“A Balanced Effort in New Orleans,” Ensign, Feb. 1999, 36
“I am normally the only Latter-day Saint out there,” says Bob Mehl about his work as an offshore tugboat captain. “So the only way I can fellowship with other Latter-day Saints is to convert them.”
Brother Mehl’s remarks reflect the missionary-mindedness of many members of the Luling Branch, New Orleans Louisiana Stake, where developing a member-missionary kit and working with full-time missionaries have helped branch members focus more strongly on proclaiming the gospel.
The Luling Branch elders quorum recently put together several member-missionary kits of Church videos and pamphlets and copies of the Book of Mormon for members to keep on hand to help interest people in the gospel.
“I’d been looking for something to help me with missionary work,” says Brother Mehl, first counselor in the branch elders quorum presidency. “The kit was just what I needed. The videos are great. I’m surprised at the reaction. I leave them lying out right by the TV next to the galley. When people show interest, I also give them a pamphlet. Sometimes we’ll pull up next to another boat when crew members are looking for videos to watch. I give them Church videos.”
Having made the effort to equip themselves with missionary tools, branch members are finding more opportunities to use them. Bruce and Cindy Bishop gave the Church video Together Forever to a friend who experienced the death of a family member. “She wanted to explain things to her daughter,” says Sister Bishop, who teaches seminary in the branch. “So I said, ‘Let me show you what we believe.’” The friend accepted the video with appreciation.
“If we have the missionary tools on hand when the opportunity naturally comes, we can do it,” says Brother Bishop, who serves as first counselor in the Luling Branch presidency. “If we would have said, ‘Oh, we can order something from the distribution center for you,’ we may not have been able to later connect with that family in the right way at the right time. It really works to have the video at our fingertips.”
The idea for member-missionary kits first came up during an elders quorum committee meeting about missionary work. “We took a poll of quorum members to see who had missionary videos and other materials in their home,” says branch mission leader Jim Trent. “We asked members if they knew what they would do if someone asked them about the gospel. Most of the members had only an extra copy of the Book of Mormon on hand, and some not even that.”
Brother Trent recalls the excitement members felt as they developed the idea for a member-missionary kit. “The first Sunday, we looked through the missionaries’ backpacks and car trunk for ideas,” he says. “Other things have since been added to the kit, such as a carry bag and a letter with directions to our new branch meetinghouse.” Brother Mehl observes that “Brother Trent has a habit of using everybody in the classroom as a sounding board. I think everybody had some input about what went into the kit.”
A branch member initially donated materials for 10 kits, and the branch presidency agreed to help replenish kits as needed. “In elders quorum meeting every week, we spend about five minutes talking about missionary work,” says Brother Trent. “If somebody says they need something for their kit, we restock it. Every quorum member has at least one kit in his possession. Having missionary materials on hand makes us more apt to share the gospel with people.”
Brother Mehl thinks it’s a good idea for every home to have some kind of missionary kit. “It’s easy to keep a kit in your car or in your locker or desk at work,” he says. “The pamphlets and videos don’t take up much room. If we leave our minds open to the Spirit’s prompting, we’ll have chances to share the gospel. The blessings start coming as soon as someone gets curious and asks questions.
Another effort Luling Branch members recently have made successful is working closely with full-time missionaries. They join in the “balanced effort” that Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has spoken of: “Once we have nourished ourselves with the good word of Christ and feasted personally at His table so that our testimony is strong and vibrant, we are obligated to join with the missionaries in a balanced effort to invite others … to the spiritual banquet” (“Feasting at the Lord’s Table,” Ensign, May 1996, 81).
Located across the Mississippi River west of downtown New Orleans, the Luling Branch includes several small communities along a state highway. About 18 months ago the branch was struggling, with sacrament meeting attendance as low as 20 people some weeks. But through members uniting with full-time missionaries in a concentrated effort of visiting and fellowshipping, the branch is now thriving; weekly sacrament attendance is as high as 70, and the branch meets at a new location in a bigger meetinghouse.
Scott Conlin was called as Luling Branch elders quorum president in August 1997. “We began working creatively to use missionary splits to increase the number of home teaching companionships from two to eight,” he says. “We worked with less-active members and part-member families. Not only did some less-active people return to church, but the missionaries have been able to follow up and hold several investigator discussions as a result of those visits. The combined effort has revitalized the branch, and we’re keeping it up.”
President Rodney E. Tueller of the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission, which takes in the New Orleans stake, says, “Our statistics in this mission show that we’re very successful with our investigators if members are involved in their teaching.” A recent example illustrates this process.
One week Cindy Bishop met an investigator named Janelle in Relief Society. Sister Bishop learned that Janelle was engaged to Myrle Wheat, a member who was coming back into full activity.
“We invited them over to our house for family home evening,” says Sister Bishop. “We were careful to explain to Janelle what family home evening was, and we asked if it was OK with her if we had the missionaries come.”
During their evening together, Sister Bishop offered to baby-sit Janelle’s younger children while she listened to the first discussion in the Bishops’ home. Janelle accepted the invitation, and the arrangement worked out so well that the Bishops helped with Janelle’s children during all six discussions. “She later commented that she didn’t think she’d be at the stage she is today without having someone help her with her children while she focused on the lessons,” says Brother Bishop.
“The involvement of the Bishops and other branch members has meant everything,” says Janelle, who was baptized along with her 10-year-old daughter in April 1998. She subsequently married Myrle and now serves as a Relief Society teacher in the branch. “The members are so sincere and honest. They have been willing to answer any of my questions and share their feelings.” Sister Wheat found it particularly helpful to have a married couple present during her missionary discussions because she had questions about marriage in the Church. “I really appreciated how they helped put things into perspective,” she says.
Besides the tangible blessings of sharing the gospel with others and helping the branch grow, families who work with full-time missionaries sense spiritual blessings as a result of their involvement. “It’s just a wonderful experience to be involved in, having the missionaries in your home with your children,” says Sister Bishop. “The Spirit of the Lord is so strong, and it brings back all the feelings I had nine years ago when I joined the Church. It was wonderful to feel what Janelle was feeling and watch her grasp the gospel like I did.”
The opportunity to work more closely with full-time missionaries was one of the first advantages Brother Conlin noticed when he and his family moved into the Luling Branch. “Having the missionaries eat in our home, going out on splits with them, visiting part-member families where both the missionaries and we have an interest in trying to rekindle spirituality—I think it’s really made a difference to us in our awareness of how important the gospel is and what a difference it can make in people’s lives as they live gospel principles. Missionary splits not only help spread the gospel but also help perfect the Saints.”
The Luling Branch’s opportunities for success have been influenced by the leadership vision of New Orleans stake president David L. Clawson and other stake leaders. Before 1993 most of the units in New Orleans were wards with large geographical boundaries. Soon after he was called as stake president, President Clawson oversaw the creation of several smaller branches, which he feels have brought the Church closer to the people and helped stimulate growth. Presently the New Orleans stake has about 2,300 members organized into 13 units.
President Clawson says, “We’re unified with the full-time missionaries.” He meets nearly every month with the Baton Rouge mission president or one of his counselors. He values the quarterly member-missionary coordination council, which is overseen by an Area Authority Seventy and attended by the mission president and all the stake presidents within mission boundaries. “That meeting gives us a chance at that level to discuss ways to integrate our efforts completely,” he says.
President Dennis G. Gruwell, first counselor in the New Orleans stake presidency, oversees missionary work in the stake. “We feel that families are where missionary work should take place,” he says. “We challenge families in the stake to prayerfully select friends and acquaintances they might be able to fellowship and in time share the gospel with. Our stake missionaries have had some success splitting with the full-time missionaries and going into members’ homes to show them the Church video Inviting by the Spirit and to encourage them to make missionary referrals.”
President Clawson feels that the Lord is mindful of the stake. “New Orleans has all the problems of a big city, and in some cases the problems are even more intensified,” he says. “Though the city has a well-known hedonistic side, it also has a conservative, family-oriented side. The potential for greater Church growth is high. We just keep reaching out to people, doing things that help stir their spiritual feelings. We persist in love and never give up.”
That leadership vision is coming to fruition as the Luling Branch reaches out in love by using member-missionary kits and working more closely with full-time missionaries.