The young men and young women in Welland, Ontario, Canada, get excited about seminary. Winters in Welland are long and harsh, and during the greater part of the school year, going to seminary means a trek to the church in the dark and cold. Of course, teenagers in Welland are no different than teenagers anywhere else. Getting enough sleep is a paramount concern—something that can be a bit of a challenge when you get up for an early-morning class. But a few years ago, the Welland seminary students had a teacher who changed their lives, and their mumbling and grumbling about the early hour seemed to shrink, while their excitement about seminary seemed to grow.
Despite the fact that he had been ill with cystic fibrosis all his life, their teacher, Brother Ron Cunningham, wouldn’t have traded his calling as a seminary teacher for anything. In terms of his health, some days were better than others. But every day he taught seminary, he said, was a good day.
“He was our friend,” says James Burton, 17. “We all had such a good time, even though he was sick. He had such a great sense of humor, even about things that made him look silly. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of class before everyone was fully awake, he would fall asleep—while he was teaching.”
Because cystic fibrosis fills the lungs with fluid, breathing is difficult, causing extreme fatigue. Consequently, it seems that just about everyone has a favorite “Brother Cunningham fell asleep” story.
There were other ways he filled the seminary with laughter and fun, too. There were games and contests for scripture mastery, treats and stories to make lessons easier to understand.
“One year, Brother Cunningham brought an entire set of army men for us to use to reenact battles from the scriptures,” says Craig Dumoulin. “At first we thought it was crazy since none of us have played with toys like that since we were little, but it really did make it easier to understand. And it was a lot of fun.”
But Brother Cunningham taught his students much more than how to have a sense of humor. Make no mistake, the gospel was his life, and he wanted to help his students feel the same way.
“Because of his illness, he was pretty small physically,” says Matthew Glanfield, 18. “But I have never known such a spiritual giant.”
It was that spirit, that great feeling, that kept the students excited and happy about getting up before dawn to study. Even in the Toronto area’s brutal and icy winter. Even during exams when time was scarce. Even when it would have been easier to stay in bed and catch a few more minutes of sleep. Everyone knew that no matter how hard it was for them to get out of bed in the morning, it was harder for their teacher. If he could do it, they knew they could too.
The young men in the ward seemed especially responsive to his style of teaching. Although he didn’t fit the stereotype of macho strength and he was unable to participate in many athletic activities, the young men all say that he was exactly the kind of man—an honorable priesthood holder who was married in the temple—that they all aspire to be.
“There were a lot of things he couldn’t do, but he worked hard at the things he could do,” says Matthew. “He always told us that it was his number one wish for us to go on missions and be great missionaries. He couldn’t go on a mission because of his health, but he could contribute to the missionary effort by training others to share the gospel.”
A few years ago, in the fall, it was business as usual for the seminary students in Welland. School and seminary started, with first-year students eagerly looking forward to what they knew would be a great year. And it was a great year, except for one thing. Brother Cunningham’s energy and health had declined over the summer break. Soon he was in the hospital, his lungs and digestive system failing. A lung transplant years earlier had improved his health dramatically and prolonged his life into his early 30s, but now he was as ill as he had ever been, without any sign that he would ever improve.
Seminary went on, now with much-loved team teachers Mike and Kim Hammond. The Hammonds helped the class not only to learn the gospel but also to remember their old teacher fondly. Brother Cunningham was never far from their thoughts.
At Christmas the students wanted to send their love. Many of Brother Cunningham’s major organs were failing, and the risk of infection through contact with other people was high. For his protection, they weren’t allowed to visit their teacher. They made a video instead, each including a personal greeting and get-well wishes. He would see that video, but he would never again see his students in person. Before the new year dawned, he was gone.
The funeral took place on the day of a blizzard, but more than 300 people attended, a testament to how much he would be missed. Many of the young men from the seminary class served as pallbearers, giving final service to the man who had served them.
“We started talking after the funeral,” says David Nordquist. “We were sad, of course, but we knew where he was. We knew that he was happy and that we should try to remember that. We tried to think of a way to honor him. We wanted to do something special in his memory.”
They tossed around some ideas, but nothing seemed quite right until the topic of scripture mastery came up.
“Our ward had never won the stake scripture mastery competition,” says Matthew. “We knew that Brother Cunningham wouldn’t care if we won, but he would be proud of us if we really buckled down and learned the scriptures for the year. All of them.”
And so they began to train for the big stake scripture mastery event. They soon discovered that their goal of learning all the scriptures not only made them feel good about honoring the memory of their teacher but also made them feel good about themselves.
“There was really a good feeling in our class,” says James. “We were working toward the same thing, and it was a goal that really invited the Spirit.”
As the school year wore on, it became clear that learning all 25 scriptures with the speed and precision required for the stake scripture mastery competition was going to prove more difficult than the students thought. But they pressed on, and by the time the spring scripture mastery competition rolled around, a team of four students—Matthew Glanfield, David and Dee Nordquist, and Aaron Medwin—was pumped up and ready to go.
Their preparation was really down to the wire, with a few team members losing a little sleep the night before in an effort to really be ready. “I think we all felt that it didn’t really matter if we won,” says Dee. “We just wanted to do our best. We wanted this to be special.”
Of course the stake competition was just for fun, and Matthew and Dee were right; it didn’t really matter who took first place. But all that preparation paid off. When the final score was announced, the team from Welland came out on top.
It was a thrill to win. But the best feeling was knowing that the scriptures were really theirs, that they had total command of all 25 and could find them, quote them, and explain them.
“I know we all thought a lot about Brother Cunningham and what he had taught us after we won,” says Matthew. “I think my favorite scripture that year was Doctrine and Covenants 88:123–24. It talks about loving others and working hard. He really did all those things in his life and motivated us to do the same in seminary and other areas of our life.”
Soon after the competition ended, school was over for another year. After a summer of relaxation, seminary has started again, with several new students joining the class. All of them say they are grateful for seminary and the ways it changes their lives. Welland seminary is strong, in large part because of the youth who participate in it—a strength that many attribute to the fact that Brother Cunningham started a tradition of fun, learning, and being blessed by the Spirit every day.
“Seminary gives us a chance to learn the gospel together as friends, to be united as a group, which would be hard otherwise, since we’re scattered around at different schools,” says Becki Hughes.
But all the students agree that no matter how great seminary is now, there was something a little different and a little special about the years they had Brother Cunningham as a teacher.
“In my life, he was the best example of enduring to the end,” says David. “No matter how sick he was or what was going wrong, he never gave up and he never lost hope or got down. I hope I can always be that way too.”