Hack Miller, the voice of the Deseret News sports pages for decades, once said he liked to attend high school basketball games to "jump-start" his heart.

For a religious writer, attending a fireside for LDS youths can have the same effect — especially a fireside in the mission field among Spanish-speaking kids.

Last Sunday I sat down with about 25 students in the stake center just off the University of Southern California campus to listen to Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's remarks.

It was a real "jump-starter" for the old heart.

Over the years, I've found that working with young people has some wonderful emotional and spiritual payoffs. But it also comes with more than a few taxing moments. According to stati-

stics, the "youth ministers" in Protestant churches tend to burn out after three years and have to be replaced. That's about the tenure for many leaders of the Young Men's and Young Women's organizations in the LDS Church.

One reason, of course, is youth must be served. There are always romance problems, school problems and parental problems to deal with. Every day brings a new brush fire to douse. But I don't think that's the tiring part. What wears on those who work with teens is that youth leaders have to be alert and on their game all the time. When you work with young minds and hearts, you have to be right there, in the moment.

In Elder Holland's remarks to the young people of the church last Sunday, he spoke of Joseph Smith in the Liberty Jail and told the teens there will be times that they, too, will feel abandoned and forsaken. The way the kids around me were taking notes, they were paying attention to that part.

But when you speak to young people you always end up giving two talks: the one everybody hears and the one only the young people can hear. Like those high-pitched ring tones on cell phones, there's always an "unspoken talk" that only the kids tip to.

Years ago, the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was going to give a speech to some college students. He let the president of the university read his talk, then asked him what he thought. The president said he didn't agree with a word of it. But that was all right, he said. The only thing most of the students would remember is if an honest person had addressed them.

And that, I think, is the second talk that only young people can hear.

Whatever the main talk is about, the youths hear three things "on the side."

Is the person honest? Does he believe what he's saying? If the answer in their minds is "no," the speaker has lost them from the get-go.

The second "unspoken" thing that young people listen for is, does the speaker care? If they don't feel the speaker cares about them, they're gone — again.

And last, they want to know if the speaker has faith in them. Does he offer hope, trust, a sense of belonging and a sense of encouragement?

Adults don't hear such things.

But young people do. They fall on their ears like a "dog whistle" ring tone.

Judging from the comments I heard after the fireside on Sunday, I'd say Elder Holland did well in both of his speeches.

I'm sure he took his fireside assignment as seriously as anything he's done. He was "there" in the moment — as far as I can tell.

But then I'm an old fogy.

I just hang with the youngsters from time to time to give this old ticker a jolt or two.

I don't hear quite as well as I used to.


Jerry Johnston is a Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in the Mormon Times section.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com