Walk into the woods, and listen to the silence. See the sun filter through the canopy of trees. Feel the quiet wonder of Heavenly Father’s creations. Marvel at how the trees stand tall and firm and strong.
Joseph Smith came to woods like these when he knelt in prayer and brought new light to the world. He needed a place where he could be alone, a quiet place where he could think and receive answers to his questions.
Joseph Smith had his First Vision in New York in the northeastern United States, but these woods are in Croatia and Slovenia. Young men and young women gather here to meet in youth conferences. Just as the Prophet Joseph did, these youth are praying for answers and finding them in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Croatia and Slovenia are countries east of Italy that were part of Yugoslavia until 1991. Latter-day Saint missionaries first came to this part of the world in the early 1990s. Since then, three branches of the Church have been established in Slovenia and seven in Croatia. The Church hasn’t grown large enough here to build meetinghouses yet, but the work moves forward. Most of the newest members are young men and young women, who meet as often as they can to find strength in their combined testimonies.
In these small branches, being a Church member can be lonely. When Kristina Mestrov attends her branch meetings in Split, Croatia, sometimes only her mother and the missionaries are there with her. But she is doing her best to change that. “I keep trying to be the best missionary I can,” she says.
Many youth are the only members of the Church in their families. Petra Karaklajic of Zagreb, Croatia, longs for the day when her family will understand her beliefs. She says, “Some of my family members have a problem with my going to Sunday meetings and with some of the beliefs of the Church.” But then Petra explains her formula for surviving: “Find out who you really are and where you have to go. And if you allow it to, the gospel will change your life for the better. Just give your best, and follow Jesus Christ. You are a beloved child of the living God.”
Tina Dobravc recently joined the Church in Celje, Slovenia. She has seen positive changes in her life since her conversion. But she has found it hard at times to live the gospel without her family’s support. “In my home it is hard to bless the food or to pray alone,” she says. “But I have to remember that it will be worth it. I know that my family will find happiness one day and that they will find the gospel.” Tina serves in her branch as the activities leader.
Many of the youth must also stand alone among their friends. Many left friends behind when they embraced the gospel. A recent convert, Lucija Krajnik of Ljubljana, Slovenia, says: “Since joining the Church, I have needed to separate myself from my old friends because they were bad company. The best thing for me to do was to isolate myself from them and stay in contact with members and missionaries.”
Just as forest trees draw strength from one another, the youth gain strength from being together. At a recent youth conference, the first many had ever attended, 47 of the youth met together. They didn’t always understand each other because they speak English, Croatian, or Slovenian, but they had the language of the gospel in common.
Petra Karaklajic is strengthened by youth conferences and other activities with people who believe as she does. “When we are all together, we are stronger,” she says. “I feel very blessed that I have my brothers and sisters in the Church.”
Lucija Krajnik knows that she needs her friends in the gospel. “Where would I be if I didn’t have the Church?” she asks. “I am grateful to be a member of the Church and to have my friends by my side.”
The youth know that if they introduce the gospel to others, the Church will continue to grow. They often invite others to join with them to help them see the light of the gospel.
Simon Stevanovic of Celje, Slovenia, firmly believes that he needs to share the gospel with his friends and family: “We need to encourage our parents and friends so that the Church will grow. We have lots of friends. We need to spread the gospel.” Simon is helping his father learn about the Church and looks forward to serving a full-time mission someday.
Ava Zupancic of Ljubljana, Slovenia, understands that helping others to be baptized is only the beginning. “It really hurts me when I see people get baptized, and then, after some time, they do not come back,” she says. “This happens too often. We have to help new members!”
In these woods, even with strong roots and surrounding trees to protect you, storms sometimes rage and challenges come. But these youth know that fighting the storms is worth the effort.
“To be a champion,” says Davor Majc of Kranj, Slovenia, “you must get up, no matter how many times you fall down while trying to achieve a goal, and go again. Those who are waiting for you at the end will be cheering for you.”
Ivona Frcek of Zagreb, Croatia, testifies that “everything bad that happens shall pass. Just be strong and hold onto the truth.”
The youth of Croatia and Slovenia will continue to gather strength from each other and help others to find the answers to the important questions of life. They hope to be like the trees in the woods: tall, firm, unbending, and strong.
“We call upon every member of the Church to reach out to new converts, to put your arms around them and make them feel at home. Bless them with your friendship. Encourage them with your faith. See that there are no losses among them.” —President Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Condition of the Church,” Ensign, May 2003, 4.