For Jennifer Fortuné, a 17-year-old in Haiti, last week’s virtual For the Strength of Youth conference in the Caribbean was a testament of the Lord’s love during a time of hardship and isolation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This taught me the Lord did not forget us,” said Fortuné, who lives in the St Marc Branch, Saint Marc Haiti District. “He inspired leaders to find a way to communicate with us because He knew we were in great need of this conference.”
Widely dispersed across 27 countries and territories, more than 3,000 youth in the Caribbean participated in a virtual FSY conference June 22-26.
Speakers included Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and his wife, Sister Ruth Renlund; Elder José A. Teixeira of the Presidency of the Seventy and his wife, Sister Filomena Teixeira; Young Men General President Steven J. Lund and his wife, Sister Kalleen Lund; Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon and her husband, Brother Derek Cordon; as well as the Caribbean Area presidency, several Area Seventies and their wives.
Youth met virtually in small groups throughout the week via technology for daily scripture study, discussions and activities. Two young single adult counselors led each group. Youth also participated in musical programs and devotionals broadcast on the area website in English, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole and Dutch. They were encouraged to invite non-member friends.
Elder Renlund, who visited the Caribbean Area in February and gave the concluding devotional address on Friday evening, said the FSY conference was a timely blessing for the youth — many of whom are in small units and are first-generation members and have felt even more isolated during the pandemic.
“If we had done this the way we typically do FSYs, there is no way at all that they would have heard from five General Authorities and their wives, two general officers and their spouses, and four Area Seventies and their wives,” Elder Renlund said. “This is better, in some ways, than had they come together.”
“We have learned a different way that we hadn’t thought of before,” he continued. “Even in the setting of a stressor like this, seeking the Lord’s help — like the area presidency did, and they were massively inspired from heaven to do this — we have learned something that isn’t just a substitute. To some extent, it’s better. And if we combine the better with the better, it is really terrific.”
As youth in the Caribbean gathered virtually during the conference, “They gained strength, they gained community and they gained a sense of belonging,” Sister Renlund said.
The inspiration behind the FSY
One year ago, before the world knew what COVID-19 was, the Caribbean Area presidency met with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other Church leaders to present a report of the area.
“We discussed with them one topic in particular: how to strengthen the youth from 27 countries and islands with such a diversity in culture, languages, economic barriers, distance and transportation,” said Elder Jose L. Alonso, a General Authority Seventy serving as president of the Caribbean Area.
Elder Alonso said Church leaders counseled them to look for ways to include as many youth as possible in FSY conferences.
“We had a clear impression that to achieve that goal, we would have to hold an online FSY conference for those who were not able to participate in a regular one, because the distance, the cost of the travel, the challenge of getting a passport and visa, support from parents, etc.,” Elder Alonso continued. “A year ago, we did not know that a pandemic would put us in the position that the only way to hold such a conference would be through the use of technology.”
When the virus hit, the area presidency received approval to move forward with the conference. “We felt that in the midst of the pandemic, with so much difficulty, the best thing we could do for the youth was to provide a spiritual experience to help them come more closely unto Him and ‘Hear Him,’ ” he said.
The FSY conference has been an answer to the prayers of many youth, leaders and parents, Elder Alonso said. “Looking to the future, I believe that we have laid a foundation for how to shorten the distances separating the youth of the area.”
Elder Jorge M. Alvarado, second counselor in the Caribbean Area presidency, added: “Our hope is that our youth will stay connected through the wonderful technology available, with well-organized class and quorum presidencies, so that they will then embrace the growth of the Church, and this will ideally contribute to their missionary preparation, bearing good fruit to society as men and women of God.”
An experience never to be forgotten
On Thursday night, President Lund sat next to his wife, Kalleen, in their home in Utah, and spoke to the thousands of youth across the Caribbean tuning into the broadcast. They couldn’t see any of their faces, yet “it was an intensely emotional hour for us as we seemed to feel their individual spirits,” he said.
“We wanted them to better know what we know: That they truly are beloved sons and daughters of God, and that He has a particular work for each of them to do,” President Lund said. “I hope they all came away even more committed to serve each other and keep their covenants. The conference had that effect on us.”
President Cordon spoke earlier in the week with her husband, Derek, about the 2020 youth theme “Go and Do” from 1 Nephi 3:7. “I love how the scripture says, the Lord will prepare ‘a way’ not ‘the way.’ Each one of these youth are unique with different talents, families, interests and opportunities, but they have all been prepared,” she said. “God sent these youth for this day, and He did not send them here to fail.”
She continued, “I loved imagining youth gathered in their homes, scattered across multiple islands, listening in five different languages, but all of us focused on our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
A highlight of FSY for Rebekah Suhani Ramdhanie, 15, of the Curepe Ward, Port of Spain Trinidad Stake, was learning new ways to do family history. “Normally I would just go straight to my family tree or just do indexing. I learned so much more about the activities and how to find information to put into my tree,” she said.
Sae-Young Achee, 16, of the New Amsterdam Branch, Berbice Guyana District, said he plans to keep in contact with the friends he made at FSY. “In this generation, we’re lucky enough to have this technology to connect to each other during this pandemic,” he said. “I’ve been able to connect with others. I’ve been able to feel the Holy Spirit. … I felt such a spiritual connection with Heavenly Father.”
Jerri-Ann Jenkins, 23, served as a counselor in Rebekah and Sae-Young’s group. She said the youth in her group came from several different countries. “I felt like they realized that ‘Listen, we’re not the only Saints in the Caribbean. There are children with different accents, different languages, different cultures that believe the same way I do.’
“And I just thought that was amazing,” said Jenkins, who lives in the Montego Bay Branch, Mandeville Jamaica District. “I feel like any feelings of loneliness in the world, I think that was eradicated, just knowing that there’s somebody else their age that’s going through the exact same thing with the exact same faith.”
Another counselor, Fer Franklin, 22, of the Wanica Branch, Paramaribo Suriname District, said he was surprised at how much the youth strengthened him and encouraged him to live the gospel.
“They are the future of the Church, and they will be leading the Church,” he said. “I see them as the 2,000 young warriors of Helaman, and they are very righteous. They are fighting bravely and helping build the kingdom of the Lord.”
Despite having exams throughout the week, 15-year-old Diamond Delecia Johnson from the Mandeville Branch, Mandeville Jamaica District, said she made an effort to join the online FSY meetings to learn more about the Savior.
“We did scripture study on different ways we could ‘hear Him,’ like from Nephi and Mosiah,” she said. She learned from one of the speakers that “we can’t let the sins of the world keep us from hearing the voice of Heavenly Father.”
Spencer Wendy Casimir, 15, of the Gressier Branch, Carrefour Haiti Stake, said he learned about the importance of prayer and the role of the Holy Ghost. “We need to be worthy so we can receive the support of the Holy Ghost, so when we are in need, He can whisper to us so we can do right things,” he said.