Bienvenidos! Welcome Back!

By Marvin K. Gardner

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    Saints in Mexico and Central America who had strayed from the Church are coming back.

    San Salvador: A bishop and an earthquake turned them around.

    Mexico City: It wasn’t a typical visit to the home of less-active members: a tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was playing, and the Book of Mormon was on the table. Was this the right house?

    Puebla, Mexico: He hadn’t attended church for years. Then an old friend, his new home teacher, invited him to stake conference.

    Heredia, Costa Rica: Drunk, he broke his back in a car accident. He begged the Lord for another chance at life.

    San Jose, Costa Rica: “Please,” he told a friend, “I want to come back to the Church. I need you to send somebody.”

    Reactivation experiences such as these are happening all over Mexico and Central America. “This is a historical moment for the Church here,” says Jorge Uboldi, president of the Palmas Branch in Mexico City, who has seen a number of people return to activity. Of the 139 members in his branch, 130 are active. “We’re seeing miracles,” he says.

    San Salvador: The Bishop and the Earthquake

    Earthquake! “I saw the walls of my house coming down!” says Sister Salinas. “The debris blocked the doorways, so we couldn’t get out until the strongest part of the quake was over. Then we scrambled over the rubble and ran out into the street.” Later, the entire roof caved in.

    In his nearby office, Brother Salinas was hit in the head by flying debris. “But I didn’t worry about the pain, because I was so concerned about my family,” he says. “I ran home, praying, ‘Father, help us! We are thy children. Help us!’”

    Even though his wife and all six children had been inside the house, miraculously no one was killed. Terrified, the family fled. “But we knew our brothers and sisters in the ward would be looking for us,” he says, “so we returned.”

    Church members were indeed looking for them. A construction project on the meetinghouse was halted so members could help the quake victims. The meetinghouse was converted into an emergency center—a place to find shelter, food, clothing, pure water, medicine, and other necessities. The Salinas family decided to stay on their own property in a tent the bishop gave them, and the members helped clean things up and provided building materials for their new house. “They were always there for us,” says Brother Salinas. “They helped us materially, emotionally, spiritually. But even more, we saw how much the Lord loved us. He was always with us, protecting us. I don’t have a way to pay Him back, except to obey and be humble.”

    Although the family had not been active in the Church since their baptism six years earlier, a friend—Bishop Rafael Luna—had kept the Church in their lives. “He didn’t lose faith that we would return,” says Brother Salinas.

    His wife nods. “The bishop came to visit often, as did his wife and children. He was always sending members and home teachers and visiting teachers.” She smiles. “They wouldn’t leave us alone!”

    In June 1986, Bishop Luna and a group of ward leaders had come to visit the Salinas family and urged them once again to return to Church. And the bishop had felt inspired to send the missionaries back to teach them the discussions again. The family started coming back to Church sporadically. Then, four months later, on 10 October 1986, the earthquake struck. The subsequent overwhelming demonstration of love by the members determined their reconversion.

    “Our house was destroyed,” says Sister Salinas, “but we had everything we needed: the love of the members and the protection of the Lord.” Now she is first counselor in the Relief Society presidency, and her husband is progressing in the priesthood. Their children are busy and active in the Church. “We have prospered,” she says.

    “We have a goal with the Lord and with the bishop to go to the temple and be sealed,” says her husband. “It’s a marvelous feeling to be back again in the true Church. We feel very happy here.” (See: “We Go As a Group.”)

    Mexico City: “The Tabernacle Choir Was Singing When We Entered”

    Roberto Wilson and his wife Maria Teresa hadn’t been to church for months. But when they received a phone call saying a General Authority, a regional representative, and a member of the stake presidency (who was their home teacher) wanted to visit them, they weren’t stricken with horror or guilt. “We felt honored that hey would visit us!” says Maria.

    Did she put on the Tabernacle Choir tape just to impress them? “No, I always have my Choir tapes playing. The music relaxes me.”

    After a prayer, the leaders chatted with Roberto about his work at the bank and then asked about their feelings for the Church. Maria mentioned some past problems. The leaders expressed understanding and then invited them to return to Church. “They told me I should be progressing,” says Roberto, “and they challenged me to receive the priesthood and to take my wife and children to the temple.”

    How did the Wilsons react? “It was good for them to visit us,” says Roberto. “Their clear intention was to gather us like fish in their nets because we had strayed.”

    “My husband told me that ours was a chosen home to have such visitors come,” says Maria. “Now we felt it was our responsibility to be in church. I thought of the callings I’d had before, and I felt bad that I didn’t have one then.”

    The immediate challenge was to attend stake conference the next day. The Wilsons did so and have continued to attend church. Although Roberto had been a member for four years, he had never received the priesthood. One month after the visit, he received the Aaronic Priesthood. In another month and a half, he was ordained an elder. “We’re planning to go to the temple,” he says, “and I’d like my son and daughter to go on missions someday.”

    They speak of the missionaries, home teachers, and friends who have encouraged them over the years. Then, reflecting back on that special visit: “It gave me joy to talk with those brethren; they have great hearts.” (See: “We Come with Love.”)

    Puebla, Mexico: “Brother Toriz Has Always Been My Brother”

    Baptized in 1964, Velino Camela hadn’t been to Church for years, even though his wife and six children were active. Then Abel Toriz, his friend of more than twenty years, was assigned as his home teacher.

    During the first visit, Brother Toriz and his son Enoc saw an open beer can on the table, but they didn’t say anything about it. And they visited every week, rather than once a month.

    “We hope to see you at church because we miss you,” Brother Toriz would say.

    “Well, my family will go, but I won’t,” would be the reply.

    “But, hermano, you are the head of the home.”

    “Yes, but I’m not going to church.”

    Brother Toriz and his son kept visiting every week. Then, one evening, they invited Brother Camela again, and he said, “Yes, tomorrow I’m going to church.” And he did.

    “He has kept coming!” says Brother Toriz. “And listen to this,” he adds with a chuckle, “he and his family always arrive before the meeting starts. That makes me very happy!”

    “Well, I want to be there to take the emblems of the sacrament. That’s the main purpose,” Brother Camela replies.

    After so much time and so many invitations, why did he finally decide to go back to church? “I was unhappy with my life,” he replies. “Then my friend Brother Toriz kept coming every week and inviting me, and I went! All I needed was somebody to push me!

    “My hope now is to be sealed to my wife and children. As Brother Toriz says, I should take the opportunity now while they’re still at home. My oldest son and daughter are planning to go on missions.”

    He looks over at his home teacher. “Brother Toriz has always been my brother.” (See: “A Little Encouragement.”)

    Heredia, Costa Rica: He Begged the Lord

    When he left his friend’s wedding, Carlos Barrera was drunk. But he drove anyway—and ended up wrecking his car and breaking his spinal column in three places. “My whole life passed before me,” he says. “‘Give me another chance,’ I begged the Lord.” Now he knows that his petition was answered.

    Carlos had been baptized when he was seventeen, but unlike his Latter-day Saint friends, he didn’t go on a mission. While they were gone, he made new friends—people with bad habits. “I began to smoke and drink. I’d been active until then—was even an elder—and my conscience got to me. From then on, my life was awful.”

    He married Haydee, a nonmember. “We were always missing something in our lives,” he says. Then he lost his job. Problems mounted. “I started going around with an even worse crowd, people who took drugs, whose lives were filled with things of the world.”

    “Instead of becoming more united during that time of trial,” says Haydee, “we became separated emotionally.”

    Missionaries and Church members frequently came to encourage him, and he even went back to church once. “But I couldn’t stand being there because of my conscience,” he says.

    Finally he got a good job as a radio operator for the police department. But he still hadn’t found peace. “I attended my wife’s church with her and the girls, looking for what I was missing, but I never found it. I talked with the priests there, begging with tears for help, but they didn’t know how.” Haydee listened to the missionary discussions but didn’t want to be baptized.

    Then, in November 1986, came that accident in which Carlos broke his back. Luckily, his operations were successful: he wasn’t paralyzed. “I saw that I could walk again, that Heavenly Father had listened to my prayer, even though I had been drunk. How was that possible? I knew my life had some purpose; I prayed that he would help me.” From that moment, he never drank alcohol again.

    In February two sister missionaries came to meet this less-active family they had on their list. “Their timing was perfect!” says Carlos. “If they’d come before or after that moment, my heart might not have been ready, and I might have missed the opportunity again. I put on a tough front, telling them I didn’t think I would come back to Church. But inside I was crying for help.”

    The sisters kept coming, and they taught Carlos and Haydee all of the discussions again. Haydee gained a testimony and was baptized in March—just four months after Carlos’s accident. Carlos stopped smoking and began attending church with Haydee and their two daughters. Now he teaches the elders quorum and she teaches Primary.

    “It’s been a complete, total change,” says Haydee. “Now, thanks to our Father in Heaven, here we are as a family in the Church! If we weren’t in the Church, perhaps we wouldn’t be together. Who knows what would have happened to us!” (See “They Didn’t Go by Accident.”)

    San Jose, Costa Rica: “Please, I Want to Come Back”

    Daniel Frankston had heard the missionary discussions in his homeland of Canada with his mother when he was fourteen. Then when he was seventeen years old, his sister living in Costa Rica invited him to stay with her family and go to college in San Jose. His first day there, he looked out her window and saw the missionaries walking by. He listened to the discussions again and was baptized.

    But the idea of receiving the priesthood scared him. And his Costa Rican girlfriend, whom he later married, was deeply committed to her own church; she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in his religion. For the next five years, he wasn’t active.

    Then one day, Daniel saw a friend. And feelings that had been building up in his heart came in a rush: “Please,” he said, “I want to come back to the Church. I need you to send somebody.” He didn’t know his friend was now branch president—and in a very good position to send somebody! “I felt my life needed some order. Something had told me, ‘You need the priesthood now!’ When I saw my friend, I felt he was there for a reason.”

    Soon his new home teachers were at his door. “They said they would come for me every Sunday, and they did. I couldn’t miss! It was beautiful. Somebody was there to just say ‘We’re with you.’”

    Daniel received the Aaronic Priesthood and then brought the missionaries home to teach his wife, Ana. “She really made it difficult for them,” he smiles. “One elder would be looking through his books for an answer while the other would be testifying. She received the lessons from lots of missionaries. Finally, she just said, ‘I believe it’s true!’”

    Daniel baptized her, and a year later they and their two little girls were sealed in the Guatemala City Temple. Back home in Costa Rica, as they were studying the Book of Mormon one evening, Ana’s deceased grandfather appeared to her. Three times he forcefully said, “Ana, I need the gospel!”

    “That really strengthened her,” Daniel says. “We’re going back to the temple soon to do his work.”

    Ana teaches a Primary class, and Daniel is a high councilor. He gets excited as he talks about his assignment with missionary work. “We invite nonmembers into our home every week to introduce them to the missionaries or to have discussions with them. And we’ve seen baptisms come of it. You can’t preach what you don’t do.” (See: “Keeping Track.”)

    “We Go As a Group”

    Rafael Luna has been a bishop for eleven of his thirteen years in the Church. “In ward council meetings,” he says, “we discuss which less-active family we ought to visit that week.” After deciding on a family, the bishopric pays a call on them, accompanied by the presidents of the elders quorum, Primary, Relief Society, Young Men, Young Women, and Sunday School, depending on the ages of the family.

    “We go as a group that first time to impress them—to let them know that this many people are interested in them,” he says. After a prayer and a few words with the whole family, they divide up, each leader talking to the family members that correspond to his or her assignment. For example, the Primary president talks to the children, telling them when Primary is, who their teacher is, what they’re doing in class—and inviting them to come along.

    “Usually the families seem happy for our visits, even those who don’t come out to Church afterward,” says Bishop Luna. “In this way we have reactivated a number of complete families in the past year.”

    “We Come with Love”

    The visit to the Wilson home was similar to many taking place in Mexico and Central America. The day before stake conference, the stake presidency and bishops meet with the visiting authorities. After prayer and fasting, the bishops present a list of less-active families that they feel would be receptive to a visit from their leaders. Then the leaders divide up into companionships and go visiting. Afterward, they reconvene to share their experiences.

    “In each of these ‘home visits,’” says Isaias Lozano, regional representative in Mexico City, “we say to the people, ‘We come with love to invite you to return to Christ. Tomorrow is conference, and we’d love to greet you there. We’re not just desirous that you come to the meeting but also that you work toward getting the Melchizedek Priesthood and that you prepare to take your family to the temple.’ We usually leave a blessing on the home; sometimes we sing a hymn with them.”

    Stake presidencies and bishoprics are also following this pattern on their own, with similar results. “The bishops bring us lists of the families they think would be most ready,” says President Evaristo de Leon of the Netzahualcoyotl Stake, “and then we make the visits with the ward and stake leaders. We’ve seen many complete families return to the Church.”

    Of course, informal, friendly visits are often the most effective. “Three Sundays ago, my wife and I visited a family,” says Milton F. Marin president of the San Jose Costa Rica Stake. “‘I’ve known you for years,’ I said. ‘You’re special to me. I want you to return, and the Lord wants you to return. He loves you.’ I challenged them to come the next Sunday. They did, and have come every Sunday since. They’re coming to our home for a picnic!”

    A Little Encouragement

    Home teachers and leaders are finding others who, like Brother Camela, just need a little encouragement. Sometimes it may take twenty years. Other times it happens overnight.

    “I invited a brother to come to my office for an interview,” says President Marin. “When he arrived, we chatted for a few minutes, and then I asked him why he hadn’t been to church for some time. His excuses were just little things—it was hard to get up early; sometimes the talks were boring; he had just fallen into the habit of not coming. I asked him if he paid tithing. Yes. If he obeyed the Word of Wisdom. Yes. If he sustained his leaders. Yes. And so it went. ‘Come back to Christ,’ I told him. ‘Come and help us bring others back.’” The man responded well, and, since he was worthy, “we presented his name at stake conference the next day and ordained him an elder. He has been faithful ever since.”

    A crucial question in interviews given by priesthood leaders is “What is keeping you from receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood—or a temple recommend?” Then the challenge: “Could you be ready in a month—or two months—or six months?”

    President Marin and his counselors are interviewing all less-active elders and prospective elders in their stake during the six-month period before their next stake conference. The bishoprics and elders quorum presidencies invite and bring the members to these visits. “Last year we saw 150 people return to activity in our stake,” he says. “Some are complete families.”

    They Didn’t Go by Accident

    It wasn’t just by chance that those sisters visited the Barrera home: missionaries in Costa Rica are assigned to visit all members—active or less-active, give them a series of member-missionary lessons, and ask for references of nonmember friends.

    “This has been a key to our success in getting the members involved in missionary work,” says Mervyn Arnold, who has since completed his assignment as mission president. “Our missionaries don’t have to do any tracting because of the references they get from the members. And the less-active give just as many references as the active ones—sometimes more.”

    One of the greatest benefits: “We’ve had a great deal of success with missionaries reactivating people while getting references from them. If you ask people in the wards how they became active, a lot of them will tell you that the missionaries came by and visited them regularly and gave them these member-missionary discussions.”

    Keeping Track

    Daniel Frankson knows from experience the importance of keeping close contact with newly baptized members. The idea is to keep new converts active. A tool he and other stake and mission leaders through Mexico and Central America are using is proving very effective.

    During the three months after people are baptized, the missionaries keep track of their progress by filling out the “green card”—noting such events as when the new convert received the Home Teaching Lessons for New Members, gave a talk or prayer at church, and received a Church calling. It also notes when males received the priesthood and became home teachers.

    In addition to the green card, the ward mission leader keeps a notebook. He consolidates information on all new converts in the ward and coordinates the efforts of the missionaries and ward leaders to help new members become fully integrated into the Church.

    “I feel we’re having much better success retaining people because of this,” says one leader. “The missionaries are filling out the cards, and the ward mission leaders are following through. More people are staying active.”

    An earthquake and the subsequent demonstration of love by ward members helped reconvert the Salinas family of San Salvador. (Photography by Douglas Hernandez.)

    Abel Toriz (far right) with Velino and Sara Camela of Puebla, Mexico, and two of their children, Cesar and Sara. (Photography by Marvin K. Gardner.)

    An inner desire to come back to the Church led to reconversion for Daniel Frankson—and baptism for his wife. (Photography by Alfonso Montero Gutierrez.)