Palm trees line the streets, the Pacific Ocean is a five-minute walk away, and the temperature has—brrrr—dropped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s December in Manhattan Beach, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, and Christmas is in the air. Okay, chestnuts aren’t exactly roasting on an open fire, and nobody’s dashing through the snow. But Aarika Anvaripour is feeling that feeling you get at Christmas just the same.
“Just meet me at 6:30 tomorrow night,” she tells her friends, being purposefully vague about what she’s planning. Aarika has invited 20 nonmember friends to participate in something she promises “will get you into the Christmas spirit.”
That something is a night of caroling to people in a rest home and a visit to the Los Angeles Temple grounds. Aarika thought this would be a great missionary tool to help introduce her friends to the Church.
It isn’t her first missionary experience, and it certainly won’t be her last. If there’s one thing Aarika knows, it’s how to tell people about the gospel. Then again, she’d never done anything like this with this many people.
One December night
So Aarika went to work. A week before Christmas she arranged for her friends to meet at the home of Bruce and Kathryn Ghent. He is Aarika’s stake president, and Sister Ghent volunteered to prepare a light dinner in her home.
Of the 20 friends invited, 12 came, and none of them knew what they’d be doing. They showed up because they were curious and because they liked Aarika.
“I had prayed before I did this. I was scared to death,” Aarika recalls. “You have to know how scared I was to do this. I had fasted and prayed that the girls would feel the Spirit, so I knew I needed something to get them in the spiritual zone.” That’s where the caroling came in.
After dinner, the group drove to a rest home to sing to the residents. But instead of “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland,” Aarika borrowed hymnals from her ward, and the girls sang Christmas hymns about the Savior’s birth. “Some of my friends had never been caroling. We sat with the people; we sang to them. And my friends were saying, ‘I love this.’”
Aarika was too.
After the rest home visit, it was time to go to the Los Angeles Temple to see the grounds decorated with Christmas lights. Aarika gave a short explanation about why the Church has temples; then she took them into the visitors’ center to watch The Lamb of God.
The group also saw another short film, Luke 2 , followed by a walk around the temple while drinking hot chocolate and looking at the lights.
“My friends asked me tons of questions and kept asking me, ‘What am I feeling? I love this feeling.’” It was then that Aarika took the opportunity to bear her testimony.
“The best part was seeing my friends look at the Church in a different way. I think that night they actually felt why I love the gospel so much,” she says. “We grew close that night, and it strengthened my testimony.”
Aarika loves to talk about the gospel. She started when she was in junior high and hasn’t quit. “Once I started sharing the gospel with others and I saw the effects of it, it gave me strength to do it more,” she says. She also thinks it’s what her mom would want her to do.
When it comes to life-shaping events, Aarika can point to one that happened nine years ago. It was the day her mother was killed by a drunk driver. “I remember her very well, and I had a really close relationship with her even at a young age,” she says of her mom. “My dad always tells me how my mom would want me to be a strong member of the Church.” This is an interesting statement since Aarika’s dad, Jamie, when he first said that, wasn’t a member himself.
“I want to be good because my mom was a convert to the Church, and my dad finally joined, too, after my mom died. People helped bring my mom into the Church, and I saw how people helped my dad. I think that’s another reason why I try to tell people about the gospel.”
“After my mom died,” she continues, “the gospel was there at the perfect moment in my life. I have realized that I can still feel close to my mom and that she is here. I know I will see her again someday.”
A month before her visit to the Los Angeles Temple grounds, Aarika and her brother were sealed to their parents.
“I have seen how the Church changed my life and has made negative things into positive things. I have such a testimony of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, and I feel like I have a really close relationship with them,” she says. “I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve felt the Holy Ghost to where I’m just in tears. I love my friends so much that I want them to feel that, to feel that comfort, and to feel the love that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have for them.”
It’s six in the morning at the Redondo Beach chapel. The cultural hall is filled with chairs. Slowly, seminary students begin filing in. Only today it’s not a normal seminary morning. Something is different. Sure, you can smell the French toast cooking in the kitchen. Breakfast is in about 30 minutes. What’s out of the ordinary, though, is that not all of the teenagers in the room are Latter-day Saints. Some have never even been in an LDS church building before.
On this Monday, it’s the monthly version of Bring a Friend to Seminary, an idea hatched by Linda O’Brien, the seminary teacher who challenged her students to invite nonmember friends to seminary once a month. This morning, Aarika and many other students are enthusiastic participants.
Today, four of Aarika’s friends have come for the lesson—and the food. “Once you get them to come, they have a great time. They have so much fun, and then they tell another person. But I do kind of mumble the six-in-the-morning part,” Aarika says, laughing. “They’re not sure what to expect, but they’ve told me their days have been so great because it started out with a prayer and talking about the scriptures.”
When Aarika was attending her first year of seminary, she was unsure about the program. “I thought, Who am I going to ask? But now I’m really comfortable, and it’s a lot easier now.”
Sharing the gospel is so much a part of Aarika’s life that she can’t remember a day when she didn’t talk about the Church with someone.
As seminary ends, Aarika and her four friends leave. They’re all smiling.
The courage to try
Aarika is now standing at the pulpit during the Redondo Third Ward’s sacrament meeting, and she’s talking about courage. “I have a testimony of courage and what it takes to stand up for what is right,” Aarika says.
“But as members of the Church,” she continues, “we need to have courage and show people how we live. My friends joke around with me because everyone at school knows I’m a Mormon. They tease me about things sometimes. But they say, ‘Aarika, we tease you, but we have a respect for you that we don’t have for a lot of people.’ I tell them I’m not perfect and I don’t have the perfect life. But because I have the gospel, I have a better life, and it makes it easier for me to get through my trials.”
Yes, sharing the gospel takes courage. It also takes a testimony.
And Aarika has both.
For years, Aarika’s grandparents Raymond and Marilyn Perez supported Aarika and her brother, Aaron, as they went to church. But becoming members themselves wasn’t in the Perez’s plans. “I’m not going to become a Mormon,” Marilyn would tell her granddaughter. And the granddaughter would just smile because she had other ideas.
When Aaron left as a missionary to the Chile Santiago South Mission, Aarika began inviting her grandparents to church, and the Perezes accepted the invitations. Meanwhile Aaron wrote them letters from the mission field.
“And when Aaron got home from his mission, things got more and more serious about the Church,” Aarika recalls. Not long after that, what they said wouldn’t happen did. Raymond and Marilyn were baptized in December 1999.
“Those girls are my sisters.”
Aarika Anvaripour spends a lot of her time telling others about the Church. But she finds much of her strength when she’s with the seven other girls her age from the Redondo Third Ward in the Torrance California North Stake.
“I have my friends from school, but my Church friends are like my sisters. I know everyone is your sister and brother, but those girls are my sisters,” says Aarika. “They’re my foundation. I love them so much.”
Kristin Bell agrees. “We’ve never all gone to the same school, so we hang out on weekends mostly. We have the same goals, and we have the same future in mind for ourselves,” she says. “We can talk openly because we understand each other and we know what we want. We’ve just been really close ever since we were little.”
That means Aarika (below, with lei) and (from left) Kristin Bell, Candice Moriyama, Kristin Moriyama, and Carly Brandt, along with Kendra Dean, Tracy Smith, and Nikki Baird (not pictured) really care about each other. And now that they’ve moved out of Young Women, they can look back on their years in Young Women with fondness.
“With my Laurel friends, they know what I want to do or what I don’t want to do, and you don’t have to explain it,” Kristin Moriyama says. “It’s just good to know that people have the same values.”