Dressed in old clothes—pants and shirt that bright yellow paint can’t ruin—James Bridges is sitting with nine of his closest friends saying the following sentence: “Service is fun.”
He says it with absolute sincerity, and the other nine nod in agreement. They are gathered at their church in Anchorage, Alaska, getting ready to restripe the parking lot. Perhaps very few will actually notice their work, but, still, it’s a job that needs to be done. And they were happy to volunteer.
Looking from one to another, waiting for someone to break ranks about what James just said, is useless. No one is going to suddenly say, “Just kidding.” They mean what they say. For the priests quorum of the Anchorage Sixth Ward, service is right up there with playing rugby in the snow and going fishing on Ship Creek. It’s fun.
How can it be? Why would these 10 young men be willing to give up time on their computers or playing their music or practicing for basketball season to do things for people just because they need to be done? And then how can they actually call it fun, no matter how dirty or hard the work?
“Even the most mundane service projects can be fun,” says Nick Anderson, “if you have enough people.”
One service that needs to be performed repeatedly in Alaska is snow shoveling. “We do drive-by shoveling,” says Mike Killary. “We each grab a shovel and pile into a van.” Then they pick someone in the ward or neighborhood who hasn’t been shoveled out from the latest storm. They quietly sneak out of the van, shovel like crazy, and try to make their getaway before they are discovered. In the meantime, if they throw a little snow at each other, all the better.
They also remember with great enjoyment the day they had to dig an old car out of the ice to get it ready to be donated to a family in the ward. They had to literally chip it out of a winter’s worth of snow that had hardened to ice. Even though the temperature was below zero, they remember being warm—warm from hard work and the satisfaction of doing something good.
How did the members of this quorum get to this point where they feel a sense of unity, where they are spending time together doing good things?
When someone moves into the ward, or young men are advanced, they automatically have friends. “Friendship is built in,” says Mike. “You move in and you become our friend, and eventually you’re friends with everybody.”
No one is left out. Jacob Christensen explains how it happens on the first Sunday someone new comes to church. “Brother Derrell Smith, our Young Men president, lets us know if someone is coming into the ward. He clues us in.”
Then Aaron Ekstrom adds, “We go from there.”
Jacob continues, “We make them feel welcome. We make them feel like we want them to be there. We do want them there.”
“Brother Smith told us to invite them to other activities besides church,” says Aaron, “like to football games or going to play basketball. We work our way from there to church.”
And they call before every activity to let everyone know what’s happening and when. “It’s pretty irresistible when you keep getting called every week,” says Nick.
“We’re just all friends,” says Zach Milliman. “We have a leader who keeps us in line. He doesn’t let people make fun of other people. We get to know each other without any animosity getting in the way.”
“I came here about four years ago,” says Neal Lefler. “It’s become like our family. This place is small compared to a lot of places, but we’re just like brothers. We keep track of each other.”
Indeed, that is true. James remembers his first Sunday. “I shook everybody’s hands. They wanted to know who I was. It made me feel better because I’d moved from a place I had lived for 16 years. They were trying to get me to go out and do things with them. I was kind of shy at first.”
Neal recalls an event when James wasn’t with them. “I remember one time we were playing basketball. The only person who wasn’t there was James. We called him up and dragged him out of bed. We took him to play basketball. It was fun.”
“When a bunch of guys call, it makes you feel good. Since then, I’ve become friends with all of them. It has helped me grow a lot spiritually.”
“It helps when you have a support group of LDS friends you can go hang out with,” says Mike.
“We’re all just friends,” says David Sullivan, “It’s pretty natural for us to be one big group of friends.”
Aaron and Jacob were recently released from the leadership of the priests quorum. They learned one big lesson about how to make a quorum work effectively. “It’s a big commitment,” says Aaron. “You have to show up and be there to everything.”
“Even stuff you don’t want to go do,” adds Jacob. “If it doesn’t sound like fun, you go and make it fun. You show the others it can be fun. You mess around a little, but you get the job done. Make it fun for everyone.”
Mike is now the new first assistant. He’s just learning about his assignment. “I call people, get a count of who is coming, and help plan activities. Actually we all sit in and plan activities.”
But more than that, this priests quorum leadership knows what’s going on in each other’s lives. On the night of the parking lot painting project, they know that one of the priests is out of town to attend his grandfather’s funeral. They know that two new priests are attending one last activity night with the teachers quorum. They know who’s sick or injured. They know who has a concert or game or match going on. And sometimes they will choose to attend to show their support. “Anything is fun to go to,” says Zach, “if you go together to support someone.”
Their hand of fellowship and brotherhood is extended to a special member of their quorum. Nick Schwan was recently baptized. He is mentally challenged and attends the special education classes at their high school. Both at school and at church, he’s one of them. They treat him with kindness and listen to what he has to say. “At first,” says Joe Carson, “we didn’t think Nick really knew what was going on around him, but after a while we realized that he picked up on things and he doesn’t really forget anything. He’s just a normal guy. He’s just a little …” Joe is at a loss for words. He knows how the quorum feels about Nick, and the feeling is good and supportive.
Right now there are 20 full-time missionaries serving from the Anchorage Sixth Ward.
Okay, just 19 of the them are elders, but the Young Men claim the young lady serving from their ward because they suspect that their good example helped encourage her to consider a mission.
And there are 10 to 12 priests getting ready to follow in their footsteps in the next couple of years. They readily admit there are other wards in the Church with as many or more full-time missionaries serving, but for a relatively small ward away from a large LDS population, they feel pleased with the tradition of service they are setting. They know just as they progress from deacon to teacher to priest, the next step is a mission.
Bishop Wesley E. Carson says, “We’ve put a positive spin on peer pressure. Serving a mission has become a family tradition; it’s become a ward tradition; and it’s become a quorum tradition.”
Back to the parking lot. “It’s a serious activity,” says Brother Smith. “I don’t want to see anyone’s initials out there. I want you to be proud that when you drive in on Sunday, the stripes are straight.”
The yellow stripes will be straight. Members of this priests quorum know all about following guidelines and doing a good job. They know where service leads—to feelings of worth. And they know the ones that have set the example for them are now in the mission field. The lines are straight, and they’ll follow.