Tucked in between the Ozark Mountains to the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the south is the Arkansas River valley. Often referred to as Arklahoma by locals, this valley is where Oklahoma bumps Arkansas, where the deep South meets the Midwest, where the Bible Belt begins, and where churches outnumber fast-food restaurants in most of the country communities. It’s also the home of the Fort Smith Arkansas Stake, a large stake that rambles over four thousand square miles in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.
Stake missionaries and members in the Fort Smith area have found that many challenges and blessings come with living in a land where other devout Christians also plan their lives around church activities. Religion is nothing new to their neighbors and friends, but some of the principles of the restored gospel are.
However, these missionary-minded members have also discovered that a deep feeling of family comforts them through tough times and gives them courage to share their testimonies. And the Fort Smith “family,” like many wonderful families, enjoys powerful leadership, an abundance of love, and a great willingness to get involved in the welfare of others.
It would be difficult to pinpoint the most effective member missionary in the Fort Smith area. Certainly the effort started with the Oklahoma Tulsa Mission president himself. Former mission president Glenn Wardrop, who recently completed his assignment, knew what was going on in each unit of the six stakes that were part of his mission. At a glance he could see the monthly and yearly goals for each unit as well as the progress of each newly baptized convert. He met monthly with each stake presidency and stake mission presidency to review that information.
“The missionary work in the Fort Smith stake is exemplary,” President Wardrop points out. The new mission president, R. Clair Miles, has followed that precedent. “They’re setting records for baptisms, and they work so well together, encouraging and helping each other.” The president also recognized the importance of member referrals.
“The first year I was mission president, I had the missionaries increase their daily tracting by two hours,” President Wardrop explains. “The increase in baptisms was minimal.
“However, I noticed that 58 percent of the people baptized were member referrals. When I studied it closer, I realized that 80 percent of all people contacted through member referrals were baptized. This year we’re focusing on member referrals.”
But you can’t focus on member referrals without focusing on the members. That’s where the stake missionary program comes in. Under the direction of stake president Robert Pommerville and former stake mission president David McDonough (recently released to serve in the Fort Smith Ward bishopric), the stake has consistently increased its baptisms, from 91 baptisms in 1991 to 145 in 1993. This is a stake that understands the importance of numbers but places an even higher value on individuals.
“As stake missionaries, we definitely have baptism goals,” President McDonough said. “And though we emphasize personal finding efforts to assist the full-time missionaries, the baptisms are primarily their responsibility; we stake missionaries are responsible for the new member discussions. It’s so important to see that every new member receives all those discussions, receives the priesthood if he is male, speaks with the bishop, and is well on his or her way to the temple within a year of baptism. That’s what we focus on—teaching those discussions and finding member referrals.”
Because of the size of the stake, stake missionary training meetings are only held biannually. During the rest of the year, the stake mission president and his counselors travel from ward to branch, speaking about missionary work during sacrament meetings. “You know,” President McDonough often points out, “being called as a stake missionary is like being called to pay your tithing. Your Church calling is something you’re already expected to do; there is little that a stake missionary does that all members shouldn’t be doing.” Usually on those Sunday speaking jaunts, the stake missionaries meet together with the stake mission president for training meetings as well.
But the best training is done by example. Joseph (Joey) Ness, recently released as second counselor in the stake mission presidency, is a case in point. As a newly returned missionary, he was called as a counselor and was “practically bursting with missionary zeal, always looking for an opportunity to share the gospel,” President McDonough says.
It was not uncommon to find Joey, a student at Westark Community College in Fort Smith, surrounded by a curious group of friends and enthusiastically explaining the gospel. “That’s one of my first memories of him,” reports Matt Robertson, eighteen, who was baptized in March. The two were in the college’s choir, and Matt heard bits and pieces of gospel doctrine while quietly listening to Joey’s conversations on the bus rides home after concerts.
On New Year’s Eve, Joey called Matt and asked if he would like to attend a dance in Tulsa sponsored by the singles ward located there. The two-hour ride provided an excellent opportunity to talk about a lot of things, including religion. A month and a half later, when Joey asked if he wanted to go back to Tulsa for the ward’s Valentine Day dance, Matt jumped at the chance. He wanted to talk about the Church again.
Living alone and with nothing but a bicycle for transportation, Matt sometimes found it difficult to attend Church meetings and activities. However, Joey picked him up for everything from missionary discussions to singles activities to sacrament meeting.
“He’s my friend and my brother,” Matt says simply.
The members in Wilburton, Oklahoma, a small community in the southwestern tip of the stake, are also “on fire,” according to Shirley Hernandez, one of the newest converts there. “We’re excited about what’s happening, and we want to share it with others.”
What’s happening in Wilburton is growth coupled with enthusiasm, which has resulted in the creation of the stake’s twelfth unit. For years, members in the area drove at least half an hour in either direction (Wilburton sits between two Church units and boundaries split the area in half) to attend Church meetings. However, with stake approval and under the faithful guidance of Orson and Nola Boyce, members in the area began meeting as a small group last year, and in March, the Wilburton Branch was created.
The Boyces have a deep love for the people in this fledgling branch. Two years ago they were called to serve in the Oklahoma Tulsa Mission. Their last eleven months were spent laboring in Talihina and Wilburton. When they were released last December, they went home to Indiana for two weeks, long enough to visit three of their children. (The other five live in Utah.) Then they returned to Wilburton because “we were needed, and the people loved us,” Sister Boyce explains.
They now serve as stake missionaries, devoted to these people they call their “other family.” And while the branch has no other officially called stake missionaries, everyone gets involved in the missionary effort. Wilburton is home to members like the Andersons and Mabrys—families who have lived in the area for years, quietly setting examples and impressing neighbors—as well as new converts like Sister Hernandez and others who share her enthusiasm.
Across the Ouachita Mountains to the east, members in Mena, Arkansas, have also found many new family ties in the gospel. Mena is a tiny town located at one end of the picturesque Tahlimena drive. It’s one of the few “dry” communities left in the country (no alcoholic beverages can be purchased within the town limits), and almost everyone in town has heard of the Latter-day Saints.
For example, Sandy knew that Jay Spitzer was a Latter-day Saint. He’d traded in her store for years before asking her out. Within a few months, they were talking about marriage and religion. “Jay asked me to look into the Church,” Sandy says. “It was never a condition of our marriage; it was just something he asked me to consider.”
So she did. She attended meetings for three weeks before listening to the missionary discussions. And although some of the gospel ideas were certainly new, she had no qualms about the members. “It was so different,” she remembers. “They were friendly; they made me feel wanted.”
As she listened to the discussions, she felt something different as well. “People were teaching about a life after death,” she says. “It was a new concept, a little bit of hope.”
Although Sandy has close family in Mena, she considers branch members family too. “There’s no doubt that if I ever needed them, they’d be here in an instant,” she says.
Sandy Spitzer (she and Jay were married almost two years ago) has now joined the host of missionary members in Mena. Her family and friends had “a lot of misconceptions about the Church before I got baptized,” she explains. “I’ve answered a lot of their questions, and I bring up religion often.”
In the Fort Smith family, there is a great concern for others. The wards and branches are close-knit, and lives intertwine daily, not just on Sunday. The Elmers and Parkinsons are good examples. Three years ago the families hadn’t even met; today hardly a day goes by that they don’t see or talk to each other.
Rick and Linda Parkinson are native Oklahomans who ended up in McAlester, Oklahoma, via Tulsa and Muskogee. Roger and Melissa Elmer, both reared in Latter-day Saint homes, moved into the area from Arizona three years ago when Roger Elmer bought the local chiropractic practice. The families first met when Rick Parkinson came in for an appointment. As Rick and Roger talked, they discovered a mutual interest in martial arts; in fact, Roger Elmer now teaches a weekly class. They shared some tai chi tidbits and met each other’s families. A few months later the Parkinsons’ only child, Richard, came home with five cakes from the school cake walk, and the family wondered what to do with the winnings.
“The Elmers have four children, so naturally we thought they could use them,” explained Rick. They showed up on the Elmers’ doorstep with cakes and an invitation: “Do you want to come to our house for dinner and games?”
“We’d lived in the area for five years and still didn’t have any close friends,” Linda Parkinson explains. “It felt awkward asking the Elmers over, but we were willing to take that risk.”
The Elmers couldn’t make it that night, but they came a week later. “We did something on Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night, and Monday night,” says Melissa. “I guess you could say we hit it off from the very beginning.”
Within a few weeks the Elmers, who were stake missionaries, had invited the Parkinsons to several ward activities, but the topic of the gospel hadn’t come up. Rick Parkinson remarked that he wished they could find a congregation of his church that felt so warm, and Linda observed that she felt the Lord’s presence there. But they weren’t ready for the missionary discussions yet.
A few months later, the Elmers invited the Parkinsons to church for Easter Sunday. Plans were made, but about two o’clock Sunday morning, Melissa Elmer went to the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy. Linda Parkinson came over to watch the children, and that morning she and Rick went to the McAlester Ward with the Elmer children. When Roger and Melissa Elmer came home from the hospital that afternoon, they were amazed that their friends had attended Latter-day Saint church services without them. Linda saw nothing unusual. “It was Easter Sunday,” she explains simply.
It was another month before the Parkinsons attended church again, this time to listen to Melissa sing in sacrament meeting. They also went to the Gospel Essentials class. When Melissa asked Linda what she thought of the lesson, Linda said she’d already read the lesson for next week on the gift of the Holy Ghost and had even found some additional scriptures not listed in the manual that supported the lesson idea.
But it wasn’t going to be that easy. It was still several weeks before the Parkinsons agreed to listen to the missionary discussions, and they were full of questions, especially Rick. After the missionaries left, the Elmers often stayed, answering questions and bearing their testimonies. They frequently assured the Parkinsons that their friendship would remain intact regardless of their decision about Church membership. Once they left, the Parkinsons usually stayed up another hour or so talking.
Although Linda was ready for baptism, “this is not a decision I was taking lightly,” Rick explains. “I wanted to know everything before I made any kind of decision. The missionaries would encourage me to pray about each concept and discussion; I was convinced that I needed to wait until I’d heard it all.”
Finally, however, he decided to give the missionaries’ method a try. Because he was struggling with the idea of Joseph Smith as a prophet, he prayed about that. One night, in the wee morning hours, he crept to the living room and knelt down. “I felt a spiritual presence, an electric feeling,” he describes. “I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet.” He adds, “I didn’t know if I should get baptized, though.”
A few days later while driving in the car, he was pondering again. This time he was thinking about modern-day prophets. Again, he felt peace. And this time, a distinct thought came to his mind: Next you’re going to ask if you should get baptized. The answer is yes.
The Parkinsons were baptized in August 1993, and both families are now looking for others with whom to share their testimonies and friendship. “We have a favorite phrase in our ward,” Roger says. “‘Who’s next to join our family?’”
It’s a phrase shared by many in the Fort Smith stake. “The goals of our stake are extremely basic,” observes Robert Pommerville, stake president. “We encourage our members to have individual and family prayer, to have individual and family scripture study, to do their home and visiting teaching, and to attend the temple. If they do the basics, everything else happens. When you see a ward or branch that is missionary minded, you see a Church unit that is focusing on those basics.”