“How I Came Back: Personal Accounts of Activation,” Ensign, Sept. 2003, 7
Many members who now have strong testimonies of the gospel have gone through a time when they were less active, a time when they did not fully partake of the blessings of membership in the Lord’s kingdom. The following three accounts are from members who returned to the fellowship of Latter-day Saints, experiencing a rekindling of testimony brought about by personal realization of need and the loving help of others.
Although raised a member of the Church, Gene M Thompson of the Page First Ward, Page Arizona Stake, fell into inactivity when he joined the navy after high school. In 1975 he arrived on board the USS Grand Rapids PG-98 stationed in Naples, Italy. “Even when the ship was in port,” he says, “I wasn’t attending any Church meetings at the branches for servicemen.” An experience at sea more than a year later reminded him of the Savior’s love and his missed association with members.
“It was common while the ship was underway to go through small rainsqualls,” says Brother Thompson. “The brisk winds that accompanied these storms were strong but usually short-lived.
“One summer evening while I was standing watch, the ship passed through one of these storms. The storm reached peak quickly with heavy rain and wind blowing strong out to sea. A line of rainsquall clouds between our ship and the Italian coastline some six miles away obscured land that had been visible 30 minutes earlier.
“While I searched the water and air for objects that might endanger the ship, I was surprised to see a sparrow land on the rail next to me. I could see its small breast heaving for breath, and I knew it had very little chance of surviving the storm. I reached out and took the bird in hand. The sparrow had no energy to fly away or even struggle. I wondered if I could keep the bird alive. I quickly placed it in my warm shirt pocket inside the foul weather jacket, and then went about my lookout duties. The bird did not move in my pocket as the storm raged.
“A half hour later the storm passed. The wind transformed into a gentle breeze toward land. The evening stars were starting to appear, and faint lights were now visible on shore.
“I checked to see if the bird was breathing. It was alive and rested. I held the sparrow gently as I took it from my pocket and turned it toward the lights on shore—the promise of land. Then I opened my hands and tossed the bird into the air. It flew straight and true toward landfall until it was out of sight.
“In that moment, my thoughts were flooded with gospel parallels on following the light. The sparrow being caught in the storm was something we could compare to sin or a bad decision. The intervention of one who cared could be compared to our Savior’s love. And the sparrow returning to land could be seen as redemption or a return to fellowship. I resolved then that the course for me would be to follow the light—to follow the gospel.
“Some time later I was transferred to the same duty station as my twin brother in California. The very next Sunday, Jerry and I went to church in Oxnard and were fellowshipped immediately by wonderful families in the ward. I had no idea that twin LDS sailors starving for contact with the Church could be fed so well—spiritually and physically. We both stayed active in the Church and participated in activities in the ward through our discharge from military service a year later. Most important, it was in Oxnard that I met my future wife, Colleen Gunyan, the daughter of one of those wonderful fellowshipping families.”
Carolyn Flinders of the Pleasant View 10th Ward, Pleasant View Utah Stake, tells of the life-changing experience her family endured in 1987. When their three-year-old, Andreé, entered the hospital for open-heart surgery in January of that year, Sister Flinders and her husband had long since fallen into inactivity in the Church. Preoccupied with worry for their daughter, they were not even aware of ward members’ concern for their family.
“Thirty-three days and three harrowing surgeries after entering Primary Children’s Medical Center,” says Sister Flinders, “the cardiologist told us there was nothing more we could do but take Andreé home, the one thing she had continually requested. I felt my heart was breaking as I filled out the paperwork.
“Home at last, we placed Andreé in our bed that night. When my husband told me the next morning that we needed to let her go, I fought against the thought of saying good-bye. But knowing he was right, I returned to where she was lying in bed, said that I loved her, and told her it was all right to leave. A short time later, Andreé left the world quietly.
“We struggled with many questions after Andreé’s death. Why was a beloved little girl taken? Why did she have to suffer so much? As I comforted myself by holding and caring for our nine-month-old daughter, Hailey, I wondered if Andreé knew how much we loved and missed her.
“In the midst of our grief came unexpected compassion. Although we were not well acquainted with most of the ward members, many called or came by to express sympathy and love, to see how we were doing, or to bring meals. I had always had a good feeling about the Church and a belief in my Savior and Heavenly Father; I just didn’t have much of a testimony of the gospel. I felt the need to attend Church meetings to find some kind of peace and answers to my feelings of anger, and I felt comfortable going back because of the sincere concern our neighbors had shown for us. At one activity I learned how deeply ward members cared about our family: several months previously, the ward had fasted for our Andreé, the three-year-old daughter of a less-active family very few members knew.
“Attending Church meetings taught me that the Lord knew about my pain. I read that ‘all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven’ (D&C 137:10). Starting to understand death differently, I felt comforted knowing that valiant little Andreé was in a wonderful place, free from pain. I prayed for help and understanding, and I began to receive a peace and comfort I had never felt before. By studying, reading the scriptures, and attending Church meetings, my understanding of the gospel flourished. I developed a greater love for my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, and my testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel grew.
“A year later our family was together again in the Ogden Utah Temple. After I was sealed to my dear husband, two-year-old Hailey climbed up next to us, looking angelic in the white dress her grandmother had made for her. As my sister kneeled as proxy for Andreé, I felt that perhaps Andreé was with us, rejoicing as our family was sealed together forever.”
Penelope M. Oman of the Cary First Ward, Raleigh North Carolina Stake, and her husband joined the Church when they were newlyweds. As time passed they began a family and moved several times within the ward; with each move they had the help of their faithful home teacher. About this time Penelope’s husband began to lose interest in the Church, so their attendance became irregular, then stopped altogether. “Our home teacher continued visiting us regularly, and his concern and love was always evident,” says Sister Oman.
Difficult times followed, including a move several thousand miles away, then a move back to Illinois with her two children after a divorce. “Our new home was a second-floor apartment,” says Sister Oman, “and somehow our dear home teacher managed to get our piano up those stairs. What peace and security his smiling face brought me.
“The years passed. I was teaching school and struggling to make ends meet. Our home teacher continued to be a constant in our lives. He took care of my second-hand car. At Christmas and other special times of the year, he made sure our needs were being met. The children and I often struggled, but I slept well at night knowing my home teacher lived only a few blocks away.
“Then I met and married a wonderful man who took me to the temple, where we were sealed for time and all eternity. This was the goal I had set for my family. By now our home teacher had become our bishop, and we soon began the regular pattern of piling into his tiny car to drive to the Washington D.C. Temple.
“One Saturday evening I sat with my husband in stake conference. The meeting’s topic was home teaching, and I could see our dear, faithful home teacher on the stand. As he stood to speak, my heart filled with love and appreciation for him and for all his years of service to my family.
“He began to tell of a family he once taught who were inactive. He spoke of their trials and of his desperate concern. He spoke of his feelings of helplessness as he watched them make unwise choices and of his willingness to help them but unwillingness to assert any unrighteous dominion in their lives. I watched as tears trickled down his cheeks when he spoke of the prayers in their behalf.
“Suddenly I realized it was me he was talking about. I was the person in the story! I was stunned to think I had actually been inactive and had never fully realized it. This kind and obedient servant of the Lord had kept such a strong tie to me and my family that I never felt I had been inactive. I knew I had periods when I did not attend church regularly, but my testimony had never really wavered. My home teacher had provided a consistent link that prevented me from ever feeling distanced from the Church and its programs.
“We teach our children to ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ The answer is, He would do exactly what my home teacher did for all those years: never give up, visit regularly, help where and when needed, love God, and love the families.”
Diana Lacey of the Farmington Fifth Ward, Farmington New Mexico Stake, and her husband, Mike, served as what were then called stake missionaries, with a special assignment to help retain and activate new converts. “We asked for a list of the people who had been baptized within the past two years and were surprised to find that only a few were still active. As we prayed about how we could help bring the wandering converts back and how we could friendship others, several things came to mind.
“First, visit new converts in their homes. We decided to visit new converts once a month. We dropped by with bread or cookies, a small note, or an invitation to ward activities. Many times we were invited to stay and visit and had the opportunity to have gospel discussions and help them with questions or needs.
“Second, involve other members of the ward. Occasionally we invited our new friends and other ward members over for a barbecue or to play games. This gave the new converts a chance to meet other members in a social setting and allowed new friendships to grow. We also gave each person in ward council meeting the name of one of the new converts. We asked them to join us in praying each day specifically for the person whose name they had been given. Amazing things happened. The council members began to take an interest in the person they were praying for. They took time to learn more about the person behind the name. One day after church a member of the ward council came up to me excitedly and said, ‘The little 12-year-old girl I have been praying for came to church today. I knew who she was and couldn’t wait to go greet her.’
“Third, help new converts prepare to attend the temple. The best way to retain new converts is to make sure they continue in the gospel covenants. Some of our greatest spiritual experiences have come through helping new converts receive the blessings of the temple.
“In time, each new convert from the past two years who had not been attending came back to church at least once, and some came back to stay. Many of these wonderful experiences even resulted in additional baptisms of members of their families.”