President Cordon on the power of belonging — connecting students to a ‘great work’ during a time of remote learning

On a beautiful fall day two years ago, Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon was invited by artist Joseph Brickey to a warehouse in Orem, Utah, that had been converted into his art studio. There she observed his work on his latest commission — an “enormous” mural for the temple visitors’ center in Rome, Italy. The 27-foot tall by 50-foot wide painting would serve as the backdrop for the statues of the Christus and Twelve Apostles.

Brickey explained the layers of symbolism pointing to Christ which he imbued into his work. But in addition, after the gathering he handed President Cordon a paintbrush and pallet of paint and invited her to paint a flower on the masterpiece. 

This “inspiring and personal” experience demonstrated a pattern that, if applied, President Cordon said she hopes will be of help to the faculty and staff of Brigham Young University–Hawaii as they face an unprecedented semester. The Church-owned university announced in June its fall semester courses will be online only in concern for COVID-19.

Replicas of Thorvaldsen's Christus statue and his 12 ancient apostle statues — from originals found in Copenhagen, Denmark — are featured in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors' Center.
Replicas of Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue and his 12 ancient apostle statues — from originals found in Copenhagen, Denmark — are featured in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

In a live Zoom webinar as part of the university’s annual Ohana — which means “family” — Message on Aug. 27, President Cordon shared two lessons from her experience that can be applied to online classrooms and interactions with students. “First, focus on our Savior Jesus Christ and seek to strengthen your students’ faith and belief in Him. Second, increase their sense of belonging as a cherished and contributing member of the family of God,” President Cordon said.

Believing

Every classroom and every student interaction provide endless opportunities to talk of Christ, President Cordon said and quoted Alma 30:44. “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

“Do we see and feel Christ in our work?” President Cordon asked. “Do we point to Him in all we do so our students will come to recognize Christ in all things?” 

She then shared how elements within Brickey’s mural — from olive trees to sheep to sheaves of wheat and grapevines to even the angle of the sun — all are symbolic of Christ. “In a world that is trying to eliminate God we need to point to Him in every way we can,” she said and invited staff members to identify the divine in each of his or her areas of study.

“How can you help them see Him in the beauties of every plant, cell and organism? How will you help them feel Him in every song and sonnet? How will you help students exemplify Christ’s characteristics in travel, tourism and leadership? How can we help them recognize revelation from Him in each new discovery and invention?” the Young Women leader asked. 

Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon speaks to the faculty and staff of BYU–Hawaii in a live Zoom webinar as part of the university's annual Ohana Message on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.
Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon speaks to the faculty and staff of BYU–Hawaii in a live Zoom webinar as part of the university’s annual Ohana Message on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Credit: Screenshot of Zoom

Educators need to help their students to see and discover Christ in everything around them. “Point to Him. Testify of Him,” President Cordon said. “Help them to have confidence to recognize, trust and rely upon the Lord. This may be the sweetest gift you give them.” 

Whether online or in person, “it is my prayer that you and they might know the promise in Philippians 4:7: ‘the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.’”

Belonging

Everyone wants to belong, to be seen and heard, to contribute and to connect, even online, she said. “As we nurture belief in Jesus Christ, can we also engender belonging — the personal connection that makes someone feel needed and loved?” President Cordon asked.

Although there were many people at Brickey’s studio that day, he invited President Cordon to do more than observe by handing her a paintbrush. 

“I knew I was not qualified,” President Cordon recalled. “I said to him, ‘I’m not a painter.’ To which he kindly replied, ‘That’s OK, I am.’”

With tentative, tiny brush strokes, she added purple paint to his masterpiece. “My simple offering, when touched by the master’s hand, created something I never thought was possible,” she said. 

Brickey also invited others to contribute. One young woman painted an ear of a lamb; another young man painted a hoof. “It would have been faster for Joseph to paint our flowers and sheep himself; but he was interested in more than just finishing the mural,” President Cordon said. “He was interested in connecting us to this great work. By asking us to contribute, each of one of us is forever linked to this Christ-focused masterpiece all because a patient master teacher invited us to contribute to the work.”

Statues of Christ and the Apostles are displayed in the Rome Temple Visitors' Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy, on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019.
Statues of Christ and the Apostles are displayed in the Rome Temple Visitors’ Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rome, Italy, on Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

President Cordon then asked listeners to type in the chat feature on Zoom three to five words that describe the strengths they see in their students. Among other things, faculty members wrote humility, dedication, diversity, enthusiasm, energy and innovation.

“What did you notice about your level of engagement in learning as you were asked to participate?” President Cordon asked. “How did this small activity affect your sense of belonging among the group? Did the Spirit confirm to you the truth of what you typed?”

She then encouraged the educators to think outside the box and to be deliberate in asking for student’s wisdom, insights and inspiration. The students “will amaze us,” she promised. “The prompting of the Spirit will be more strongly felt as we look at what we can accomplish rather than gazing longingly at what we used to accomplish.”

In this modified learning environment, faculty might not know all the answers. “But you don’t need to,” President Cordon said. “Ask your students. Engage them in the solution. People support what they help to create.”

Students need the sanctuary of belonging that comes from remembering that they are members of God’s Ohana, or eternal family, but they also need to know that they are making a difference. “If we underutilize our students — these dynamic, strong, capable, prepared-for-this-day sons and daughters of God, they may disengage. They may give their energy and talents to the campaigns of the world,” President Cordon warned. “We need them to discover the true joy that comes as they contribute the gifts they have received from God in the service of God.”

A year ago, President Cordon was able to travel to the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center with her son and see the flower she had painted the year before. There was no question “that I felt a personal connection because of my teacher’s invitation for me to add my contribution.”

In conclusion, President Cordon said, “Dear friends, it is my prayer that even in these unique and challenging times our focus will be on the Savior — that each interaction with a student will invite them to believe in Christ, increase their sense of belonging to His eternal family and, together, become like our Savior and accomplish His work in bringing others to Christ.”

Strategize

President Cordon was joined in addressing the staff of BYU–Hawaii by the university’s president, John “Keoni” S.K. Kauwe III, who was appointed as president on May 12 of this year.

In his remarks to the BYU–Hawaii “ohana,” President Kauwe shared an experience from his mission to Japan. Feeling frustrated that despite their best efforts and hard work they were not successful in sharing the gospel, President Kauwe and his companion followed the example of Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon, who used stratagem to take back Nephite cities from the Lamanites. 

They assessed their strengths and weaknesses, evaluated their resources and circumstances, and strategized how to develop the most effective way to accomplish their goals. It worked. Suddenly they were able to teach more lessons and give out more copies of the Book of Mormon. “It was joyful,” President Kauwe recalled.

BYU–Hawaii President John Kauwe speaks to the faculty and staff of BYU–Hawaii in a live Zoom webinar as part of the university's annual Ohana Message on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.
BYU–Hawaii President John Kauwe speaks to the faculty and staff of BYU–Hawaii in a live Zoom webinar as part of the university’s annual Ohana Message on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020.

This semester and into the future, the campus faces unique challenges. COVID-19 has disrupted standard operating procedures. “This, along with the other challenges we already face, stands between us and the education, wellness and success of our students.”

Each member of the BYU–Hawaii faculty and staff are responsible to determine how he or she can best facilitate the success of students, President Kauwe said.

“As you study, plan and strategize in your realm of responsibility, please remember that we are entitled to His support as we seek to accomplish the sacred mission and aims of this institution,” he said.