In 2005, Christian and TingWai Gessler watched as their oldest daughter, Jessica, slipped into a coma at the end of a losing fight with cancer. In her few lucid moments, a dream state really, Jessica, just 9-years-old, would wake up and remember riding a horse or a trip her family took. She ended her life thinking and talking only of her family’s happiest memories.
“Things happen that can change everything in your life,” TingWai said. “We learned that if you have a chance to do something special, do it. People say they’ll do things in 10 years, but you never know. We thought for our kids it is important for them to have the good memories, to help them get out of the low times in their lives.”
For the Gesslers of Kaiseraugst, Switzerland, they couldn’t think of a greater experience to build those bright memories for their family right now than bringing their four children to participate in the Hill Cumorah Pageant. They had some friends in their Swiss congregation who attended the pageant in 2015. That family came home overwhelmed by their experience.
“Their daughter said she had a testimony on the first day, that it was worth holding to the iron rod,” TingWai said. “We thought this would be good for our kids.”
Christian knows what it takes to build a testimony. As a convert, he had to work for his. But his children have all been raised members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Swiss people are very polite and accepting of others’ beliefs, he said, but they are not always open to missionary experiences.
“For our kids to gain a testimony, we have to help them get more spiritual experiences,” he said.
But there were a few issues. While TingWai served a mission at Temple Square in Salt Lake City from 1990-1992 and speaks English, the rest of her family — Christian, a bus driver, Jonathan, 18, Salmoe, 15 and twins Timon and Tamara, 9 — speaks limited English. And there’s the fact that Christian declares his family very normal — he a bus driver and TingWai a teaching assistant. They had been saving money for several years to come to the United States to see TingWai’s sister in Utah and take a tour of America’s national parks. Instead, after hearing of their friends’ great experience, they decided to take a chance and began booking their trip to be part of the Hill Cumorah Pageant. TingWai yearned for their “family to have this missionary feeling” that she had had serving on Temple Square years ago.
So, they began preparing. On their friends’ advice, they booked plane tickets. They booked a place to stay and a rental car. Christian started listening, at first, to children’s stories in English on his bus route, eventually advancing to more difficult material to increase his English comprehension. Everyone in the family committed to learning better English. Family Home Evenings were held in English, and the Gessler children started watching movies and other videos in English. Christian focused on reading his scriptures in German and in English. They watched video of the pageant on the Internet and began focusing on the stories from the Book of Mormon.
And then they received a letter telling them they weren’t accepted into the pageant.
The Gesslers laughed at the memory, though at the time, they were keenly disappointed. They thought they would make the most of it and come see the pageant, perhaps meet her sister midway for a visit and spend extra time with Christian’s aunt in Toronto. But, they made one last pitch for themselves. They might not speak great English, but they absolutely could feel the spirit. And, of course, they had plane tickets.
Their appeal was successful, and the six-member Gessler family is in Palmyra for two weeks with more new German-speaking friends than they ever imagined they’d find. Tamara and Timon’s cast teammates have figured out how to use Google Translate to help bridge the language barrier for the youngest Gesslers. On casting night, when Salome thought the dancing was hard, her mother kept encouraging her to try, “Just keep giving it your best,” TingWai advised. Salome was cast as a harvest dancer. She hasn’t danced much before and was surprised by the role but simply said her time here so far has been “amazing.”
“This is a thing you will do once in your life,” she said.
Timon and Tamara will appear in the Waters of Mormon scene. Jonathan is frequently lost from his family, out playing sports with his new cast team members or practicing on stage as an unbeliever in the Samuel the Lamanite scene. He loves learning about his new cast mates, where they are from, what they are like. He is picking up new American phrases like “awesome.”
“Everyone is very friendly,” Jonathan said. “We all have the same reason for being here, so they understand us. We are all from the same church and we can take (from) and give testimony to other people.”
Christian loves his costume for his role as a citizen of evil King Noah.
The Gesslers can’t believe their luck in living scripture in a place they deem sacred.
“It is different if you read the scriptures then you are in a scene,” TingWai, who plays a believer in Christ in one of the final scenes. “I am on the stage, kneeling and then running away. We pray because the new star appears. It makes me feel a part of scripture. I loved it.”
The Gesslers understand they are different at pageant. They know their English needs work. But they understand more intimately the instant feeling of purpose that united the pageant cast from day one.
“We’re so different, from all over the world,” TingWai said. “But there is an instant connection. So different, but it’s like a big family.” — photos and story by Amanda Lonsberry
by Sarah Williams on 07/6/2016