BUENA VISTA, Va. — Hundreds of attendees gathered to hear presentations on the theme “Rejoice, the Heavens are Open” on the first day of Southern Virginia University’s 17th annual Education Conference last week.
The conference began on June 7 with presentations by Glade Knight, chairman of the Southern Virginia board of trustees, and Paul K. Sybrowsky, president of Southern Virginia. Other presenters included Mark Taylor, Southern Virginia professor and violinist; Kaye Hanson, former management communications professor at Brigham Young University; Matthew Rasmussen, instructor at the Buena Vista Institute of Religion; and Lee Donaldson, manager of proselytizing services in the missionary department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Knight spoke, at the request of conference attendees from previous years, about being inspired to guide the university in its transition from an all-female school to a co-educational liberal arts institution serving Latter-day Saints.
Knight said that he never dreamed of “starting a university” for Latter-day Saint students, but after his experience visiting the campus in 1996, he assembled a board of trustees, found a president (David Ferrel), took on the assets and liabilities of the university, and then faced the challenge of recruiting students.
“I tell the young people: ‘If you want to have a boring life, take control of it yourself and decide where you’re going to go. If you want to have an exciting, exhilarating, fun-packed life, go by the Spirit, where the Lord wants you to go and you’ll find that it’s more exciting than anything that you can do.’ ”
Sybrowsky spoke about the future of LDS higher education and specifically the role that Southern Virginia University will play as it grows to accommodate more students and help them “know how to seek for and receive revelation in all things in life.”
Sybrowsky detailed specific plans for the future of the university, including the construction of new buildings to “provide the finest educational learning structure that we can … to welcome the spirit of the Lord.”
He said that the key to the best education is the combination of “scholarship with discipleship.”
Taylor performed an arrangement of “Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer” on the violin, accompanied by his son, William Taylor, a music major at Southern Virginia.
Prior to performing, Taylor told the story of how he and his wife came to Southern Virginia to help build the university’s music program.
“Coming to Virginia has been an inspired move for us,” Mark Taylor said.
Hanson discussed the times when the heavens have been closed and then shared a story from her life in which she “watched the heavens open” for another individual.
While serving a mission in Europe four years ago, Hanson and her companion were assigned to select local young single adults to share their testimonies and be filmed for Mormon Messages videos in their native languages and in English.
When they gathered in Poland for filming, one young man, a branch president, tried several times without success to give his message clearly in both languages. Hanson read from her journal that another man, a stake president, sat down with the young branch president and told him to “call down the powers of heaven to have your Father in heaven help you.”
After the young man said a prayer in Slovenian, Hanson said that it was “as though a light (had) gone on within him” and that he then spoke “with renewed clarity” and moved forward “without problems.”
“Sometimes we neglect the power within us, as (he) had not thought of his priesthood keys to call down the powers of heaven,” Hanson said. “We may be the ones keeping the heavens closed because of our not understanding the power within us.”
After exploring a few basic questions about the conference’s theme, Rasmussen said that he was “most eager” to emphasize that “we are to rejoice.”
“Open heavens are communicative heavens. Revelation is real. So let us rejoice,” said Rasmussen. “We can be happy, we can be downright delighted, right now, with our understanding that all that is heavenly, is — through the Father’s love, the Savior’s grace and the authorized ministries of the duly ordained — marvelously, if not startlingly, accessible.”
He then turned his remarks in “a more applied direction.”
“What is so desperately needed by so many is the assurance that the heavens will remain open to us, to you and me, the rank and file, the diaper changers, the breadwinners, the workers, the wonderers and the worriers. We will need this assurance as we find ourselves drawn ever deeper into the drama of the last days.”
Rasmussen read Moses 1:1-7 and said that Moses’ qualifications to receive revelation included his circumstances, his disposition, his identity and his work.
“Moses was qualified to receive revelation in part because of his circumstances,” said Rasmussen. “He was in the appointed place at the appointed time … as we do what we are supposed to do and are where we are supposed to be, we will be met with opportunities to hear the Lord’s voice."
Donaldson discussed the “current excitement about missionary work” after the inspired change in the ages at which missionaries may serve.
“The world changed in just such a dramatic way,” said Donaldson. “Currently at the Provo MTC, 45 percent of the missionaries are sisters. One mission president I was working with, he went from 16 sisters, three transfers later, he had 102. … We think one year after the announcement, it will be around 85,000 missionaries in the field, which has caused a significant change in the work.”
Donaldson discussed the history of missionary work since the time of Joseph Smith. In recent years, he said that the publication of “Preach My Gospel” (which was “reviewed and written and processed by seers and revelators”), new pamphlets and social networking have all helped to “accelerate the work in a great way.”
“The world is now connected in a way that it’s never been connected; this is now a hastening of the Lord’s work,” said Donaldson. “With the blessings of modern technology, we can express gratitude and joy about God’s great plan for his children in a way that can be heard not only around our workplace, but around the world. Sometimes a single phrase of testimony can set events in motion that affect someone’s life for eternity.”
Donaldson showed pictures and video of the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign in New York and in the United Kingdom and asked attendees to “make a Mormon.org profile” and link to it from their Facebook pages.
Full audio recordings of the speeches are available at svu.edu/speeches.
Hannah Benson Rodriguez received a bachelor's degree from Southern Virginia University in April 2013. She is a communications and marketing assistant at Southern Virginia and currently resides in Buena Vista, Va.