Coming of Age

For priests in this California quorum, their annual camp on the beach is the “right” of passage.

Graduation. Love it or hate it, it’s a time of changes. Soon you’ll be leaving behind friends. You may go away to college. You’ll enjoy new freedoms, shoulder new responsibilities. Major decisions will confront you. You may be entering one of the most exhilarating—or one of the most challenging—times of your life.

If you’re a priest in the Newhall First Ward, however, you won’t face that future blindly. You’ll have the benefit of having heard firsthand from those who have already been there—former members of your own quorum.

Every June, for the past seven years, this Valencia, California, priests quorum has staged an annual graduation camp at Pismo Beach, where current quorum members get together with those who graduated the year before. Sure, they enjoy the fun of renewing friendships, of swimming, surfing, flying kites, walking on the sand, even a little wrestling and good-natured sparring matches with large, padded gloves. The food and companionship are great.

But the highlight each year is the campfire. At the campfire, those who have been through their first year beyond the Young Men program talk about college, preparing for a full-time mission, building good habits, and choices in general. It’s an evening full of testimonies borne and hearts touched. And it helps the new graduates understand how important it is to anchor themselves on faith in Jesus Christ as they move into the future.

Lighting a fire

Chris White, for example, talks about good experiences he’s had at Ricks College, but says the most memorable was going to a devotional where President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke “about the plan of salvation, and about how we are a chosen generation.”

“The Spirit you feel at a devotional really helps you out,” he says. “When you’re loaded down with studies, it helps you remember what’s most important.”

It’s the same spirit he’s felt in his religion classes. “At some point you have to decide for yourself what you believe, and for me, college is where I finally felt that what my parents and the Church have been saying is true. I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am. I know that Jesus Christ lives, and that the Book of Mormon is all it says it is. It is a true book, a true testimony translated by a true prophet.”

Building a brotherhood

As the breeze calms down and the fire burns brighter, Sterling Garns expresses his gratitude for the brotherhood he felt in his Aaronic Priesthood quorums before he left to attend Brigham Young University.

“A lot of us have been in this ward since we were deacons, and I feel like we’ve always been pretty close. We’ve done a lot together and our leaders have taken good care of us,” he says. “I feel blessed to have had good friends and a good family.

“Right now, you’re probably in your comfort zone with the ward, the school, your family, a lot of what you do. Until you leave, you may not realize how much you rely on your family, especially your parents, for spiritual strength. But once you are out on your own, you can feel like there is no one but yourself to rely on to stay strong in the Church. It’s so important to get close to the Savior, to read your scriptures, to pray, to do all those things you’ve been taught to do. It’s easy to drift if you don’t stay anchored. Do the right things now and it will make them easier to do later.”

Sterling also talks about his desire to serve a full-time mission.

“You talk about it your whole life, and then all of a sudden the decision is here. Like one of our ward leaders said, time passes in a blink. I think a mission is a good thing to do. There are things we can learn and do that we won’t have an opportunity to do at any other time. The rest of the world may think we are crazy to do it. But if you really believe in the Church and the Lord, it’s the right thing to do.”

Sterling sits down and hugs his younger brother Tyler, one of the graduating seniors. These are brothers who’ve been close—surfing together, quarterback and cornerback at the same high school, not a lot of fighting and disagreeing, just good interaction.

“He’s going on his mission,” Tyler says quietly. “In ten months, I’ll be going on mine.” Reality is starting to set in, that missionary service will likely separate these brothers. But the closeness they demonstrate also shows that the separation will be merely geographic, and the eventual reunion full of joy.

Returning to truth

Now it’s Ben Griffiths’s turn, and he shares a story with a different twist.

“I was living in a basement apartment—my own room, my own kitchen, a pretty sweet deal. But I wasn’t surrounded by those people that keep you on the right path. It’s tough and you start feeling like you are alone. You come to a point where you have to decide for yourself what you want to do.

“I wasn’t going to church and I wasn’t paying attention to the things I should have. Then my sister invited me to an institute class she was going to. It was about feasting on the words of Christ. The teacher challenged us to study the Book of Mormon for 30 minutes a day. I would pray and ask the Lord to help me. Then I would read and write down the thoughts that came to me. Then I would thank the Lord for what he had given me.

“Pretty soon, it changed my life. It put everything back in perspective. We’re trying to get to the celestial kingdom. That’s the reason we’re here. All these things happening around us aren’t going to make much difference in the long run. But the gospel gives you a goal in life, a place to point to. I started going to church again. I started doing the things I should have been doing, because I knew they were right.

“College can either be a place where you just play around, or it can be a place where you straighten out your priorities. You have to learn that the things that matter most are the things that will stay with you always, and that’s the gospel and your family. Stay close to them and you’ll be happy.”

Continuing the tradition

The campfire has burned low now, but impromptu talks continue. Current quorum members respond to what they’ve heard. Kevin Wilson, who moved in several years ago, says he’s glad to feel so well accepted. Steve Wright, who’ll soon be in the Navy, says he’s glad for standards. Riley Snow, here because his father is president of the San Fernando Mission, says, “In high school some people can tempt you to think you’ll be cool if you do bad stuff. But if you actually look at it, you’re a lot cooler if you don’t.” John Buhman talks about how he’s always looked up to the older priests. “I’ve been able to see how they act at school and at church, and I’d just like to thank them for the good examples they were to me and still are.”

This particular night at Pismo Beach, 13 priests and five adult leaders are present. By this same time next year, five or more of them will be on full-time missions. One will be in the military. The rest plan to return to the annual camp, ready to share their testimonies and wisdom with the next group of graduating seniors.

Staying Anchored

Right now, you may rely on your family for a lot of temporal things (laundry, food, transportation) and for spiritual things (family prayers, home evening, scripture study). But when you get out on your own, you’ll have to take care of yourself. Here are some survival tips.

Develop good habits now. What you’re doing today will make it easier or harder when you have to rely on yourself.

Set goals. Analyze your actions to see if they’re leading you where you truly want to go.

Work hard. You can succeed by really trying.

Get involved. Surround yourself with good friends. Join in worthwhile activities, including church and institute. Give service to others.

Be prepared. Apply as soon as you can for college, technical school, internships, employment, or other opportunities. Map out mission plans with your parents and bishop. Keep your finances in order.

Maintain the Spirit. Pray at least twice a day and carry a prayer in your heart. Study scriptures, attend your meetings, keep the commandments.

Have faith. Even when you’re on your own, you are never truly alone. The Savior and Heavenly Father are always near, and the Holy Ghost will guide you.

[photos] Photography by Richard M. Romney

[photo] Tyler and Sterling Garns talk about missions as they look for a place to surf. Like other Newhall priests, they spent their beach time as preparation time, too.

[photo] Don Mitchell, an adviser battling sand and heat that day (above), is now serving in the Iowa Des Moines Mission. Others on full-time missions are Sterling Garns, Honduras San Pedro Sula; Ben Griffiths, Guatemala Guatemala City North; and Riley Snow, Micronesia Guam. Chris White is waiting for his call.

[photos] Whether they’re testing the traction of a four-wheeler or fixing a broken tie rod, these priests from California know that pulling together can make any quorum great.

[photo] Jared Nevitt (above) has gained strength from being in the priests quorum. And thanks to good leaders and good experiences, he’ll continue to be strong even after he moves on.