Tall Cedars Ward Bishop David Tenny has a personal testimony of the capacity of today’s youth following an expansive 18-month service art project inspired by, implemented by and completed by roughly 50 young men and women from his ward in Gainesville, Virginia.
“This was youth driven from beginning to end,” Bishop Tenny said of the project. “This is where a bishop was not sure but decided to listen to and follow the inspiration of the youth.”
As a group, the youth completed a piece of artwork representing some 10,000 individual acts of service.
Toward the end of 2019, as Bishop Tenny counseled with the youth about goals for the upcoming year, a couple of young women enthusiastically suggested creating a piece of art for their beloved Washington D.C. Temple, which was scheduled to be rededicated in spring of 2020.
As the ward youth council bounced around ideas of what type of artwork they wanted to create, the adult leaders set two parameters: First, the artwork had to mean something, and second, it had to be something in which each individual could participate.
Eventually, the youth settled on a quilling-type project, where small strips of tightly rolled paper were inserted into a frame backed with small wire mesh. Each piece of paper represents an act of service performed by one of the youth, and, taken together, created a colorful depiction of the tree of life, which they titled “In the Service of Our God.”
Fourteen-year-old Ashley Peterson said the decision to depict the tree of life was influenced by their study of the Book of Mormon that year in seminary and “Come, Follow Me.”
Anyone who sees the art piece will be inspired, Bishop Tenny said, because it will remind them of the words of King Benjamin: “that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
As a ward they participated in blood drives, yard work, clothing drives, collecting donations for the local food pantry, serving at a local community farm, chopping firewood for a family whose dad was deployed overseas, a coat drive for local schools, indexing and family history research.
Ashley recalled offering babysitting services and baking cookies, brownies and cinnamon rolls for friends she knew who were going through a hard time. One young woman in the ward gathered free lunches every day from the school to give to a neighbor in need.
Bishop Tenny’s favorite acts of service, he said, were the thousands of individual, anonymous acts of service that are known and recorded only by the youth. “I suspect that they were among the most meaningful acts that occurred.”
Michael Lenderman, 16, and some of his friends created a video in which he interviewed other youth in the ward about their experience over the last year participating in the service art project. Among other things, he asked what they learned and how service drew them closer to the Savior.
One young woman spoke of how she learned that a small act of kindness can have a big impact. Another commented that “service makes me feel really good.” A young man explained that his favorite acts of service were those that were performed by his priesthood quorum, which brought them together during a time when they were most often apart.
While shutdowns due to COVID-19 caused many to feel isolated or depressed, the culture of service created from the art project helped youth in the ward continue to feel connected.
“It’s just been a wonderful journey in a time when it could have been doom and gloom. This is a bright ray of sunshine,” said Bishop Tenny.
For Michael, the most impactful service opportunities for him — the ones he will remember years from now — were the contributions he made to serving a young man in their ward who was undergoing cancer treatments.
Bishop Tenny said the art project has taught the youth about faith, helped focus them on the opening of the temple — “which they are praying fervently for” — and helped them make the connection between the temple and service.
“My advice to bishops everywhere is to connect [the youth] to heaven and let them lead, and they’ll take us where we need to go,” he said.