Episode 4: Sarah Jane Weaver interviews President Bonnie H. Cordon about the 150-year legacy of Young Women

The Young Women organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been strengthening millions of youth across the globe for 150 years.

In this episode of the Church News podcast, President Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, celebrates this historical legacy of learning, leadership and service. As part of the sesquicentennial celebrations this year, the Young Women presidency invited young women worldwide to participate in the “My 150” challenge.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands worldwide responded. The celebrations this year culminate with a worldwide virtual Face to Face event on Sunday, Nov. 15.  

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Transcription of the podcast

Sarah Jane Weaver: I am always amazed at how a seemingly random moment in a person's youth can become a benchmark for their life. One such moment for me occurred on Oct. 11, 1986, as I stood in the parking lot of my stake center clutching a balloon. At the time, I was just 14 years old. I don't remember the weather that day, or the balloon’s color. I don't really remember any part of the testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that I wrote on the paper tied to the balloon string. I had no expectation that anyone would find my balloon. However, the moment it floated away 34 years ago is seared in my memory. I was filled with the knowledge that I was part of something bigger than myself, something that mattered a lot. 

The Young Women program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has shaped my life. I am one of millions of women in 182 nations that have participated in this program during the past 150 years. Today, I am joined by President Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, to talk about this important year, the sesquicentennial of the Young Women program. Sister Cordon, welcome. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, it's a delight to be with you. Thank you, Sarah. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, this year, the Young Women's organization is celebrating its sesquicentennial anniversary. Can you talk about what's so important and why you're excited? 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: I do have to comment on your introduction, because I am always intrigued. In fact, I'm amazed at how powerful an invitation is, and I love your story when you were 14 years old, clutching a balloon, but it became a benchmark for some of the things that you can draw on, and just the thoughts of why I believe what I believe. And so as we ponder the sesquicentennial, the 150 years of the Young Women organization, we also have much to celebrate and much to let people know what we believe, and how it helps us have joy. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And many, many, many decades of answered invitations from young women that solidified their testimonies through this organization. The Young Women organization was originally known as the first Young Ladies department of the Ladies’ Cooperative Retrenchment Association. See, even I have a hard time saying it. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: It's a mouthful.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Talk about what the objective of the Young Women program was back then, and tell us a little bit about what the program is today. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, as they organize these young women back then, they were really hoping that these young women would have a vision, more of who they are and what they could do to help, and to lift, and to make a difference in their community, in the lives of their families, and in their own personal life. To have a living testimony of the Savior, Jesus Christ was a key component. That part’s still the same. Parts of the program have changed over the years, But the Young Women organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, currently, like it did then, provides instructions, encouragement and support in living the gospel of Jesus Christ for teenage females ages 11, all the way up to 18. And the purpose is to help young women build their faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, understand their identity as a daughter of God, obey God's commandments and feel and recognize his guidance in their lives through Sunday instructions and through activities, and also in setting goals. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now, I grew up in an era where a lot was happening for young women. It was in the 80s. We got the first young women theme. Recently, we just changed that theme a little bit. Why don't you talk to us about the theme, because it might help our audience know exactly what it is that Young Women stands for. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: I love that you brought up (that) in the 80s, there was a lot going on for young women, and we could honestly say in 2020, there is a lot going on for young women today. Yes, there is a new theme, and this theme actually does build on the themes in the past. It starts with “I am a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents with a divine nature and eternal destiny.” Throughout the theme, it helps us realize who we are — a beloved daughter and disciple of Christ, a witness of God. And as we walk through this theme, you'll notice that there's action verbs throughout as it invites us to live the gospel of Jesus Christ, to care for those in need, to stand as a witness and be a voice in this world. It encourages the young women to be contributors. They have such a capacity and a vision and having them part of this whole process is a fresh look at how we understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: So back in May, when the actual 150th anniversary was, it was May 27 1870, that young women was formed, you issued an invitation to the young women of the Church. Let's talk about that. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: So it was a simple invitation, much like the invitation you had to write your testimony and send it off in a balloon. Well, this invitation was (to) do something around just the number of 150. And oh, were we surprised and delighted and amazed at what the women, 11, all the way up to 111, did with 150. One young woman, just to give you an insight, from Brazil, she painted pictures of the Savior, and then in that picture, she would paint a picture of a friend, or the family member, and give them those pictures. She did 150 of those and mailed them to friends and family members so that they could see themselves with the Savior. But the ideas were endless, we could not have even come up with the list of ideas. But each one of them was unique, and special, and meant a lot to the young women and the women that did them. And so it just shows us that we're all unique. We all have talents. And our gifts and our contributions are valid and are needed. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: For those of you who can't see President Cordon and I today, we are both wearing our Young Women medallions, And the thing that's important about that is there is something about Young Women, that once it becomes part of your life, it's with you forever. President Cordon, I was interested that you said that women of all ages responded to your invitation. We now have young women in 182 nations of the world. Talk about the things that are different about all the young women in the world, and the things that connect and unite all of us. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, you can only imagine culture, interests and resources do make a big difference. And as I was in Africa with those young women, the one thing I noticed that is the same with everybody all over the world — they all want to contribute, and they all want to be noticed and valued. But what I loved for the young women in Africa is they were teaching me wonderful skills that they do that help them in their culture, and the things that move their society along. 

Then I go up to Norway, and meet the young women in Norway, and they have a different set of things that they're working on. So what I took away from being all over the world with our young women is, they all know exactly how to help strengthen and lift in their area. There's a song that we all know and love. It's “I Am a Child of God.” There's those phrases that, just at the start, it says, “I am a child of God, and He has sent me here.” The word here is very important, because we realize that God sent us here. It may be to Brazil, it may be to Ghana, it might be to Boston, but wherever we're at, we're going to make a huge difference as we look outward, and help, and that's what the young women are doing. And as they took that 150, I hope many of them shared what they did. And if any of you want to have your lives lightened, and to just put a smile on your face, go to the Church’s website, or social media, and just look through the invitation of 150 as they posted them on social media. It will astound you. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now another exciting thing that's coming up, as well as the 150 invitation, is that next Sunday, on Nov. 15, Sister Cordon and her counselors and the Young Women general presidency, Sister Michelle Craig and Sister Becky Craven are going to host a worldwide virtual Face to Face event celebrating the sesquicentennial anniversary. Tell us what's so exciting about this upcoming event? 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, it's going to be full of energy, because we're talking about young women, full of music, full of light, and it's a culminating event. At the beginning, on May 27 of this year, 2020, an invitation went out, as we've talked, to do 150 of something. And then another invitation went out to express gratitude for our Young Women leaders. That has been extremely touching, almost weepy as you hear the experiences of people connecting. And then we had the third invitation, “How do you hear the voice of the Lord?” So over this period of time, from May until Nov. 15, we have been celebrating, and some have shared over social media. So, this will be a culminating event as we come together and really celebrate Young Women and celebrate our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: There's so many things that this organization represents. Recently, young women also had the chance to start participating in ministering. Talk about how they're taking the lead in so many wards and communities in this effort. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: You know, many times as we talk about youth, we tell them that they are preparing for the future, and aren't we all preparing? I mean, each day you prepare for the next day. But what we've told our young women that they are actually not the future leaders, but they are the leaders now, and they will continue to be leaders. And so, as they have had a chance to see this, they're realizing that they can help be part of a solution. And that as they intentionally turn to the Lord, with these questions, like, “How can I help my ministering sister?” or “What can I do for a class member?”, their vision is expanding, and they're becoming really a light and a source of strength for so many around them. 

I was talking to a dear friend of mine, and he was surprised his daughter-in-law's mother passed away. And at her funeral, the person who was asked to do the life sketch was someone who wasn't even a member of the family, and he thought that was so odd. But to make it even more odd, in his eyes, was that it was a young woman. And as he inquired about, “Why is she giving the life sketch?” Come to find out, she was her ministering sister, she was the one that had been there and connected with her. And they felt it was so appropriate that she stand and give the life sketch. So this young woman had lifted and loved in such a way, so meaningful, that that was the person to give the life sketch. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I'm not surprised by that. I'm the Relief Society president in my ward, I have a young woman ministering companion, and without being too dramatic about this, the companionships in my ward that work best are the ones that are led by the young women. 

President Bonnie H. Cordon: They have fresh ideas, and they are not limited to maybe the ways we've done in the past. And they know how to connect. There's something wonderful about these young women (in) this time, this period, that they have hearts that are very in tune with others in their trials and tribulations, and they can even step outside themselves in a way that is just quite unique. I've been blessed with that, too, so I'm grateful. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: One of the other things that has defined this 2020 year, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic. It has disrupted weekly Young Women activities, and the ability for Young Women groups to do what they have traditionally done that have meant so much to both youth and leaders and families. Talk about how we're navigating Young Women in this very unique year. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, you're absolutely right, it is so unique, and there are unique struggles and challenges, and we can't diminish any of those. It has been disappointing, not only for adults, youth and children. We know and treasure those experiences that we had at girls’ camp, we've treasured those experiences that we had at For the Strength of Youth conference, all the different opportunities together. But what I have noticed is that just like the ministering, and as we see these girls do things in a different fashion, many of them have arranged and done virtual camps. I've never seen such creative virtual camps. A box arrives on their doorstep, and together they make fettuccine over a virtual experience, or they’re tie dyeing masks. I mean, who knew that masks could be so unique? But I love that they're not only doing that, but they're stopping to just talk to each other. One class president decided that really what the class needed was just a chance to talk, and she sent a sweet text to her leader and said, “Please know that I will take the lead on this Zoom call, and if you could just sit and listen, because we're just going to chat.” She knew the need. And so they're adjusting and navigating. 

But what I love is they're trying to continue to gather and make sure that people realize that they belong, and that's one of the key things in Young Womens, is that we belong. We belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and with our unique talents, our individual family situations, we all have a spot we all belong. What I also love is we are growing our living testimony of Christ, and we're realizing that the Savior Jesus Christ is in our own personal story. He's in our story as He is in someone else's story. But it becomes personal, and they're learning how to draw on that personal understanding of the Savior. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I loved that one of your invitations this year was for young women to think about the leaders that had been so influential in their lives. What we're seeing in recent years is that the young women themselves are taking the lead, as far as planning activities and reaching out and ministering to one another. Talking about the young women’s ability to step up into a leadership role at such a young age. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: Well, it is exciting. It's exciting to see that they are becoming the shepherds. These class presidencies are realizing they are shepherding their class, and each one of them is going to their knees and asking the Lord for more insights and understanding and they're finding that revelation actually comes easier when you're praying for someone else. One of the things that I have loved is our leaders are realizing that they have a unique calling to shepherd the shepherd. And as they're shepherding the shepherd, all of those fabulous leadership skills that our adults have, they are helping the youth grow those leadership skills. And so the confidence level, and the ability for those girls to look outward, is helping them day in and day out. It's helping them in school, it's helping them navigate this pandemic in a way that has been amazing as they realize, “Yes, it's hard on me, but what can I do to help someone else?” and “even in my trials and challenges, there is something I can do.” 

I was with a young woman in the hospital who had been there for months as she was navigating an illness. She mentioned, “You know, I can't do much for others, but I can ask the nurses what their challenges are, and I can pray for them. I can do something for someone.” And so as she prayed for those nurses, I thought, “Wow, she's taking her world that has been so chaotic and so challenging with her health, but yet, turning her focus on someone else's needs and trying to lift.” 

Sarah Jane Weaver: That really is a legacy of Young Women. I remember, if you'll indulge me for a minute, when I was a Beehive, we don't call them Beehives anymore, but when I was 12, I went to a Young Women lesson. And with all of the other 12-year-olds in the class, we were unruly and disrespectful, and we wouldn't let the Young Women leader teach the lesson. I think at one point, we might have nominated a new teacher. And at the end of the lesson, which the teacher had obviously prepared and thought about and prayed about, she had a vase that had roses on it on the table. As we went to leave, she pulled all the roses out of the vase, and gave each one of us a rose and said, “Just remember – whatever happened today, the most important message is that Heavenly Father loves you.” And I have thought about that over and over again. Every time I see a rose, I think about that. There is something that strengthens the divinity in each of us, our individual worth, through this program. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: There's power in what we learn in our youth. I love that you said that you gathered all together. That the key is that gathering, and that strength that comes. You mentioned that we've had a change in the names of our young women. We used to call them Beehives, Mia Maids and Laurels, and these remarkable young women are now known by the unifying name of Young Women. And as you look at this throughout the world, this is remarkable because as they gather together, there's really no more “-ites,” you know, it's not the “baby bees” over here, but a 12-year-old has so much insight and light that can teach a 17-year-old, and as we gather together and work together as young women, we realize that we are lifting and strengthening and our roots are really connected, and so we are grateful for each one of those young women that are adding their strength. 

One of the things you mentioned is that we had our jewelry. Let me just give you a little bit of an insight on the jewelry. Right now, it’s an emblem of belonging, because in the Young Women program and the Youth program, we belong. We're part of it with our unique interests and our unique insights, we all belong. But as you notice it, as a young woman, you get two items. One is a round circle with a temple on it. And that, of course, represents what we would say is the gathering, the uniting families for eternity that come into the temple. But there's also a little gem. And with that is light. We get an opportunity as young women to share our light, and this also is the gathering. So in this little emblem of belonging, it is a gathering. It is uniting families forever, and it is inviting all to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ and pointing people to the Savior wherever we're at, and we link arms, and one simple step at a time we go through this life together. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I love that you mentioned that one of the symbols is the temple. We're all on the covenant path. How does Young Women help us along that path? 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: I love that. Don't we love that we get to make a covenant and we get to do it as early as eight years old? But on that covenant path, we get to be part of the work of salvation and exaltation. That is a huge word, and when we look at that huge word, we looked at the handbook and we know that we have a handbook of instruction, and we pulled out four simple words that really describe the work of salvation and exaltation. And what is this? Well, first of all, let's start with living the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then care for those in need, invite all to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ and unite families for eternity. And that's what the young women get a chance to be part of. When President Nelson became the Prophet, his first address, specifically to the youth, he invited them to be part of the battalion, to gather Israel. And so the youth can live the gospel of Jesus Christ, they do, they care for those in need, they are the best inviters, inviting all to come unto Christ, and then they also unite families for eternity. You know, when our temples were open, they would be at the baptistry in droves at four in the morning, and now they're indexing, and they're looking at their family history, and they're putting a story of Grandma Sue, and a picture here and a picture there. And as they're doing that, they're inviting their friends of all different faiths to just come and see and come and help, and they are also inviting them to come and belong. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: And on this year, when we're celebrating all kinds of important things that have to do with 150. I bet many of them are doing 150 of those things. 


President Bonnie H. Cordon: They are. 150 hours, 150 pages, 150 cupcakes, you name it, I have never seen so many 150, but I have been inspired, and I'm grateful for their fresh look of how we can follow the Savior, Jesus Christ, doing 150 of something. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, as the mother of three daughters, I am very excited to tune in Sunday for your Face to Face event. And as is tradition with this podcast, I want to give you the last word today. So tell us what you know now after serving in Young Women, and being a young woman, and traveling the world and meeting young women.


President Bonnie H. Cordon: That is a tender question. These young women were prepared for this noisy world. So this unique time, just like in times of old and every dispensation, they've all had a focus to come unto Christ, and that has not changed. But these young women truly want a cause, and they are following the invitation from our prophet to be part of the battalion, and their cause is the Savior, Jesus Christ, and as they're moving forward, we are seeing that they are making a huge difference. And so on the 15th, we're going to have an opportunity to meet many of these young women all over the world. But they just represent all of the young women that are doing so much good. Even though life can give them storms, our young women are focusing on how they can reach out and help and lift someone else. So you're going to enjoy this. We're going to enjoy the music, as the music also tells about the theme, as the music tells about the great work that we get to be part of. We're going to hear the music that tells how glorious it is to be a young woman at this time. It will also tell us the vision of our young women, when they say, “Lord, I will follow thee.” 

And so as you tune in, I think you may want to have a tissue, just so that you're prepared, if a few tears fall, and also take a piece of paper and a pen, because I think we'll be inspired. I think the Holy Spirit will impress on our minds things that we personally can do or personally understand better because of the opportunity to be with these young women on the 15th of November. I am humbled and grateful to be here at this time, and in this calling, to be able to have a front row seat of these young women and the goodness of their hearts. I express my gratitude to each one of them for their love and their desire to follow the Savior, and their ability and their intentional desire to have a cause and they're placing Jesus Christ as that cause and they're lifting others. I'm grateful for our Savior. I'm grateful for His infinite Atonement, and I'm grateful that he is in the details of our lives. I think if we all look at our own personal story, we will see that He's in every paragraph. He's in every sentence. And He is in the details of our own personal story. I know that the young women are finding that the Savior, Jesus Christ is in their story and they're seeking to know him better. And I leave that with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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