President Gordon B. Hinckley has said that every new member—and, thus, every newly activated member—“needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God’ (Moro. 6:4).” 1 Ward and branch leaders of the Fayetteville North Carolina Stake keep that counsel in mind as they assign home and visiting teachers and give callings to less-active members.
Regarding President Hinckley’s first point—having a friend—stake president James Mooring says, “We try to identify home and visiting teachers who would be enthusiastic and have concern for a particular individual or family. If we can match up personalities or interests, we find that the likelihood of activation is much greater.”
“You Don’t Have to Feel Alone”
Ann Bivins of the Pinehurst Ward is one member whose life was blessed by friends from Church: her home and visiting teachers. A former Sunday Schoolteacher and Relief Society president, she found her faith shaken when her temple marriage ended.
Because it was not feasible for either Ann or her former husband to move from the area, both remained in the same ward. “I tried coming to church for a while, but it was really awkward,” she says. “Rather than deal with my anger and humiliation, I just didn’t go.”
Her next marriage, outside the Church, made it even easier for Ann to stay away. “It was one of those things you think you’re never going to experience,” she says now. “I had always felt secure in my testimony. I can remember thinking, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without the Church.”
A series of severe trials had followed the breakup of her temple marriage, including numerous surgeries to remove a tumor that cost her an eye and almost her life. Still, she did not completely sever her ties to the Church, encouraging her sons to attend meetings with their father.
Caring visiting teachers and home teachers let her know she was loved regardless of her circumstances. “When they came to see me, they brought such a wonderful spirit,” she says. “They loved me no matter what; they didn’t love me just so I’d become active again.”
Finally, yearning for more of the spirit she felt when her visiting and home teachers came to her home and seeking to overcome her discouragement, Ann made the decision to return to church. Feeling alone at first, she attended sporadically. “But when people love you, it makes it easier to come back,” she says. “You don’t have to feel alone when you walk through the door. There’s a reason we call each other brother and sister—so we will treat each other as such.”
Her challenges haven’t ended since her return to full Church activity. But, she says, “The Church and the support ward members have given me have really gotten me through. When you have that, your world can be a hurricane, but inside you can have peace.”
Not Just Once a Month
In addition to emphasizing prayerful selection of home and visiting teachers, President Mooring says: “We do our best to give everybody a responsibility involving whatever their capabilities and interests may be. The spirit of prayer helps us find what the person is suited for and what they need.”
Karen March of the Fayetteville Fourth Ward is an example of one whose life was touched by a caring visiting teacher and whose testimony was strengthened when she received a calling shortly after becoming active again.
Karen joined the Church not long after her marriage in 1972 to Gene March, a member, but by 1974 both she and her husband had become less active. Twelve years later the Marches moved to Fayetteville with their two children. “I was miserable when we moved here,” Karen recalls. “My life had no direction, my husband had no direction, my kids had no direction.” Her negative feelings extended to the Church as well, but when she received a telephone call from Alyce Taylor, her new visiting teacher, she consented to a visit.
Alyce remembers that Karen told her, “You can come, but don’t mention the Church.”
“At first it was scary going to see her,” Alyce says. “I worried every time I went, Will I say the wrong thing?” But it didn’t take long for the two vivacious women to become good friends. Occasionally Alyce would call Karen between visits or send a card to let her know she was thinking of her. “It was not a once-a-month kind of thing,” Karen says. “And she never judged or pushed me. It was just what I needed at that time.”
Karen’s activation occurred gradually over time, and though it was difficult to take the steps back to activity, Alyce’s warmth made the transition easier. It wasn’t long before the bishop extended a calling to her—that of Primary teacher.
“Primary was the best place for me,” she says. “I relearned all the basics.” She later was called to be the Relief Society visiting teaching coordinator, where she was able to view the visiting teaching program from a different perspective. The program, she says, “is often grossly underrated by some sisters. They don’t realize the impact they can have on somebody. But without visiting teaching, I wouldn’t be where I am and have the happiness in my life that I have today.
“I’ve learned that it only works when we do it with our hearts and not just with our mouths,” she says. “And in every calling I’ve learned the power of prayer and that you do receive answers. The blessings that have come to me through callings have been tremendous.”
Greeted with Open Arms
Walk into a Fayetteville North Carolina Stake meetinghouse on any given Sunday, and chances are good you’ll see a young member with a signature military haircut, or maybe even full military dress. The Fort Bragg army base is a visible presence in the stake, with 6 of its 14 units containing a sizable military element. One unit, the Fort Bragg Ward, is entirely military.
Military families enrich the stake with their diversity, and members offer them a warm welcome. That, together with efforts to nurture each other with the good word of God, is an important factor in the activation process. The story of one young couple, Ben and Jennifer Millemon, illustrates this.
Ben and Jennifer first met in Elko, Nevada, during their senior year of high school. It was Jennifer, a lifelong member of the Church, who first introduced Ben to the gospel. Although impressed by the Church’s impact on Jennifer’s family, Ben was active in his own faith, where he occasionally heard preaching against Latter-day Saint beliefs.
Married in 1994, shortly after graduating from high school, the Millemons compromised at first by attending a neutral church. “I guess I had been active [before marrying] mostly because my parents told me I had to go,” says Jennifer. “I didn’t know for sure that it was true, but I also didn’t know that it wasn’t true.”
The Millemons struggled during their first two years of marriage. Because the path on which they were traveling was markedly different from the one Jennifer had envisioned, she determined that something needed to change. So one evening, sitting in their car outside a restaurant, she told her husband that she wanted to try attending the LDS Church again. Remembering the good the Church had done for Jennifer’s family, Ben agreed.
That first Sunday in their ward, they were greeted with open arms by ward members. Two members in particular, Vincent Barnhart—a captain in the military and a member of the ward bishopric—and his wife, Andrea, were especially friendly. “They talked to us the first few weeks and then invited us over to their house,” Ben says. “I thought, This is great.” After several Sundays Ben requested the missionary discussions. Over the next few weeks, he and Jennifer would have dinner at the Barnharts’ house with the missionaries, and then they would have the discussions.
As the discussions proceeded, Jennifer’s own testimony was reawakened. Yet she was shocked when, at the end of the sixth discussion, Ben announced that he wanted to be baptized. “They all just kind of sat there,” Ben recalls with a smile. “Then Jennifer started crying. They were all surprised and happy.”
Within several weeks of Ben’s baptism, both he and Jennifer had received callings in their ward. Ben was called to be a stake missionary, which, he says, “has really helped me out. I’ve been able to tell investigators my feelings about the Church, and I can relate to them—I can say, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re getting at; I know what you’re feeling right now.’ So I love going out with the missionaries; it’s been the perfect calling.”
Jennifer is currently a counselor in her ward’s Young Women presidency. She and Ben were sealed in the Washington [D.C.] Temple in December 1997. “The Church has strengthened us spiritually and brought us so much closer,” says Ben.
Doing, Not Just Talking
President Mooring expresses his feelings in words that members of his stake would resonate to: “Some people come back with just a little love and concern shown to them. With others, it takes a while longer. But our salvation is dependent on not just what we know but what we do in terms of helping them. Unless we have a testimony that involves doing, we’re really not converted to the principles we’re talking about. It’s the doing that shows to the Lord our conversion.”