Three mule-powered barges, loaded with teenagers, slid effortlessly through the murky water of the canal. The sun was setting; cool was rising off the water. Fireflies made flitting appearances as the tow lines brushed the bushes along the banks. It was peaceful. It was calm. It was beautiful. And for this youth conference group, it was entirely too slow!
They were more than ready to get off the barges when, at the end of an hour, they had traveled the three miles to their destination. Sure, they would admit to being impressed that these barges were the last remnant of a form of transportation used a century ago. Okay, they would say, it was nice to take time to notice the charm of the old houses lining the canal banks. But the pace set by a walking mule was way too leisurely for these teens used to high tech. By the time they arrived at the home of Sister Beverly Gillis, a Reading Pennsylvania Stake youth leader, they were ready for movement. They were ready for sounds louder than lapping water. They were ready to dance!
Sister Gillis’s yard had been lit by white lights strung through the trees. A few chairs had been set up around the edges of the deck that would serve as the dance floor. Then the music started. In many ways it was a typical youth conference dance. The music was too loud for the leaders, and not loud enough for the youth.
But then something unusual started happening. The chairs around the edges of the dance area were empty. There were no wallflowers. Instead of pairing up, the teens were dancing in circles with five or ten other friends. Everyone was drawn in. The gap that must be crossed when asking someone to dance was nonexistent. No one was allowed to sit out unless they absolutely insisted that they needed a break. At this dance, youth from eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland were united. There was only one “in” group, and everyone belonged.
Bridging the gap between two stakes, between groups of friends, between the unsure and the self-assured, between the host ward families and youth, and even between here and hereafter played a major part in the combined Reading Pennsylvania and Wilmington Delaware stakes youth conference. Instead of visiting a local college campus as they had done in the past, the youth conference committee elected to try something a little different—a bed-and-breakfast approach. Some of the youth approached the new plan with apprehension, but as things fell into place, they couldn’t have been more pleased.
“The reason we went along with the bed-and-breakfast idea was the economy of it,” Heather Segely, 16, of the Allentown Pennsylvania Ward said. “We all had a vote. I thought, Oh, no, I don’t want to stay with somebody. I liked the dorms. It was kind of a tradition.”
But midway through the conference, Heather changed her mind. “Since everyone else voted in favor of the idea, I went along with it. I’m really glad I did because I’m having the best time. The host families are wonderful. Everyone seems to like where they are staying. It’s good for a group of youth to get together in one house, then you get to know ten people instead of one roommate.”
Opportunities to get to know each other better were piled deep. Traveling together on buses, eating together, attending workshops together, dancing together, tubing down the Delaware River 200 strong, and mapping a Revolutionary War cemetery didn’t give anyone much of a chance to be shy or not participate.
The two stakes selected several historic sites, significant during the Revolutionary War in eastern Pennsylvania, to visit as part of the group’s activities. But the visits had a purpose. As a service project, the youth conference offered 200 pairs of eyes and 200 hands to write down the information from the tombstones of an old cemetery. A complete index of the cemetery did not exist. The Warwick Presbyterian Church in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, was used as a temporary hospital by George Washington’s troops. Many graves in the adjoining cemetery date from Revolutionary War times.
Some of the youth were more dedicated than others to doing a good job of recording the information from their assigned rows. Yet everyone seemed to take the opportunity to think about the people who once lived here. Of course, knowing about modern-day temple work gave an added luster to the hot chore of sitting in the sun trying to decipher weathered epitaphs.
“I liked working at the cemetery,” said Doug McMinn of the Wilmington Delaware Ward. “It was a neat thing that the names might be sent to the temple. Wouldn’t it be great to do a baptism for one of those names? That would be cool.”
Doug’s comment started a group of friends talking about the cemetery. Stacey Hollinghaus of the Wilmington Delaware West Ward looked a little sad when she said, “I found one that died on Christmas. It made me think about the family and how hard it must have been for them.”
Bill Ide of the Wilmington Delaware Ward remembered one tombstone he recorded, “Yes, and I had one that died right before his birthday.”
The gap between 20th-century teens and those who died to establish a new country was closing. Suddenly a service project took on a greater significance. For one morning, people who lived and died a long time ago became real. Present-day youth recognized their obligation to those who had gone before.
The group pushed on to another of George Washington’s famous camps on the banks of the Delaware River. Instead of tramping through deep snow with cold feet like the Revolutionary soldiers, this modern group welcomed the cool water of the river. Each teen was armed with an inflated tube, and they settled down to float the river.
“Tubing was fun,” said Jan Taylor of the Doylestown Pennsylvania Ward, “because you didn’t have to do anything in particular and you could talk to people. Everyone was together, and we were going so slow there was nothing else to do besides talk.”
The floaters were a little deceived about the speed of the river. They thought that it would be an easy matter to just paddle over to the bank. But when the floaters reached the point where they were supposed to get out, some people found they were caught in the current and being swept down river. They were in no real danger, but they were passing by the easiest places to get up the bank.
At this point, Tim Bothell, 19, a chaperon from the Smerna Branch of the Wilmington Delaware Stake, went to the rescue. He swam out into the current and caught errant floaters who were not strong enough to get themselves out of the river. Again and again he reached out and helped someone get into the shallow water where they could wade out.
Another group of boys brought up the rear in the river to keep an eye out for trouble. They made sure that everyone had made it down safely. Both Tim and the rear guard did these things without being asked. They were watching out for each other. They were helping each other have a good time. For these three days, strangers were closing the distance and becoming friends.
The youth conference also included a morning of workshops and some great meals, but the real finale took place early Saturday morning. Everyone gathered at the meetinghouse and was escorted into what looked like a carnival. There were booths for dispensing refreshments and others to try your skill at games. Two of the most popular were the basketball free throw shooting contest and the doughnut booth. Still others tested your knowledge of Church history and the scriptures.
Each person was given a handful of little tickets. It became obvious that the games and refreshments cost tickets while other booths, especially those that were Church oriented, helped you earn tickets. Soon the crowded hall was alive with young voices. They hardly noticed the two or three people dressed in white who would quietly tap someone on the shoulder and escort them out of the room. Friends began missing friends. Those tapped early started protesting that they weren’t ready to go yet. What did it all mean? Didn’t the party just keep going on and on?
Realization dawned suddenly. The time spent at the carnival meant something. Those innocent little tickets that had been squandered on food, drink, and idle entertainment were gone for good. Those who had been passed over by the messengers in white until the last suddenly found renewed interest in learning how to best use the time left to them at the carnival.
As everyone was ushered into one last gathering place, they were seated in sections according to how many tickets they had. Those who had spent their tickets foolishly longed to cross the gap that separated them from friends who had spent their time at the party more wisely. The analogy to life was painfully obvious.
As the conference drew to a close, it was time for testimonies. It was while sharing thoughts and feelings that youth at the conference found the way to close the last remaining gaps among them. They found that they truly cared about each other. They discovered they understood each other’s pains and triumphs. There was a common bond that would last.
The girls staying at one house had a three-day running water fight with the boys staying at a house a few blocks away. As they were packing to leave, the girls made a sign and presented it to the opposition. It said, “To be continued at next year’s youth conference.”
But more than a water fight would be continued. They had all learned about bridging gaps, and that knowledge helps in that carnival we call life.
Reading the Stones
Gravestones can be fascinating, but as the stones age, they can become more and more difficult to read. If you are involved in transcribing information from headstones, you may want to try rubbings to help decipher worn or weathered lettering. You don’t need any special equipment, just some dark colored crayons, some white paper, and permission from the grounds keeper.
Clean the stone. If it isn’t too dirty, just go ahead and work without cleaning it. If it is dirty, wash with plain water. Or if it is discolored or mossy, use, as one expert suggests, a sponge soaked in vinegar. DO NOT use a wire brush to clean moss away. The harsh brushing will damage the stones even more. Be sure the stone is dry before starting your rubbing.
Place paper over the carved lettering. Regular sheets of typing paper can be used for small areas. If you want to do the whole stone, use a roll of white butcher paper. Tape the corners of the paper to the stone with masking tape so it won’t move around while you work.
Rub crayon gently across the paper. Large dark crayons work especially well. Take the wrapper off the crayon and use the side to rub across the paper covering the stone. Start lightly and press harder little by little until the writing begins to appear. On your rubbing, the background will be dark, and the writing will be left white. Often the lettering will appear more legible in the rubbing than on the original stone.
Save your rubbings. You can do rubbings of the gravestones of relatives and keep them with your family records.