03355_000_009Sharing the Gospel at a Youth Conference in Bavaria
Chiemsee is a kingdom of swans and sailboats, mountains and castles, weathered wooden piers, and walks along the beach. A visit to the lake dispels the myth that Bavaria, Germany’s mountainous southern region, is home only to steep-roofed chalets and mountain goats. “Lake,” in fact, is not an appropriate name for the 32-square-mile body of water nestled in the foothills of the Alps. “Sea” is more like it.
Here the mountain breezes constantly shift direction, searching out new paths for gliding boats they push across the water. Gusts of wind tousle the sailor’s hair. The slap and lap and lullabye of waves is an open invitation to reflect on the beauty of God’s creations and the wonder of life.
It was only natural, then, that when Bryan King, Debbie Green, John Howells, David Collings, and Melody Jones sat down as a steering committee to plan the first-ever youth conference for the children of servicemen in Germany, they should decide on Chiemsee as the site. They had all driven by the lake before, and they knew for certain that the setting alone would lend an aura of charm to the meetings.
But Chiemsee became more than just a beautiful setting. For four days last summer, 200 LDS youths transformed the lakeside resort into a kingdom of example, service, learning, and love.
Wednesday at noon, a reception area prepared by an advance group stood ready to welcome conference guests. “Registration for workshops must be completed in advance,” a sign next to a row of well-organized tables read. Beneath it was a schedule of all daily activities listed on a military timetable: breakfast, 0700; workshops, 1100; bike hike, 1500; fireside, 1900. “Even when we’re having fun, we tend to think in military time,” Bryan, who acted as conference chairman, said. “Most of our parents use it in their work, and the Europeans use it for everything.”
Within an hour, the room was crowded with enthusiastic young people.
“Sharon!” an excited 17-year-old shouted from across the lobby. Soon two long-time girl friends were hugging each other, then plotting workshop schedules so they could enjoy free moments together. For first-timers, name badges helped initiate conversations, and soon new friendships were being formed. Nearly everyone expressed amazement to see so many Mormons in one place at one time, especially John, who rushed from room to room coordinating accommodations with hotel employees to insure that everyone would have a place to sleep.
“One of the main reasons the conference was organized was to let everyone have a chance to get together,” Melody, who is from the Ansbach Branch, Stuttgart Germany Servicemen Stake, said. “In our branch, for example, there are only two young people. We’re just barely getting a Mutual going, and it’s kind of tough to do things. You go to the U.S. military high school and there are maybe four LDS kids, so you don’t get a lot of fellowshipping. It’s neat to come to something like this with so many who have the same standards and enjoy being a big group of happy Mormons.”
“I knew there were quite a few LDS kids around, but I didn’t expect this many,” Katawna Hosey of the Mainz Ward, Kaiserslautern Second Ward (same stake), who joined the Church just a few months before the conference, agreed. “It helps me to know that there are so many others facing the same struggles that I am,” she said.
The first group activity was a get-acquainted stomp. As tables were pushed back and music began to play, it seemed as if the ballroom rejoiced at the presence of so many teenagers. The polished wooden floors of the rustic dining hall and the rough-hewn beams of its ceiling seemed to shine a little brighter, and the Bavarian mountain folk painted in huge murals on the walls appeared ready to leap down and join in the festivities.
There was a dance each night during the conference. This one and another one were casual (no grubbies), but the third was strictly “formal” in Sunday-best dress. Even adult chaperons joined in the fun, mingling old-style steps and new-fangled sashays to form modified disco whirls and graceful waltzes. One evening there was a talent show featuring lots of singing, instrumental solos, a dance routine, and a gymnastic exhibition that razzle-dazzled the entire audience. All of the performers were youth from the various servicemen’s stakes.
Another night someone preparing for a dance noticed that hotel waiters were behind schedule replacing tablecloths and refilling saltshakers for the next day. Despite the language barrier, he made it clear that he and his friends would like to help, and soon the chore was completed. “We’re all brothers,” one of the volunteers told the headwaiter. “We should help each other.”
“Brüder (brothers),” the waiter said, nodding his head in agreement, and he smiled as he reached over to shake hands.
Each morning, long before the bell in the hotel’s tower could clang seven times to signal the hour there was already a lengthy chow line backed from the kitchen to the hallway. And no sooner was breakfast over than conference sessions were ready to begin.
“I was glad to hear President Roth’s talk,” Vickie DeBigler of the Darmstadt Ward, Frankfurt Germany Servicemen Stake, said following the opening session. “It really helped me understand how much parents love their children.” She was referring to a talk given by President Erwin Roth, a native Austrian who is now a counselor in the Munich Germany Stake presidency. President Roth expressed gratitude for his mother, who raised him from childhood as a member of the Church.
Other general session speakers included Brother Imno Luschin, former president of the Swiss Temple, who is also a native Austrian, and Elder Theodore M. Burton of the First Quorum of the Seventy, who was at the time supervisor of the Europe Area.
Short morning breaks allowed time for conversation and meditation. Spontaneous groups would gather just to chat, or toss around a Frisbee, shoot a basketball, or relax in the swings. In a more secluded spot, a young woman relished the sunlight and scenery as she inscribed memories in her journal. On the pier, fishermen continued their casting, unaware of a young man studying his scriptures nearby.
After a few minutes, though, it was time for workshops, some of them held in underground classrooms built in what used to be the hotel’s stable house. To encourage sharpened missionary awareness, Brother Gerald Homer, the area seminary director, prepared a game. He divided the class in two and awarded each side points for suggestions about helping people become acquainted with the Church. Hands waved, pencil-top paper flags signaled “emergencies,” and an overhead transparency displayed the ever-changing score.
“We learned about three basic concepts,” Madeleine Collings of the Stuttgart Ward, Stuttgart Germany Servicemen Stake, said. “The first is friendshipping, just being good friends with someone. The next is ‘churchshipping,’ or inviting them to meetings and activities. The third is teaching, or bearing testimony to your friends when they’re in a frame of mind to listen to what you’re saying.”
Other workshops discussed dress standards, dating, the Holy Land, gospel basics, and “Your Relationship with Christ.”
“We got to choose the classes we wanted to take,” Sabrina Hillard said. “So we didn’t feel like we were more or less stuck in them. We wanted to be there, so we enjoyed them.” Sabrina is from the Hahn Ward, Kaiserslautern Germany Servicemen Stake.
And of course there were other inspirational gatherings as well, such as testimony meetings, and a question-and-answer fireside during which audience members received advice from a panel of youth and adult leaders.
Afternoons were reserved strictly for fun.
Herrenchiemsee, once the residence of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (and styled after the renowned chateau at Versailles, France), hides among the woods on an island in the middle of the lake. But it didn’t take long for the conference group to search it out. They boarded the ferry boat Gertraud (Gertrude), and when it had docked, scampered along footpaths to the gardens and grounds, past the fountains, up to the palace’s gilded doors, and into the Hall of Mirrors where royalty used to dine and dance.
Other free-time activities included volleyball, swimming in chilly waters, bicycle rides, miniature golf, walks through the countryside, and a mini-Olympics guaranteed never to be seriously contested elsewhere (after all, how serious can anyone be about a soda straw javelin toss or a paper plate discus hurl?). There were also paddleboats to pilot from shore to shore rowboats to test the pectoral muscles of would-be mariners, and, when it rained, Walt Disney films in the hotel theater. On sunny days, wind surfers drifted close to the shore, showing off in front of anyone watching.
It was in between all other activities, however, that some of the significant events at Chiemsee took place:
—The desk clerk at the hotel had been studying with the missionaries for months, but few of those at the conference knew it. He thought he would watch and find out if Saints really practice the principles of the gospel.
“What I’ve seen here with these kids has really made me think,” he said, noting that he was particularly impressed when a young lady turned in a $20 bill she found in the hall.” A lot of people would have just kept it,” he said. “It’s nice to see honesty for a change.”
—Someone else was impressed with the lost money, too—the girl who lost it. She had been encouraged by her LDS friends to join them at Chiemsee and was dismayed when her funds for the entire activity disappeared. Her roommates helped her to search, had prayed with her, and had come to the desk to see if the clerk could offer any suggestions.
“Twenty dollars?” he said, trying to hide his grin. “Why, yes, someone turned it in just five minutes ago. …”
—Approximately one-third of the guests staying at the hotel were not affiliated with the conference. But most of them returned to their homes with favorable feelings about LDS youth. “I never saw so many fine, considerate young people, so nicely dressed,” one lady said.
—Two nonmember parents, who had come to the resort to discuss their own teenager’s lack of direction, sought out one of the adult conference leaders. “Would you please go to our son and share this message with him? All of your young people look so happy,” they said.
“I know a couple of young men in your area who would be glad to visit your son,” the leader replied.
—Sherrie and Rhonda Atterberry (also of the Hahn Ward) told of their friend Michael Graham, who accompanied them to the conference. Even though he’s not LDS, Mike has been so impressed by Mormons he knows that he travels two hours each way on Sundays to attend meetings. For him, Chiemsee reinforced the positive feelings he already had.
“These kids are more wholesome and healthier than others.” Mike said. “There are a lot of things about the Church I don’t understand right now, but I admire them.”
—A 70-year-old man from New Zealand chatted in the shade at the palace entrance with a group of young women who had come to the castle following a workshop on temple marriage. The conversation led quite naturally to a discussion about the Church. Others on the tour were also eager to know more about the young people from the United States, especially a USO tour guide from Celina, Tennessee, who helped those who didn’t speak German to find their way around Herrenchiemsee. She rode the boat to and from the island each day with different groups of Mormons, and soon made friends with many of them.
—When the steering committee members checked out of their rooms Saturday morning, they made a special presentation to the hotel manager: a Book of Mormon they had dedicated to him. Before he ever saw the book, though, he had felt friendship and seen positive examples. It’s safe to say he’ll think seriously about the gift he was given.
Chiemsee was what an ideal youth conference should be: a place to relax, to have fun, to meet Church members from other areas, and to enjoy beautiful surroundings. One young man reveres Chiemsee as the place where, after fasting and prayer, he decided to go on a mission. Others, like three young women who cried together at the closing testimony meeting, think of it as a place where they said good-bye to a friend whose parents had been transferred back to the States.
Chiemsee was all of these things, and more. But most important of all, it was a place to reinforce testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its applications to everyday living, a place to learn correct principles and to set good examples by following them.