“I never doubted that it was true; I just didn’t want to be involved,” explains Virl Thornton, a less-active member for over fifty years. As a boy in a mining camp, he decided he could be good without going to church. His wife’s death brought new thoughts about life’s meaning. Now an elder and preparing for a temple marriage, Virl sees the need for church activity and fellowshipping in the faith.
In a circle of attentive faces next to Virl sits Jolene Swift. Her marriage to a less-active husband “was twenty-six years of sheer endurance for both of us,” says Jolene. But things have changed. Although she’s still married to the same husband, he’s a different man, and she’s a different woman. They attend the temple regularly now and are more deeply in love than either thought possible.
Virl and Jolene are sitting in a circle with others like them who are recent converts to the gospel, even though some were born into the Church. They are in Frances Purdie’s living room, waiting for a meeting to start. Prayer is offered, and Frances welcomes everyone to her home, as she has for two years now. Conspicuously absent from the circle tonight is Lance Inglet. Elder Inglet was recently called to the Washington Spokane Mission, after these cottage meetings helped steer him back onto the gospel path.
Frances first began inviting friends into her home to provide a relaxed place to talk about the gospel. For the most part, the friends were people who had for various reasons become disaffected with the Church or were having personal or family problems. They were—in the words of Dave Whipple, a supportive high councilor in the stake—people who needed “to get into a situation where the Spirit could work on them.”
Frances began the meetings after contracting lupus, an incurable disease that—among other things—leaves its victims sapped of energy. While convalescing, she turned to the scriptures for strength. “And I studied my patriarchal blessing, which told me I had ‘a great work to do,’” she continues. “So I knew I couldn’t die yet, and I knew that the Lord expected something of me. But what?”
She didn’t know immediately. A trained social worker, Frances had given up traditional counseling; her scripture study had given her insights that helped her “see things from a new perspective. I experienced a total change in my approach to therapy,” she says. But her clients kept calling, wanting to continue counseling. It was then that the idea occurred to her to invite these individuals to come to her home for scripture study. She met with her bishop and ward mission leader, Lee Collins, seeking priesthood approval and support. Brother Collins attended the meetings, and Frances was called as a stake missionary.
Lee is now stake mission president, and he reports, “In the Salt Lake Butler Stake, now, seven different wards hold these cottage meeting groups weekly.
“We are teaching seventeen less-active members and seven nonmembers. One baptism and numerous endowments and sealings have resulted.” He then sounds a keynote to the success of these gatherings—no titles or labels, very little structure, and great natural warmth provided by the personalities and spirituality of those who host and lead them.
“Plus, we’ve never let ourselves become an island unto ourselves,” he says. “Each person is encouraged to get involved with his or her own ward. New members may seek a blessing or counsel from one of us at first, but soon they go to their home teacher or bishop as they should.”
The group that has met in Frances’s home for two years now has no formal lesson. At first, the Gospel Essentials manual was used, but discussion became so free-flowing and questions came so frequently that Frances rarely read more than one paragraph a night. The group bonded quickly.
“No one labels those who attend as less active,” assures Frances. “It is not an issue that Lee and I have callings. Everyone who comes feels love and friendship and recognizes that we all have problems to overcome. We share the desire to overcome them. The spirit is contagious.”
Jolene Swift tells how she and her husband began to be blessed with better communication and greater affection since becoming reactivated.
“Every family has leaven in it,” she believes, “and Joanie is ours.” Even as a child, her daughter Joanie got herself to church every Sunday. She pleaded with her mother to go, too, and finally Jolene went, though Brother Swift did not. Joanie spent that summer with relatives in Texas who were active in the Church and held home evenings and family prayer. “I think I’ll stay the school year,” she told her parents, describing the close family feeling she wanted. Jack Swift, motivated by his daughter’s desire for a closer, more faithful family, began to change his life.
After Jolene and Jack prepared themselves, they went to the temple and were sealed together and then sealed to their “leaven,” Joanie. Jolene remembers one more shock, though. On the way home from the temple the first time, Jack said, “I don’t believe a word of it.”
When she could bring herself to speak, Jolene asked, “What don’t you believe?”
“They said my sins were forgiven,” he responded, “and I know they aren’t.” But the next time he attended the temple, the Spirit assured him that he had been forgiven.
According to Lee Collins, bishops from other stakes have called the Butler stake presidency, saying, “You’re getting people we’ve never been able to reach, what are you doing?” Four stakes are now following the Butler stake’s example.
“The reason we believe so strongly in this kind of meeting,” he continues, “is that we are able to sit here for a flexible period of two hours or so and cover no more than one question, unlike a Gospel Essentials class.
“We’ve sat here, on occasion, for hours listening to people get grievances off their chest, releasing bitterness, letting off steam. We have listened without judgment, without trying to defend anything or anyone, just accepting feelings. And when it’s all out and they feel better and know they can trust us, we all learn together. No lectures or sermons. It is an effective means of reconciling brothers and sisters with their beliefs.”
On a folding chair in the circle is Barbara Rex—her shoulder-length brown hair haloed by the glow of a table lamp behind her. Barbara is a soft-spoken woman with a pensive expression. After being reactivated through this group, she reactivated her daughter and her son, who is now serving a mission. As she speaks, she seems to measure her words: “Some very personal hardships made me stray from activity in the Church. I had been a member eight years and didn’t really know enough for the gospel to be the strength I needed then. But now that I’m back, I work in the temple and have begun to understand a spiritual dimension of life that gives me great strength.” Then, holding up a letter, she adds, “And I could never have shared my son’s mission experience as fully as I can now. The rich spiritual experiences he writes home about—I’m having them, too.”
When asked about the effect the group had on her return to the fold, Barbara relates that a very dear friend invited her to attend. “After several good experiences here and at some singles conferences, I began to feel a yearning for the Spirit. Frances told me I would need to do five things.”
Frances interjects, “Yes, and it was the same five things I tell everybody they must do: (1) pray every day, (2) study the scriptures every day, (3) pay a full tithing, (4) attend the meetings in your own ward, (5) love your bishop and obey his counsel.”
At this point, the candy starts around. Not one bowl, not even two, but four different bowls of candy: something for every taste. Clear, cut-glass bowls go both directions. One has jelly beans; one, small wrapped chocolates; one, lemon drops; and one, white mints with green jelly in the center. The group disintegrates into small groups, joking and laughing in a moment of comic relief. Then, as suddenly as it all began, the bowls are settled on tables and discussion resumes.
“Well,” Barbara picks up just where she left off, “I told my daughter that once I began to do these five things that Frances suggested, something started. My prayer was simply, ‘Heavenly Father, I would like more than anything else to have a relationship with Jesus Christ; that would be the most important thing in my life right now.’ And it was sudden. I described it to my daughter this way: you know when you drive up to the bank to make a deposit, there’s that tube that goes through the pneumatic tunnel—WHOOSH!—and then comes back? Well, that’s how it was for me, just a whoosh. I have begun to see the Lord’s hand in all things in my life.”
Eyes moisten and lumps come into throats often during these meetings; one person gets inspired by another, and each contributes something.
By no means a substitute for Church, the Wednesday meetings are complements to the Sunday meetings. Neither are they substitutes for a family; in fact, the meetings tend to heighten feelings for family.
“As an active stake missionary for years,” injects Mark Ballstaedt, counselor in the stake mission presidency, “I have long thought that this type of group teaching could be effective. I imagined a place people could go—especially when there is discord at home—to be taught and uplifted.”
From the couch beside Frances, Barbara Black offers still another benefit of the group. She wears a bandage over one eye, the only obvious sign of the brain surgery that removed a tumor at the stem of her brain, saving her life but costing her the use of one of her eyes. The group has helped her feel an increased measure of the Lord’s love for her.
“I’ve been an active member of the Church since I joined twenty years ago; my husband and I moved to Salt Lake from Atlanta, a place I didn’t want to leave. But his work required it. It was extremely hard for me for all sorts of personal reasons. I think I fought being happy here. The surgery and the group helped lead me to a new appreciation for God. People listened, several dear friends—both in and out of the group—listened and allowed me to express all my feelings. I’ve been able to let go of a lot of blame I carried around, blaming God, other people. I’m beginning to realize that nothing really is an accident. Whatever happens, we can grow from it if we let the Lord help us.”
“Personal support and teachings I never got earlier make this group very important to me,” comments petite Gloria Christensen, a divorced mother. With moist eyes she describes her love for the members of the group. “I get strength here that helps as I raise my little grandchild and go to work.”
Former bishop Dave Whipple—while visiting the group one night as a stake high councilor—discusses his own youthful wrestle with inactivity. Then he reads from Helaman 3:27, [Hel. 3:27] “Thus we may see that the Lord is merciful unto all who will, in the sincerity of their hearts, call upon his holy name.” His reading and his thoughts on the passage blend into each other in a slow, reverent tone:
“Mormon is commenting here about this group of people who have repented. Some had been inactive, some not yet converted, but all were blessed by this association together. What will happen to them now that they are sincere in the covenant? Listen to some of these comforting words in verses 29 and 30. [Hel. 3:29–30] Mormon says, ‘whosoever will’—that’s any of us, right?—‘may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful.’ And where will the word lead us? It will ‘lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery’ and take us directly where? To ‘the right hand of God … and with all our holy fathers, to go no more out.’”
With these last five words, his slow, careful reading becomes even slower and more deliberate, like the organ at the end of a powerful hymn. That was the effect on the group. Some looked up from their scriptures toward the reader; others kept their eyes on the page. They were atuned to hear verse 35, [Hel. 3:35] about how the process of prayer, fasting, and associating together in faith lead to the “purifying and the sanctification of their hearts” that comes from “yielding their hearts unto God.”
From the other side of the circle, Virl Thornton speaks in a subdued voice: “That explains perfectly, right there, why I was wrong all those years to think that you didn’t need to go to church to be a good Christian. We do need the Church—each other—praying and fasting together. I wish I had realized that while my wife was alive.”
There is a pause, and then Frances voices what many are thinking. “What we have experienced this evening is in a small way what the last two years have brought this group.” Opening her Book of Mormon to the fifth chapter of Alma, she paraphrases, “Alma talks about experiencing the change of heart and singing the song of redeeming love, and he talks about ‘having the image of God engraven upon your countenances.’ I want you all to know, I have seen your countenances change and have felt my own heart swell as we have met week after week and read the scriptures and prayed together for faith.”
Frances Purdie’s living room is like many others. There is a grandfather clock in the corner, gold-colored cherubs holding white candlesticks on the fireplace mantle, some artwork on the walls, and end tables with Church books and magazines. But on Wednesday evenings this living room takes on another identity for twelve or so Latter-day Saints. Their reasons for coming vary, but the spirit of a loving and accepting association is what keeps bringing them back.
“Members of this group are now attending other groups in the stake, widening the circle of love,” Frances reports. A circle of love widens, naturally dissolving barriers—barriers between one person and another, between an individual and the group, between the individual and the Church itself. As the circle widens and barriers dissolve, the members become stronger in humility and firmer in faith in Christ, until their hearts are pure and they choose to “go no more out” from that eternal association.