well.
Janielle Christensen was in her first year as the director of Lamanite Generation when I toured with my wife in 1991. She is still the current director, 25 years later. What a wealth of experiences she has had over the last quarter century, touring the world over more than once, with many different performers, some of whom now have children in the group. The relationships she has created, with so many different individuals is staggering.
She spoke of a time in the late 90’s when Dallin H. Oaks and the other brethren, over several different meetings and consultations, suggested it was time for a name change, to remove the word “Lamanite” from the title of the group. For some time the subtitle of their performance had been “Living Legends,” and so a new group name was born. As I sat there, I wondered how many knew the history behind that, or if anyone really cared. I wondered if any of them were aware that DNA studies, along with other anthropological evidence made it very unlikely, dare I say impossible to support the standard narrative found in the Book of Mormon. A “limited” geography model (small area in Mesoamerica) as opposed to a hemispheric model was proposed by BYU’s own FARMS organization as the setting for the Book of Mormon narrative. LDS apologists now state that since the Americas were well inhabited by 600 B.C. that the DNA signatures of Lehi and his posterity were somehow lost as they mixed with the existing populations. For this reason it was becoming impossible really, to determine who exactly was a “Lamanite” and certainly less likely that this term would extend to the Polynesian and South American countries. Undoubtedly, this was one, if not the main reason for the name change of the group. To her credit, Janielle focused only briefly on this piece of history and like all the others speakers, focused on what mattered most, the connections made not only between members of that group, but countless audiences and members of the LDS church throughout the world. Connections that now have crossed into a different generation.
Randy Boothe, who was the creative director of various performing groups over the years, treated the audience to a musical number in addition to his remarks. I can’t remember the name of the piece but theme was love. At the end of his song he sweetly proclaimed to the audience, “I love you.” I don’t remember all that Randy said during his talk, but I do remember one anecdote in particular that he shared, because for some reason it really touched me. He spoke of being at the World Fair in Japan with Janie Thompson (founder of Lamanite Generation), who for some reason had an affinity for different wigs and was buying them in bulk. He was 18 years old at the time. He remembered her in one of her platinum blonde wigs as they advanced along a moving sidewalk, the first of its kind in the world. He told Janie about some anxiety he had about his upcoming church mission. Janie gave him words of encouragement and told him that his mission would be over before he knew it and he would remember that moment, riding on this moving sidewalk with her, as if it was yesterday. Janie Thompson has now passed on, but Randy said that 50 years later not only was Janie right, but he STILL remembers that day like it was yesterday, riding along with Janie in her platinum blonde wig, one of kindest and gentlest souls to ever walk this earth.
At our table during the luncheon, many stories were exchanged about impromptu “unauthorized” tours across the borders to other countries, practical jokes played on one other, conflicts and resolution of those conflicts, as well as many other endearing stories about the adventures of the Lamanite Generation.
What sweet and lasting memories have been made and continue to be made by this group.
I remember listening to a podcast with Brent Metcalfe, a post-mormon scholar, who I greatly respect for how he interacts with both the Mormon and post-Mormon communities. At times, as I struggle to find the beauty within Mormonism, it’s people like him that can help me find it. During this podcast I remember the question was asked of him, “What do you believe about the afterlife?” Now, I’m pretty certain I know what Brent’s view on that is, but to his credit his answer was something like, “It really doesn’t matter what I believe or what anyone else believes, because whatever is going to happen, will happen regardless.” I love that sentiment. We know for sure we have this life, everything else is speculation. We can debate all we want about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or if Lamanites really existed or continue to exist in modern day, but what are we doing with our lives to form lasting, loving connections with our fellow man? Is that not what matters most?
The Living Legends performance group may not have retained the moniker “Lamanite,” but I can tell you that “Lamanites” DO exist. I had lunch with them yesterday and they are among the kindest and most charitable souls I’ve ever known. That kindness and charity is now being passed down as more generations of “Lamanites” are being created.
As we all navigate our separate paths through this life, I think it’s important to remember the words of Janie Thompson, “It will be over before you know it.” What are we doing with our family, and our friends to forge lasting memories, memories that when we are old and gray, we can recall proudly, saying “I remember that like it was yesterday.”