A member living at the south end of the Gilmer Texas Stake can drive on rural highways more than three hours straight north without crossing stake boundaries. Home teachers can put 200 miles on a car in a month’s time. And an elders quorum president can travel 40 miles one way every day to check on a family—if the family needs the kind of help Charles and Leslie Hahn did.
The Hahn family had joined the Church elsewhere, but their attendance had been sporadic. The young couple was looking for a quiet place to raise a family and found a small, fixer-upper house in the woods near a logging operation outside Paris, Texas, just south of the Oklahoma state line. The asking price was low, and they felt they could handle the repairs and live on Charles’s income while Leslie stayed home with their daughter, Elizabeth.
On the day of the move, Charles, a truck driver, was on the road, but Leslie was confident she and Elizabeth would be fine. Unknown to the family, teenagers who had been using the house as a private hangout became angered over its sale. The youth destroyed as much as they dared, hoping to discourage anyone from moving in. When Leslie arrived with her child, there was no plumbing that worked, no septic tank connection, no well water, no electricity, no stove, no fridge, no bathtub, no porch or steps, and no plasterboard that had not been kicked in. It was a disheartening blow to face alone. When Charles finally arrived, the family started the slow process of cleaning up.
Leslie Hahn’s mother, who lived in Utah, was concerned about her daughter and offered to come and help out. To prepare for her visit, the Hahns decided to find out where the nearest ward was in case Leslie’s mother wanted to attend. The Sunday following her arrival, Leslie’s mother encouraged Leslie and Charles to come with her and give their new ward a try.
“I walked through the door and felt like I’d been welcomed home,” Leslie recalls. “The Relief Society president walked up to me and gave me a hug. She asked, ‘What can we do to help?’” The Hahns didn’t let on that anything was wrong. But later, when the bishop made the same query, Leslie’s mother admitted they had no running water.
Early the next morning, elders quorum president Kerry Murdock arrived in his pickup truck with a 50-gallon drum of fresh water. When he saw the extent of damage to the house, he immediately organized relief efforts by members of the elders quorum. Each Sunday for several weeks members of the quorum discussed needed work on the home and signed up to do it. Supplies were donated, and men appeared every night to dig trenches, patch walls, repair plumbing, and fix electrical problems. In a matter of weeks the house became livable.
President Murdock, whose beef cattle ranch was located some 40 miles away, came nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, to oversee the repairs. “It was haying season,” Brother Hahn recalls. “Sometimes he’d work all night taking care of the stock and doing the haying, then drive over to help us.”
Leslie and Charles Hahn were deeply touched by such an outpouring of concern. Thanks to help from the elders quorum and the warm welcome from Paris Ward members, the Hahns soon wanted to be part of the ward. “Everyone is so kind! We love coming to church,” says Leslie.
This outpouring of love for a once less-active family is just one example of efforts made by Gilmer stake members to welcome back families to Church activity. Located in the northeast corner of Texas, the stake stretches more than 200 miles north into parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Here, graceful rolling hills and tall pines contrast sharply with the better-known Texas desert farther to the west. The people are genteel, steeped in the tradition of Southern hospitality. So it is that members of the Gilmer stake have been extending a warm Texas welcome to less-active members through increased stake involvement, close cooperation with missionaries from the Texas Dallas Mission, and effective use of ward resources.
Strong Stake Leadership
Following August 1994 First Presidency guidelines to strengthen families by emphasizing fundamental principles, the Gilmer stake presidency, headed by President Joseph F. Odom, developed a set of lessons for use by home teachers on prayer, scripture study, and the importance of paying tithes and offerings. In addition, a letter from the stake presidency went to each home specifically inviting members to give more time to prayer and scripture study.
“We felt that as members gave increased attention to basic principles,” said President Odom, “they would see improvements in many spiritual aspects of their lives.” As members responded to these dual invitations to become better prepared spiritually, Church activity throughout the stake improved noticeably at all levels.
The next step was to train leaders to rely on the Spirit in their activation efforts. Thanks to instructions that North American Southwest Area president Elder W. Mack Lawrence presented in a 1994 meeting of stake presidencies, President Odom returned to his stake determined to teach priesthood leaders how to invite the help of the Spirit when working with less-active members.
President Odom met first with members of the high council. Before the training session was held, he requested that bishops of the three Gilmer wards each prayerfully prepare a list of less-active members that could be visited in the training experience. “We wanted to send priesthood leaders into the homes and do two things,” explained President Odom. “One, try to find out what it was that kept our less-active members away, and two, create an opportunity where the Spirit might be felt by the members and get them thinking about coming back into greater activity in the Church.”
During the training, President Odom emphasized the importance of stake high councilors working side by side with ward and branch leaders every week, if need be, to visit less-active members. Then the meeting was brought to a close, and high councilors were sent in pairs to visit a less-active family. While one was talking to the family, the other was asked to pray in his heart to invite the Spirit into the home. It proved to be a valuable lesson in striving to live in harmony with the Spirit and following its promptings.
“We went to the homes we were assigned and explained that we weren’t really sure why the bishop had selected their name for us to visit, but we knew he had done so prayerfully,” said President Odom. “In nearly every instance the people told us why we were there. They always knew why we had come.”
Some families, for example, responded that they were aware of their bishop’s concern about family members who were not participating in Church programs. Others admitted that the bishop wanted them to overcome a problem, such as one associated with the Word of Wisdom, and return to Church activity. People knew what they needed to do to feel good about returning to church.
After the training of stake leaders, other meetings were held with ward leaders using a training videotape furnished by the Area Presidency about inviting the influence of the Spirit when making visits to members’ homes. This training brought results stakewide, but none more dramatic than in the Idabel Branch.
“Doing What We’ve Been Asked”
The Idabel Branch, located just over the state line in Oklahoma, was on the verge of closing. The branch, which encompasses more than 5,000 square miles of pines and prairie, had seven active families. In an effort to revitalize the branch, Gilmer stake high councilors George Lemon and, later, Eugene Hall joined with branch president Richard Smith to begin visiting members whom he had prayerfully selected.
To do this, the high councilors, both of whom lived two hours south of Idabel, began driving to the small town every Sunday and frequently returned again during the week to help President Smith visit branch members. “There were maybe 50 families to home teach and only four or five active priesthood brethren to do it,” says Brother Hall. “Many families just didn’t get visited.”
“As we went into the homes of members, we focused on prayer, scripture study, and tithing, using the messages prepared by the stake,” President Smith explains. Members began to respond. Instead of closing, the branch began to grow.
To better help less-active Idabel Branch members living in DeQueen, Arkansas, an hour away, President Smith drove to DeQueen after the Idabel block of meetings almost every Sunday for nearly three years to hold a one-hour Church meeting with less-active members in the area. The meetings were held in the home of DelRa Fern Hughes.
“I had not been active for 18 years,” admits Sister Hughes. “But I wanted to go to the temple and be sealed to my husband.” Unfortunately, her husband wasn’t interested until just before he passed away. Nevertheless, Sister Hughes, in her 80s, began attending church along with Mary Frances Lee, a less-active friend who had returned to Church activity because of the efforts of President Smith and Werdna Hardin, a faithful visiting teacher to both women for many years.
Because the Idabel Branch is so spread out, some families struggle with staying active. Yet, by emphasizing gospel fundamentals and visiting families regularly—thanks to strong support from the stake—President Smith watched the branch turn around. “I have a testimony of following the counsel of our leaders,” he says. “We are doing what we’ve been asked to do, and the results have followed.”
That dedication is paying dividends beyond increased Church attendance. At least six families in the small Idabel Branch are preparing to go to the temple.
Missionary Activation Efforts
Besides strengthening activation efforts, Gilmer stake leaders, acting under necessary priesthood approval, also coordinate their stake and full-time missionaries in a balanced program of conversion, retention, and activation. While he was president of the Texas Dallas Mission, Wm. Rolfe Kerr, now a member of the Seventy, remarked: “Our feeling has been that the parable of the lost sheep has real meaning. And working with less-active members has also proved to be one of our most successful sources for baptisms.”
When full-time missionaries involve stake missionaries in conversion and retention efforts, new converts are less likely to “come in the front door and go out the back,” said President Kerr. Stake missionaries stay close to recent converts and help them for a year or more until they begin regular temple attendance. When full-time missionaries are authorized to take part in activation efforts too, doors are opened into people’s hearts. “These families have felt the Spirit before,” says stake mission president Scott Lloyd. “In many cases they’ve had feelings in their hearts that they ought to go back.”
Marian and Ray Rands, less-active members for many years, were often visited by missionaries who were teaching the Randses’ grandson who lived nearby. One day they opened their door to find that the full-time missionaries had brought along stake missionaries J. B. and Veda Talbert. It was the beginning of a fellowshipping effort that included visits and a sweet note every month from Veda (who writes many such letters monthly to less-active families), invitations to the Talbert home for family home evenings and firesides, and regular visits by Doris Blackett, Marian Rands’s visiting teacher.
The Randses responded by agreeing to attend a granddaughter’s baptism in a nearby state and, the following week, their grandson’s baptism in their own Athens Ward. When the Randses entered the Athens meetinghouse, they were warmly received by ward members. “It gave me a good feeling,” says Sister Rands. “Church songs kept running through my mind all week. The words affected me. After the second Sunday, I knew it was right to go back.” Ray adds: “I had a hard heart. It needed to be softened. I’ve always believed the Church was true. When I went back, I thought, I belong here. I should have been here all along.”
The Talberts, who established a genuine friendship with the Randses and still continue to visit them often, understood the Randses’ feelings. After their own baptism years earlier, the Talberts had attended church only a few times. Twelve years went by. People visited, but the Talberts asked not to be bothered. Then one day a missionary began visiting with the daughter, who decided, along with Veda, to begin reading the Bible. Soon Veda became restless and started visiting other churches. Finally one Sunday she picked out a small congregation to attend, but no one showed up for the meeting. As she waited, a thought came clearly to her that if she was going to go to church, she should go to the church she knew to be true. In her heart, Veda knew what church that was and finally made the decision to return.
“Now we work at perfecting our own lives and seeking the Spirit in our stake missionary work. It requires time to help people become active,” explains Sister Talbert, who, along with her husband, enjoys spending as much as 30 hours a week to help people come unto Christ.
Marian and Ray Rands are grateful for the balanced-effort program that prompted the missionaries to introduce them to the Talberts. That decision changed their lives. “Life is better now,” says Brother Rands. “We have real friends again.” Today, Brother Rands serves as a counselor in the Athens Ward bishopric.
The Ward Council Connection
With strong stake and mission support for activation, ward councils in the Gilmer stake have become increasingly important in coordinating efforts to reach out to less-active members. Working with the ward mission leader, Gilmer Third Ward bishop Blanton Dawson prayerfully determines which families should be visited. “We try to provide an opportunity to be acted upon by the Spirit,” he explains. Then, in ward council meeting, assignments are made. One family may be given to the stake or full-time missionaries to visit. Another might benefit from visits made by auxiliary or quorum leaders. Soon a Beehive president drops in on a teenage girl, a Primary worker calls to offer a younger child a ride to church, or the visiting teachers make a special effort during the month. Sometimes it literally takes everyone working together to make a difference.
Larry and Lori Liles had not been to church for more than 15 years. One day sister missionaries came by, later on visiting teachers stopped in, and one night Tyler Second Ward bishop Kenneth W. Stegall dropped by. “He asked us what was keeping us from church,” recalls Sister Liles. “I’d never had the courage to tell anyone, but we had a legal problem we didn’t know how to fix. Within two weeks the bishop had arranged for us to get the help we needed. He opened a door for us to put our lives in order.”
One Sunday soon after, the Lileses decided to attend church. “That Sunday the congregation sang ‘Come unto Jesus’” (Hymns, no. 117), she recalls. “I just went to pieces. I went home and threw out my cigarettes. In that moment Larry [who was not a member] said to me, ‘I’ll prepare to take you to the temple.’”
Brother Liles was soon baptized, and the couple was recently sealed in the temple. “The Church came back into my life like a Texas twister,” says Sister Liles. “The people here engulfed us in love. They didn’t let us go.”
In the Gilmer stake, families like the Hahns, the Randses, and the Lileses are representative of many who have been welcomed back through strong leadership training by the stake; cooperation between stake and full-time missionaries in conversion, retention, and activation efforts; and thoughtful use of ward resources. And if an elders quorum president has to travel 40 miles to take water to a new family, well, it’s okay. It’s just part of the living water (see John 4:10) that Gilmer stake members offer as part of a warm Texas welcome.
This historic marker stands near Kelsey, the first LDS colony in Texas, located just west of Gilmer.
Palestine, Texas (pronounced PAL-es-teen), is a tiny town located about 100 miles southeast of Dallas in the southernmost area of the Gilmer Texas Stake. While there were many Church members in town, very few made the hour’s drive to Athens, the nearest branch, to go to church. Few, that is, until Elder Harold and Sister Ethel Claunch from Sterling, Idaho, spent their one-year mission in the Texas Dallas Mission assigned to the town of Palestine.
One of the first families they visited was that of Atilio and Patricia Chicas. Sister Chicas had been raised in the Church, and her husband had joined after their marriage. But soon thereafter they stopped going. Four years went by. Then one day the Claunches came to their home. “I wanted to have my baby blessed,” recalls Sister Chicas. “So I invited them in.”
Her husband, however, resisted. “I’ll go if they’ll let me in wearing my jeans and cowboy boots,” he said. The Claunches assured him he’d be welcome. And he was. The following Sunday he exchanged his jeans for nice slacks—but declined to wear a tie. Then one day he announced to his wife, “I guess we better go buy me a suit. I have to look the part if I’m gonna do Father in Heaven’s work.”
The marvelous change wrought in the Chicas family was repeated in many other families touched by the Claunches during their year in Palestine. To better meet the needs of less-active families in the area, the Claunches began holding one-hour firesides on some Sundays and invited every Church member in Palestine to attend.
“The first night we had six people show up,” recalls Sister Claunch. “The next week only one person came. We kept inviting people, and suddenly it just took off. Within a few months we had 70 people coming out!”
When the Claunches requested permission to rent a room in the YMCA for the meeting, stake and mission leaders took notice. By the time the Claunches finished their mission, permission was granted to open a branch of the Church in the small town.