Last summer, Jackson VanDerkwerken spent his summer across the country from his family in the desert of Goshen, Utah — not a typical summer for the then-17-year-old teenager — but when you’re cast as Nephi for the Book of Mormon videos, it’s necessary.
And it turns out his role of Nephi and separation from his family served another purpose, helping him prepare for a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In May, VanDerwerken received his mission call to Brazil Sao Paulo East Mission.
“I was shaking when I was opening the letter because I was so anxious and excited,” VanDerwerken said. “When I flipped over the letter and I saw what was there, the realization hit me that this was going to tell me where I’m going to spend the next two years of my life. … It is what I was praying for. I was hoping for a mission that would allow me to serve others in the best way I could serve them, and it confirmed that to me when I was reading it. I knew it was the right place.”
Now he will be on the mission around the time that the first installment of the Book of Mormon videos will be released. His mission call assigns VanDerwerken to enter the Brazil Missionary Training Center on Sept. 5, 2018, signifying his two-year commitment to missionary service. But, most likely, VanDerwerken will have the opportunity to see the videos multiple times as he uses them to teach investigators about the Book of Mormon on his mission.
The first installment of the Book of Mormon videos, which is a five-year project that will depict approximately 60 percent of the Book of Mormon, will share the experiences illustrated in 1 Nephi 1–18.
“I was hoping for a mission that would allow me to serve others in the best way I could serve them, and it confirmed that to me when I was reading it. I knew it was the right place.” — Jackson VanDerwerken, Nephi in upcoming Book of Mormon videos
Once again, VanDerwerken flew to Utah to spend a few more weeks on set filming for the second installment of the videos depicting the scriptures. VanDerwerken will spend a few more days across the country from his family before returning home to upstate New York to graduate from high school on June 23. Luckily, his time portraying the “I will go and do” prophet has helped prepare him both mentally and spiritually for his mission.
His time spent away from his family has helped prepare him for the two years when he’ll live in another country and only be allowed to communicate home through email, except for the two phone calls a year. The long filming days — especially the one the night before our interview lasting until 3:30 a.m. — have prepared him for the long work days as a missionary. But, perhaps most importantly, filming the Book of Mormon has helped him develop a positive attitude when doing the work of the Lord despite difficult circumstances.
“You can just go on forever when you have a positive attitude about it,” VanDerwerken said. “Tiredness doesn’t matter. You don’t feel anxious about anything. You just are ready to do His will. When I go out into the mission field, that will be the same attitude I have. I’m going to strive to keep that positivity so that the experience will just be a two-year long movie shoot.”
For his mother, Angela VanDerwerken, the distance over the summers helped her adjust to not seeing her son every day, though they did FaceTime frequently.
“It’s helped him mature too and for me to have the confidence that he can be out on his own in a foreign country,” Angela VanDerwerken said.
But having her young son take on a valiant role as a prophet from the scriptures was reflective for Angela VanDerwerken and her family.
“I think the Lord uses the young for his purposes,” Angela VanDerwerken said. “Joseph Smith was young and Nephi was young, Jackson is young. It is just a good example of being moldable and allowing the Lord to shape him into things He needs them to be. I think that is something that Jackson is really good at, just letting the Lord use him and being really flexible and willing to bend to His will. (Jackson) was just a skinny 16-year-old kid when he was cast. Physically and spiritually the Lord has molded him into who he needed to be, and I think as a missionary that’s going to happen again.”
Plus, Jackson VanDerwerken has been able to draw on the lessons he learned from the Book of Mormon prophet he’s spent the last two summers portraying.
“Nephi can be looked at as a very unattainable person,” Jackson VanDerwerken acknowledged. As he prepared for filming, he said he most connected to Nephi in 2 Nephi 4, also known as Nephi’s lamentation. This chapter of scriptures is part of the second installment of the Book of Mormon videos and VanDerwerken has often referred to the text.
“What I’ve learned about Nephi is in the decisions he’s made. He had to trust in the Lord that that was the right thing to do,” Jackson VanDerwerken said. “These videos really humanize him, and I believe I was cast as him because of experiences I have had that have allowed me to react to situations the way he would have reacted. I just trust that how I would act is how Nephi would have reacted. Of course, Nephi was a much more faithful person than I am, but he still is a man. He made the right choices at the right time. And that’s what we need to realize — that the big choice matter but also the little ones, too.”
One missionary preparation step Jackson VanDerwerken is excited for is cutting off his Nephi-length hair to fit the clean-cut missionary standard.
“I am so excited for it to be cut off. It feels like I’m wearing a muppet on my head when I sleep,” Jackson VanDerwerken emphatically said. “It will not the Thor scene in ‘Thor Ragnarok.’”
While he hasn’t loved the long locks, Jackson VanDerwerken says his transformation from 16-year-old boy to Nephi has helped provide missionary opportunities at his high school in New York where the only other member of the LDS Church is his brother. That is the only other members in his school was his brother and himself until one of his friends got baptized after first asking him why he was growing out his hair and putting on weight.
“Eventually she started asking a lot of questions because those things rang true to her,” Jackson VanDerwerken said. “It made sense, like the Word of Wisdom and other small doctrines like that she latched on to.”
However, he has to be careful when explaining what Book of Mormon production he is in. His New York associates often think he is in the “Book of Mormon Musical” when he tells them he is filming for the Book of Mormon.
In contrast, the Utah crowd automatically recognizes the Book of Mormon as a book of scripture in the LDS Church. Jackson VanDerwerken’s Utah experience has involved speaking to a seminary class about his experience playing Nephi, something a student in a seminary class of five students thought would be a small task.
“He didn’t realize there would be a thousand people there,” Angela VanDerwerken said. “It was more like stake conference than seminary.”
While Jackson has only previewed three short segments of the Book of Mormon videos — and those were over FaceTime since the cast preview party was held in Utah — he is excited to see what these videos can do to held people better understand the Book of Mormon prophet. And his mother, Angela VanDerwerken, says the videos are something she has been waiting a long time for.
“Videos are the medium of our time,” Angela VanDerwerken said. “We really interact with images and audio and visuals. This is really like a re-translation of the book of scripture.”
The first installment of the Book of Mormon videos will be released later in 2018.