“Whether they’re here or on the other side, whether they’re members or not, our role is to bring people to Christ,” James Edwards, president of the Cherry Hill New Jersey Stake says, referring to the threefold mission of the Church. “To me it’s all one mission.” President Edwards likes to simplify things, and throughout the Cherry Hills stake, members and leaders are reaching out to the less active by using three basic ideas from their Area Presidency: a focus on temples, effective temple and priesthood preparation classes, and dedicated home and visiting teaching.
It took the help of the Lord to get Don and Sheri Smith of the Cherry Hill Ward to the temple. But it was Don’s heart that almost kept them from realizing their goal to be sealed for time and eternity. After being less active for a time, they had diligently prepared to make the three-hour trip to the Washington (D.C.) Temple in September 1997, but Don was so ill his cardiologist flatly told him his heart could not take the strain. Sheri talked to the doctor the day they had scheduled to go to the temple and was unsure what to do: she didn’t want to disregard the doctor’s advice, but Don firmly believed he would be all right.
After priesthood blessings that day for both Don and Sheri, along with fervent prayers, Don felt they should go through with their planned temple trip. Of the trip, Don recalls: “As soon as I stood on the temple grounds I felt there was nothing wrong with me. I felt like a new man.” There, Don and Sheri, along with their three sons, were sealed on 19 September 1997.
When they returned to New Jersey, Don went immediately to the hospital, where he waited four months before finally receiving a heart transplant. But his heart and soul had already been changed months earlier, reawakened by the goal of a celestial marriage.
Their journey to full activity began long ago. Sheri had been a member of the Church most of her life. Don was not a member when they married but joined the Church in 1988. Over the years the couple moved to different parts of the United States, and their level of activity in the Church fluctuated. When they moved to New Jersey, most of their Sundays were spent attending soccer games with their sons.
It was a meeting with their bishop, Douglas Johnson, that started the growth that would culminate in their temple sealing. “I felt that we were running out of time,” Sheri says. “We were faced with a situation where Don may not be here tomorrow.” She remembers Bishop Johnson saying, “It’s not too late.” Don and Sheri began attending the ward regularly. Goals of tithe paying and activity were set and met. Members of the elders quorum presidency went into Don and Sheri’s home to teach a series of Melchizedek Priesthood preparation classes. In fact, the entire ward knew of the couple’s goal to attend the temple; the members’ prayers, along with an outpouring of friendship and support, helped bring about the change.
Referring to Don and Sheri’s story, President Edwards says, “They talked about all the support that was around them. Well, why do you think the ward members were focused?” It’s because Don and Sheri’s progress was a regular subject in priesthood executive committee and ward council meetings. In fact, “the whole ward correlated its energy around what was going on,” he explains. “That was not an accident.” In fact, this kind of widespread support has been the norm ever since former Cherry Hill stake president Bertram Willis put special emphasis on helping the less active and new members progress in the gospel.
Today, President Edwards is quick to point out that when Latter-day Saints focus on preparing for and attending the temple, the details of our everyday lives fall into place. Becoming temple worthy helps us come unto Christ, and our lives are brought into harmony with the Savior’s teachings. A focus on the temple “simplifies everything for us as Saints,” President Edwards says. “We don’t get confused about ‘Well, now, what program is this again?’ and ‘How long is this going to last?’ Well, the temple is not a temporary program; it is essential to exaltation.”
To help prepare new members and the newly activated for the temple, each unit in the stake regularly holds Melchizedek Priesthood and temple preparation classes. The stake presidency encourages bishops to meet with priesthood and auxiliary leaders to consider people who might attend. By having each branch or ward focus on five or six candidates with their families, the stake has enjoyed considerable success in bringing many members back to the fold.
Dana and Fred Kingery have taught both the Melchizedek Priesthood and temple preparation classes in the Medford Ward for the past three years. For each series of classes, they open their home and their hearts. “We make them feel like any other family member,” says Dana. “It seems to work. After the first class we really had people wanting to come.”
Fred adds: “We’re building a family feeling as we go along. If they are married, we always invite both husband and wife.” Single members are invited to bring a friend if they want to since this often helps them relate to what is being taught about the priesthood and the temple. Fred and Dana tell of part-member families being united, such as Paul and Ann Sacca. Ann had attended one of the earlier temple preparation classes and then received her endowment. Paul had been a casual investigator for several years before deciding to join the Church. Together they attended the Melchizedek Priesthood and temple preparation classes and were sealed in the temple in 1998.
Fred and Dana also tell of helping such members as Harry McGary, who after being less active for some 20 years accepted the invitation to attend the Melchizedek Priesthood preparation class and was ordained an elder. Then he attended the temple preparation class and received his endowment in September 1998.
“I think what brings them here,” says Fred, “is that they’ve been invited by the bishopric, they’ve been invited by their priesthood leaders, they’ve been invited by the Relief Society president, and then we invite them into our home.” Even members of the stake presidency often meet individually with class members to offer encouragement. President Edwards says that when a member of the stake presidency is actually able to visit with a person or a couple attending the classes, it’s unusual for the person or couple not to be ordained or attend the temple. Finally, the efforts of individual members in the ward or branch to truly welcome the new convert or the less-active member into the congregation make a profound difference in bringing them to Christ.
It was the effort of individual members in the Penns Grove Branch, starting with their home and visiting teachers, that helped Tom and Pam Berry become active in the Church again.
Pam, a member since 1989, had found the gospel after a religious search spanning several years. Tom had joined in her search initially but had become disinterested in the process and did not take part in the missionary discussions. While Pam progressed toward baptism, Tom made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the Church, but at Pam’s baptism, he was so touched by the spirit of the meeting that he apologized to each of the missionaries he felt he had made unwelcome.
Later that year, Tom’s mother was visiting the Berrys and recognized that the young men who stopped by were missionaries. She told Pam that for a short time, long ago, she had been a member. She also said that Tom had actually been baptized a member of the Church when he was eight years old. When Tom got home from work, Pam told him he had been a member since 1968. Pam contacted the ward clerk, who requested Tom’s membership record from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Over the ensuing years, the Berrys were active sporadically as they moved to various regions of the United States.
When they moved back to the New Jersey area in 1996, Pam wanted to start attending church again but couldn’t find the number in the telephone book. She eventually located the number of Ann Marie Ondricek, the piano teacher of her friend’s children, who was LDS.
“I called Ann Marie,” says Pam, “and she said, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you to call.’” Pam’s friend had told Ann Marie that her LDS friend was moving back into the area. “We talked on the phone and it was like we were longtime friends,” Pam continues. “I told her we really wanted to go to church but we didn’t have a vehicle. She said, ‘That’s not a problem. We’ll come get you.’” Every Sunday Ann Marie and Gerald Ondricek would give the Berrys a ride to and from church.
Gerald Ondricek became the Berrys’ home teacher, and Ann Marie became Pam’s visiting teacher, faithfully visiting at least once a month. Tom Berry says, “They took the initiative to come out and see us after we talked on the phone. They would visit us and bring their kids with them, and we’d sit on the porch and talk.”
Once the Berrys began attending church, branch members rallied around them to help in their progression. There were consistently seven or eight people to support Tom at his Melchizedek Priesthood preparation class.
Pam now serves as the Primary president and Tom received the Melchizedek Priesthood in May 1998. They are hoping everyone in the family will be ready to go to the temple in 1999 to be sealed.
It all started with branch members who knew they could have an impact and magnified their service as home and visiting teachers. President Edwards stresses this perspective when he says that a calling as a home or visiting teacher is “as important as any other calling you happen to have. I have four families that I am responsible to home teach. That’s as important as my calling as a stake president. I have a relationship with them that I’ll be held accountable for with the Lord.”
Following the guidelines given by their Area Presidency has helped members of the Cherry Hill stake bring people to Christ. When individual wards and branches started holding regular Melchizedek Priesthood and temple preparation classes, their Melchizedek Priesthood ordinations doubled and the number of stake members receiving their endowment climbed. With the help of dedicated home and visiting teachers, part-member families have been united in the gospel, less-active members have returned to church, and converts have become strong in the gospel.