Fresno Saints: Laboring in the Lord’s Vineyard

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“Fresno Saints: Laboring in the Lord’s Vineyard,” Ensign, Mar. 1993, 77–79

Fresno Saints: Laboring in the Lord’s Vineyard

During the hot summers, central California’s San Joaquin Valley is lush with vast vineyards of ripening grapes. Fresno County is known as the “Raisin Capital of the World.” It’s no surprise, then, that to the area’s Latter-day Saints, laboring in the Lord’s vineyard is a way of life.

map of the San Joaquin Valley

Sometimes that labor is physically demanding: pruning grapes in winter and harvesting them in summer on the Church’s eighty-acre welfare farm. The call for help is answered by members throughout the valley.

Yielding two hundred varieties of commercial crops each year, Fresno County is the number one agricultural producer in the nation. For years the farm work here has lured Hispanics to the valley. They now account for about 35 percent of the county’s 660,000 residents and are served by seven Spanish-speaking branches.

Luzy Carrillo, a counselor in the Caruthers Ward Relief Society presidency, joined the Church in 1952. Her late father-in-law, Frank Carrillo, was president of the first Spanish branch in Fresno. He died several years ago at age 102; a few weeks later, his son (Sister Carrillo’s husband, Augustine) passed away as well. Family members were instrumental in bringing into the Church many Hispanic laborers who worked in their vineyards.

But Southeast Asians have constituted the largest influx of people to settle in Fresno in recent years. An impressive number of the 30,000 Hmong, 11,500 Laotian, 5,300 Cambodian, 2,000 Vietnamese, and 2,000 Thai residents of the area have joined the Church, largely through the efforts of two hundred full-time missionaries. Older missionary couples and members are called to teach and lead the many non-English-speaking branches that join with English-speaking wards to make up the four Fresno stakes.

The large numbers of Saints in Fresno today are a marked contrast to the Church’s small membership there in earlier times. Most Church members moving to California from 1846 through 1849 settled in the San Francisco Bay area northward or in San Bernardino southward. After California gained statehood in 1850, those populous areas became the focus of LDS missionary efforts. During that time, the San Joaquin Valley had few members.

In 1920 Clarence L. Fancher moved from Wyoming to Merced (about ninety miles north of Fresno) to help his father, who was a farmer. That year Clarence became the first branch president in Fresno. He drove great distances in his Model T Ford to visit members who moved into the area, says his granddaughter, Doreen Garn, of the Clovis First Ward, Fresno California North Stake.

A few years before, missionaries had organized a Sunday School in the home of Arvin and Ina Hamlin. Their daughter, Elizabeth Hamlin Cottrell Lynch, recorded the event in her diary: “On a rainy afternoon in 1914, two missionaries came to our door. It was hard to tell who was happier, the missionaries or Mother.” A few days later, to the delight of the Hamlins, the missionaries reported that they had located another LDS family. Those families became the nucleus of the Fresno Branch.

The first LDS meetinghouse in Fresno was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant in 1927. The Fresno Stake was organized in 1951, and a stake center was built in 1963, completed a few weeks after President Fancher’s death. Today, Fresno’s four stakes serve about twenty thousand members.

Lydia McCauley began helping members with their family history research in 1938. Interest became so keen that she opened her well-stocked genealogical library to the public in 1945. Before she died, she donated her 4,000-volume library to the Church in 1964, thus helping establish the first official LDS branch genealogical library in the area. A Relief Society president for many years, she helped organize similar libraries elsewhere.

Fresno’s young adults are strengthened by institute classes offered to students at Fresno City College and at California State University Fresno. And attendance is high in the 200-strong university ward, where married and unmarried students blend to create a rich, dynamic stability, says Bishop Garth L. Rasmussen.

A decade-long effort of LDS youth to raise money to assist a children’s hospital is well recognized in the community. “I’m so impressed with the youth of the LDS Church—the only youth group that has a room dedicated to them,” says John Bakkas, president of the hospital’s fund-raising arm.

Cheryl and Gary R. Fogg moved from Utah to Fresno in 1967. “People here are very supportive of each other, and you don’t know how important that is until you need it,” Sister Fogg says. The Foggs were touched by an outpouring of loving support when one of their seven children died of leukemia several years ago.

“When you serve, you grow,” says President Fogg, who presides over the Fresno California West Stake. “And there are many opportunities to grow, especially in the Fresno area.” He enjoys helping develop leadership skills among the stake’s Laotian membership.

The Inmany family are recent converts to the Church in Fresno. In 1982 Saenalai Inmany and his wife, Pang, came to the United States after escaping from the Communist regime in Laos. Their three children speak English and are honor students in their schools.

Educated at a Catholic seminary in Laos, Brother Inmany speaks English and French. A mechanic, he met LDS missionaries in Fresno, and they began teaching his family the gospel. “I had not known of Joseph Smith before, but I accepted him. I know he translated the Book of Mormon. I also know that this church has better programs for children, better rules and standards. It is the right church.” Brother Inmany is a counselor in the Fresno Twenty-fourth Branch presidency.

The Inmanys, who help the missionaries learn the Lao language and find contacts, are preparing for a temple sealing. They recently bought their first home and continue to help other Laotians become self-sufficient.

“People sacrificed so much to build the Church in this area,” says Dallas A. Tueller, a longtime Fresno area Church leader who has since moved away. “This is not a wealthy area, and yet every time the Saints were asked to do more, to give more, they did it. The spiritual growth here has been amazing.”

He sums up the hopes of other Fresno Saints: “Wouldn’t the Lord’s vineyard look lovely with a temple in it!”

The helping hands of Sisters Maralee Palmer, left, and Teresa Barnes, full-time missionaries, work diligently in this part of the Lord’s vineyard. (Photography courtesy of Kathy Barberich.)

The Inmany family reflect the joy of Fresno’s burgeoning Laotian Latter-day Saint membership.

Darnell Evans of the university ward

City college institute luncheon