An Oasis of Activation


Opportunities to serve and be served are helping less-active members return to full activity in the Las Vegas Nevada Sunrise Stake

Founded on the site of an early Mormon fort, the prosperous desert city of Las Vegas is home to many thousands of Latter-day Saints whose lives rarely intersect with the city’s famed casinos and nightclubs. Like the six-year-old Las Vegas Nevada Temple located within its boundaries on the east side of the valley, the Las Vegas Nevada Sunrise Stake has become for many recently activated members “an oasis of peace and life and light, in contrast with the clamor and evil and darkness of the world,” as President Gordon B. Hinckley said in his Las Vegas temple dedicatory prayer (Ensign, March 1990, 75).

“As I scan our ward list,” says Bishop Lawrence A. Burns Jr. of the Morning Sun Ward, one of 11 units in the Sunrise stake, “I can point to 20 families whose lives have been eternally altered due to the efforts of ward members who have caught the vision of activation. I have watched with joy as marriages have grown stronger, nonmember spouses have entered the waters of baptism, and families have been sealed in the holy temple.”

Explaining that he knows of no revolutionary new activation techniques, Bishop Burns cites dedicated home teaching and people-oriented ward council planning as the primary reasons for his ward’s activation success. “In my experience, any activation effort not sustained by a sincere home teaching effort will fall short,” he says. “By themselves, special visits by the bishop or others, invitations to seminars or exciting activities, and even homemade bread are not enough to bring about the blessings of activation.” As Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, no Church activity is more important than home teaching (see Ensign, Jan. 1973, 88–90).

In the Morning Sun Ward, home teachers are at the center of a larger team that coordinates its activation efforts in ward council meetings. “We don’t spend too much time planning our calendars,” explains Bishop Burns. “Instead, we focus on people and specific problems. Team members ranging from priesthood quorum and Relief Society leaders and the activities chairperson to ward and stake missionaries give input and carry out assignments, but it’s the home teachers who are the key to understanding individual less-active families and resolving their concerns.”

Sunrise stake president Wayne C. Anderson says, “Rather than organizing a campaign that focuses on overall results, what works best is to focus on individual people. We need to be in tune with the Spirit and with individual families so that when circumstances ripen for them to come back to church, we can respond with assistance. We can also help encourage those circumstances to some degree.”

Ready When They Are

“You never know when a family is going to come back into Church activity,” says Kathryn Bergquist, who serves with her husband, Gordon, as a Sunrise stake missionary. “But if there’s any chance of a family becoming active again, we stand ready to help them.”

As stake missionaries, the Bergquists not only help members share the gospel but also work with less-active families whom bishops have prayerfully selected. “With many of these wonderful families,” says Sister Bergquist, “the field is white and ready to harvest, and all we have to do is thrust in our sickles. Whenever we enter their homes, my tears begin to flow. I can’t describe the emotions and the spirit we feel working with these humble families.”

The Bergquists recently helped the Barker family return to activity. Glen and Tonya Barker both grew up as Church members in small towns near Richfield, Utah, but as they became older they drifted away from the gospel. “We knew there was something to the Church,” Brother Barker says, “but it just wasn’t part of our lives, except that we did have our two daughters, Melissa and Danielle, blessed and baptized.”

After years away from the Church, the Barkers reached a point in their lives when they felt the need for a higher power. “I felt like I was being pulled in four directions,” Brother Barker recalls. “Nothing we were doing was turning out right. We knew there must be something better.”

Brother Barker made the first move by seeking out the bishop. “I told him that we couldn’t come back by ourselves, that we would need help,” he says. Home teachers made friends with the Barkers and became their liaison with the ward, and the Bergquists started visiting them every week. “Whatever they suggested we do in the gospel, we did,” Brother Barker says.

“The Bergquists taught us lessons from the scriptures and helped us set goals,” Sister Barker adds. “We were very fortunate they came into our lives when they did.”

Sister Bergquist says that working with the Barkers reminded her of a thought she heard expressed many years ago. “As one watches ice melt, or water begin to boil, or clouds gather in the sky, or dewdrops settle on a leaf,” she recites, “one gets just a glimpse of what happens when a person’s pride begins to melt, his conscience begins to boil, a contrite spirit gathers in his soul, and a testimony settles on his accepting heart.”

Sister Barker says that her family has enjoyed much more peace and happiness since returning to the Church and that the gospel has given her and her husband strength to overcome personal problems such as Word of Wisdom challenges. “The ward members have loved us and made us feel at home,” she says. “They give us opportunities to serve, but they don’t push us into anything we don’t feel comfortable doing.”

Brother Barker is grateful for repentance. “When you realize what the Savior did for us, that’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he says. “Whole sections of our lives can be erased.” A carpenter by trade, Brother Barker now serves as the elders quorum secretary in the Morning Sun Ward. Sister Barker serves in the Relief Society, and both daughters are involved in Young Women leadership.

A Leap of Faith

“Inviting less-active members to serve others is one of the best ways to help them become activated,” says Janice Ruesch, Relief Society president in the Eldorado Heights Ward. “People who for some reason are hesitant to attend church are often willing to participate in a ward service project, such as donating food and serving meals at a homeless shelter. Sometimes, as a less-active member mingles with and feels accepted by other members at service projects and feels the joy of serving others, that person becomes willing to come back to church. I love service projects as a way of activating people! I also think service projects help keep us active in the first place.”

Often activation is a gradual process, but sometimes a member’s return is fast and dramatic. An unexpected opportunity to serve in the ward Relief Society with Sister Ruesch inspired Brenda Haymore to bridge the distance between no Church activity and complete involvement in a single leap. Though Brenda’s testimony of the gospel had always remained strong, she stopped attending Church meetings several years ago after her singles ward was disbanded. “I felt displaced in the regular ward, like a nonentity,” she recalls.

Sister Ruesch tells how, when she needed a new homemaking counselor, she asked her Relief Society board to fast and pray with her to learn whom the Lord wanted to be called. “Brenda’s name came to my mind several times,” Sister Ruesch says. “Each time, my internal response would be, ‘But Heavenly Father, she’s not active!’” When other board members agreed that Brenda should be called, Sister Ruesch consulted with the bishop, who was hesitant at first because Brenda had declined invitations and callings in the past. “I expressed to the bishop that I didn’t know if Brenda would accept,” Sister Ruesch says, “but I felt certain the Lord wanted her called. The bishop agreed with me.”

After Brenda met with the bishop about the calling, she recalls driving up Bonanza Road to the temple and sobbing in her car for several minutes. “I had been wanting to come back,” she says. “I realized that I had been coasting for too long and that it was time to do something for the Lord in return for all his blessings to me. Yet I still didn’t know how I was going to fit in at the ward. The bishop challenged me to pray about the calling, so I did. I felt scared and overwhelmed, but I knew this was the right calling at the right time for me.”

Though she hadn’t attended church for several years, Brenda jumped into her calling without reservations. The first time she conducted Relief Society, she didn’t know which sisters were ward members and which were visiting. “Everyone was so accepting,” she says. “They didn’t question where I’d been. They just welcomed me back and helped me get involved. I’m so grateful to have the Church back in my life!”

Letting His Light Shine

Not long ago, Gary Keener of the Casa Loma Ward made it known in a university class that he was a Latter-day Saint. “I don’t wear my Church membership on my sleeve like a badge,” Gary says, “but when it feels appropriate I do let people know. I’ve had many interesting missionary opportunities as a result.”

Sometime later, Gary’s fellow student John Hall approached him in the hallway and said that he too was a Latter-day Saint, but he hadn’t attended church “in a while” and was interested in coming back. “So I took his phone number down,” Gary recalls, “and that Sunday we invited him and his wife, Sheryl, to attend church. They did come, and that was when we found out that John had stopped going to church when he was about 13 and that his wife had virtually no religious background.”

The birth of his first child, Blaine, is what made John long for the Church again. “I love my son so much that I want everything good for him. Though it had been many years since I attended church, I just felt that the gospel could bring my family a lot more happiness.”

Both returned missionaries, Gary and his wife, Julia, stayed by the side of the Halls as they progressed through the missionary discussions. “We would stay afterwards to answer their questions,” Gary recalls. “I feel it’s very important for people to have friends while they’re returning to or joining the Church.”

Having never studied religion, Sheryl found the gospel surprisingly easy to understand and accept. “I kept waiting for the catch,” she says, “but it just all seemed to make so much sense.” John remembered many things about the gospel from his youth, but he did have one serious misconception that needed to be cleared up. “I thought that anyone who wasn’t a Mormon would go straight to a fiery hell,” he recalls, “which bothered me because my mother is a Catholic. Now I understand the plan of salvation better. I’m grateful for the truth.”

When the time came for Sheryl to be baptized, she gave Gary the honor. “It’s a fantastic feeling seeing someone embrace the gospel again or for the first time,” Gary says. “I feel like the Halls have become our eternal friends. We have felt great joy watching them progress, preparing for the temple, and fulfilling their Church callings.” Both the Halls have worked with the youth in the ward.

“I’m facing some anti-Mormon influence at work,” John says, “but Gary is helping me work through it. He has also asked me to help give priesthood blessings. We’re very fortunate to have friends like the Keeners.”

The Halls, who first met in Saudi Arabia while working in air force intelligence during the Persian Gulf War, were sealed in the temple as a family in January 1996. With a second child on the way, Sheryl recently left military service to become a full-time homemaker.

As is true for members in other stakes throughout the Las Vegas valley and the world, members of the Sunrise stake who help others become activated find that they too are blessed and edified. “Helping others become activated brings increased spiritual guidance and inspiration to members,” says Bishop Burns. “As we learn to view our brothers and sisters more like Heavenly Father sees them and catch a glimpse of how precious all souls are, we are invigorated in our efforts to serve the Lord.”

“When we have served less-active families,” says Brother Bergquist, “we have been the ones to benefit. They have strengthened our testimonies and lifted us to new heights. They have given us renewed faith and hope.”

For those whose hearts and minds turn to the less-active members in their midst and seek ways to serve them and let them serve others, the gospel becomes “an oasis of peace and life and light” for all involved.

[photos] Home teachers Daniel D. Hollingsworth (middle) and Milo Jepsen (right) teach Barbara Carle, who recently returned to Church activity after an absence of more than 30 years. Inset, left to right: A warm ward welcome and personal visits by leaders and home teachers helped the Websters become active. Like other Sunrise stake missionaries, John Archer (left) and Cheryle Whitaker help the less-active members. (Photo by John Luke.) Encouraging attendance at the Las Vegas temple is a primary goal of stake activation efforts. (Photo by Jed Clark.) (Photography by Christopher K. Bigelow, except as noted.)

[photos] During an Eldorado Heights Ward service project for a homeless shelter, active and less-active members donated and helped serve food. Left: The Barkers became active with the help of stake missionaries. Below: When a Relief Society vacancy arose, Janice Ruesch (left) thought of less-active Brenda Haymore. (Photo by John Luke.)

[photos] Inset: John Hall was activated and his wife, Sheryl, was converted with the help of Gary and Julia Keener. Background: The Halls enjoy an outing with their home teacher Roger Maxwell and his family. (Background photo by John Luke.)