Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune’s senior religion writer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is on assignment in the Middle East. Besides her deeper reporting, she is sharing shorter daily dispatches. This one is from Jerusalem.
Jerusalem • Iconic photos of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies are shared widely among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and have become nearly ubiquitous in church publications about the Middle East.
Some outside observers even say the center’s giant windows — looking westward across to the Old City — provide the most impressive panoramic view of these sacred spaces.
What surprised me when I saw the center (known locally as “the Mormon school”) in person, though, was how well it fits within its surroundings.
The Latter-day Saint landmark was designed by an Israeli architect (working in conjunction with a Utah firm), and used Jerusalem limestone, which gives it a look not unlike many nearby structures both old and new. The interior features arches and domes that mirror other buildings in the city.
The eight floors overlooking the Mount of Olives cascade down the mountainside, like a fountain, and the surrounding gardens provide a sense of serenity — as you imagine biblical scenes that are said to have happened within a few miles.
On Saturday, the center, which has been closed to students for more than two years due to the pandemic but will resume at month’s end, opened its doors to more than 100 Latter-day Saint tourists who poured out of buses. They were there to worship on the Sabbath, as it is observed in this region, and were greeted with an impromptu testimony meeting and singalong.
Typically, this would have been a service where members would simply gather to watch a video of the just-ended 192nd Annual General Conference, said John Howell, president of the faith’s Jerusalem branch, or congregation.
Since most members had already livestreamed or watched it, however, Howell, who teaches physics at Hebrew University, opened it up for attendees to discuss their faith and sing an appropriate hymn to go along with it.
Visitors came forward one by one to address the gathered believers, with the multilevel windows serving as a breathtaking backdrop. Several became emotional as they described their belief in Jesus Christ, his life and ministry, which seemed all the more real here, in the Holy Land, and now, in the lead-up to what Christians call Holy Week.
Nearly everyone I know who has ever studied at this center speaks in exalted — dare I say exaggerated — tones about their time here.
Now I know it wasn’t just hyperbole.