Here on the southwest corner of Australia, near the town of Albany, is a place called simply the Gap. It looks like a giant hand has chiseled a great notch in the granite cliff. Into the Gap booms the sea—green and blue and foaming white, leaping high, reaching for you.
Behind you lies the entire Australian continent. Ahead, the Southern Ocean—two thousand miles of open water stretching clear to Antarctica.
Here you can feel like you are standing on the edge of the earth. Here you can feel alone. Here …
Here we are, getting all melodramatic. Sure, if you stand here alone facing the sea and the empty horizon, you can feel pretty isolated. But if you step back from the edge and turn around, suddenly you have the whole world before you. And when you’re with the LDS youth from Albany, you definitely don’t feel alone. It’s just a matter of perspective.
Albany’s an attractive town, with well-kept homes and a history that dates back to colonial times. Once it was the last active whaling station in the Southern Hemisphere. Now Albany’s more of a retirement and tourist destination. The pace of life here is fairly slow. In fact—
“It’s boring,” says one girl at the local chapel. (We all know who said it; we just don’t want the local tourist board to know.) “The weather’s useless,” adds one of the boys. “It’s always raining.” (It is true that if you walked outside right now, you’d expect to come nose-to-nose with a fish, the rain is coming down so hard.)
But earlier in the day the weather was sunburn bright. And with this group of kids around, Albany is hardly quiet or boring. Want to know the real problem with Albany? It’s Perth. With a million people, with several stakes and lots of LDS youth, with countless places to eat and be entertained, Perth beckons from just over the horizon. If you are in Albany, looking out at the rest of the world, Perth is what you tend to see.
But Perth is 400 kilometers away. It’s close enough to travel to for the strength that comes from youth conventions and stake conferences. And it’s far enough away that you don’t just up and drive there whenever you feel like it. Albany is home.
Of course, home is where you find family. And the youth of the Albany branch are about as much like one big family as you will find anywhere. Partly that’s because so many of them are literally brothers and sisters—the Hills, the Ferrises, the Symmanses—with cousins added to the mix. But it’s much more than that. As Aaron Ferris says, “We get to know each other pretty easy because we spend most of our time around each other. We become close friends.”
“Close” is right. Like brothers and sisters, they share a lot of secrets—the prank calls, pizzas sent to the unsuspecting, things like that. According to Janelle Bunbury, they “even fight like brothers and sisters.” But most of the time they get along pretty well, choosing to spend much of their time together, even though they all have friends outside their LDS circle.
“After church on Sunday we usually do things as a group,” Janelle says. They hang out at someone’s home, play appropriate games, have something to eat, perhaps make pancakes together in the evening.
Pretty tame stuff? Maybe. But ask these kids what are the most important things in their lives. “My family,” Aaron says immediately. Cory Hill expands the list: “My friends and the Church.” The others basically echo the same list. And if that’s the case, the most important things in life are right here.
Oh, things aren’t perfect in Albany. You overhear the group talking about how they can make things better, about the need to build up the Church here. “We are the future of the branch,” says one. “There aren’t any missionaries here, so we’re going to have to do something about it ourselves,” says another.
Actually, they are already doing something about it. For one thing, they are building their own testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Daniel says, “Your testimony can grow anywhere; all you have to do is work on it.” For another thing, they are building strong friendships that center on the Church. “We have school friends, and we have Church friends,” says Daniel. “Church friends are the closest.” Natalie Ferris points out that “we have less of a chance of getting in with the wrong group because we hang [around] together.”
Just as the town of Albany grew around a harbor that offered safety, this circle of friends offers its own kind of refuge. And Glenn, Brydon, and Stacey Symmans are already finding that out. They came from a rough neighborhood in Perth. They are new to the Church, and new to Albany, but they already feel much safer here. And while they’re still getting used to this new group of mates, a stranger watching them in action with the others would have a hard time telling who were the new kids.
Natalie and Aaron Ferris have lived in other places and talk about how sometimes there are exclusive groups. “You’ve got to be there so many years,” she says, “before you are allowed in those groups. Whereas down here—” Aaron finishes the thought for her, “you just bring people here and they’re part of the group.”
Things in Albany are looking better all the time. Sure, there will always be those comparisons to Perth. But the things that really matter most are here—family, friends, and the Church.
Yes, you can feel like you are at the end of the world in Albany. But the funny thing is, kids in Perth kind of feel the same way—that they are way out in the middle of nowhere—with thousands of miles of ocean on one side and thousands of miles of bush, desert, and small towns on the other. It’s that perspective thing again.