It’s 5 A.M. when the alarm clock rings. Sixteen year old Trevor Doney grabs his packed bags and heads to the stake center. It’s Thursday, and Trevor and two hundred other high school youth are headed to Youth Conference. But this conference is a little different than previous ones. Today they will board busses and cross the border into Mexico to meet and gather with the youth in two Tijuana stakes.
Youth leaders from Laguna Niguel, California and Tijuana, Mexico have been planning this conference for the past year; coordinating details over email, traveling back and forth across the border to meet and make plans, and having weekly conference calls. Amy Ossola, Laguna Niguel Stake Young Women’s president, said “It wasn’t easy to plan a Youth Conference with youth from two different countries when you have language barriers and cultural considerations, but any challenges we may have had were worth the incredible experience that awaited our youth.”
The theme for 2019 for the youth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints comes from John 14:15, “If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments”. Inspired leaders saw this conference as a great way to put that theme in practice. As Laguna Niguel Stake President Blaine Evanson explained, “It is usually easy to love family and friends, and it’s usually easy to love members of our ward and our stake. It is harder to love those from another culture. It’s harder to love those who live, think, and act differently than we do.” At the beginning of the conference, he challenged the youth to open their hearts to the youth of Tijuana and gave a promise that if they did so, it would change them forever.
After crossing the border, the Laguna Niguel youth were joined by youth from two stakes in the Tijuana area. From the moment they arrived, youth from both countries hugged, embraced, and high-fived each other. For some it was more natural to stick with their familiar groups, but many extended themselves, and throughout the day they performed baptisms together in the Tijuana temple, worked side by side at an orphanage, played games together, and enjoyed a makeshift soccer game.
President Evanson helped the youth understand that this conference was a chance to follow President Nelson's charge to gather Israel. “When we think of gathering Israel, we usually think of baptizing people into the church, and that is a major part of the gathering. But gathering Israel is far more than just baptizing. Gathering Israel means looking past the differences between us that tend to drive us apart, and seeing each other the way God sees us so that we can gather together as sons and daughters of Heavenly parents.”
Youth were given the opportunity to help gather on both sides of the veil by attending the Tijuana temple alongside the youth from Mexico. After their visit, Noelle Large, 17, commented, “It was so cool to experience such a beautiful temple in another country with people who we barely knew, but bonded with through Christ. The spirit was so strong during our visit.”
Ernesto Guerrero, from Tijuana, loved serving alongside the youth from California. He felt it was easy to love people he didn’t really know and didn’t have much in common with because we are all sons and daughters of God. When asked what he wanted the Laguna Niguel youth to remember, Ernesto said, “Above all, I want them to know that we love the gospel and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we love the temple, and we love our families and want to be with them forever, just as they do.”
Several of the youth from California speak fluent Spanish and acted as translators for their friends as they mingled and got to know the youth from Mexico. Ellie Dowling, 17, a senior in a Spanish immersion program, commented, “This was definitely one of the moments where I really saw the blessing of my bilingual education and I felt so happy that I was able to help people understand one another.”
One of the Tijuana sisters expressed gratitude for the Laguna Niguel stake’s willingness to come participate with them. She mentioned that it had been many years since a stake from the United States had come down to be with them, but that it had always been in more of a capacity of donating material items. They were grateful that the youth wanted to come and work and have fun alongside them. When asked what she learned from the youth in Mexico, Laurel Christensen, 15, said, "I learned that they are so incredibly kind, loving, and happy. It was such an honor to be able to interact with each of them and experience their beautiful culture!"
On Friday, each of the Stakes went out into communities and performed their own service activities. The Laguna Niguel Stake went into the barrio of Nuevo Milenio and built four homes for some very deserving families through Corazón, a group that has been building houses in Mexico for over 40 years. The youth had the extraordinary experience of seeing a piece of land take shape through their hard work, and at the end the day be able to present the keys to a completed house to each family. Amy Ossola commented, “They got to know the families they were serving throughout the day, and I think it helped them appreciate the fact that because they have been blessed with so much they should give and serve to others who have less than them. They also saw in these families that God loves all of His children. These families were humble, and full of gratitude and love, much like our Savior.” It was an amazing experience that none of the youth will ever forget.
In the evenings, everyone enjoyed being together as they taught one another their own customs and ways of dancing. One of the highlights for many of the youth were the beautiful dances the Mexican stakes performed in traditional costumes. Trevor Doney noted, “The youth in Mexico are very dedicated to things. I was impressed that they raised money and practiced for months to perform their amazing dances at the talent show.”
Firesides were held throughout the conference, translated in both Spanish and English. Elder Ruben Acosta of the Seventy commented, "After our fireside devotional my wife and I drove home marveling about how the gospel of Jesus Christ reaches through political, physical, language and cultural barriers and helps those who embrace it to become one."
As the conference concluded on Saturday, the youth gathered for a morning fireside where youth from both countries combined to sing “Come Unto Christ.” They sang in both English and Spanish, and many felt the culmination of the entire conference—all the youth coming together, united as one, with the common goal of following their Savior.