In an area known for its hot food and sunny skies, the love of active Latter-day Saints is warming the hearts of south-central New Mexico’s less-active Church members and leading them back to the fold. That love, coupled with increased emphasis on prayer and scripture study, is manifest in the labor of concerned leaders, committed home and visiting teachers, and members who are slow to judge but quick to welcome.
Home to seven wards and five branches, the culturally rich Las Cruces New Mexico Stake is headquartered in the city of Las Cruces in the fertile Mesilla Valley. From there, stake boundaries extend thirty-six miles northwest to the town of Hatch (the “Chili Capital of the World”) and another forty-five miles north to Truth or Consequences (named after a popular 1960s television show). Northeast of Las Cruces, the stake stretches through the arid White Sands Missile Range to the city of Alamogordo sixty-five miles away, then an additional thirty-five miles northeast to the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation.
Nestled between the Organ Mountains on the east and the historic Rio Grande on the west, the Mesilla Valley is home to some of the largest pecan groves in the United States, as well as fields of chili peppers, onions, cotton, and lettuce. The area’s harvest, however, extends beyond agriculture.
Church members who take seriously the Lord’s admonition to the converted that they strengthen their brothers and sisters (see Luke 22:32) are reaping the blessings of seeing the less active return to the Church.
“The kind of members who are successful at activation sincerely love people and sincerely care about their welfare,” says President Boyden E. Lee of the Las Cruces stake. “They are thoroughly dependable and committed. Those being reactivated feel their heart, their faith, their love, and their sincerity. And they respond.”
Nowhere is the activation harvest more plentiful than in the recently organized Spanish-speaking Miranda Branch.
Attendance at the Miranda Branch more than doubled within a year of its organization in 1992 as activated members joined new converts and active members who had been attending English-speaking wards. Today, sacrament meeting attendance hovers at 70 percent, the highest in the stake.
“They feel that this is their branch, and they really want it to succeed. The result is that they come out,” President Lee says.
President Lee, a Canadian native who speaks little Spanish, felt the need for a Spanish branch as soon as he was called to be stake president in May 1992. He therefore proposed the branch’s organization in the Mesilla Valley, and he encouraged increased activation efforts among Spanish members.
“The Doctrine and Covenants says that in the last days we will all hear the gospel preached in our own language, but these folks were not hearing the gospel preached in their language,” President Lee says. Many Spanish-speaking members would sit quietly on the back row during Church meetings at English-speaking wards in Las Cruces, unable to fully participate in their wards because of the language barrier. Some drifted from the Church.
“It was time to invite them to come in, to make a place at the table for them,” President Lee says. That invitation proved fruitful.
Unknown to stake leaders at the time, many Spanish-speaking members with Church leadership experience had moved to the Mesilla Valley. Among those members were several returned missionaries and two former branch presidents—one who had served in Mexico, the other in California.
“Work situations brought them here, and they found themselves clustered within the confines of our stake,” President Lee says. “My counselors and I felt that the Lord had been gradually moving these people here so they could each play a role in supporting the branch when it was organized. When we began conducting interviews to organize the branch, we were absolutely amazed at the quality of leaders and experience here that we had not known about.”
Two of those leaders, heavily involved with branch activation efforts, are Andreas Elicio, the Miranda Branch president, and Lucio Ruiz, branch mission leader. President Lee calls these brethren two of the best fellowshippers in the stake.
President Elicio and his wife, Eloysa, spend countless hours visiting less-active members. President Elicio interviews and challenges these members, and he encourages branch members to follow the stake president’s hard-working example and to heed his call to fast and to pray for activation and missionary efforts.
“President Lee is committed 100 percent to serving the Lord. He does everything himself that he tells stake members to do,” says President Elicio, who envisions a Spanish-speaking ward in the near future and is working toward that goal.
“Any time your heart is committed, the Lord is there to help you,” he says. “When we quit making excuses, take our responsibilities seriously, and commit to the Lord’s work, he blesses us. We are committed here, and the Lord is answering our prayers as leaders of the branch and leaders of the stake. The members are responding.”
The Spanish branch has been a blessing to activated members Jesus and Graciela Cuevas. They attribute their inactivity to sporadic home teaching visits, their failure to maintain contact with fellow Latter-day Saints, and the absence of a Spanish branch when they moved to Las Cruces in 1990.
“We needed someone to support us, to invite us again to meetings, and to let us know we were missed,” Brother Cuevas says. “One of the primary things that has helped us become activated is renewed fellowshipping with our brothers and sisters, and their desire to see us activated.”
Brother Ruiz, who helped the Cuevas family return to activity in the Church, says activation success results from obedience to the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:39).
“The secret is to help them feel that they are truly your brothers and sisters, to be their friend, and to help them any way you can,” says Brother Ruiz.
Persistence and love also are generating success in the Mescalero Branch, which serves members living on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in the scenic Sacramento Mountains. Sunday attendance has jumped from less than twenty members to an average of fifty as branch leaders and active members have increased efforts to visit and strengthen less-active members, and invite them to the branch’s newly remodeled and enlarged chapel. More than a dozen members recently made their first trip to the Arizona Temple to receive their endowments and to do baptisms for the dead.
“A whole new spirit has entered into that area,” President Lee says. “We have people going to the temple who never would have considered it a year ago.”
Branch President Ralph Beckwith says much activation work remains. “We have started to make some inroads just by simply not giving up,” he says. “My emphasis is on trying to help the individual members develop their personal testimonies of the gospel.”
Branch leaders, who live thirty-five miles away in Alamogordo, typically visit the town of Mescalero and outlying areas every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for youth activities, Relief Society homemaking meeting, and home teaching. Full-time missionaries based in Alamogordo give activation efforts an added boost by laboring several days a month in Mescalero.
“We enjoy coming back,” says Lavina Gallarito, who has returned to Church activity with her husband, John. “We just needed people to show they cared and wanted us back.”
The stake Relief Society president, Lorraine Nielsen, says home teachers and visiting teachers throughout the stake often provide the only contact some members have with the Church. For that reason, she asked that the stake’s visiting teachers eliminate “do not visit” lists—lists of less-active sisters who are had requested that they not be visited.
Sister Nielsen and other stake leaders say these formal visits, which some less-active members oppose, are not the only way to fellowship and strengthen those who no longer attend church. Church members who develop and maintain friendships with the less active have ample opportunities to touch hearts in a variety of settings.
“Members should not stop being friends just because someone is less active,” Sister Nielsen says. “I was the visiting teacher of a very dear less-active friend for years, and she never realized it. Everybody can be reached by somebody. We sometimes think that if someone is not reactivated in a few months, we give up on them. But we should never give up. Sometimes it takes years.”
Or, in the case of Hyrum Smith Gailey, sometimes it takes decades.
Brother Gailey, named by his convert parents after Hyrum Smith, lost contact with the Church while working for International Railways in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1940s and 1950s. Because he lived in an area where members were very few and Church missionary efforts were just beginning, “for twenty years I was disconnected,” he recalls.
In 1972, Brother Gailey settled in Alamogordo with his wife, “Chula” (a Spanish term of endearment).
“I was a little slow-moving, and it was difficult for me to get started again in the Church,” he says. “My wife, even though she was not a member, often encouraged me to go back.”
Sister Gailey began preparing for her own baptism, but passed away in 1991 before joining the Church. A retired locksmith, Brother Gailey says the key to his heart was the warmth of stake high councilor Chat McMurdie. Brother McMurdie has faithfully home taught the Gaileys for the past decade. Chat and his wife, Linda, have made Hyrum a part of their family, thereby helping ease the sorrow and loneliness that followed his wife’s death.
“Chat has been a big influence in my life and still is,” Hyrum says. “I depend on him for a lot of things. He checks on me every day now that I’m alone. He’s what I believe a Latter-day Saint should be. We say ‘brother this’ and ‘brother that,’ but Chat is precisely that. And he’s my friend. I wouldn’t be active if Chat hadn’t been a faithful home teacher. He’s busy, but he always takes time out for me.”
Brother Gailey was eighty-four years old when he returned to full activity in the Church. A year after his wife’s death, he received his temple endowments, had his wife’s temple work done, and was then sealed to her by proxy. Gospel knowledge, loving support from members of the Alamogordo First Ward, and faith born of activation have sustained him through the loss of his wife.
Chat McMurdie says Church members who are committed to serving their Heavenly Father and his children never give up on their less-active brothers and sisters, regardless of age.
“I don’t think I’ve done anything extra special,” Brother McMurdie says. “I just think the Lord was able to use me. Touching a person’s life is important. It takes a long time sometimes, but home teaching is the key to activation. And the key to effective home teaching is personal priesthood interviews. I think that’s why things have happened in the stake, and why others have been activated.”
Stake leaders believe home teaching is incomplete without personal priesthood interviews, which give home teachers and priesthood leaders the opportunity to report on their responsibilities. President Lee attributes much of the stake’s activation success to the accountability generated by renewed emphasis on personal priesthood interviews.
“Performance measured is performance improved,” he says. “When we know we are going to be held accountable, we do a better job.”
The Las Cruces New Mexico Stake has grown steadily since 1939 when President Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the Mount Graham stake in Arizona, organized the stake’s first independent branch in Las Cruces. Local members are fond of the fact that pioneer Church members reached what is now the Las Cruces New Mexico Stake—thanks to the Mormon Battalion’s passing by Hatch in 1846—before any of the Saints reached Utah.
The stake is now home to more than 3,200 members. As the number of Latter-day Saints in the area has grown, so have faith, commitment, and spiritual vigilance. As a result, members feel keenly the loss of any brother or sister who becomes less active. Debra Greene, a member of the Las Cruces First Ward, is grateful that concern for the less active exceeds stake members’ fear of rejection.
“At first I didn’t even know she was a member,” remembers Loni Miller, who had several classes with Sister Greene at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. To earn extra credit in one class, students were invited to write uplifting messages on the chalkboard. Sister Miller chose quotes from the Doctrine and Covenants, which led to a discussion with Sister Greene.
“The only time Debra ever got close to the Church,” Loni says, “was when she got a flat tire right next to the stake center.”
Actually, Sister Greene got flat tires on two separate occasions next to the stake center. At the time, she felt the flats were more than coincidence, but she avoided seeking help at the stake center for either her deflated tires or her deflated testimony. Upset about the poor reception she felt her then non-member husband, Robert, received from some members of a previous ward, Sister Greene had quit attending church shortly before moving to Las Cruces in 1990 with her husband and their sons, Rickie, 19, and Robby, 11. Her visits with Sister Miller, however, softened her heart.
“I really believe it was time for me to go back to church,” Sister Greene says. “And it was time for Robert to join the Church. Everything was in line with what Heavenly Father wanted to have happen. But we’re free to make our choices. My choices had stopped my progression. But Loni grabbed me lovingly. She was the person God sent for me to run into.”
Prompted by Loni’s example and encouragement, Ricky’s decision to attend church, and Robbie’s desire to learn more about the Church, the family welcomed home teachers, visiting teachers, and the full-time missionaries. Through prayer and a priesthood blessing, Robert overcame Word of Wisdom problems, and he and Robbie were baptized in January 1992. In retrospect, the Greene family views the events as miraculous.
“I didn’t realize how much pain Debra was in by not being active in the Church, and I wonder how much pain others are in by not participating in the Church,” Robert said. “To come into our life when she did, Loni was like a quiet angel.”
Loni says Debra’s activation shows the importance of Heavenly Father’s children helping their brothers and sisters along the path toward perfection. Sister Miller, a single mother with four children, refuses to let her struggles dissuade her from being her sister’s keeper.
“Heavenly Father can help us no matter what circumstances we’re in,” she says. “If we’ve got the desire and are willing to do our part, he will bless us in our activation efforts. We don’t have to wait until our lives are perfect. No matter what our circumstances, we shouldn’t be afraid, because Heavenly Father knows when our heart is in the right place. One of the greatest things I have learned is that we never know who will be affected by our example or when they’ll be affected—even those who say they’ll never come back.”
Sometimes that example need be little more than a handshake or a simple “welcome back.” Robert Murphy, a high priest in the Las Cruces First Ward, knows firsthand the importance of being welcomed home. Baptized in 1976, Brother Murphy served in a variety of leadership positions for about ten years before becoming less active in the Church after his divorce.
“I guess I was searching for happiness, or thought I was,” recalls Robert of his quest for happiness outside the gospel. “But I finally realized that if I didn’t turn things around, I was going to go to the bottom of the barrel. I was not happy at all. I knew something was missing.”
While rereading his patriarchal blessing, Robert realized that he had let his Heavenly Father down by neglecting the gospel in his life. Nudged by his conscience, he went to see his bishop.
“It was hard for me to go back to church,” he says. “But when I went a time or two, I found that the other members didn’t scorn me or look down upon me. They were all so friendly. They showed me so much compassion, and they were delighted I was there. There wasn’t anyone there putting me down. They just welcomed me back.”
Had ward members been less accepting when he returned to church in 1991, Brother Murphy says his road to activity would have been much more arduous.
“I can remember the first time I took the sacrament after returning to church. That one piece of broken bread was the best tasting bread I ever had in my life. I just wanted to stand up and shout! Church is where I want to be. What I would say to anybody who is less active is that they can always come back and start over. Just don’t give up.”
Today, Brother Murphy manages the bishops’ storehouse and serves in the Scouting program. Fittingly, he has another call: greeting members on Sunday and welcoming them to the ward that embraced him upon his return.
The joy over those who return to the fold is not limited to heaven. Like others who have returned to full activity in the Church, Robert Murphy, Debra Greene, Hyrum Smith Gailey, John and Lavina Gallarito, and Jesus and Graciela Cuevas have experienced that joy for themselves here on earth—thanks to the love, example, and labor of their brothers and sisters in the Las Cruces New Mexico Stake.