We race toward the future, and yet we’re unaware. When we’re young, days seem long and lazy. Tomorrow is far away. Next week is on the other side of eternity. At school, classes last forever. Soon summer’s here; it will surely stay. Then school again, then summer. School. Summer. They flash by now, like lights past a window. And suddenly it’s caps, gowns, graduation. The whole world is changing. Mission. Marriage. College. Career. Faster, faster, faster, faster. There are no summers now, just years that flash past the windows. We’re on a train called time. Only now the train is a rocket to the future.
For five days each year, Toronto, Canada, becomes Preparation Central for this journey to tomorrow. In a priesthood approved and directed local activity, young Latter-day Saints gather for the Youth Leadership Conference, knowing they are the future of the Church here. They will be the ones to share the gospel with their friends. They will become the parents guiding children. They will become the presidents, the bishops, the teachers, the leaders. And it will happen almost before they know it, so the time to prepare is now.
“We need to be ready,” says Tom Dalziel, 18, conference co-chair. “Sooner or later all of us will have some kind of leadership responsibilities. The point of the conference is to help us learn leadership skills.”
The week is spent in workshops, lectures, discussions, and group activities. Presentations center on communication and service, how to build a Christlike character, and how to develop spiritual values. The youth staff the planning committees, work crews, and service projects. Some serve in supervisory roles. Each participant is expected to keep a journal—not just about what was said, but on how to apply what was said.
“Young people need to return to their own wards and branches with some real tools they can use,” says Courtney Lassetter, second counselor in the Toronto Ontario Stake presidency.
No wonder the conference has been a success every year for more than ten years.
Light travels 186,282 miles per second. Sound travels 1,085 feet per second. But the Savior told us of people who limit the light of the gospel in their lives, of people who fail to listen even when the Spirit whispers.
“They may see, and not perceive,” he said. “They may hear, and not understand” (Mark 4:12). He described himself as a “light which shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehendeth it not” (D&C 34:2).
Is the future, then, full of light or full of shadow? The truth is, we decide. We receive light as soon as we prepare to receive it. We hear promptings of the Spirit as soon as our hearts are attuned to the sound.
Eighteen-year-old Laura Smith, the other co-chair for the conference, explains that the theme, “Ye Are All the Children of Light,” was chosen for a specific reason.
“We felt that many of the youth don’t realize they already have the gospel light. But if they’ll look within, they’ll find it, and then they can share it with others.”
Dot Todman, 18, knows that’s true.
“I grew up with a good friend named Kelly,” Dot explains. “I always knew she was a Mormon, but I didn’t know what Mormons were or anything about them. Kelly moved away, but we kept in contact. Then this year I was on a school choir trip, and we arranged to meet again.
“We were just talking, catching up on our lives, and then somehow religion got brought up. I told her I didn’t feel the church I was attending was right for me. It was kind of like a spiritual kindergarten.
“She said, ‘In our religion, you’d be surprised. It goes all the way up to university level.’ That intrigued me. I asked her to write to me, to tell me about it in her own words.
“I waited for her letter. I waited and waited. In the meantime, another LDS friend of mine tried to get me in touch with the missionaries. But I didn’t want to talk to them until I’d heard from Kelly.
“Finally I called her. She said, ‘Are you still interested?’ She sent me a letter and bore her testimony, and that opened the door.”
Dot found the light she’d searched for, and it grew brighter and brighter. She joined the Church and is now a member of the Barrie Ward, sharing the gospel herself. But Kelly made a discovery, too. She discovered that others were searching for the light she already had.
A single ray is bright enough to overcome darkness. Combine it with other light, though, and it can become a torch, a beam, a searchlight, a laser.
The scriptures tell us light is “in all things” and “giveth life to all things.” It is the force by which they were made and by which they are governed, “proceed(ing) forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space” (D&C 88:12).
Gathering light is important, but so is dispersing it. When we scatter light, it overcomes emptiness. It fills every corner, every crevice. And it casts out fear.
Chris Potvin, 16, of the Brantford Ward, says he’s excited to have LDS friends at school. “There aren’t a lot of us, but we stand out because we’re different.”
His friend Ruel Brown, 16, finds that being in the same ward and the same school can be helpful. “When I have friends at my locker, and they start talking about religion, I can say, ‘Hey, Chris, come give me a hand.’ It’s great to have someone who can help me with the answers.”
This feeling that LDS friends can help you feel strong is enhanced throughout the leadership conference.
“You make instant friends,” says Scott Wolff, 15, of the Richmond Hill Ward. “You just say ‘hi’ and start talking. I wasn’t exactly outgoing before I came here, but I think this has helped me learn to make friends.”
The conference also teaches youth that leadership begins in the home.
“You have to set an example,” says Dan Olsen, 15, of the Kitchener Ward, who is the oldest of eight children. “They’re going to be future leaders too, and they’re watching you to learn what to do.”
Eighteen-year-old Chris Alston of the Newmarket Ward and his 17-year-old twin brothers, Mark and Scott, have also learned how the light of the gospel provides strength in their family.
“We’re brothers,” Mark says, “but we’re also brothers in the gospel. And we’re friends. That’s what brothers should be.”
Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity had its beginnings in an essay he wrote when he was 16. He spoke of speed. He also spoke of light. He said that, given certain conditions, perception of both time and motion depends on the observer.
This means time is a two-way street. Just as it allows us to look to the future, it allows those who are older to look at the past. They see in us what they once were. In the same glance, they see what we can become.
The conference is not without its social events—and at Wednesday’s dinner, activity, and talent night, Reg and Thelma are the life of the party. They tell stories that make everyone laugh. They guess the right answers in “Pictionary,” cheering like champions when their teammates score a point.
But their white hair gives them away.
They aren’t the youth at the youth conference, just the young at heart—two of 50 guests of honor for one memorable night. They spend part of their time in panel discussions about life in the Church and in the home (including some funny answers to questions about dating in the “good old days”), part of their time playing games, and part of their time eating an elegant meal.
“We have a lot of younger people joining the Church,” says Ben Olsen, 17, of the Brampton Ward. “Sometimes the ‘Senior Saints’ feel a bit outnumbered. But by talking with them we start to understand them, and they get to know us, too.” The youth also learn that loving and serving people is the key to leadership.
“I’ve always felt there were good young people in the world,” says Irene Parker, one of the visitors. “But the nice thing here is, we’re equal—not an older person and some younger people, just friends.”
As Irene finishes speaking, the stage lights dim. It’s time for the talent show to begin.
The future. It is a time both close and far away.
The rocket seems to pause now, as if it has broken through the atmosphere and entered into orbit. It’s still moving, more rapidly than the earth. It may, in fact, be traveling in light years.
But the course seems properly adjusted and the journey is underway.