“Now this was the faith of these of whom I have spoken; they are young, and their minds are firm, and they do put their trust in God continually.”
“Yea, and they did obey and observe to perform every word of command with exactness; yea, and even according to their faith it was done unto them.” (Alma 57:27, 21.)
Seventeen-year-old Kevin Amsden was excited about giving away a copy of the Book of Mormon. He’d spent nine weeks preparing to serve with a set of full-time missionaries, and he had been challenged to give away the book on the bus ride to his assigned area. The enthusiastic teenager got out his Book of Mormon and began roaming the bus, looking for someone to strike up a conversation with.
“I saw a Catholic nun and immediately knew that she’d be interested in religion,” Kevin recalls. The sister had been in the ministry for fifty-three years. When Kevin offered her the book, “she thanked me and said she’d read it. And I know she will.”
Thus began Kevin’s week as a youth missionary in the New York Rochester Mission. The purpose of the youth missionary activity is simple, explains Frank H. Bria, second counselor in the mission presidency. “We want to prepare young men and young women to understand the importance of their testimony, to develop a spiritual communication with our Heavenly Father, and, if they choose, to serve a one-week mission.”
The program began more than a decade ago in 1980, when Brother Bria, then serving as Young Men president in the Pittsford Ward, was challenged by the bishop to encourage all twenty-one of the ward’s priests to serve full-time missions.
“In the beginning, it was just our ward that participated. Now all of the five stakes in the mission boundaries are involved because of the high success rate and the change that is observed in the lives of the youth who attend,” Brother Bria remarks. “We’ve had several hundred youth go through the nine-week training, and one hundred and eighty of those served the week-long missions. One hundred and twenty of those were young men, and all but one have served full-time missions.”
Those statistics don’t really tell the whole story, though. The real story is seen in the eyes and smiles of the youth as they recall experiences that have changed their lives.
“I remember one of the training classes like it was yesterday,” says Frank Bria, Jr., who recently returned from a full-time mission to Germany. “We were talking about a gospel principle, and there was this great feeling in the room. My dad, who was the teacher, turned to one of the sisters and said, ‘What are you feeling right now?’ She replied that it was a good feeling. ‘That’s the Holy Ghost, and that’s what we’re talking about.’ The feeling just got stronger.
“Out of all the training, that was what I remember most, because for the first time I had identified the Spirit and how I felt it in my life.”
In addition to recognizing the Spirit, objectives of the nine-week preparation course include knowing personally that God answers prayers, knowing that this is the church of Jesus Christ, learning to love the people, learning to have a prayer in your heart at all times, and expecting miracles.
“They are small, quiet miracles,” says Doug Ahern, a priest at the time he participated in the program in its first year. “But they are miracles just the same, and they teach you that God is there and he’s aware.
“I have to admit that I was a little skeptical when I first got involved; I really did it because I was expected to. But when I had completed the program, I had a different outlook because I had actually participated in missionary work. I had felt the Spirit, and I had seen lives changed. Missionary work was no longer a romantic concept but a reality, and I was excited and much better prepared to serve full time.”
“There’s no question that these youth are better prepared to serve full-time missions,” remarks Gordon E. Mauss, president of the New York Rochester Mission. Admittedly reluctant to support the program when he first came to New York three years ago, President Mauss is now “behind it 100 percent.”
“These youth know what to expect, they are familiar with the discussions, and they have the Spirit. There’s no doubt that the key to their success is the training they receive prior to coming on their youth missionary activity,” he continues. “But this program doesn’t just help the youth. We always try to put these youth with our best full-time missionaries, so the elders and sisters work hard to be assigned one of these youth missionaries.
“And there’s an additional aspect to this. The attitude towards missionary work on the part of the youths’ parents and priesthood leaders is wonderful. When the youth missionaries go home and report their ‘mission,’ it does a lot to build up confidence in the full-time missionaries, and it encourages members to get involved in missionary work. That’s been an unforeseen but very real advantage of this activity. You can’t get immersed in missionary work without those around you getting excited about it, too.”
On the other side of the United States, youth in the Mesa, Arizona, area immerse themselves in a different kind of missionary activity. The Arizona Temple visitors’ center youth guide program has been in existence for some years and provides young men and women an opportunity to strengthen their testimonies and share the gospel as they give tours around the Arizona Temple gardens. (See “Faith to Move Monsoons,” New Era, Apr. 1991, pp. 20–25.)
“It’s not easy to go around inviting people you don’t know to come down to the gardens for a tour,” admits Julie Arave, a member of the Gilbert Eighth Ward, Gilbert Arizona Greenfield Stake, and a youth guide for almost two years. “It’s even hard to go up and introduce yourself to someone just walking around the gardens. But what a great opportunity to build confidence and strengthen a testimony.”
Youth guides in Arizona see miracles happen in their lives as they commit to the “standards of excellence,” which include studying the gospel half an hour a day, spending one night a week at the temple grounds giving tours, and inviting at least five people a month to the temple gardens for a tour.
“I remember one night very well,” says Lance Williams, a returned missionary from the South Dakota Rapid City Mission and a youth guide for two years prior to serving a mission.
“We had set a goal for a certain number of referrals for the month. Referrals consist of nonmember visitors agreeing to have the missionaries visit their home. Anyway, it was the last night of the month, we were still short, and it was raining outside.
“Nobody comes down to the gardens when it’s raining. We were in our training meeting when one of the guides suggested we pray. As we knelt there, whoever offered the prayer asked that the elements would calm enough that we might be able to get our work done and meet our goal for the night. When we walked out, it was still raining a bit, but by the time we got to our places, the clouds had drifted away and there was a clear, beautiful sky. That was an experience that I remember often as I realize that Heavenly Father really is there, and when we do our best, he will bless us.”
“The purpose of the youth guide program is to proclaim the gospel and perfect the Saints,” explains Richard L. Porter, director of the youth guide program, who reports to the Arizona Phoenix Mission president.
“While youth guides don’t go out and proselyte and teach missionary discussions, they do bear their testimony to the truthfulness of the gospel every time they give a tour.
“And we try to perfect the Saints by giving our youth an opportunity to get involved with missionary work. The young people who take part in this activity are light years ahead because of the study and preparation they’ve been involved in.”
In addition to the standards of excellence that each youth guide commits to follow, there are weekly firesides where direction is given and testimonies are shared. In addition, each youth guide learns the garden tour, which includes a section on the importance of the temple, eternal families, and the Book of Mormon. Additional time is spent learning answers to common questions and studying the missionary guide.
“I don’t know how many times I read the missionary guide,” reflects Jess Thompson, a guide for almost two years and now serving in the Italy Catania Mission. “I remember one day when I went on a split with the elders and taught a first discussion. Even though I didn’t know the discussion, I did know how to teach.
“It’s like when you’re learning to drive a car with a standard transmission. At first you have to think about when to push in the clutch and shift, but soon it just becomes part of the way you handle the car. I’d been a youth guide for so long that I didn’t have to think about how to build a relationship of trust, how to resolve concerns, or how to show empathy. It just happens automatically.”
“I looked back in the journal that I kept while serving my week-long mission,” says Kevin Amsden, “and I’m amazed. In just seven days I experienced so much: I went tracting, I taught parts of all the discussions, I taught a new member discussion, I helped invite a family to get baptized, I spoke at a district meeting, I even saw an elder get a ‘Dear John.’
“But the best part was just seeing the real process of missionary work, from getting up in the morning and planning your day to working with investigators and pleading with the Lord at night for each one of those people you have come to love.”