“And this is according to the prophecy, that they shall again be brought to the true knowledge, which is the knowledge of their Redeemer, and their great and true shepherd, and be numbered among his sheep” (Hel. 15:13).
Eddie James huddles with several young teenage boys in his backyard. They break and then line up in formation. At the snap the game begins, and Eddie launches a well-worn football into the sky. The yard is small, but every corner is used during these football games, a regular neighborhood activity. The James home is also modest, and sometimes it seems to burst at the seams with Eddie’s three sons and their friends. But Eddie and his wife, Cassandra, would have it no other way.
“We live in downtown Jackson,” says Brother James, who currently serves as Young Men president in the Jackson (Mississippi) Ward. “There are a lot of single-parent homes, a lot of kids looking for something to do. What an opportunity for me to spend time with these kids, set an example for them, let them know I respect them and expect them to respect me. That’s what I’m trying to do in the backyard with these boys.”
Eight years ago missionaries knocked on the Jameses’ door and helped bring about a tremendous change in their lives. “I became focused on Jesus Christ, on my family, and what we could be,” Brother James explains. The couple was baptized; later they were sealed in the temple. For several years they served as stake missionaries, usually going out with the full-time missionaries at least twice a week.
Although no longer a stake missionary, Brother James continues to share the gospel through example, testimony, and neighborhood football games. He knows that it is his duty and privilege as a member of the Church to be a faithful shepherd and feed the Lord’s sheep (see John 21:15–17).
Brother James is only one of many faithful missionary members in the Jackson Mississippi Stake, a stake that sprawls through the center of this Bible Belt state.
“As a stake, we take very seriously the Lord’s admonition to feed his sheep,” says C. Elmer Black Jr., stake president. “We start at the stake presidency level by trying to show through example our love and concern for the ‘sheep’ in this stake. We have thought seriously about shepherding; we talk a lot about it.”
But while President Black preaches shepherding from the pulpit, actions speak louder than words. It’s what he and the other stake leaders do when they’ve finished talking that truly speaks of their commitment to sharing the gospel themselves and helping stake members do the same.
“We have missionary moments in every stake priesthood executive meeting and high council meeting,” President Black says. “We use a rotation basis and keep minutes. During every meeting half of us in attendance will report on a missionary experience we’ve had. The next time we report, we check the minutes and follow up on specific people that we’ve mentioned in the past.”
Stake leaders have benefited from these regular reminders. They have given away copies of the Book of Mormon, invited friends and colleagues to Church activities, and answered hundreds of questions about Latter-day Saint doctrine. A few have even seen friends or colleagues baptized.
Mike Robinson, a counselor in the stake presidency, works with Pam Clark in the public affairs department of the Mississippi Levy Commission. Last year she asked him a few questions about the Church, and he started reporting on her interest during the regular priesthood executive meetings.
“I had just gone through a divorce, and I felt something was missing in my life,” Pam explains. “I’d seen the way Mike lived his life, how he thought of his wife and family, the way he treated people. I wondered if maybe he had some answers.”
Pam started listening to the missionaries, and Mike’s wife, Diane, sometimes attended the discussions, answering Pam’s questions and sharing her testimony as well. When Pam attended meetings in the Vicksburg Ward, she immediately felt comfortable. “It was like an extension of my home,” she says. Baptized in August 1994, Pam now feels that “the missing part that I’d always felt is not missing anymore. I feel a lot better about myself, more at peace.”
President Black has invited each bishop and branch president to have missionary moments in leadership meetings and sacrament meetings as well. “This is just a two-minute talk when members share their own conversion stories or experiences of sharing the gospel with a friend, neighbor, or family member,” explains President Black. “It’s a reminder to the members that we’re all missionaries.”
In addition to the missionary moments, the stake presidency likes to visit each of the eleven units in the stake on a quarterly basis. During many of those visits—and always during ward and branch conference—the stake presidency pairs up with the ward or branch presidency and spends the afternoon and evening visiting the “sheep.”
“We grab a sandwich and do a handful of interviews, but then visit people in their homes,” President Black explains. “We visit homes where there is a need for love, encouragement, or priesthood blessings. Sometimes this includes part-member families where there are missionary opportunities, and we try to leave a gospel message.”
“I will never forget as a young man hearing a talk about the difference between a shepherd and a sheepherder,” remembers Jerry Cronin, stake mission president. “I don’t remember who gave the talk or even where I was, but I can clearly recall understanding that a sheepherder is one who is hired for wages to watch over the sheep. He doesn’t necessarily have any feelings for the sheep at all. He puts his time in and goes home.
“A shepherd, on the other hand, has deep love, compassion, and concern for his sheep. He knows each one of them by name. Since that time I’ve always remembered that Christ was a shepherd, not a sheepherder.
“I think that the concept of shepherding is an underlying principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he continues. “Christ’s entire life and all that he said and did revolved around the concept of loving and serving and teaching. As a mission presidency, our focus is to be shepherds, not sheepherders, and we want to encourage members in the stake to be true shepherds as well, caring and loving those around them and looking for opportunities to teach the gospel.”
About one hundred miles north of Jackson is the Kosciusko Branch, which is led by Lester Fowler, a dynamic branch president whose “first and foremost thought is missionary work.”
President Fowler joined the Church in his early twenties, but as time passed he found it harder and harder to attend meetings. After weathering a few of life’s storms, however, he decided the only lasting refuge was found in the gospel, and he returned to full activity, intent on sharing his testimony with others in this small community of seven thousand.
“My wife, who had just been baptized, and I were the only members here. We attended church at the Philadelphia (Mississippi) Branch, almost fifty miles away,” he explains. “So we started by getting the missionaries. They were then in Union City, about fifty miles away. We drove up there, helped them pack, and brought them here. And then we spent every night walking the streets, knocking on the doors and talking to anybody who would listen.”
That was in the early 1970s. A few years later, Brother Fowler was called as mission leader in the branch, so he and his family moved to Philadelphia. “I just felt like I needed to be closer to the branch in order to fulfill that calling,” he says.
In 1982 the Fowlers moved back to Kosciusko, where a small dependent branch had been organized. About forty members attended meetings at the time, but the numbers varied over the next decade, and by the early 1990s only twenty to twenty-five members remained active. In 1990 Brother Fowler was called to be branch president.
“I made missionary work and home teaching priorities,” he says. “I felt an urgency about those things, and I tried to share that urgency with our members.”
Full-time missionaries hadn’t been living in Kosciusko for years. President Fowler approached the mission president about transferring missionaries into the area. He promised that the branch members would work closely with the elders; in fact, he requested that the elders not be assigned a car. “That way we’d be responsible for getting them to appointments and other scheduled activities,” he said.
Kosciusko got its missionaries, and President Fowler’s zeal for missionary work paid off. In the past two years, there have been twenty-five baptisms in the branch. The members regularly bring friends and family to church. Advertisements in the local paper invite people to monthly activities and to the family history center in the small branch building. The fledgling Scout troop has grown and currently consists of nine boys—five from other denominations. A monthly newsletter is sent to active and less-active members alike, informing everyone about branch activities and encouraging one and all to become involved.
Fifty miles southeast the Philadelphia Branch is also thriving. Three years ago on Easter weekend, branch members united in sorrow and love when Jun Kojima, a counselor in the branch presidency, was killed in an airplane accident. While time has eased the pain, eyes still fill with tears and voices are soft when members talk about the tragedy that melded this branch together as few experiences can. While the incident may seem unlinked to missionary work, the resulting unity and compassion are almost tangible, and those visiting the branch are not unaffected.
“One of the strengths of this branch is that when you attend, you’re going to be welcomed,” says Mike Pilgrim, branch mission leader. “In fact, we really believe that if we can just get investigators to attend church, we’ve taken a giant step toward bringing them to Christ. They feel loved and accepted.”
As in many of the smaller branches, full-time missionaries assist Melchizedek Priesthood holders in Philadelphia with home teaching assignments. “This serves several purposes,” says Ernest Westover, president of the Jackson Mississippi Mission. “First, the members, especially new members, are contacted on a regular basis so they can continue to strengthen their testimonies; and second, many of the members live in part-member homes. We have had many conversions result from this because we get the members and the missionaries in contact with people who are interested in the Church.”
Members of the Philadelphia Branch are scattered in parts of seven counties, explains Larry Muse, who is serving his third time as branch president. “It would take hours and hours to do our home teaching if we didn’t split with the missionaries,” he points out. With the help of the missionaries, the branch priesthood holders regularly achieve 80 percent or higher home teaching, and several people from part-member families have been baptized.
Just a few miles outside Philadelphia is the Choctaw Indian reservation, and the branch includes many Choctaw Indians. In fact, a monthly fireside is held on the reservation, where members, investigators, and part-member families gather to watch Church videos, enjoy musical firesides, or listen to the missionaries.
As branch mission leader, Brother Pilgrim oversees these monthly firesides, as well as other missionary activities. “I’ve found that the more specific opportunities you give members, the more they get involved,” he observes. “Many of them want to do missionary work, but they just don’t know exactly how to do it. I see that as my job—to create instances where members can do missionary work.”
Brother Pilgrim is himself a product of member missionary work. He began dating Wendy Pettit, his future wife, in high school. One day they were talking about religion, and he asked her what church she belonged to. When she said she was a Latter-day Saint, he asked her what she believed in.
“Well, we’re different,” she explained. “We believe in a prophet.”
“I worked in the grocery business at the time,” Brother Pilgrim says. “I thought she was talking about a profit, so of course I was interested.”
It didn’t take long for Mike to discover that Wendy was talking about a modern-day prophet. But once that misunderstanding was cleared up, he was still interested. He was baptized two years later.
Some of the growth Church members in Philadelphia have seen can be attributed to years of shepherding in the 1980s. Brother Pilgrim was branch president for thirteen years and spent most Sundays visiting members, investigators, neighbors, and friends. “My counselors and I would leave after church, and sometimes we didn’t get home until quite late at night,” he explains.
During the early days of the branch, meetings were held in members’ homes, an American Legion Hall, a golf course clubhouse, and a warehouse. About ten years ago, branch sacrament meeting attendance averaged forty, enough to warrant a new building. The neat little meetinghouse, which sits at the edge of town on a peaceful, wooded lot, is a source of pride for branch members.
During the past decade, growth has been “slow but steady,” reports President Muse, and during the last two years, membership has increased by more than thirty. “Some weeks we have more than one hundred people, and they are sitting everywhere but in the closets,” he says. “We’ve been hoping to be approved for an expansion soon, and the branch members are thrilled. Our family is growing.”
Almost two hundred miles south, on the other end of the Jackson stake, members in Magee are doing their part in the shepherding work. Less than ten years ago, membership in the Magee Branch had dwindled to only seven or eight active members. “Then we had a couple of families move in and another family became active,” remembers Marvin Butler, who was serving as branch president at the time. “When the mission president saw our numbers grow, he sent some missionaries down here to help.”
Brother Butler, who is retired, and his wife, Mattie, sometimes spent forty or fifty hours a week working with the missionaries. Brother Butler had joined the Church in 1980 but was less active until a car accident in 1985 put him in the hospital for three months. “That accident changed my perspective,” he says. “We came home from the hospital on Saturday, and the next day I was at church. We’ve been going ever since.
“But when I was called to be branch president, I just didn’t know much about missionary work,” he says candidly. “However, I poured my heart into it and did my best.”
Following President Butler, Robert Fauver, a 26-year-old returned missionary from Georgia who had started a business and moved his family into the area, was called as branch president. Within weeks of accepting the call, President Fauver began holding meetings with the branch mission president and full-time missionaries. The group fasted, prayed, discussed, and came up with the “Magee Branch Mission Plan.”
“It’s a list of things that we thought the Lord would have us do to experience success in the branch,” President Fauver explains. Branch leaders committed to be in touch twice a week with the missionaries to review needs; to split with the missionaries on a weekly basis; to pray daily for the missionaries and their investigators by name; to assign fellowshippers for investigators who progressed beyond the second discussion; to teach the new-member discussions regularly; to hold a missionary fireside every six weeks; and to hold cottage meetings every other week.
“We knew that if we could do these things, the Lord would bless us,” President Fauver says. “It hasn’t been easy. Only months after creating the mission plan, the branch mission leader and the stake missionaries moved, and things were in disarray. But we’re getting fully staffed again.”
Most Sundays the Magee Branch now has more than thirty members in attendance. Meetings are held in a leased home, where chairs line the halls and fill converted classrooms and the kitchen. Like members in Philadelphia, branch members are crossing their fingers, hoping that they’ll be approved for building expansion soon.
“Our numbers are growing,” President Fauver acknowledges. “But while numbers are important, they are just representative of what really matters—people. I love to share the gospel with people because of the difference it can make in their lives, the hope and peace it can bring. There is a lot of work to be done here, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”
Being a part of the shepherding work isn’t easy, but it’s important. “We’re hopeful—and we’re disappointed sometimes. But we try never to be discouraged,” says President Black. “One of my favorite scriptures is 2 Nephi 31:20 [2 Ne. 31:20]: ‘Ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.’
“When you think of shepherding, you can’t help but think of the brightness of hope and love that come from feeding the sheep and from following the Shepherd.”
Combining activation efforts and missionary work has paid off in the Clinton Ward, Jackson Mississippi Stake. One of the first things ward mission leader Ken Cronin did when he was called six months ago was sift through ward records. He came up with a list of seventy-one individuals or families who had joined the Church within the last two years but who had become less active.
With approval from the mission president and stake president, Brother Cronin and five priesthood brethren went on monthly splits with the six pairs of full-time missionaries assigned to the ward. “It was our goal to visit each of these seventy-one individuals or families several times in a six-month period,” he explains. “After the initial two or three visits, we are now beginning to invite the members to either hear the discussions again or participate in the new-member discussions.
“These are struggling members who desperately need some kind of fellowshipping,” he continues. “Many of them have welcomed us, and we are excited about the potential for activation as well as for new members. Some of them live in part-member homes, and their spouses or children or siblings are showing interest in hearing the gospel as well.”
In addition, ward mission leaders plan monthly missionary firesides and encourage members to bring friends, family, and neighbors. “We had 364 attend a musical fireside that the full-time missionaries presented,” Brother Cronin says. “We handed out 170 invitations to members and asked them to invite people they thought might be interested. The invitations were already stamped, so all the members had to do was address them.”
Nearly sixty individuals or families indicated their interest in the gospel by signing a guest book. Those people are now being given a copy of the Book of Mormon by either the full-time missionaries or the members who initially invited them. “We’ll continue to invite those people to future activities and follow up with them,” Brother Cronin says.
In the Clinton Ward, leaders organize a monthly trip to the Atlanta Georgia Temple, about four hundred miles away. “In January it was the ward mission leadership’s turn to plan the trip,” says Brother Cronin. “We took nine new converts who had been members for at least ninety days, and they did baptisms for the dead.
“This allowed them to feel the spirit of the temple early in their Church experience. Hearing them talk about it now, you know it’s an experience they treasure. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as well.”
More than a century ago, the United States was ripped apart over the issue of slavery. But today the restored gospel continues to be a healing balm and force for mutual understanding and unity among members of all races and backgrounds. They attend church together, worshipping and learning about love, service, and Heavenly Father’s plan for them.
Janice Nemore and her two children are the only active black members in the Kosciusko Branch. The first Sunday they attended meetings, Janice’s son mentioned to her that there were no other blacks. “After the meetings we stood in the doorway, and I said, ‘Well, let’s make up our minds right now,’” Janice remembers. “‘Do we want to go to church because there are other blacks there or because we know it’s Heavenly Father’s church?’ They looked at me and said, ‘We’ll be back.’ And that was the end of that.
“When people ask me why I come to this church, I tell them that I know God is my Heavenly Father, that I am his child, and that this is the true church. It is in this gospel of Jesus Christ that I have found the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, regardless of whom I’m sitting next to. There is no prejudice within these walls.”
While blacks in the outlying communities are joining the Church more slowly, in Jackson many more are finding joy in the restored gospel. At one point the number of active members in the Jackson Ward included almost as many black members as white members.
“I don’t even think of the members as black or white,” observes Mary Harris, a member of the Jackson Ward. “I think of them as kind and loving. I feel that everyone is simply trying to keep their covenants and live the gospel.”
Two years ago when Mary joined the Church, her son questioned his mother about attending a “white” church. “I told him that you didn’t have to be white to love God, and it was in this church that I’d found acceptance and a better understanding of the whole gospel. I’d found pieces in other churches, but I feel comfort now in knowing the whole instead of just the part.”
Mary has given copies of the Book of Mormon to her mother and sister, and she constantly prays for her two children. Her daughter joined the Church shortly after she did, and her son is now listening to the missionary discussions.
“I’d been looking for something for a long time,” Mary says, “but I couldn’t find what I needed. I needed love, and I needed to be a part of something. I found that here.”
Robert Fauver, president of the Magee Branch, sees the increase of black members joining the Church as a great blessing. “Seeing these members being baptized is one of the most uplifting parts of my calling,” he says. “It’s so important that people both in and out of the Church understand that we are a gospel of understanding and love and that all people are accepted here.”