“Within the Heart’s Reach,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 54
“They wouldn’t let me go,” says Fleeta Fletcher. Friends in the Vienna Ward, Oakton Virginia Stake, brought Sister Fletcher back into full activity through massive doses of love and much personal sacrifice. But they don’t feel it’s a sacrifice to help their sister, Fleeta.
“Nobody has ever had such a big family as I do,” Sister Fletcher says. She lives alone, wheelchair-bound by a debilitating disease, yet she hardly passes a day without some contact from her ward “family.”
There was a time when Sister Fletcher thought she had been abandoned by the Church. After her baptism in 1982, she expected that many other members would come calling. They didn’t. Feeling forgotten, Sister Fletcher developed negative attitudes about Church members.
Then Donna Daly was assigned as Fleeta Fletcher’s visiting teacher, and Clarence Taylor was assigned as her home teacher. With their separate companions, they became steady visitors over several months and made it their goal to be her friends. Both have now been released from their formal callings as her visitors, but they continue coming as friends, and they continue to serve her needs.
The service rendered by Sister Daly and Brother Taylor is only the tip of the service iceberg in the Vienna Ward. Not long ago, priesthood holders helped remodel her apartment to make it more convenient. Women in the ward now help Sister Fletcher see to a wide variety of personal needs, including regular trips to the doctor. A number of people helped as Sister Fletcher prepared to go to the temple for her own endowments. Later, more members were enlisted to perform vicarious baptisms and other temple ordinances for some of her ancestors. Several of these helpers were just coming back into full activity themselves.
What happened in Fleeta Fletcher’s life is the result of a stake reactivation program that reaches members of all ages. But “program” does not convey an adequate impression of what goes on. Through the Oakton stake’s efforts, members find themselves doing naturally what the Savior taught—loving others as themselves. Program structure is soon forgotten in the enjoyment of service.
The structure is simple. Bishops prayerfully select less-active members to fellowship. The first to visit is a stake priesthood or Relief Society leader accompanied by a ward leader. On the second visit, a ward priesthood leader goes with a quorum adviser, a class instructor, or a home teacher, or a Relief Society leader goes with a teacher or a visiting teacher. The third, and all succeeding visits, are the responsibility of the quorum/class teacher or adviser, or of the home teacher or visiting teacher, depending on the age of the member involved.
What happens during these visits is vital. “Our philosophy is that, basically, people are less active for one of three reasons,” explains Oakton stake president Raul McQuivey. They have been offended by someone; something has happened in their lives that they don’t really know how to repent of, and they don’t feel worthy to be in the Church; or they weren’t fully converted.
In the beginning, he says, someone needs to ask the “hard questions” about why people are not more active. This is something stake and ward leaders usually handle on the first visit. Stake Relief Society president Elaine Hatch says it’s often necessary to be lovingly direct: “What can we do to help you come back to Church?” Sometimes, she says, “you have to put the gospel right on the line,” asking less-active members if they want its blessings, and the blessings of the priesthood, in their home.
Obtaining this information helps leaders know how to proceed. If it’s apparent that a priesthood leader needs to help the less-active member through the repentance process, the stake presidency and bishopric will respond immediately. In any case, leaders seek the Lord’s help in assigning the right people as one-on-one contacts with the less-active individual or family. The goal is not only to help the less-active back into full Church activity, but also to prepare them to enjoy temple blessings.
President McQuivey says that the three initial visits with less-active members help ward leaders and other members see that they can be successful at the reactivation process. After those three visits, the responsibility of reactivation is delegated to ward members.
Behind the mechanics of the program, there is a huge reservoir of love and concern for individuals. Bishop Douglas McAllister of the Vienna Ward (Fleeta Fletcher’s bishop) says local attitudes toward reactivation are different now than they were a couple of years ago. He attributes some of the change to the 1987 satellite broadcast called Accomplishing the Mission of the Church. (The program is available on videotape from Church distribution centers; stock number VNVV4051.) “Our priesthood executive committee meetings are completely different now. We spend a lot more time talking about individuals because of that broadcast,” he says. As a result of the program initiated by President McQuivey, the Oakton stake reactivated more than one hundred people in both 1987 and 1988.
The Oakton stake stretches from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., west through areas of expensive country estates to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its membership ranges from hourly wage earners to professionals and affluent business people.
Bishop Ronald Hinckley adapted the reactivation program to the Herndon Ward somewhat loosely, he says, because the population of his ward is more transient than other wards in the stake. Nevertheless, the results were impressive.
Why does the program work so well?
“President McQuivey makes the difference. I’ve never met a more compassionate man,” Bishop Hinckley replies. There is a great effort to reach out to others in the stake, the bishop says, “and it starts at the top.”
President McQuivey points out that the stake Relief Society president’s leadership has been critical to making the program work among women of the stake. But like President McQuivey, Sister Hatch suggests that the success of the program should be attributed largely to leaders and other members at the ward level.
Frequently when ward leaders feel impressed to recommend that certain less-active members be contacted under the activation program, those who make the contact learn that the Spirit has already been at work in the lives of the people involved. Steve and Carin Drysdale of the Herndon Ward, for example, were prepared to change their lives when they were contacted by stake and ward leaders.
They had moved to the Washington, D.C., area from the West, where they had suffered through some serious problems in their lives. Steve and Carin felt “ill at ease” in attending Church meetings, he says. When they saw the many professional, affluent people who are members of the Oakton stake, the Drysdales felt certain they would not fit in. They soon found they were wrong.
Steve says he had never been “totally abandoned by the Spirit,” despite inactivity. After their move to Virginia, he and his wife wanted to reorder their priorities because of their children. The urge to change became more pressing when they learned that Carin was expecting again.
When the Drysdales’ youngest son was born with a serious health problem, people of the ward rallied around them in ways that amazed them. “They have been our family back here,” Carin says. Members helped with their four-year-old while Steve and Carin were with the baby at the hospital forty miles away. When Steve had to work, sisters would periodically drive to the hospital to stay with the baby while Carin took needed time for herself. Ward members cleaned or did other chores at their apartment while Steve and Carin were away. “I would do anything for these people—anything they would righteously ask,” Steve says, recalling the love they have shown for him and his family.
Once they have tasted the sweetness of helping others this way, members want more of it. Clearly, the spirit of activation is catching.
Jeff Maccubbin caught it. He wasn’t very active in the Church, but he loved to play basketball. Youth and leaders of the Herndon Ward accepted him as he was and loved him into activity. One returned missionary friend in particular helped Jeff decide to go on a mission. As Jeff became more active, he began to urge his family to participate with him.
Bishop Hinckley challenged Jeff’s parents to be ready to go through the Washington Temple with their son before he left for the Missionary Training Center. They accepted the challenge. Having the whole family sealed in the temple “was something I had been looking forward to for a long time,” says Jack Maccubbin, Jeff’s father. Jeff’s mother, Anne, says that the love of their bishop, home teachers, and other members made it easy to come back into full activity. Now the Maccubbins try to help newcomers and other less-active members feel this same spirit of love.
Through Jeff’s example, one friend was baptized, and now this young man and another are also considering missions.
The love of peers can have a powerful influence on young members of the Church. In a Vienna Ward fast and testimony meeting, for example, Dawn Potts stands to give thanks for young LDS friends who have helped her get through rough times in her life. She expresses thanks also for Susan Faust, her seminary teacher and stake Young Women president, in whom she can confide when there is a need. Now Dawn, second counselor in her ward’s Laurel presidency, is one of those who lends her strength to others.
Sister Faust says current stake reactivation efforts among the Young Women were begun in May 1986. Stake and ward leaders looked at names behind the zeros on attendance reports. Then they set out, with the help of active young women, to let the less-active members know they had friends at Church meetings who really wanted them to be there.
Even at the Primary level, the stake’s activation program works. While she served as president of the Primary in the stake’s Dulles Branch, Judy Willis developed a program encouraging teachers to build close, caring, one-on-one relationships with each child. She tried to visit and come to know each less-active child herself. Then, when she was called as stake Primary president, Sister Willis adapted the ideas she had developed to the stake’s reactivation emphasis.
One of the goals of stake and ward Primary workers is to consciously remember that they are representatives of the Savior’s love for each child.
Daryl Hunt, formerly Blazer leader and now Scoutmaster in the Dulles Branch, epitomizes the kind of teacher Sister Willis envisioned. In fulfilling his calling, Daryl goes by this attitude: “Each boy needs to have at least one person he knows who truly cares about him.”
When Daryl and his wife, LeAnn, planned an anniversary trip to the beach, for example, they took along Thanh Dao, as well as a few other boys to befriend him and help bring him back into activity. Daryl expresses gratitude for the support of his wife, who often remains with mothers in the branch, learning how to cook Asian food, while Daryl takes the sons to Scout meetings. (The Dulles Branch, which covers the entire stake, is composed largely of Asian refugees.)
Sith Kun Lon and Thanh Dao, leaders among the deacons in the branch, are just two whose lives have been touched by Brother Hunt. Now they are nearing Eagle rank in Scouting. Brother Hunt has moved with them and other boys from the Blazer level to Scouting.
Sith Kun Lon and Thanh Dao were among those children originally identified by Sister Willis as members who should be reached. So, too, was Ta Khammanivong. Ta has now moved into the Young Women program. But she learned to love the gospel and the scriptures through Primary attendance.
Ta carries a heavy load of responsibility at home. Because of her parents’ difficult work schedule, Ta must be sure that she and her younger brother and sister are ready for school or other activities each day. Often, her mother has allowed Ta to take her younger sister to Primary, but Ta was responsible for getting both of them ready to go on Sunday morning. She has been willing to make the needed sacrifice, and Primary leaders have been more than willing to provide not only the needed rides, but also personal attention to strengthen Ta and other children like her. Ta says the main reason she attended Primary was because “I love all the sisters” who teach there.
Members of the Oakton stake continue their efforts to activate members at every level. Sometimes, as in the case of Maira Duron, activating one person may mean bringing back others in the family as well.
With her husband, Sister Duron joined the Church in 1984. She enjoyed the blessings of the gospel, particularly opportunities to learn about our Savior and to fast and pray for Heavenly Father’s help. But when her marriage broke up, she felt ashamed to face her happily married friends in the Oakton Ward; somehow, she feared, she had not lived up to other Church members’ expectations. Since she also was working at night to support her two children, Sister Duron felt she was unable to attend church on Sunday mornings. She did not go to church for two years.
Maira Duron is deeply grateful for the loving visiting teacher who sent the missionaries to her home again. The missionaries encouraged her to come back to church, and Sister Duron knew she must do so. She needed the opportunity to learn about the gospel and to be close to the Spirit of the Lord again. She prayed for courage and told herself, “It’s not the people I’m going to see, it’s for me and my children.”
The people, however, welcomed her back warmly. They were happy to see her enjoying all the blessings of the gospel as she had before. She faces them confidently now because they have shown her the depth of their love, and she knows they will not let her down.