In Norway each year, Latter-day Saint youth gather together the week before Easter for a three-day conference and celebration. The gathering is called Balliaden, and the youth look forward to it with great enthusiasm, explained Cecilie Lundgreen, second counselor in the stake Young Women presidency in Oslo, Norway.
This year, however, given the gathering restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, most youth and leaders thought they would have to cancel the event all together. That is until local leaders and youth had the idea for what has been deemed “Zoomiaden” — the virtual version of Balliaden.
In the two days following the historic 190th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more than 100 youth from all around Norway gathered in Zoom classrooms online for a virtual conference in which they learned to cook, exercised together, shared spiritual messages and — perhaps most exciting for the youth — got the opportunity to speak with President Bonnie H. Cordon, Young Women general president, and ask her direct questions.
“I feel ‘Zoomiaden’ is a great alternative with the restrictions we now have to meet physically,” said Edvard J. Wennerberg, one of the youth participants. “We cooked and trained together. But the highlight was the [devotional].”
President Cordon said she was delighted to be invited to participate in the online youth event and learn from the questions of so many youth — ages 14 years old and up — gathered together.
Her devotional, which came as the culminating activity at the end of the first day on Monday, April 6, began with the youth asking her questions about how she prepared for her general conference address and how they could better recognize the Spirit communicating to them.
“There were many questions about how to know if the Spirit is speaking to you or if it’s just your own thoughts,” President Cordon said following the event. “We looked in scriptures. We shared stories and examples. And we took time for the youth to write down their thoughts. They were very intrigued and wanted to know more about revelation and how it works.”
Sitting face-to-face with so many youth and thousands of miles in between was an incredible experience, President Cordon said.
“Our one-hour conversation quickly expanded to an hour and a half as we talked about how to increase our faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, and how faith is an action,” she said. “As we concluded, I shared a video of our apostles and our prophet sharing their testimonies of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Sister Cordon frequently used the Book of Mormon as she answered questions from the youth, said Mikkel Karlsson, one of the participants.
“She did not have all the answers herself — but God does — and we can find the answers in the scriptures,” he said. “She is very strong spiritually. She truly understands the gospel. … I feel it strengthened my desire to serve a mission — hearing her experience of going on a mission when she was young.”
For the youth participants, not only did they have the opportunity to learn from President Cordon and her advice and experiences, but also they had the opportunity to learn from some of their local leaders over the two-day virtual conference.
Local missionaries led exercise routines and talked about their own mission experiences and encouraged youth to think about and prepare to serve missions. Additionally, Tom Atle Herland, an Area Seventy in Norway and Europe, spoke to youth in a devotional on the second night of the gathering.
Lars Rickhard Horgmo, the Young Men president in the Oslo Norway Stake, also stepped in to teach a cooking class on the first day and led the way for some 40 or more youth to try their hand at making homemade pasta carbonara.
“The cooking class was cool,” Karlsson said. “I don’t think I have ever made pasta carbonara before, but I thought we did pretty well.”
Reflecting on the experience of meeting with youth in such a unique setting, President Cordon said, “The Spirit is not limited to our face-to-face, person-to-person meetings; it is not limited to writing. It can be present as we sit in our individual homes, on our couches, focused on a computer screen. It is present as we hear, and share, and connect with each other. Connecting this way, especially at this time, is an important opportunity to lift and show love; even share tears. Others need to hear our faithful experiences and our testimonies. We can and need to laugh together.”
One young woman even joined the conversation all the way from South Africa, Lundgreen said, noting how she had invited a few of her other friends and acquaintances to join in on the experience.
Although Zoomiaden was a very different experience than the typical annual Balliaden gathering, Lundgreen said there is no doubt the youth enjoyed the experience and felt spiritually uplifted by the whole experience.
“The youth didn’t want to get off after it was over,” she said. “They were very happy and it was a fantastic experience.”
For President Cordon as well, the experience is not one she will soon forget.
“It was an incredible experience to sit face-to-face with these youth, even though we were half a world away,” she said. “We opened our arms from Norway, to Africa, and to the United States. These experiences of staying connected through technology are expanding our view of how we can reach out and include people into our circle.”
And as always, she was more than impressed by the youth that participated.
“These are wonderful bright, intelligent, faith-filled youth,” she said. “The Lord has a great work for them to do — for all of us to do. As our wonderful youth discover that the gospel of Jesus Christ can be their cause, they recognize there is much they can do. They are a tremendous influence for good.”