Just say the word Iceland. Chances are someone nearby will say, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
If you ask why, they get a faraway look in their eyes, shrug and say, “It just sounds so interesting.”
Interesting is putting it lightly.
Where else does the phone book list everyone by their first names? Or where can you go swimming outdoors in lagoons heated by volcanoes? Or where will you see famous people like the president of the country and the biggest rock star shopping by themselves downtown without anyone bothering them?
Ulfar, a 16-year-old LDS teen, can fill you in on a few more things that are great about being Icelandic. In the summer, he can play basketball all day and all night if he wants because for several months it never gets completely dark. In the winter, Ulfar and his friends strap on their skis or find the biggest hills to slide down on their tubes. Sometimes he goes with his dad to take care of some of the Icelandic ponies they have in their charge. Or they can head to the water towers where they can look down on Reykjavik, where the trim white houses have multicolored roofs. And best of all, Ulfar belongs to a tight-knit group of Saints who are helping to fill the prophecy made by Nephi that the gospel would go to all the nations of the earth (1 Ne. 14:12).
Iceland is a large island nation all by itself in the north Atlantic Ocean. It sounds like a bleak land covered with ice and snow, but Iceland is green, green, green. As far as you can see over the lava flows and jagged mountains, the ground is a thick carpet of green. And it feels like the deepest plush carpet, soft and springy. Yet danger can lurk under that carpet. Hikers who do not stay on marked trails have been known to fall through the moss that has grown together hiding a crevasse in the lava. Some who have been hiking alone are never found.
Iceland sounds cold, but the land is a seething, bubbling cauldron of molten lava underneath. The island literally sits on dozens and dozens of active volcanoes. And on top, huge frozen glaciers are wedged between its mountains. When fire meets ice, it makes steam. And there’s plenty of steam everywhere. All the houses are heated by steam heat and are toasty warm. And you can stay in the shower as long as you want because no one will yell at you for using up all the hot water.
Even though Iceland sits out in the ocean all by itself with its nearest neighbors being good-sized icebergs, the people living there have always been very much in touch with what is going on in the world. The Church was introduced to Iceland in 1851 when two fisherman were taught the gospel and requested baptism. They returned to their island and began teaching. Those first Icelandic members were persecuted and harassed for their beliefs much as the early converts in America were. The government even passed a law for a while that forbade Mormon baptisms. Almost all the members of the Church eventually left Iceland and emigrated to America, many settling in Spanish Fork, Utah. Missionary and Church activity in Iceland stopped for 60 years.
Then just over 20 years ago, another seaman named Thorstein Jonsson was baptized and became the first Icelandic member at the time. Missionary work began in earnest, and a branch was organized.
Most of the people in Iceland belong to the Lutheran church. In Reykjavik, the capital city, the most prominent landmark is the large white Lutheran church. Just across the street is the three-story building that houses the LDS Church offices and meetinghouse. It is here that the largest branch in Iceland meets. Each Sunday, the young people of the branch attend church with Iceland’s modern pioneers, since the first two women baptized in Iceland are there with them faithfully every week.
Drop in on the weekly seminary class and meet the youth of the Reykjavik Branch. They may be few in numbers, but they have become close friends, which helps when being a member of the Church makes you stand out because of your standards.
Ulfar Kari is a typical teenage boy who likes to talk and tips his chair up against the wall during class. He mentions that the basketball team he plays with has been invited to a tournament. He loves his seminary teacher, who happens to be his mother.
Johannes is serious and quiet but has a testimony that serves as a bright light. Johannes and his older brother, Thor, and their parents have been long-time members of the branch.
Three cute girls complete the class. They are great friends. Melanie with pretty eyes and long dark hair; Eyrun with striking light blonde hair; and Hanna with her bouncy short hair and pretty smile. Everyone is on a first-name basis.
In fact the whole country is on a first-name basis. In Iceland you are known by your first name. Last names follow an age-old system where each person is named for his father. So Ulfar’s father is named Gudmundur Sigurdsson, but Ulfar’s last name is Gudmundsson. His sisters’ last name is Gudmundsdottir. And Ulfar’s mother, Valla, has the last name of Knutsdottir, because her father was named Knut. Confused? Well, everyone, even the adults, just go by their first names.
Ulfar’s mother tells a funny story about when their family first met the missionaries. “I told them my little boy’s name was Ulfar Kari,” Valla said. “They had this puzzled look on their faces. When you say his name aloud, it sounds like you could be saying, Oliver Cowdery. They couldn’t figure out why this family in Iceland would name their son after a prominent man in Church history.”
It’s sometimes tough to be a teenager in Iceland for the same reasons that it’s hard in other countries. It’s the time when you have to make lots of decisions about how you want to live your life. Ulfar explains, “This is a hard age. Everyone is saying, ‘Hey, come get a drink. Have a cigarette.’ Everybody, even your friends, are going out drinking. They asked two or three times, but I just kept saying no and changed the subject. They leave me alone about it now.”
Does it bother them to be left out of some parties? Melanie says, “I don’t want to go to parties where they will be drinking. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t ask me because I don’t want to be there anyway. There was a party at school, but I didn’t show up because I found out the purpose of the party was to get drunk. The next day at school, they asked me why I didn’t come. I just said I didn’t want to.”
How does the Church help in their lives? Melanie said that Young Women has helped a lot. “In Primary, it was just a group of kids. We were more interested in what our friends outside the Church were doing. When we come to Young Women, we have activities during the week. It helps us to know one another and be friends. That gives me support. I’m glad for that. It’s different when we are really friends.”
Ulfar speaks about the power of the priesthood. He felt that power at an early age. After his baptism, his father and the branch presidency laid their hands on his head to confirm him. When he returned to sit by his mother he turned to her and said, “Wow, they’ve got power. I could feel it from the top of my head going through my body right to my toes.”
He follows the priesthood example set by his father and his older brother, Fridrik, who is now serving a full-time mission in Birmingham, England. “My brother was the one who taught me how to stick to the rules. He was the one who never gave up.”
This group has the big job of educating their friends about the Church. They have to start with the basics. Johannes said, “My friends ask me questions about the Church. They ask if the Mormon church is Christian.”
Last year, the branch made its first-ever temple trip. For them the closest temple is in England. A temple trip is a huge undertaking. It’s expensive and until recently, the temple ceremony was not available in Icelandic.
Hanna describes the experience of being in the temple. “Everybody greeted us and everybody was so nice and warm. It’s like being in heaven. I wanted to feel that feeling always.”
During the time at the temple, the Icelandic youth spent time each morning and again in the afternoon doing vicarious baptisms. The names were from their own ancestry. Melanie couldn’t help wondering about the people she was being baptized for. “Will they accept it? Will they be happy? Will they be thankful for what I’m doing here? It wasn’t just a name; it was a person who had a life here on earth and a family.”
When they got home, the feeling of closeness they developed as friends continued. These teens love their country and love the Church. These days sacrament meeting fills their meeting room to overflowing, and they’re glad. The message of the gospel is spreading like a light throughout the land.
Did we mention the northern lights? Every fall and winter, the northern lights dominate the sky in Iceland. In the night sky, the lights sway and dance with colors of green and purple. Sometimes they’re so bright that everyone just has to stop what they’re doing and watch for a while.
The lives of the youth in Reykjavik are northern lights too. They move among their friends and families with confidence and faith. They are setting an example of the best that youth can be. Sometimes you just have to stop for a minute and watch what they are doing. They’re doing great.