Members’ Testimonies Reflect Strength of Church
Julie Dockstader Heaps, Church News correspondent
GIG HARBOR, WASHINGTON
On a clear day in this harbor, you can see Mount Rainier towering in the distance, its snowy caps seemingly rising out of the clouds to the southeast of Puget Sound. But even on a rainy, hazy day on the Olympic Peninsula, you know the 14,000-plus-foot volcano is there. It’s one of the tallest single peaks in the lower 48 states.
You might say this majestic mountain is symbolic of the lives of Latter-day Saints throughout the 13 stakes of the Washington Tacoma Mission. No matter where they are living and working—whether it’s civilian or naval service in the Bremerton shipyards, teaching in high schools and universities, or homemaking—members of the Church living in the shadows of the Olympic Mountains have one thing in common: they live the restored gospel, thereby instilling testimonies in the lives of their children and youth.
This is nowhere more true than in the Gig Harbor Washington Stake, about an hour’s ferry ride southwest from the Seattle docks.
On a sunny September Sunday, stake president Karl J. Fields pondered the faith of the some 3,300 members in seven wards from Gig Harbor to Olalla to Port Orchard and west to Belfair. He related how he watched a congregation gathered for a stake conference.
“As I looked out on our members, I reflected on what President [Gordon B.] Hinckley said when he was asked a question in a 60 Minutes interview. ‘What is the strength of your church?’ He said, ‘The strength of the Church is in the testimonies of its members.’ That was affirmed during [our] conference, that that is so true.”
Sitting near boat docks on Gig Harbor, the Church News met with President Fields and his counselors, Wayne Washer and W. Larry Johns, to learn about members of a stake who not only consistently send out flocks of full-time missionaries, but also serve throughout their communities in such endeavors as working with local faith-based foundations, volunteering in programs to feed needy children, and visiting people in correctional facilities.
Referring to the missionaries serving throughout the world from Gig Harbor, President Johns said, “I think that’s largely a testimony of the strength of the family units. Most of these [missionaries] are coming from families that have lived and taught the gospel and been stalwart.
“There is lots of peer pressure to fit in with the popular crowd,” President Johns added. “We have a strong bunch of youth that band together and do a great job at maintaining For the Strength of Youth standards.”
Gig Harbor Washington Stake President, Karl J. Fields, center, and his counselors, Wayne Washer, left, and W. Larry Johns stand on a local dock. Photo by Julie Dockstader Heaps.
The Church in the Pacific Northwest has come a long way since the early 20th century when persecution was so pronounced that a member’s funeral in Woodland, Washington, had to be held in secret. The first stake in Washington was created in Seattle in 1938, and during World War II membership increased due to the defense industry. Today, there are some 271,625 members in Washington in 55 stakes. There are five missions and three temples.
Bob and Shannon Theel of the Olalla Ward are grateful for the strength of the stake today as they rear their family of three sons and one daughter. Sister Theel grew up in nearby Grapeview, the site where early members attended worship services in an old one-room schoolhouse. She expressed gratitude for “having good friends in the gospel” as a youth but spoke poignantly of a “life-changing experience” that began three years ago.
Son Garrett, then 7, had been complaining of headaches, so Sister Theel took him to the family doctor. That was at 10:30 a.m. By 1:00 p.m. he was having an MRI, and at 8:00 p.m. that evening he was wheeled into surgery to remove a brain tumor. It was benign, but fluid was building dangerously. A second surgery was required to insert a shunt.
Today Garrett is a healthy 10-year-old, but looking back Sister Theel described the peace they felt when they realized a local bishop was their son’s anesthesiologist. And she spoke of the power of prayer.
“I knew so many people were praying. It was almost a tangible blanket,” she said, then added, “We had ward members come and mow our lawn and drive our kids to seminary and help in so many ways. I can’t tell you how much service we received from our ward. It was just incredible.”
Such service is common outside the walls of members’ homes here. President Washer related the success of members serving on the Peninsula Communities Foundation, which is comprised of faith groups working with homeless programs and the Backpack Food for Kids program in Gig Harbor. He said there have been instances when people of some faiths have refused to work with Church members but soon change their opinions “because our actions speak louder.”
Such love of service is passed to the rising generation here. Belfair Ward’s Bishop Andrew Wing spoke of the young women in his ward who “have been amazing in trying to put their arms around each other and help each other out.”
Relating preparations for Young Women outdoor activities, Bishop Wing said their young women are reaching out to “non-LDS girls, and we are reaching out to the less-active to get them involved.”
It’s paying off. He spoke of one 14-year-old whose “blossoming testimony” resulted in some non-LDS friends shunning her. “So as the young women from the ward have started to put their arms around her and bring her to their circle of friends, she’s felt a whole new acceptance.”
Sister Paije Abplanalp, ward Young Women president, said Young Women outdoor activities are not just for building emergency preparation and physical skills. “We want the young women to know they can do hard things. The more experiences they have, the more confidence they’ll have, and it will help them grow spiritually.”
Similar results are happening in the lives of young men here as they prepare for full-time missions. Every year, these young men ages 16–18 from the 13 stakes in the mission travel to the Kitsap Peninsula near Bremerton and Shelton where the Church owns 85 acres of forested property. There they hold what is known as “Camp Helaman,” a missionary training camp.
“Camp Helaman is a phenomenon,” President Johns said, explaining that the camp is held twice annually, with 200 young men attending each camp. They role-play missionary experiences and are encouraged to spend time alone in the forest to ponder and pray.”
“Every year we survey the kids. There’s always a vast majority who plan on going on missions. But as they depart the camp, we survey them again, and there’s always an increase of 15 to 20 who have committed to full-time missions,” President Johns added.
The youth of the Gig Harbor Washington Stake have numerous individual teaching moments. One such moment happened recently for Amanda Clifford, 17, of the Belfair Ward.
A senior at North Mason High School, she has been planning and praying about her future. She said she mentioned this one day to her seminary teacher, Jan Russell. “She’s always ready to listen and give me a perspective. She’s a good example of how the leaders of our stake are.”
Amanda probably said it best concerning the growth of the Gig Harbor Washington Stake since its creation in 2006: “It’s the really incredible group of leaders that we have on a ward and stake level. They’re very dedicated and very consistent, and they’ve definitely been a strength to my testimony.”
Some information for this article was taken from the following:
Deseret News 2013 Church Almanac