Just about 10 years ago in the parking lot of a small LDS church building sat a man waiting for his convert wife to come out of Sunday meetings. He was a rough looking character with a past to match. Tattoos crept up his arms, skulls adorned his shirt, and an unmistakable aura of cigarette smoke hung about his person. He was markedly out of place among the carefully manicured flower beds and fragrant blooming myrtle that lined the lot.
Inside, a humble group of Saints were eagerly anticipating the monthly potluck meal that was to follow the closing prayer. The smell of funeral potatoes , meatballs, green jello salad and homemade rolls with butter was wafting out of the kitchen. The aroma revealed the unmistakable hallmark of food crafted with loving care.
At meeting’s end the convert Sister was implored to stay and eat. She explained that her husband waited outside for her. She must go.
What happened next was not surprising. A ninety pound powerhouse of a woman, a widow, somewhere over the age of seventy, white hair tightly curled, marched out to the parking lot and strait up to the man in the car. She didn’t bat an eye at his appearance or the look on his face that clearly called for distance between the two of them. She greeted him warmly, told of her affection for his wife, and invited him in for dinner. He declined, but she kindly would not take no for an answer.
Disarmed, he climbed out of the car and walked arm in arm with her into the building.
Just about 10 years ago a young mother with rambunctious children and an inactive husband walked through the doors of the large established Ward she had recently moved into. She was nervous as the people there were obviously wealthier than she and seemed a close knit group that had been together for a long period of time. She had been born in the Church, had a strong testimony of the Gospel, but felt uneasy with the prospect of making new friends.
She received a few passing nods of hello and sat by herself through Sunday School and Relief Society. She observed the warm relations between the members but was not invited into any of the conversations. After the Sacrament she herded her little ones out the door. No one said good-bye.
The weeks rolled on and all stayed the same. She entered, received nods of greeting, and once in a while would be asked where her husband was. “Not here.” She would reply a little shamefully. “Hmm.” was the answer as they walked away. She would sit alone in her classes, would smile when while someone spoke to her, but was mostly ignored.
She began to find reasons not to attend. The baby had a stomach ache, she was too tired, no one would miss her anyway. She slipped into inactivity.
When Home Teachers were dispatched several months later to see what had happened they found the family reading scriptures together nightly and having family prayer. They could not understand why this Sister did not want to come to church in a Ward that had such good and talented people.
Back at the little branch, the man with the tattoos was welcomed and wrapped in the loving embrace of the members. No one stared at his appearance, no one asked about his checkered past. They simply and genuinely enfolded him into their family.
He came back next month only “because the food was so good” and then the month after that. One Sunday he asked his wife if he had anything he could wear to church. He only felt it right to attend if he was going to eat with them too.
Years passed, missionaries were contacted, truth was learned, old transgressions were wiped clean and the man became “a new creature”. His heart healed and softened and he found forgiveness through the atonement of Jesus Christ. He was baptized and ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood, took temple prep classes and prepared to receive the higher Priesthood. All the while he was loved and supported cheered for by the members of the little branch.
The same years passed and the less active Sister moved out of the old established Ward and found herself and her family walking through the doors of the same little Branch on a potluck Sunday. They were greeted, hugged, loved and included. They stayed for dinner and enjoyed the funeral potatoes, meatballs, green jello salad, and rolls with butter. They weren’t stared at because their clothes were different or the fact that they had a strange accent. They weren’t asked about their checkered past.
When they missed the next week there were phone calls wondering what could be done to help, was everyone alright? Did they need soup for sick kids?
Wrapped in the warmth of the Saints there, the Sister and her husband came every week and soon were in callings that stretched and taught them. Their testimonies grew and the impact on their family was vast. All the while they were loved and supported cheered for by the members of the little branch.
Two stories with the same result and potluck is the common thread. No, it wasn’t the funeral potatoes, meatballs, green jello salad, and rolls with butter. It was the members who prepared the meal each month and understood the promise of the Lord to encircle His children in the arms of His love. They knew that as members of His church they had been called to be those arms. They had been called to truly and completely love their neighbors regardless of what they looked like, how much money they had, and where they came from. They were able to see through spiritual eyes the divine potential of all of God’s children.
These stories can be (and are) replicated in all sorts of congregations; large or small, wealthy or poor, talented and educated or not. And as much as we like to think that “if folks know the church is true they should just show up even if the members are less than loving” it is not the Lord’s way. Zion equals unity and unity is only achieved through love, kindness, concern, patience, and effort.
As missionary work increases worldwide and Ward and Branch Councils pray over the people in their areas my hope is that we all take a page from the lesson of the potluck. That we find the lady sitting alone in Sunday School, the teen who is a little different at school, the father in our neighborhood who is struggling, and we enfold them in the arms of love the Savior has promised them. It will make a difference in their lives and in ours. This is the work we are asked to do, so let’s do it.
“I believe we members do not have the option to extend the hand of fellowship only to relatives, close friends, certain Church members, and those selected nonmembers who express an interest in the Church. Limiting or withholding our fellowship seems to me to be contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Savior offered the effects of his atoning sacrifice to all mankind. He said, ‘Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.’ (.) Can we justify doing less?” -Russell M. Nelson