In San Francisco’s Mission District, Elder and Sister Hugh Webb looked out over the rolling hills of the city they came to as full-time missionaries about thirteen months ago. The houses on the hills looked like pastel boxes, rows and rows of pastel boxes crisscrossing up and down in the fading twilight.
“At first it was hard to find our way around,” Sister Olive Webb admitted, “especially at night or when the fog rolled in. But now it’s almost like a second home.”
As their car rolled down the steep hill, they pointed to a house here, an area over there, and each time told about Latter-day Saints who live in them. In this building lives an inactive woman who for years thought her husband would never be interested in the gospel. But the man is now a member and the family is going to the temple to be sealed. In another area lives the second counselor in the branch presidency. The Webbs helped him prepare his mother, now in her 80s, to go to the temple for the first time. Over that way lives a young man who served a full-time mission but who had slipped into inactivity. Now he’s worthy and active again. Tomorrow he’ll be interviewed for a recommend so that he and his wife can again go to the temple.
As the Webbs reminisced about their labors with San Francisco’s Spanish Branch, they sounded like any missionary couple might. But what makes the Webbs’ experience different is that their mission has primarily involved work with inactive members. The Webbs are only one of twelve couples in the San Francisco area participating in a program coordinated by President Joseph Vernon Cook of the San Francisco California Stake and President J. Blythe Moyes of the California San Jose Mission (of which San Francisco is a part). The couple missionaries assigned to the program are instructed to seek out inactive members and let them know the Church is still interested in them. They are not there to take over or do away with the home teaching program but to act as a back-up resource.
So far, the results have been impressive. For example, during their one-year mission, Elder Harold and Sister Fay Jones, one of the first couples assigned to the program, reactivated thirty-three members and baptized twelve nonmembers, many of them spouses in part-member families.
In April the Joneses returned home to Provo, Utah, a little concerned that some of the people they had worked with might drift away from the Church again. Then they received a letter.
“You didn’t come on a mission and find me just so that I’d go inactive again,” the reactivated sister wrote. “I’m back in the Church to stay.” And that seems typical of most of the members reactivated through the program. Another young brother, brought back after three years away from the Church, said, “I never again want to feel like I did when I was inactive. I didn’t have any direction or purpose. Now I know God loves me and the members do too.”
When couples like the Webbs or the Joneses arrive in the mission home, they are assigned to work closely with a bishop or branch president in a specific location. The bishop and the ward or branch mission leader meet regularly with the couple, providing them with names of people who used to come to meetings as well as those who have moved into the area but have never come to church.
In San Francisco, that was a real concern.
“This is one of the most beautiful and delightful cities in the world,” said Bishop Robert H. Terry of the Daly City Ward. “There are hundreds of good, strong Latter-day Saints who live here. But unfortunately, San Francisco has also become something of a haven for those who don’t mind getting lost as far as the Church is concerned. Others come to the city to work or go to school, find out the rent’s too high, and move to the suburbs without transferring their records. We couldn’t ever seem to get our home teaching done. We were doing our best, but we just didn’t have the means to check up on everyone.”
President Cook explained that the answer to the problem came at the time the stake was reorganized under the direction of Elder David B. Haight of the Quorum of the Twelve. “He considered what might be done and consulted with then-stake president Jonas Heaton and others. They realized that part of the problem was that many leaders had moved to the suburbs and that the stake had to rely on students and other temporary residents for its strength.”
The San Francisco and Pacifica stakes were combined, forming the new San Francisco Stake. This consisted of the units of the previous San Fransisco Stake, including three large wards (Bay, Daly City, and Sunset), a singles ward, branches and wards for minorities concentrated in the area, and the seven wards of the former Pacifica Stake.
“Next, we felt we needed someone who could work with inactive members as a primary responsibility, someone with compassion, experience, and a knowledge of Church affairs,” President Cook said.
That’s where the couple missionaries came in. The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve authorized that ten missionary couples be sent to President Moyes for work in San Francisco.
The stake received their help “by going the extra mile to get the program moving,” President Moyes said. “Stake and ward clerks worked together to update membership rolls. Ward and branch mission leaders organized fellowshipping activities. Missionaries made phone calls and visits and reported back on their results. Jeremiah Alip, second counselor in the stake presidency, performed an invaluable service in coordinating stake, ward, and mission activities.”
Success took a while, but then the stories started coming in.
—A man who had not been to Church for several years approached the missionaries in the hall between services. “I’m one of your lost sheep,” he said.
He held the Aaronic priesthood, but had fallen away. Over a period of months, he attended meetings regularly and had missionaries teach lessons in his home. He and his companion then met with the bishop to discuss how to put their lives in order, and the wife was baptized. The husband now holds an important ward position. “Not only did you bring back a member,” he told the missionaries, “but you kept my family together.”
—In response to a knock on the door from a missionary couple, Alma and Lois Keiser, a young woman replied, “I’m so glad you called. My mother and I had a talk and we decided what I need to straighten out my life is to get back in the Church. But I don’t know how.” She is now receiving lessons and attending meetings. Her son has been ordained a priest and is looking forward to a mission.
The Keisers regularly visit sixty inactive members, helping them rekindle their testimonies of the gospel.
—Michael Bailey, a black who received the priesthood shortly after the 1978 revelation, then went inactive when he started working Sundays, is now reviewing the missionary discussions with missionaries Malin and Sister Myreel Lewis. He has adjusted his schedule so he can attend meetings and is studying and searching the scriptures. “Other people would contact me one time and ask me to family home evening. But then they never followed up,” Michael said. “The Lewises kept calling, kept being friendly, kept sending cards in the mail. They didn’t give up on me.”
—Another couple, Lloyd and Delaine Chappell, found Rudolph and Maria Pardi. Brother and Sister Pardi had been active in the Church for years, but then Brother Pardi’s eyesight dimmed, preventing him from driving. Sister Pardi was also unable to drive. They hated bothering people for rides, and after a while they stopped attending meetings. Now the Pardis have been assigned a home teacher, who is aware of their transportation problems and makes sure they get a ride each Sunday.
And there are many more success stories.
“When we first started, we thought we would be able to get the initial contacting done in two or three months,” President Cook said. “But there have been so many positive responses that many of the couples are spending a lot of their time teaching. We’re starting on our second set of couples, and there are still a lot of inactive members left to contact.”
“There aren’t enough six o’clocks to go around,” Sister Chappell said, noting that that is when many people ask them to come by.
President Cook notes that attendance has improved steadily since the missionaries arrived. “In the last quarter of 1981, the last quarter before the stake reorganization, the Bay Ward had 864 members with an average attendance of 201. During the first quarter of 1982, with an enlarged ward area, there were 822 members, but attendance was up to 294, an almost 50 percent increase.” He cited similar improvements in the other wards and branches.
“In the old days,” said Bishop Steven P. Mifflin of the Bay Ward, “we hadn’t opened the overflow doors in years. Now we’ve opened them for fifty-six meetings in a row.”
“It’s been a great psychological benefit to the bishops and branch presidents,” President Cook added. “And it’s got the members excited too. With some help from the missionaries, the wards are better able to meet the needs of both active and inactive members.” As more and more potential leaders are found, there’s even talk of dividing the stake again.
There has also been an unexpected side benefit. “We are finding that the missionaries, through their work with inactive members, teach and baptize a lot of nonmembers, too,” President Moyes said.
Such was the case when Elder and Sister Jones were trying to locate an inactive member who did not have a phone. Unable to find him at his last known address, they knocked on the landlord’s door. The Joneses explained who they were and what they were doing. The landlord told them where the former tenant was now living and working. As they were thanking him for the help, Brother Jones said, “You’ve got a handshake like a Mormon.”
That made Mark Ma laugh. “My wife and I have been going to different churches for six months,” he said. But they hadn’t found anything that fully satisfied them. Mr. Ma invited the Joneses back. During the third discussion, Edith Ma looked up with tears in her eyes. She knew she’d found the truth. Mark waited until he’d heard all the discussions, then the Mas decided to be baptized.
“Now he goes around fellowshipping,” Sister Jones said. “He’s one of the happiest members of the ward. And they’re picking up a single lady we helped activate and bringing her to church with them every Sunday, as well as checking on her during the week.”
“You just get started helping someone,” Elder Keiser said, “and somebody else shows up for you to help.” In the Keiser’s case it was the fourteen-year-old daughter of an inactive member they were teaching. “He wanted to baptize her when the bishop felt he was ready, and he asked us if we would teach her about the Church.”
Other couples report similar experiences as they have taught and baptized husbands, wives, relatives, and roommates of members they contacted through the reactivation program.
“Overall, most initial contacts are at least polite,” Elder Webb said. “A lot have just drifted away—they are inactive, but they aren’t anti-Church. They just need to have the right feelings reawakened.”
According to Elder Vern Taylor, “one of the most gratifying things is to see people go from, ‘Well, come on in but don’t preach,’ to ‘What took you so long?’ The greatest challenge is knowing how much to push and how much not to push. We want them to know we love them and need them. But we want to be friends even if they don’t come back to Church immediately.”
Elder Taylor and his wife Dona have found that many of the inactive members they have talked to married outside the Church and avoid activity because they don’t want to argue about religion in their homes. “One man we’re visiting has been inactive for thirty years. At first he was very cautious with us, but now both he and his nonmember wife are friendly. They’ve come to some ward activities, and he’s even pulled his dusty old Book of Mormon off the shelf and started reading it.”
Elder Chappell’s eyes sparkle when he tells how he succeeded in making friends with an inactive family by first chatting with their son about his four-wheel-drive truck. That led to further discussion of things they had in common, like hunting and fishing, and to an invitation to come back again. The Chappells did, this time with the announcement that they (the Chappells) would be speaking in sacrament meeting.
“If anybody could get me out it would be you,” the mother said. And when the Chappells gave their talks, she and her daughter were in the congregation.
“Most folks are waiting for a little nudge, a little reassurance that there’s a place for them,” Elder Chappell said. “But then they need fellowshipping and love from the members, not just the missionaries. We’ve got so many people coming back to church now that we can’t sit with all of them. We have to depend on the members to make friends with them and make them feel welcome.”
“It’s important to remember,” President Moyes said, “that many inactive members aren’t inactive in their own minds. Some feel they have been wronged or hurt. Some have just become careless about attending their meetings. Inactivity is a habit you slip into a little bit at a time.”
During the one year (plus several months) history of the reactivation program, the couple missionaries have found that special conditions required adaptation. “We were told to do whatever the branch president asked us to do,” Sister Webb explained. “The Spanish Branch didn’t have anyone to provide music for their meetings. So I’ve been teaching some of them how to play the piano. Branch president Jorge Vanegas also asked the Webbs to teach the temple preparation class, which seemed like a natural extension of their work with reactivation.
Elder Dale and Sister Margaret Despain were assigned to work both in the Sunset Ward and the Chinese Branch. They don’t speak Chinese, but they have been able to provide a valuable service—transportation.
“Some of the Chinese members had to make several bus transfers and spend two hours one way coming to the chapel,” Elder Despain noted. “For them, it’s not a question of whether they want to come, it’s a question of finding a reasonable way to get here.” The Despains help explain bus routes, organize car pools, and pick up people in their own car. For those who are unfamiliar with the city outside the confines of a small downtown area, the service is vital.
The couples have found that they have developed a great spirit of camaraderie among themselves. Six of the twelve couples live in the same apartment building, and others live nearby. As a group, they meet monthly with the stake presidency, President Moyes, and bishops and branch presidents. There they report on their work and bear their testimonies.
During that meeting recently, Bishop Mifflin, who was being transferred from the area by his employer, expressed his thanks to the couples who had helped him to better know the members of his ward.
“We’ve come a long way from where we were a year ago,” he said. “We’ve shown that San Francisco is a place where the Lord’s work is going to grow and flourish.” Newly arrived couples at the meeting listened attentively. They had read through reports left by their predecessors. They had already met some of the inactive members they’d be working with. They, too, had mounted steep inclines and gazed at the maze of San Francisco houses that seems to roll from hill to hill to hill. Now they were anticipating the work before them.
Elder Despain, soon to be released, rose and spoke. He said how much he and his wife would miss their mission. He told how happy they were when an inactive member they had been teaching recognized them on the street and went out of her way to stop and say hello. He spoke about how much he cared.
“It’s the people we’ll remember when we leave here,” he said.
Like the other couples who return from seeking the lost sheep, the Despains’s memories of San Francisco won’t be memories only of sourdough bread and the Golden Gate bridge. Their memories will be of those who were lost and now are found, those who might still be inactive if someone hadn’t taken the time to care.
The newcomers at the meeting nodded their heads. They understood why they were now in San Francisco and who they needed to seek.