“Land of Fire and Ice,” Liahona, Dec. 1996, 43
Just say the word Iceland. Chances are someone nearby will say, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”
If you ask why, they get a faraway look in their eyes, shrug, and say, “It just sounds so interesting.” Interesting is putting it lightly.
Where else does the phone book list everyone by first name? Or where can you go swimming in outdoor lagoons heated by volcanoes? Or where will you see famous people like the president of the country and the biggest music star shopping by themselves without anyone bothering them?
Ulfar, a 16-year-old member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can fill you in on a few more things that are great about being Icelandic. In the summer, he can play basketball all day and all night if he wants because for several months it never gets completely dark. In the winter, Ulfar and his friends strap on their skis or find the biggest hills to slide down on their sleds. Sometimes he goes with his dad to take care of some of the Icelandic ponies they have in their charge. Or they head to the water towers, where they can look down on the city of Reykjavik and the trim white houses with multicolored roofs. And best of all, Ulfar belongs to a tightly knit group of Church members who are helping to fulfill Nephi’s prophecy that the gospel will go to all the nations of the earth (see 1 Ne. 14:12).
Iceland is a large island nation all by itself in the North Atlantic Ocean. It may sound like a bleak land covered with ice and snow, but actually Iceland is green, green, green. As far as you can see over the lava flows and jagged mountains, the ground is a thick carpet of green. And it feels like the deepest plush carpet, soft and springy. Yet danger can lurk under that carpet. Hikers who do not stay on marked trails have been known to fall through the moss that hides a crevasse in the lava.
Iceland sounds cold, but underneath the land is a seething, bubbling cauldron of molten lava. The island literally sits on dozens and dozens of active volcanoes with huge frozen glaciers wedged between its mountains. When fire meets ice, it makes steam. And there’s plenty of steam everywhere. All the houses are heated by steam and are toasty warm. And you can stay in the shower as long as you want because no one will yell at you for using all the hot water.
Even though Iceland sits out in the ocean by itself, with only good-sized icebergs for neighbors, the people living there have always been in touch with what is going on in the world. The Church was introduced to Iceland back in 1851, when two fishermen were taught the gospel and requested baptism. They returned to their island and began teaching. Those first Icelandic members were persecuted and harassed for their beliefs, much as the early converts in America were. At one point, the government even passed a law forbidding Mormon baptisms. Almost all the members of the Church eventually left Iceland and emigrated to America, many settling in Spanish Fork, Utah. Missionary and Church activity in Iceland then stopped for 60 years.
But just over 20 years ago, another seaman, Thorstein Jonsson, was baptized, becoming the first Icelandic member to live in Iceland in many years. Missionary work began in earnest, and a branch was organized.
Most of the people in Iceland belong to the Lutheran church. In Reykjavik, the capital city, the most prominent landmark is the large white Lutheran church. Just across the street is the three-story building that houses the LDS church’s offices and meetinghouse. It is here that the largest branch in Iceland meets.
Drop in on the weekly seminary class and meet the youth of the Reykjavik Branch. They may be few in numbers, but they have become close friends, which helps when being a member of the Church makes you stand out because of your standards.
Ulfar is a typical teenage boy who likes to talk and who tips his chair up against the wall during class. He mentions that the basketball team he plays with has been invited to a tournament. He loves his seminary teacher, who happens to be his mother.
Johannes is serious and quiet but has a testimony that serves as a bright light. He and his family (his older brother, Thorbergur, and their parents) are longtime members of the branch.
Three young women complete the class. They are great friends—Melanie with pretty eyes and long dark hair, Eyrún with striking light blonde hair, and Hanna with her bouncy short hair and pretty smile. Everyone is on a first-name basis.
In fact, the whole country is on a first-name basis. In Iceland you are known by your first name. Last names follow an age-old system where each person is named for his or her father. So Ulfar’s father is named Gudmundur Sigurdsson, but Ulfar’s last name is Gudmundsson. His sisters’ last name is Gudmundsdóttir. And Ulfar’s mother, Valla, has the last name Knútsdóttir, because her father was named Knút. Confused? Well, everyone, even the adults, goes by his or her first name.
Ulfar’s mother tells a funny story about when their family first met the missionaries. “I told them my little boy’s name was Ulfar Kári,” Vala said. “They had this puzzled look on their faces. When you say his name aloud, it sounds like you could be saying ‘Oliver Cowdery.’ They couldn’t figure out why this family in Iceland would name their son after a prominent man in Church history.”
It’s sometimes tough to be a teenager in Iceland for the same reasons that it’s hard in other countries. It’s the time when you have to make lots of decisions about how you want to live your life. Ulfar explains: “This is a hard age. Everyone is saying, ‘Hey, come get a drink. Have a cigarette.’ Even your friends are going out drinking. They asked me two or three times, but I just kept saying no and changed the subject. They leave me alone about it now.”
Does it bother the youth to be left out of some parties? Melanie says, “I don’t want to go to parties where they will be drinking. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t ask me, because I don’t want to be there anyway. There was a party at school, but I didn’t show up because I found out the purpose of the party was to get drunk. The next day at school, they asked me why I didn’t come. I just said I didn’t want to.”
How does the Church help in their lives? Melanie said that Young Women has helped a lot. “When we come to Young Women, we have activities during the week. It helps us to know one another and be friends. That gives me support. I’m glad for that. It’s different when we are really friends.”
Ulfar speaks about the power of the priesthood. He felt that power at an early age. After his baptism, his father and the branch presidency laid their hands on his head to confirm him. When he returned to sit by his mother, he turned to her and said, “Wow! They’ve got power. I could feel it from the top of my head going through my body right to my toes.”
He follows the priesthood example set by his father and his older brother, Fridrik, who recently served a full-time mission in Birmingham, England. “My brother was the one who taught me how to stick to the rules. He was the one who never gave up.”
This group has the big job of educating their friends about the Church. They have to start with the basics. Johannes said, “My friends ask me questions about the Church. They ask if the Mormon church is Christian.”
Last year, the branch made its first-ever temple trip. Since the closest temple is in England, making a temple trip is a huge undertaking. It’s expensive, and until recently, the temple ceremony was not available in Icelandic.
Hanna describes the experience of being in the temple. “Everybody was so nice and warm. It’s like being in heaven. I wanted to feel that feeling always.”
During the time at the temple, the Icelandic youth spent time each morning and again in the afternoon doing vicarious baptisms. The names were from their own ancestry. Melanie couldn’t help wondering about the people she was being baptized for. “Will they be happy? Will they be thankful for what I’m doing here? Will they accept it? It wasn’t just a name; it was a person who had a life here on earth and a family.”
When they got home, the feeling of close friendship they developed continued. These teens love their country and love the Church. These days sacrament meeting fills their meeting room to overflowing, and they’re glad. The message of the gospel is spreading like a light throughout the land.
Did we mention the northern lights? Every fall and winter, the northern lights dominate the sky in Iceland. In the night sky, the lights sway and dance with colors of green and purple. Sometimes they’re so bright that everyone just has to stop what they’re doing and watch for a while.
The youth in Reykjavik are northern lights, too. They move among their friends and families with confidence and faith. They are setting an example of the best that youth can be. Sometimes you just have to stop for a minute and watch what they are doing. They’re doing great.