When young members of the Carlsbad Ward, Roswell New Mexico Stake, began preparing for their annual excursion to the Dallas Texas Temple, they knew their experience would be different from that of previous years: this time they were committed to provide names of their own ancestors for temple ordinances.
But perhaps few of the young people realized that before the excursion was over they would be making personal history themselves.
What happened was one of those “rare” experiences “like the birth of a child, and when it was over there was absolute joy that it had been done,” says former bishop Shannon Mahaffey.
The comparison to birth is apt. Many of the ward’s youth and adults received spiritual assurances that they had helped bring blessings of eternal life to their ancestors, and preparations for this temple excursion helped bond living families together in ways that no one could have anticipated.
The experience truly “drew the hearts of the children to their fathers and the fathers to the children,” says Bishop Terry Haake, who was first counselor in the bishopric at the time. The story of how those 55 young people met—and often exceeded—the goal for each youth to clear 20 ancestral names for temple ordinances is a story of remarkable spiritual growth, he explains.
The personal ancestral emphasis in the ward’s 1995 youth temple excursion grew out of an idea that came to Bishop Mahaffey as he was reading Doctrine and Covenants 111:9–10 [D&C 111:9–10], in which the Lord spoke to the Prophet Joseph Smith about Salem, Massachusetts: “Inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city;
“For there are more treasures than one for you in this city” (see also D&C 111:2).
Bishop Mahaffey was moved to wonder what treasures might be found by searching out the “ancient inhabitants” of the Carlsbad area. He planned to ask youth of the ward to research family history information about pioneers of southeastern New Mexico and prepare to perform temple ordinances for them. But as he consulted with Verna Reed, then director of the family history center in Carlsbad, Bishop Mahaffey learned that members are to search out their own ancestors and not submit for temple ordinance work names of nonrelated individuals or non-lineage-linked groups. So the bishop revised plans for the temple excursion: youth would do research on their own family lines.
This change in focus proved to be a blessing. As it turned out, the young people learned how some of their own ancestors pioneered by helping gospel values take root in their families.
Little more than a generation ago, just being a member of the Church in Carlsbad meant pioneering.
There was no more than a handful of members in the area when Jesse and Barbara (“Bobbie”) Buckner were baptized in December 1944. Jess Buckner was the first local man called as branch president, serving for 12 years. They were members of the El Paso Texas Stake, headquartered 170 miles away. (Now their stake center is 76 miles away.) The Buckners recall how local members raised money and labored to help build a meetinghouse, dedicated in the spring of 1952. When growth finally brought a new meetinghouse, in 1982, the ward’s old building became the family history center. In addition to the usual family history resources, the center houses donated collections of old newspapers and historical records of southeastern New Mexico. The local chamber of commerce lists it among attractions for visitors to the area.
It was in this family history center that many of the ward’s youth first sensed the challenge of finding 20 ancestral names to submit for temple ordinances. They quickly learned that Verna Buckner Reed, daughter of Jess and Bobbie, was another valuable resource, familiar not only with the center’s records but also with the history of the Church and its members in the area.
The temple excursion, scheduled for September 1995, was announced 10 months in advance, giving the youth plenty of time to research the names they needed. Still, the task seemed daunting to some people. Harmony Jenkins thought it would be so difficult that she decided at first not to go on the excursion. Members of the Warren Bodily family believed that the research already done on their ancestral lines had exhausted all the currently available names and that it would probably be impossible to find 60 more for their three daughters to submit to the temple.
Other families knew there was information available, but they would have to dig it out and compile it—families like the Winanses, Caseys, Buttreys, and Standifords.
Peggy Winans recalls that she and her family got their research efforts organized and under way in March, six months before the temple excursion. It was helpful that her two older daughters, Megan, almost 14, and Lacey, 12 in June, had a break from school coming up. “It took us most of the summer to do our work,” Sister Winans says.
After reviewing all the records they had on hand, she and her daughters knew they would have to turn to living family members for more information. Husband and father Tex Winans was glad to help provide it, and so, too, was his mother, though neither is a member of the Church. The Winanses not only learned valuable names and dates from Tex’s mother, but they also heard stories and family lore that even he had never known.
Megan and Lacey spent two hours or more once or twice a week at the family history center. Both became skilled enough at using the center’s computers and research tools that they were able to offer valuable help to others. Lacey entered much of the Winanses’ family information into the Personal Ancestral File® program, and Megan put most of the names into the TempleReady™ program so they could be cleared for temple ordinances. The family submitted 60 female names, and in the course of their work, Megan and Lacey each developed desires to serve particular ancestors. Lacey, for example, was able to be baptized for her great-great-grandmother Emily Lacey, for whom she is named.
Looking back on what they accomplished, Peggy Winans says she still has much to do in completing temple ordinances for those who were baptized during the excursion to the Dallas temple on 14–15 September 1995. With the support of her husband and children, she has continued going to the temple on stake excursions (a 10-hour trip each way) almost every other month.
The Buttrey family also organized their efforts from the beginning. They started out working in the family history center together, Kathleen Buttrey says, but it was difficult for her older children to go there consistently because of demanding summer jobs. Twelve-year-old Jared, the fifth of seven children, took on the responsibility of doing the bulk of the research. He saw it as a way to serve both his living family and his ancestors; he would be helping his older brothers and sister (Jonathan, Joshua, Janell, and Joey) maintain their tradition of going on the ward’s temple excursion every year. In the end, the Buttreys submitted 100 ancestral names—20 for each of the five children old enough to go to the temple.
Brandy and Bobby Jo Casey, 16 and 15 when they started on the project in the spring of 1995, gladly spent time helping Jared Buttrey and others, even though their own research was turning out to be more difficult than expected.
“We thought we had it made because I had a big pile of names I had never submitted,” says their mother, Lois, an assistant librarian at the center. But when she submitted all those names, she found that another relative had already performed the temple ordinances for them! Turning to her husband’s side of the family, the Caseys found that many of the names of his ancestors had already been submitted too. So they began to work backward on their family lines from the points where the last work had been done.
Sometimes, Sister Casey says, they received help that was undoubtedly the result of inspiration. Once, for example, seeing a stray reel of microfilm next to a reader, she felt impressed to put it onto the machine and look at it. After only a few pages, she discovered names of some of her ancestors she had been unable to locate because they lived in a different place than she had been told.
But much of what the Caseys accomplished came only through hard work and persistence. Brandy and Bobby Jo usually spent Tuesday and Saturday nights at the family history center, and sometimes other nights as well, even though it is a 30-mile round-trip from their home. Eventually they submitted 67 names—enough for Brandy, Bobby Jo, and their brother, Travis, who also helped.
Bobby Jo says her enthusiasm for the trip to Dallas at first was focused on the evening of ice skating that the youth traditionally enjoyed the night before going to the temple. But as she progressed in the research, she began to feel the value of the service they were giving to their ancestors and began to feel love for those people. Brandy says this feeling fed their desire to help other youth with the project so that friends would be able to enjoy the blessings they were enjoying.
Annie Standiford’s parents both joined the Church as young adults, and since their families did not have a long history in the Church, Annie’s ancestral field was “white already to harvest” (D&C 4:4). Her mother had already compiled much of the information she needed. But still, there was the work of entering the information into the computer and clearing the names for temple ordinances. “I felt like my ancestors were watching me, encouraging me and saying, ‘Keep going, keep going,’” Annie recalls.
There was help also for those who decided later in the year that they wanted to participate after all.
When Harmony Jenkins, who originally opted to pass up the opportunity, determined that she really wanted to take part, it seemed almost too late to begin. Then Verna Reed remembered helping Harmony’s grandmother put a large number of family names on a computer disk some years earlier. But the names had not been submitted for temple work. Within a short time, Sister Reed had helped Harmony prepare 38 of those names for submission to the temple.
When Harmony gashed her leg badly in an accident the night before the youth were to go to the temple, she feared that she would not be able to enter the baptismal font after all. But she received a priesthood blessing, and it was found that the injury was not severe enough to keep her out of the water. She went on to enjoy the spiritual opportunity she had been anticipating. “The whole experience really strengthened me,” she says.
Cheryl Jenkins, Harmony’s mother and also ward Young Women president, says growth in testimony among the youth was the most immediate blessing that came from the project. Members of the bishopric were persistent, she says, in urging young people to get involved so they would not miss out on any of the blessings to come. Following the lead of the bishopric, the Young Women presidency arranged several trips to the family history center for the young women as a whole and for class groups. The presidency also focused on individuals who needed help, offering encouragement and assistance.
Some ward members developed motivation for the project simply because they knew it was the right thing to do and because they already had a love for their ancestors. For example, the Bodilys, who originally felt they would not be able to find enough untapped ancestral names, were amazed at what happened when they decided to push ahead with research anyway.
Warren Bodily’s mother, a native of England, had been the only member of her family to join the Church. Some years earlier, she had compiled a group of family names but decided to hold them in reserve for the time when she could have them cleared for temple ordinances and go to the temple herself. When the Bodilys asked for permission to do the work for those people, she concurred. There were more than enough names for the Bodilys’ three youngest daughters, Rachelle, Ruth, and Camille (though in the end a school commitment prevented Rachelle from going on the temple trip).
Because their married daughter, Cherylen Armstrong, was active in research and thoroughly familiar with family lines, Marian Bodily drove 240 miles to Socorro, New Mexico, so Cherylen could help her enter the names on the computer programs that would clear them for temple work. The night after her mother left to return home, Cherylen was troubled by a dream that made it plain someone had been overlooked. Because the impressions of her dream were so strong, the Bodilys checked again with Warren’s mother—and learned that Uncle Don had been left out! Warren thought his brother had completed the temple ordinances for their uncle earlier, but circumstances had prevented it. (Later, when the Bodilys went to the temple as a family, they would get an inkling of how much those ordinances meant to Uncle Don. The influence of the Spirit was so pronounced at his baptism that the ordinance worker was moved to ask, “Who was that man?”)
When youth of the Carlsbad Ward finally cleared all the names they had found for temple ordinances, Verna Reed could see that the task at hand was much larger than anyone had anticipated. There were 1,423 names on the list! Having youth perform that many baptisms within their allotted hours in the temple would require not only intensive effort, but near-perfect timing. Sister Reed left for Dallas a day early to have things organized and ready before the youth arrived.
When temple officials realized the scope of what the ward was planning to do (they had thought at first that surely it must be a stake sending all those names), they gave Sister Reed a space to work in and whatever help they could provide. Sister Reed was puzzled as to how to organize all the name cards so the work could go as efficiently as possible. After prayer, a method came to mind, and she filed all the cards carefully in a plastic box about the size of a washbasin. Over a two-day period, Verna Reed and her box became well known to temple workers.
As the youth performed ordinances for their ancestors on the morning of 15 September, Sister Reed was in the baptistry matching names from her file box with the proper young man or woman when their turns came. A number of ward priesthood and auxiliary leaders had accompanied the young people to the temple. While adult sisters assisted temple workers in supplying dry clothing for the youth and in keeping them moving efficiently, some of the brethren assisted as officiators in the ordinances. Youth of the Carlsbad Ward were baptized for more than 1,100 of their ancestors that day—but no one was keeping track of numbers at the time. They were enjoying the spiritual feast they had prepared for.
“I knew that these people were there. I felt them rejoicing,” recalls Dan Brown, first assistant to the president of the priests quorum.
Ramiro (“Ramey”) Graziano, then almost 13, had a similar experience. He was deeply touched emotionally as he was baptized, feeling that there were people crowded around witnessing the event—unseen members of his family. His sister Andrea, then 14, felt their joy too; the feeling was particularly strong with one young woman who had been about her age. But after all, preparing for this experience had been very much a Graziano family project, with their mother and younger brothers and sisters involved. Their father had surprised them by doing some research on his own so he could contribute also.
Jared Buttrey was also touched emotionally as he watched his brothers and sisters baptized for some of their ancestors. Brandy and Bobby Jo Casey, who had been similarly touched as they completed ordinances for their own ancestors, joined the Buttreys for this spiritually moving experience, feeling like part of the family because they had helped Jared so much with the research.
Paul Hanna, ward Young Men president, says these temple experiences and the preparations for them brought home to the young people “that they have family that have gone on before them.” Now those ancestors “are not just names. They’re real people. They lived.”
Brother Hanna had noted the diligence of these youth in preparing for the temple excursion, had seen many of them show great spiritual sensitivity as they searched out their ancestors. But now, seeing them in the temple, he was reminded that “it won’t be too many years until they’re the leaders of the Church. It gave me confidence in the leadership we’ll have in the future.”
Months after the temple excursion, it is still obvious that preparing to perform temple ordinances for their ancestors and then actually doing it had an enduring effect on many of the youth in Carlsbad.
Being in the temple was “a great feeling that you would get nowhere else,” Ramey Graziano says. “I don’t think anything could match up to it.”
His sister Andrea agrees. In her mind, “It’s kind of like a vision of heaven—how heaven is going to be.”