Central Europe is often a land of rain. Clouds can lie low and heavy for days on end, enveloping the world in a dismal, drenching mist. Fortunately, though, storms don’t last forever, and when the sun finally rips through tired gray curtains, cities and fields seem gilded in its glow and village folk are cheered by its presence. The gift of sunshine is made precious by the rain.
Young seminary students in Europe are discovering that they also have a gift of sunshine to share. By studying the gospel of Jesus Christ and living it, they become a beacon to both friends and family members, an assurance that in life, too, storms don’t last forever. Their gift of testimony is already precious in their own lives, and it becomes even more so when they share it with others. Seminary is a preparation for that sharing.
“My original motivation for enrolling in seminary was rather matter-of-fact,” said 15-year-old Richard Clement, a teacher in the Frankfurt First Ward, Frankfurt Germany Stake. “I wanted to prepare myself for a mission. But as I studied the scriptures and participated in classes, I began to look at seminary through different eyes. As I learned about the life of Christ, it helped me to gain a better understanding of my environment, my parents, and my classmates. I know we may face problems, but they are problems we can solve. I began to see that I was already on a mission, if I would just share my knowledge with others.”
Richard is typical of the 1,027 students who enrolled in seminary programs in Germanic countries last year. In all of Europe, including the British Isles and the Nordic countries, enrollment is now near 5,000.
In most of the areas, the majority of the students pursue home study courses on weekdays, then gather on Saturday (or another weekday) for a group lesson. Some groups are as large as 20, some as small as two, counting the teacher! Once each month, all of the seminary students in a stake (and many nonmember friends) join in a Super Saturday, which includes a lesson, an activity, and almost always, a scripture chase.
In Frankfurt, the First Ward’s bishop, Jurgen Fischer, is also the seminary instructor. “Some of our young people were not aware that there are a lot of other young people in the Church,” Bishop Fischer said. “They live in a little branch with only two young people or so, and the first time they come to a Super Saturday, they are really surprised. I think it is good that the young people can see that there are others the same age who are studying the gospel and who also have a testimony of the Church.”
During their weekly lesson time, some of the other young Saints from Frankfurt added their feelings about the seminary program to those of the bishop.
“This year we talked about the New Testament. I became aware that I could get to know the apostles who lived and worked with Christ. I received a totally different outlook on the Bible, and it helped me build better relationships with my friends at school and to have a better spirit with me all the time,” said 15-year-old Uwe Peters.
Michael Mossman, 14, agreed. “What impresses me is the strength those people in the scriptures had. They said, ‘Somehow we will do it,’ and then they trusted the Lord. On mornings when I’m tempted to sleep in and skip my seminary lessons, I think about those people, and my sacrifices don’t seem so difficult anymore.”
“The daily contact with the scriptures strengthened my testimony of Jesus Christ,” Dirk Sebald, 16, commented. “It helped me to do more in the missionary work our priest group is involved in. It has helped me to know the answers to gospel questions, which will also be a blessing on my mission. I also found that when I got up early to study for seminary, I would also study for school, and as a result, my schoolwork improved. Seminary has given me a chance to think about my life and plan for the future.”
Monika Bohler, 15, raised her hand. “I have a friend I usually meet on the way to school,” she said, and then told how her friend had asked her one day what she thought of religion. “I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” Monika replied, and told her the story of Joseph Smith.
“She wanted to know how both God and Christ could appear to Joseph Smith, because she had always been taught that the Father and the Son are one person,” Monika continued. “I explained our belief about the Trinity, but she wanted scriptural references. That night I went home and got out my seminary material, and the next day I had a list of scriptures to give to her. Now we talk about religious ideas all the time. I’m glad I had studied the New Testament so that I could talk to my friend.”
Bishop Fischer nodded his head in agreement. “Seminary has made missionaries out of a lot of us,” he said. He noted that his ward, which began the seminary program five years ago, currently has nine missionaries serving full-time callings, and “another will be going out this year.”
Rosemarie Koning, 14, is a Dutch national living in Frankfurt with her parents. She also told about some missionary experiences.
“One time we were asked to mark off which of the churches do have bishops, prophets, and other required offices. We found out that our church is the only one that has all of them. I talked to my girl friend about it and showed her the chart. She was astonished to see that our Church is the only one with all the priesthood offices.
“Sometimes,” Rosemarie continued, “I get so excited about a lesson that I have to share it. So I take my seminary book to school and open it up. Out of pure curiosity, other students come over to find out what I have. I’ve even had school teachers ask me about it.”
On a typical Super Saturday, about 60 young Latter-day Saints gather in Frankfurt. After the lesson, the activity may include a visit to a castle or museum, some form of athletic competition, or maybe a talent show and dance. This time, however, the group headed downtown, and that meant a ride on the subway.
In most large European cities, subways, buses, and trains combine to form a mass transit system capable of delivering passengers within a few blocks of any given destination. At a kiosk, the seminary group queued up to buy tickets, boarded a train, changed to the subway, and got off near Romerburg, a square named for the building, Zum Romer, in which the coronation banquets of Holy Roman emperors used to be held.
Today it was fair time, and the square was crowded with people, vendors, tourists, even firemen in old-fashioned costumes and gypsies with their wagons. The seminary students walked past Gothic churches, looked at ruins of the foundations of the original city, savored the aromas of fresh waffles and sausages, and pointed at bright-colored balloons. They crossed the bridge over the Main river and watched boats drift on the shimmering ripples, carrying loads of ore, or cars, or people to their rendezvous. In the distance the skyscrapers of the new Frankfurt towered over the medieval turrets and churches that dot the city.
Of course, Frankfurt isn’t the only German stake full of seminary students. That Sunday in Munich another group gathered for a fireside at the stake patriarch’s apartment.
“Seminary started as a small, disorganized program for us at first,” Bishop Wolfgang Gildner of the Munich Third Ward, Munich Germany Stake, said. “We had no material, we had to translate everything from English, and we had to find and train teachers. Now we have at least four or five seminary students in every ward.”
“I think seminary is wonderful for young people who are growing up in the Church,” said Jutta Dittman, 16, of the same ward. “It helps us learn even more about the Lord and his commandments. It gives greater insights into the gospel.”
“Seminary is a great strength to the youth of the Church,” said Walter Zachert, 18, of the Munich First Ward. “This way we grow up in the Church community. We study alone, to a certain extent, and later on with the group. We familiarize ourselves with the scriptures so we can remember quite a few of them and answer gospel questions intelligently. We can usually quote something from the Bible, which amazes our friends, since most of them haven’t even read it.”
Walter, like most active teens anywhere, keeps himself busy. He is serving an apprenticeship, working as a custodian and as a paperboy, is an active priesthood leader in the Church, and of course, is active in seminary. “How I find the time to accomplish it all I don’t know myself,” he chuckles.
In the Bremen District in northern Germany, the seminary and institute students compiled a notebook including photos, fliers, and programs from the activities they conducted during the year. Included in the commentary accompanying the souvenirs was a statement from an older woman who chatted with Sabina Weber, the district seminary secretary, following a seminary graduation program.
“It is amazing to see the great knowledge of the youth of the Church that has come through the seminary program. I wish we had been blessed with such opportunity when I was growing up in the Church,” the elderly woman said.
The Bremen District report also mentioned the stories of several young Germans who joined the Church as a result of becoming active in seminary and discussed reactivation of those who had fallen away. “We have 26 out of 43 potential seminary students participating this year,” the report says. “Of those, 88 percent completed all of their studies this year.”
The notebook describes projects, such as making homemade bread and delivering it to nonmembers living near the meetinghouse along with a card that read, “Merry Christmas from your neighbor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The bread was delivered by caroling seminary students. “The surprise and joy of most of the people was great,” Sabina said. “We invited the people to our meetings, too. We contacted 37 families in this way.” Many of the families responded by sending gifts of chocolate, nuts, oranges, and cookies, along with thank-you notes, to the seminary group. “This helps pave the way for the missionaries,” Sabina said.
Other activities mentioned in the report included plays, dances, street displays and tracting with the missionaries, speech contests, and singing in a Catholic rest home. For each activity a colorful Einladung (invitation) was prepared and distributed to each student.
To help memorize scriptures for scripture chases, the Bremen students also worked out a series of memory aids, many of which used poems. For example: “James 1, verse 5, seems to say, ‘Joseph, go to the grove to pray,’” [James 1:5] or “Revelation 14, verses 6 and 7, I saw an angel descending from heaven.” [Rev. 14:6–7]
Brother Heinz Kraft von Selchow is an area director for the Church Educational System. He has seen the seminary program grow from feeble beginnings to a pillar of strength.
“It all started in Germany,” Brother von Selchow said, “with a seminary home study pilot program (in English) in the Old Testament. We began with 142 students. The test program turned out successfully, so we initiated a home study program for all of Germany for the school year 1971–72. (Seminary classes run from October to May.) In 1972–73 we began the program in other European languages and added further part-time and full-time personnel. In 1974–75 a self-instruction institute in German was started, and a year later this program was added in the other languages. (The institute program is for those who are over 18.) Today there are 4,818 seminary and institute students in the Germanic language area alone.”
Brother von Selchow said the seminary and institute program’s goal is to “bring every young member age 14–26 into daily contact with the scriptures in a way that will help him gain a personal testimony of Jesus Christ, decide to go on a mission, and decide to marry in the temple.”
He also listed some other conclusions about seminary’s success in his area:
1. Even though there is a shortage of leadership, the young Saints seem willing to hold several callings at a time if necessary. This means that in most areas, the seminary and the Young Men and Young Women programs are closely tied together.
2. When the seminary program began in Germany, more than 35 percent of the young members in the Church were the only members in their families. Now this figure is about 10 percent. This means there are fewer students coming from entirely nonmember families, so most students have someone at home to encourage them.
3. During the academic year 1977–78, 24 nonmembers participating in the seminary program in Brother von Selchow’s area were baptized into the Church.
Back in Frankfurt, clouds have moved in to obscure the sun. The Super Saturday fair group decides to retreat to the shelter of the subway before rain falls again. The drops begin to splatter just as the group reaches the entrance to the underground tunnels. Within minutes they’re back on an aboveground trolley headed to the Platz near the chapel. It’s been a full Saturday, even though it’s still only the afternoon.
As the group leaves the train, the sun breaks through the clouds again and scatters over the city. Everything seems alive and fresh and new. Cars pass on the silvered streets. Pedestrians pause to fold umbrellas and breathe deeply of the just-washed air. Shopkeepers smile and uncover their sidewalk wares. Even the traffic cop grins at passers-by. People are glad once again for the sun.
Few of them, however, realize that there’s another kind of sunshine, one infinitely more precious, scattering through their city as the seminary students return home. It’s the sunshine of the gospel, and as young Latter-day Saints live the teachings of Christ, it will radiate throughout the land.
Your father works for the military, or perhaps he’s employed by a multinational corporation. A transfer relocates your family in a new country, perhaps even in an area where none of you know the language. Maybe you’re the only members of the Church in your town. How do you maintain seminary activity under such circumstances?
That’s a question faced by 250–300 young LDS Americans, Britons, Australians, and Canadians living in Europe each year. They have found that the answer is simple: take home-study seminary.
“About 95 percent of our seminary students are home-study students,” said Brother Gerald Homer, Church Educational System (CES) director for English-speaking seminaries and institutes of religion in continental Europe. The home study program, as the one mentioned in the story above, usually consists of individual study, weekly group lessons, and monthly Super Saturdays. “In other areas, we’re trying to establish daily classes,” he said.
On a map in Brother Homer’s office in Frankfurt, pins indicate places where seminary students have been located before, where they live now, and where inquiry letters have come from. Locations include everywhere from Turkey, to Spain, to Iceland (which is part of the Denmark Copenhagen Mission), to the Azores (islands more than a third of the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Portugal).
Most of the seminary students in the English-speaking program attend servicemen wards and branches, and Brother Homer maintains regular contact with Church leaders there to make sure seminary students are aware of the programs offered to them. He also sends out regular correspondence to military bases, informing them about seminary study services available for children of LDS servicemen and about institute programs for soldiers.
“We had a seminary class of eight students in Greece. Two of them graduated this year. We have five seminary classes in Italy, and two in Spain. We have a single seminary student and a class of 10 institute students in Vienna, Austria, and 12 seminary students in Paris, France. In Belgium we have two groups of between 10 and 15 seminary students in two different locations, Brussels and Mons. In addition, we have institute programs in some places where we don’t have seminary (because there are no students the right age), but where we could set up a program quickly if necessary.” These include Sardinia, an island near Italy; a military base in Morocco; and several other locations.
Brother Homer continued tracing students through Holland and Scandinavia to Stavanger, Norway, where several LDS families are employed by companies drilling North Sea Oil. Then he glanced down the map at northern Africa. “Oh, yes,” he said, “we have added three students in Annaba, Algeria, too. One of them will graduate this year.”
“I think we have kids who are really making an effort to participate in seminary. And we see that the sacrifices they make to do so are bringing blessings to them. There might be only one seminary student in a branch, but he comes out very strong in the gospel as he studies the materials provided. They don’t always get the benefits of the social activities normally associated with seminary, but they do learn to turn to the scriptures to get answers for their problems. They’re as sharp as seminary students anywhere,” Brother Homer said.
“We have an exchange student near Cologne, Germany, who just sent in her last two workbooks. She’s not been able to go to any Super Saturdays because of a nonmember family situation, but she’s done all of her class work, and she’s really strengthened herself by doing it. She has borne her testimony to me a number of times through the work she is doing and through statements in her books.” (Wherever possible, an adult in the same ward is assigned to work with the seminary student in correcting workbooks and analyzing reading materials. Once in a while, though, it’s necessary for a student to mail in completed booklets.)
Brother Homer even told of one student who was unaware of any seminary program in his area, and so he initiated his own systematic scripture study program. As soon as Brother Homer became aware of the situation, a seminary program was started in that city.
“That’s the unwritten part of my story,” Brother Homer said. “We have a lot of small missile sites and artillery sites scattered all over, and sometimes young Latter-day Saints feel forgotten.
“The best thing for people who are being transferred to a non-English speaking area to do is to contact priesthood leaders in their area before they leave and have them consult the Church Directory. It will tell them if there is a ward or branch where they’re going. Or they should contact the local CES office in the area they’re moving to or write to the main CES office at 50 East North Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. They may be stationed in an area that doesn’t have a servicemen branch, but they might be able to get in touch with a native branch. We are anxious to let them know that seminary and institute materials are available to them.”