During the past twenty years, the Corpus Christi Texas Stake has had thirty to forty converts join the Church each year. Members now baptize ten times that many—more than one convert a day. What are they doing that has led to such an explosion in conversions?
Stake president John Carlos Perez identifies one of the reasons: a missionary attitude that leaders have nurtured throughout the stake. “We are stressing that every Priesthood Executive Committee meeting and most sacrament meetings should mention the work,” President Perez says, “and that no matter what his or her calling is, each person is a missionary.”
Stake mission president David Noble adds, “When the stake president is missionary-minded and emphasizes the importance of sharing the gospel at all times and in all places in members’ lives, the spirit of missionary work imbues every program and auxiliary of the stake, including the family.
“President Perez emphasizes spreading the gospel message in all he does,” Dave continues. “In stake leadership meetings and conferences, he urges members to share the gospel and sees that the successes members are having are shared. He is completely supportive of the stake missionary program in every possible way.”
Dave Noble has headed the stake missionary effort for the past four years, so he’s seen the growth firsthand. He gives credit for the growth to President Perez, ward mission leaders, and the willingness of members to follow their leaders’ examples. But they in turn credit President Noble for his spiritually charged dedication. To President Noble, missionary work is literally an expression of faith, hope, and charity—all in one. “I define missionary work as the Church’s way of filling the earth with faith in Jesus Christ, hope in his atonement, and pure love for our neighbors and our Heavenly Father.”
As this attitude has spread through the stake, more and more people have been attracted to the Church. In 1985, the stake had 40 convert baptisms; in 1987, there were 113; in 1988, another 278; in 1989, they had 351; and in 1990, they exceeded their goal of 465—a person every day of the year, plus 100—by baptizing more than 500 converts.
Fellowshipping Precedes Baptism
As important as attitude is—and the courage it engenders to share the gospel—all who work in the Corpus Christi stake missionary effort emphasize one thing even above the desire to increase conversions—fellowshipping. They emphasize that every person who investigates the gospel needs to feel welcomed. “We want those who investigate the gospel to know they are loved,” President Noble says. “We want them to be as sure they are loved as they are that this is the Lord’s church they are coming to.”
To see love as the essential motivation is, of course, not a novel idea; but stake members’ method of fellowshipping and the way they involve people—particularly new members and teenagers—may account for the robust energy of their missionary efforts.
The Corpus Christi stake member-missionary effort differs from those of many stakes in that members are encouraged, often even assigned, to visit and fellowship people before baptism. “If members can friendship and socialize with people while they’re being taught the missionary discussions,” explains President Noble, “then the fellowshipping discussions that follow baptism are a natural extension of the friendshipping and socializing, which enables new members to become better acquainted with others in the branch or ward. When this happens, the new convert is integrated into Church life more completely and finds the adjustment easier.
“We’re convinced,” he continues, “that it is as important to help new members adjust to the change in life-style as it is for them to hear the gospel message in the first place.”
Fellowshipping investigators also has an effect on the quality of the teaching, because the member becomes a model of what living the gospel can do in a person’s life. In fact, for Donna and Chuck Innocenti, now members of the Victoria First Ward, it was the informal experiences they had with Carolyn and Richard Reagan during fellowshipping that helped the Innocentis want to be baptized.
“We were listening to the lessons from the lady missionaries that I had met at my mother’s house,” recalls Sister Innocenti. “I had invited them to our house, and my husband, Chuck, was willing to listen to them. But he wasn’t as interested as I was.”
About this same time the ward mission leader, John Smeading, and his wife, Marisa, identified members who had children the same age as the Innocentis and introduced the two families. Carolyn and Richard Reagan were the members, and they took an interest in the Innocentis. The Reagans had joined the Church fifteen years before, and Richard remembered some of his own personal concerns as an investigator. As Chuck recalls, “I didn’t know at the time that Richard had fasted and prayed for us, but I felt good when I was around him.
“One night when Richard showed up with the missionaries,” Chuck continues, “I had drawn the line. My mind was made up; I didn’t want to go on with the lessons. But as Richard began to explain his personal feelings about the importance of the plan of salvation, something happened to me. What had not appealed to me during a formal lesson now appealed to me irresistibly when shared in such a sincere and personal way.”
The Reagans next invited the Innocentis to a family home evening. “Our children hadn’t especially wanted to go,” Donna recalls. “But they loved it afterwards. Richard bore testimony of things that had been difficult for him when he was looking into the Church. The evening was perfect. I had never seen such togetherness in a family and immediately saw family home evening as a means of hope for society. I thought that with such teaching, my children really might have a chance in the world.”
Today, Chuck is the Sunday School president in the Victoria First Ward, of which Richard is the bishop. “Our friendship continues, greatly enriched by our experience,” says Chuck, “and I’ll be grateful forever for Donna’s response to the missionaries and for her and the Reagans’ examples.”
Donna’s feelings are similar: “I was glad to discover what a family can be. The Reagans enabled us to recognize what the missionary teachings could do for our family, and it has happened.
“Since Chuck received the priesthood and baptized Matthew and Amy, he has become so patient and loving. There is a new peace in our home. And with friends like the Reagans, our transition into the Church became much easier than it would have been without them.”
Recent Converts Make Ideal Missionaries
When they help with fellowshipping before and after a convert’s baptism, members share in important events in the lives of new members and share in their joy at baptism. This new excitement is another energy source that the Corpus Christi stake leaders have harnessed successfully.
Bishop Bill Patton of the Kingsville Ward sees it as his responsibility to keep meticulous track of all new contacts and investigators in his ward. Bishop Patton gets to know “each of these people well enough that by the time they are baptized I know who the Spirit wants to have as their visiting teachers and home teachers.” And then he assigns those people to attend the person’s baptism. His ward knows he’s missionary-minded.
According to Dave Noble, the most naturally missionary-minded members are those who have just joined the Church. “We learned through careful observation that 45 percent of all referral baptisms in our stake came from members baptized during the previous year,” Dave says. “And 60 percent of the referral baptisms came from those who had been members of the Church for less than three years.” President Noble is a geologist for a major oil company, but he says you don’t need to be a scientist to learn from these statistics.
“We are now calling one-half of all new adult converts as stake missionaries within three weeks of their baptisms,” he says. “Not only do they still have their circle of friends outside the Church, but they have a genuine enthusiasm about the gospel that is hard to match.
“New members who get involved with member-missionary work also say that the involvement helps them maintain the spirit of their conversion longer and helps them feel more a part of things,” Dave explains. “At any one time, we have around eighty-five stake missionaries and sixty ward or branch missionaries.”
In the Kingsville Ward, Joe Graham, the ward mission leader, sees new-member involvement in missionary work as a sequential process. His description of how the Garcias taught the Luceros, how the Luceros taught the Calvos, and how the Calvos are now teaching other families shows that it is natural for new members to share the gospel with friends and acquaintances.
Vicki and Nettie Lucero baby-sat for their neighbors, Mike and Synphorose Garcia—a young couple whom both girls admired. “We both loved everything about Mike and Synphorose,” says Nettie. So when two young men knocked on our door and told us that the Garcias go to their church, we listened to the first lesson right then.” That was in March 1989. Since then, Vicki, age nineteen, and Nettie, age twenty, have been baptized and have, in turn, shared the gospel with their friends.
“Our lives have changed so much in two years,” Vicki adds. Behind her understatement is a story of great courage that brought her through the missionary discussions despite a severe automobile accident that destroyed her right knee and caused paralysis in her right arm. Surgery has repaired the knee, and the paralysis is being treated by nerve transplants. Her faith feeds many who have watched her struggle. “My personal values and standards have changed so much that I don’t feel like the same person,” she says. Vicki teaches the Valiant A class in Primary, and Nettie has been serving as a counselor in the ward Young Women presidency. The faith and courage these two sisters have shown since their conversion have lighted the way for others. Their friends the Calvos are just one example.
Nettie’s friend Rebecca Calvo was not as ready for the gospel as her father was. Fred Calvo is a mechanic who considers Nettie and Vicki almost as family. So when Nettie asked him to help her find a suitable car, he was glad to help. In the process, Nettie’s excitement about what the gospel had done for her became contagious. She told Fred that the missionaries would help him understand her enthusiasm. “Gloria and I were impressed by the missionaries’ sincerity and the genuineness of the message,” Fred recalls of his and his wife’s ready conversion. But their daughter, Rebecca, was not so receptive.
“Nettie and I had been friends,” explains Rebecca, “but religion can be a touchy subject, and another friend had brought a film and some literature critical of the Church. I was confused. I told my dad, ‘I’ll be watching you to see what this new faith does to your life.’ Three months later I asked my dad to baptize me.”
Since their baptism, the Calvos have brought others into the Church. It is part of a loving and caring sequence, and the sharing continues as Brother Calvo now serves as first counselor in the stake mission presidency and as Rebecca serves as a stake missionary.
They Teach the Less-Active and Part-Member Families
Frank Gilpin is now branch president of the Aransas Pass Branch, but long before his baptism in the fall of 1989 he had intended to join the Church. “Ever since an associate in the navy answered my questions about the purpose of life,” Frank says, “I’ve considered myself a latent Mormon, but transfers and other distractions kept me from settling down long enough to get baptized. When I met Ruth and found she was a member, I decided it was time.”
When Frank and Ruth moved to Corpus Christi in July 1989, they called the Church. Full-time missionaries Farrel Metcalf, then serving as branch president, and his wife, Marjorie, met with them and became friends. “The rest is history,” says Frank. “Ruth is our Primary president and a real missionary herself. Now our children, April, thirteen, and Aaron, eleven, love the Church as much as we do.”
Attendance at the Aransas Pass Branch has more than doubled since the Metcalfs, Gilpins, and other branch members began working with less-active and part-member families. Through their efforts, ten families who had been either part-member families or only partly active are now fully active and serving in the branch.
In the Port Lavaca Branch, Mei and Hakkas Ku, from Taipei, Taiwan, have similar reason to rejoice. Mei had been a member for ten years—she joined the Church in Taipei—and her hopes had been high that her husband, Hakkas, and son, Eugene, would also join. In January 1990, her hopes were rewarded when Hakkas, who is a civil engineer, was baptized with Eugene. Since that time, Hakkas and Mei have been very active stake missionaries and have brought two families into the Church and referred many of their friends to the missionaries. So has Eugene. His younger brother, Duncan, is not yet eight, but he shakes hands like a missionary.
Teenagers Have the Enthusiasm of New Converts
Perhaps the most unusual dimension of the stake missionary program in the Corpus Christi stake is the high rate of participation among the youth.
Recently, the priests quorum in the small Robstown Branch helped the full-time missionaries prepare a missionary fireside and then invited their friends to enjoy classes, talks, and refreshments. Haskell Moore, the branch mission leader, says, “The youth understand very well how to use the three-step program for setting up missionary meetings with their friends—prepare, invite, and follow up. These three words are on the lips of our youth almost as much as other teenage talk. We’re proud of these kids.”
Sixteen full-time missionaries are currently serving from the stake, and nearly all had been stake or ward missionaries before they went. The youth also help their wards or branches by serving in other callings. Erik Harp, who is now serving in the California Fresno Mission after being a member for only three years, was the deacons quorum adviser and a ward missionary. “I can’t imagine better preparation for my mission than I’ve had bringing two friends into the Church and others very close to baptism,” Erik declares. “The full-time elders I’ve worked with have taught me so much.”
Jennifer Frost, whose father presides over the Texas Corpus Christi Mission, served as a missionary in the Corpus Christi Second Ward when she was a senior in high school. Jennifer recalls, “It’s important to conquer the initial fear, and the best way to do it is to forget about yourself so you can really bless the lives of other people.”
Even junior high-age youth in the stake participate. Vito Torres, sixteen, who is now a member of the Port Lavaca Branch, went to Church activities—“especially sports and Scouting”—with Daniel and David Herrera for eight years. Another young teen, Kathy Vela, seventeen, whose father, Julio, is the branch mission leader, has served willingly and had great experiences. But Kathy’s younger brother, Gilbert, “didn’t want to be seen with the missionaries,” Brother Vela says. “But once Gilbert went out with the elders, it became cool. Now he enjoys doing it.”
One means of involving the youth of the Port Lavaca Branch in missionary work has been the way Mondo and Rosemary Luna gather the youth and get them to activities. Brother Luna sees that the youth get to Church events all over the stake. “We have the kids bring their friends to go to the stake dances, plays, games, and whatever. Kids have become excited about sharing the gospel as these activities have brought the youth together.” His wife, Rosemary, coaches girls’ basketball and has a small shop where local youth gather.
From Priesthood Executive Committee meetings to teenage gatherings in a member’s store, the subject that is most often on the minds of Church members in Corpus Christi, Texas, is how they can share their faith, hope, and charity with friends. By all accounts, they are succeeding. President Noble reports, in fact, that one-third of the members of the Corpus Christi stake—1,300 members—have come into the Church in the last four years.