Search, Rescue, and Following the Savior
Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
“Any of us who are trying to be involved in the rescue of anyone are really just extensions of the Savior, trying to assist Him in making available the blessings of the Atonement and the benefits that go with it.” —Richard Blaylock, president, Rogers Third Branch
Mike Nielsen knows a thing or two about rescue.
For one thing, the young single adult from Rogers, Arkansas, USA, volunteers with his county’s search and rescue team, so he’s always on call. A notification text can come anytime, day or night, so Mike keeps his search and rescue pack—including a change of clothes, a medical kit, navigational tools, food, and items to build a shelter—with him at all times so that he is ready whenever someone might need help.
But for Mike, rescue isn’t solely physical. He has experienced spiritual rescue as well—both as the rescuer and as the one being rescued.
Being the Rescuer
Shortly after graduating from high school, Mike accepted an invitation from his dad to move in with him in Arkansas. Mike, whose parents divorced when he was young, had grown up as a Latter-day Saint in Utah with his mom, so the move meant big changes. Still, he looked forward to the opportunity to live with his father and get to know him better.
Mike found work in the IT field, made friends with his co-workers, and relished the opportunities his new area offered for outdoor activities like hiking and camping, his longtime passions. But Church activity was not part of Mike’s new life in Rogers. “After I moved to Arkansas, I pretty quickly went inactive and stopped attending church,” Mike said. “I ignored the spiritual side for several years.”
A friendship with a colleague, Jeremy Harnishfeger, would change that. Mike began spending several evenings each week with Jeremy; his wife, Cathy; and their young sons. At one point, Mike mentioned that he was a member of the LDS Church. “I didn’t know what that was,” Jeremy said, “so he started talking about it. I think talking about it is what made him want to get back involved.”
“[Jeremy would] have questions, and almost every time, I had an answer—and it was all from growing up in the Church,” Mike said. “I started to realize what I was missing out on, and I started going back to church.”
Months later Jeremy confided in Mike that although he was doing everything he could to live right, he just couldn’t seem to get ahead. Jeremy had been out of work for two years and, despite tremendous effort, hadn’t been able to find a job. Mike told him, “Jeremy, you’ve got to get your spiritual life right. That’s the only thing missing.”
Jeremy, whose family believed in God but never attended church, was surprised by his friend’s solution. “I thought he was crazy. He thoroughly thought that was going to fix my issue,” he said.
Even though Jeremy found Mike’s suggestion intriguing, he wasn’t ready to make any big changes on the spiritual front—at least not yet. But as the Harnishfegers observed changes in Mike associated with his return to church, they became more interested in what Mike believed.
“We saw how his life changed and how much better he was doing with everything,” Cathy said. A few months later, Jeremy suggested to Cathy that they take their family to church with Mike.
After meeting with the missionaries, the family decided to baptized. Mike baptized Jeremy in April 2009. Cathy waited until July, when her husband could baptize her. Jeremy also baptized his younger brother that same day.
“Jeremy’s brother had Jeremy as an example, and of course Mike was Jeremy’s example, so it was kind of a domino effect,” Cathy said. “We all have Mike to thank for that.”
Mike is equally grateful for his friendship with the Harnishfegers. “It’s really heartwarming to have been involved in their conversion,” Mike said. “It’s an experience that I won’t soon forget—I won’t ever forget, really.”
And things did begin to turn around for Jeremy, Cathy, and their family. Two weeks after they paid tithing for the first time, Jeremy received a call from a prospective employer inviting him to come to an interview, and he was hired shortly after that.
As gratifying as it is for Mike to have been an instrument in the Harnishfeger family’s conversion and spiritual rescue, he is quick to acknowledge that life is full of times when we help rescue and when others rescue us. Mike found himself on the “rescued” side of things when his father passed away in April 2011.
One of the first calls Mike made that night was to his branch president, Richard Blaylock, who went immediately to where Mike was. “It was a difficult situation,” President Blaylock said. “They were the only two members of the family in this area. After the funeral home took away his father’s body, it was pretty poignant. We sat outside on the curb, just the two of us, and I put my arm around him and said, ‘Mike, we love you.’”
And then the Rogers Third branch, a young single adult unit, went about showing that love. Derek Kirkland, the elders quorum president, made several phone calls to help take care of urgent needs.
“When something like this happens, you need to be there immediately,” he says. “It wasn’t a process where we said, ‘Let’s put this on the calendar.’ We tried to be there immediately.”
Mike didn’t want to be alone that night, and he needed a place to stay, so one of the calls Derek made was to branch member Jesse Danielson, who opened his home to Mike, gave him a key to the house, and gave him a garage door opener.
Knowing that Mike probably had a lot of things going through his mind, Jesse provided him with a notepad and pen to jot things down and then retreated to his room to pray for Mike’s comfort.
“If you think you need a big project, you’re mistaken,” he says of serving those in need. “A lot of times small things turn into big things.”
Over the following days and weeks, other Church members pitched in with practical help—like cleaning his father’s home, moving furniture, and handling legal items— as well as with emotional help as Mike grieved for his father.
“They all jumped in,” Mike said of members of his branch. “I had places to stay every night. I had friends. I had food—I’d go home and find fresh cinnamon rolls at the front door. I had no idea who did some of those things, but the branch was incredible. It was good to know that there are people who cared. They were there to listen and offer any support I needed. It was really comforting in a hard time like that to know that I wasn’t alone.”
Following the Savior in the Rescue Effort
Describing his work with search and rescue, Mike said: “Every person has value. Everyone is missed by someone. Everyone has goals and objectives in life, and I hate the thought of someone not getting the chance to live through all those hopes and dreams that they have. The opportunity to be able to help them continue on that path and achieve what they want is … really rewarding.” Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared similar sentiments earlier this year when he spoke to a group of young single adults about the role they play in spiritual rescue efforts.
President Blaylock says that the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son have helped him better understand the different kinds of “lost” that exist—those who are lost by no fault of their own and who may not even know they are lost, those who wandered off because they were alone, and those who willfully left.
“We’ve seen individuals in all of those situations,” he says. “We think about them differently sometimes because the ministering needs to be different. But then we welcome all back and rejoice, just like the woman who found the lost coin and told her friends and was excited about it.” These messages from the scriptures are helpful not only in formal callings, says President Blaylock, but also as individual members of the Church who care about others try to extend the Savior’s love.
President Blaylock says he sees his role as branch president as one in which he does what the Savior would be doing. “As I sit in sacrament meeting and see who’s there and who’s not, in my mind, I’m just filling in for the Savior and our Heavenly Father, who are doing the same thing. There’s not anyone that’s not deserving of everything the gospel has to offer. Every one of these individuals is important to our Heavenly Father, more so than many of them realize. He loves them and wants them to have all the blessings and good things they can have in life, and He wants them to understand how to get it.”
Rescue, says President Blaylock, “can be exhilarating and frustrating, heartwarming and also very difficult. … But it’s tremendously gratifying if you can in some way help bring someone closer to the Savior.”
In fact, he says, rescue is the Savior’s purpose. “We [all] needed to be rescued. We needed to overcome physical death, and we could not do that for ourselves. The Savior has done that for us. We also needed to be rescued from our spiritual death, which separates us from our Heavenly Father, because we all sin and make mistakes. Without the Atonement, there would be no rescue. We would all need it, but there would be no option.
“So any of us who are trying to be involved in the rescue of anyone are really just extensions of the Savior, trying to assist Him in making available the blessings of the Atonement and the benefits that go with it—the feeling of being loved, being at home, being where you need to be, growing spiritually, maturing, and [enjoying] all the blessings that come from doing what’s right and being on the right path.”