“Welcome to the Ward”


By applying time-tested principles, members in the Albuquerque New Mexico Stake are not only finding new members but keeping them.

In the sagebrush-dotted landscape northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, new neighborhoods are a common sight. Many families are being drawn here by jobs in growing high-tech industries, and among them are numerous Latter-day Saints.

However, population growth is not the only reason Church membership in the area is increasing. Members of the Albuquerque New Mexico Stake—one of three stakes headquartered in the city—are seeing their ranks swell as they apply solid, time-tested principles of effective member-missionary work. Their success is achieved particularly as they act on positive impressions and as they fellowship investigators not only throughout the conversion process but beyond.

Sharing the Gospel with Faith and Kindness

Stake leaders have encouraged members to take a “significant step” each week to help acquaint those in their circles of influence with the gospel. Such a step, they say, does not necessarily require the involvement of full-time missionaries; it can be as small as mentioning the gospel in a casual conversation.

Peter Webb, second counselor in the stake presidency, says, “We’ve tried to teach the stake that we should be praying for opportunities to share the gospel with those around us. Then, as impressions come to our hearts and minds, we should act in faith on those impressions.”

Stake president Stanley Hatch reassures members about sharing the gospel with their friends: “I think it’s a myth that you have to be careful or you’ll jeopardize friendships by sharing the gospel. We’ve found that hasn’t been the case. We tell members: ‘Don’t be afraid to follow through on your natural, loving impulses and actually invite people. Then, whether or not they accept the invitation, just continue to be friends.’”

As one example, the Duke family, members of the Volcano Cliffs Ward, were influenced by members who reached out in love and kindness to share their faith.

It was a somber occasion that ultimately helped bring the gospel light into the lives of Wayne and Charlotte Duke. In 1993 Dee Duke, the wife of Wayne’s father and a member of the North Valley Ward, lay dying of cancer. As her burial plans were discussed, Wayne and Charlotte heard LDS terms that were somewhat confusing but piqued their interest.

One day Wayne prayed to know if he should learn more about this unfamiliar religion. That evening Mary Thomas, a member of Dee’s ward who was helping to care for her in her final hours, gave Wayne and Charlotte a copy of the Book of Mormon. Unsure about the appropriateness of her timing, she apologized and said she hoped she was not overstepping her bounds.

“I said, ‘No, please don’t feel that way—I feel this is an answer to prayer,’” Wayne recalls now. “Her inscription in the book was something like ‘Heavenly Father wants you to know about this.’ Again, it was a direct answer to prayer.”

Wayne and Charlotte read the Book of Mormon during the following week, and a short time later they began listening to the missionary discussions along with the youngest of their two children, 17-year-old Tim. Their other son, Chris, age 18, at first had no interest and felt their family didn’t need the Church. But occasionally, when he thought no one could see him, he would listen to the discussions from the hallway.

What finally “pushed him over the edge,” Chris says, involved another simple act of kindness. One Sunday after the rest of the family had left for church, Chris was sitting in the living room watching television. The doorbell sounded, and there stood Mary Thomas.

“Her family lived pretty far away, but she came all the way over here to bring me a book about the Church,” Chris remembers, still marveling. “I can’t even remember what the book was, but I turned off the TV and read. I thought, I’ve got to find out more about this church.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Duke family continued to be influenced by ward members. Their first Sunday at church, Charlotte was standing with her family in the hallway of the meetinghouse, nervously awaiting the next meeting. “I hate new situations; I think a lot of people do,” she says. “I had said a prayer that I would find somebody who would help me ease into things. As we were standing there, a lady came over and started talking to me. People say miracles don’t happen, but if you’re watching for them, they do.”

After hearing all of the discussions and accepting the gospel message, the Duke family was baptized on 9 April 1993. They continue to be active, contributing members of the stake.

“It’s Not a Secluded Group”

President Hatch explains that when members tell their friends about the Church, “even if they don’t join, it’s less likely that they’ll be affected by prejudice or misinformation.”

Loren Motley had heard a great deal of negative information about Latter-day Saints—“that they were prejudiced, that they couldn’t do this, couldn’t do that,” he says. However, he was intrigued by the Church’s claim to have a modern-day prophet.

One day he asked his friend and coworker Mark Harris, a member of the Bernalillo Ward, if all the stereotypes he had heard were true. When Mark pointed out that he didn’t fit the stereotypes, nor did other Church members Loren knew, Loren felt somewhat assured.

Not long afterward, a new friend, Mellisa Skaggs, invited Loren to attend a ward meeting. Members of the ward, he says, “were so nice. From day one I’ve been included, I’ve been accepted. It’s not like, ‘Well, he’s not a member; we can’t invite him to this party.’ It’s not a secluded, isolated group here.”

Loren has since married Mellisa and was baptized on 18 May 1997. He has adopted Mellisa’s son, Terrence, and the three were sealed in December of last year.

Involving the Ward

Kevin King, a member of the Star Heights Ward, knew that as members participate in missionary endeavors, their testimonies can be strengthened and their enthusiasm for missionary work can increase. When Kevin heard about Kristopher and Gail Gitter, he immediately wanted to meet the young couple whose story seemed so much like his own. As a stake missionary, he heard about the Gitters’ progress in missionary correlation meetings. As a convert himself, he identified with the way they had responded immediately to the gospel message.

Every other night he helped the full-time missionaries give discussions to the Gitters. Before long he and his wife, Stacy, invited them to a family picnic, then to family home evening, then on outings together. “We just became friends,” says Kevin.

Soon home teachers and visiting teachers were assigned to the Gitters. Meanwhile, Kevin helped introduce the family to ward members, and as their baptismal date approached, he and others tried to involve as many ward members as possible in the event.

More than 100 people attended the Gitters’ baptism. A year later, the family went on the stake temple trip to be sealed. Many of the ward members were present.

The Sunday after their sealing was fast Sunday. “A lot of the ward members stood in testimony meeting and shared their feelings about what they had experienced with us in the temple,” Gail recalls. “It was inspiring to see how it affected other people’s lives.”

Kevin says, “The ward has been part of the Gitters’ lives because they’ve seen them be baptized, they’ve watched them grow that whole year, and then they’ve been with them in the temple. They feel they have a role in their lives, and everybody’s been strengthened by the experience.”

Six years after their baptism, Kris Gitter serves as second counselor in the Bernalillo Ward bishopric, while Gail serves as assistant stake canning director.

Reaching Out Beyond Baptism

While the need for friendshipping may be more apparent before baptism takes place, afterward the need is just as real and perhaps even more pressing because it is more easily overlooked.

After Izabel Nazario’s baptism, her new testimony was buttressed by the influence of a caring friend. For Izabel, the road to membership in the Church had been a long one spanning many years and several states. She met with missionaries in Hawaii and Virginia, and though she felt the influence of the Holy Ghost in Church meetings, she did not want to make the lifestyle changes the Church required.

The birth of her daughter, Natasha, began to change her perspective. After moving to Albuquerque, she again made contact with the missionaries. At last—eight years after first becoming acquainted with the Church—Izabel was baptized. Looking back now, she says, “I kind of feel sorry for the missionaries who didn’t have success with me—but they planted seeds. The timing has to be perfect.”

Not long after she joined the Church, ward members began urging her to get acquainted with Mellisa Skaggs, who was then another single mother in the ward. At the time, neither was enthusiastic about the idea. But because they lived in the same apartment complex, their paths kept crossing. Finally one day Izabel mentioned her coming birthday, and Mellisa suggested that the two do something to celebrate. In the process they found they had much in common: their children were about the same age, and while Mellisa had grown up in the Church, she had drifted away during her college years and had only recently become active again.

Over time the two built a strong friendship and would talk for hours, each providing the other with much-needed support. Although they now live in different wards in the stake, they remain close. “Still, when she feels in need or when I feel in need, we can talk,” says Mellisa. “We strengthen each other and we build each other up.”

Izabel, who today serves on the homemaking committee of the Volcano Cliffs Ward, agrees. “Friendships are so important,” she says. “They help you feel that you belong.”

Helping Converts Feel Loved

Success in member-missionary work, says President Hatch, is the natural result of members receiving a personal conversion and living the gospel. Members are then more likely to build good relationships with those around them—to “talk to people over the back fence” and invite them to Church activities. “What we’ve found without exception is that whether or not people accept our invitation, no one has rejected our friendship,” he says.

Says Kris Gitter: “Probably the most important and key thing is to help people feel loved. That’s what the Savior did in His mortal life. It didn’t matter whether someone was a Jew or Gentile, Samaritan or whoever. He expressed pure, unerring love. It’s that love that draws people to the Savior and the gospel.”

[photos] Photography by Rebecca M. Taylor

[photos] Top left: Stake mission leaders and members of the stake presidency. Top right: Stake president Stanley Hatch. Above, left to right: Kris and Gail Gitter, Stacy and Kevin King. Front: Corey Gitter, Amanda Gitter, Alycia King.

[photo] “Friendships are so important,” says Izabel Nazario, shown with her daughter, Natasha. “They help you feel that you belong.”

[photos] Far left: David Falco, shown with wife, Misti, and children, was fellowshipped by neighbor Richard Myers and others. Center: Stake and full-time missionaries meet. Second from right: Wayne and Charlotte Duke; Chris Duke with wife, Monique, and daughter, Ceili. Right: Josh Anderson was influenced by member friends. After his baptism, he encouraged his sister, Robin Bartlett, to take the discussions; she was baptized in February 1997.

[photo] Rob and Kay Witkowski, who were baptized in October 1995, say the Bernalillo Ward has become like a family to them.