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Faith thrives in Arctic community

Gospel warms convert family on island north of Norwegian mainland

If Longyearbyen is the site of the world's northernmost bank, supermarket and school, as claimed on Wikipedia, it would stand to reason it also has the northernmost seminary. That would be thanks to the Gerez family.

Longyearbyen, located midway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole, is the largest community — population about 2,000 — in Norway's Svalbard Archipelago. Located on Svalbard's largest island, Spitsbergen, it is a 90-minute flight north of Tromso in northern Norway.

Carlos and Emilia Gerez and their three children — Gabriel, Daniela and Helene — moved to Norway from Chile. In Chile, Church members invited the Gerez family to their home, shared the gospel and introduced them to the missionaries. They were baptized in March 2002.

Brother Gerez had difficulty supporting his family as a cook in Chile and took a job in the Easter Islands. There, he said during a Church News telephone interview, he befriended a Norwegian family whose boat broke down. Because he and they spoke English, he was able to translate for them and helped them repair the boat. For that, they invited him to Norway.

In 2006, he accepted the invitation. He stayed with them for six months in Trondheim, waiting for a work permit. During the wait, he actively participated in the branch there and went out with the full-time missionaries.

In the meantime, he heard about Svalbard which, though administered by Norway, through an international treaty was open to all nationalities. He applied for a job as a cook at a restaurant and got it. He enjoyed the job, but by early summer of 2007 found a better job as a cook and assistant manager of the fresh meat and fish department in the only grocery supermarket in Longyearbyen.

The settlement is in a coal mining district, but also supports scientific research expeditions and is a tourist destination.

Brother Gerez said residents come from all over the world. The supermarket deli where he cooks is popular with the locals, and he, himself, is popular as an outgoing, optimistic and happy person. Though residents speak many different native languages, like his Spanish, they are united through English.

People in town often ask questions about the Church, Brother Gerez said. He hopes that at some point full-time missionaries will be assigned to Spitsbergen.

A short time after he changed jobs, Brother Gerez's family joined him. The time they were apart, he said, was very difficult for him. He was firm in his faith and received priesthood permission to administer the sacrament for himself. It was much better, he said, when the family was reunited and, with permission from Norway Oslo Mission President Lynn J. Poulsen, began holding sacrament meetings in their home.

The only other Church member in Longyearbyen is Keith Larsen, a returned missionary from Idaho. Employed as a dogsled driver for tourists, he joins the Gerez family in sacrament meeting each Sunday.

Last summer, the Gerez family enjoyed an eternally wonderful vacation, Brother Gerez said. They flew to Stockholm and saw the temple there. Then, in a rental car, they drove to Trondheim to get temple recommends from their branch president, then on to Oslo to have them signed by President Poulsen. They continued on to Copenhagen, Denmark, where they received their temple ordinances and were sealed as a family in July.

"It was the most memorable trip we've ever made," Brother Gerez said.

As for seminary, during the extended summer daylight of Friday, Aug. 22, Gabriel and Daniela started their year of religious instruction in their home with their mother, a former elementary school teacher, as their instructor. They continue to meet every weekday after school, even as the days grow shorter leading up to a period of the winter when it will be dark 24 hours a day. Their instruction is in Spanish because, with only one year at the Norwegian School in Svalbard, their Norwegian language is not yet fluent.

Brother Gerez said that he and youngest daughter, 12-year-old Helene, sit in on the classes, making it a special family time from 6 to 7 each evening.

Emilia loves to have her family together and looks forward to learning more about Christ through the New Testament course of study in seminary this year.

Daniela, 16, enjoys reading and scripture study, and liked her summer job in the supermarket where her father works. School is easy, she said, though on field trips outside the town the teachers carry rifles due to the very real threat of hungry polar bears. She definitely dislikes the cold, long, dark period of winter.

Gabriel, an eager seminary student, will soon be 14. He excels in science, likes reading, swimming and his summer job in the supermarket.

Brother Gerez said the family is settled in Longyearbyen for the foreseeable future. Educationally, he believes it is the best place for his children. The European school they attend is excellent and is free, he said.

He acknowledges the challenges of frigid temperature and the arctic climate. They have special lights in their home that simulate sunlight, giving them the vitamin D they need during the long, dark winter. They also have to be diligent in taking other vitamin supplements and living healthful lifestyles. They exercise frequently in the community's swimming pool and gym facility.

The overall lifestyle, he said, isn't bad. He is paid well and they have cable TV, cell phones and the Internet, a special blessing for them because they are able to listen to general conference on LDS.org.

Capping off the pluses are the friendships the family has made, Brother Gerez said they often invite friends to their home.

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