East St. Louis branch blossoms again

The Book of Mormon plants seeds from which branches grow.

This inner city area, located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, once had a thriving ward in the 1940s and '50s, but later fell upon economic hard times. Decades passed without any Church progress.In 1992, radio announcements offering copies of the Book of Mormon to those who wanted to know more about the Savior drew a significant response from the area. Enough people wanted more information to form a small group under the direction of Pres. Joseph H. Gossett of the O'Fallon Illinois Stake.

At first, some 15-18 people who had received copies of the Book of Mormon attended sacrament meetings in a home. Soon, some were baptized. A short time later the meetings were moved to rented quarters in a medical building. Full-time missionaries from the Missouri St. Louis Mission were assigned to the area, and membership began to grow. Most later converts were contacted by missionaries knocking on doors. From this group, the East St. Louis Branch was organized Dec. 12, 1993. The branch has a membership of about 100, and average attendance is between 50-60. Work conflicts and transportation problems interfere with regular attendance of many of the members.

Pres. Gossett's first counselor, Pres. Robert L. Goodrich and his wife, Linda, personally nurtured the group. Pres. Goodrich is a veteran reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch whose beat is East St. Louis. He's covered the good and the bad of this city for more than 20 years, he said.

With the Church taking root here, "I am now seeing what is the best for this area," he said. "It has been a delight to me to be in the branch."

Sister Goodrich serves as a stake missionary here. And, until recently, their teenage children, Gwen and Byron, also served as stake missionaries and assisted the branch. Sister Goodrich teaches classes, gives new-member lessons, and supports the branch in other ways.

"We have people who are afraid to come to East St. Louis because of its reputation as a high crime area," said Pres. Goodrich. "And my response is that if anybody knows what danger might be lurking in East St. Louis, I should because I write about it everyday. And, with ordinary, commonsense precautions, I am not the least bit afraid about coming here or bringing my family, or sending my family."

Missionaries are performing an outstanding work in the city, he said. "Having a combination of common sense and the protection and blessings of the Lord, the missionaries seem to get along just fine. Everybody in town seems to have caught on as to who they are, and they seem to be rather well accepted."

Pres. Goodrich explained that investigators "already have an overwhelming love for the Savior, so missionaries are simply introducing them to the fullness of the restored gospel. Investigators learn with amazing rapidity.

"The Spirit is with them in their meetings. I have never enjoyed sacrament meetings more than I have here. People testify of the Savior, and His love, and how much they rejoice in finding the restored gospel.

"The Church is growing in West Africa, which is the place of origin for these very same people we are teaching. Their roots are in West Africa, and the same spirit that is there seems to be here," said Pres. Goodrich.

He described his service in nurturing in the branch as "one of the most outstanding experiences I've had in the Church, and I've been blessed with a lot of them. I look forward to finishing up my working career, and retiring and living here, in the region, except for maybe a mission or two, and watching this group grow and being part of it."

Tammy Jelks, now Primary president, joined the Church after one of her cousins told her, "You really ought to listen to the missionaries." She was interested but didn't contact them.

Then one day, she said, someone knocked at her door, she answered and "there were the elders."

She joined the Church, and since then, another of her cousins, Roshanda Graham, has also been baptized.

"I really love the Church and being in the Primary," she said.

Among the early converts here is John W. O'Neal, who was called as the first branch president.

Brother O'Neal, an oil refinery worker, said he was working in his garage on his hobby of restoring an antique pickup truck when the missionaries knocked at the house next door.

"One missionary spotted me in the garage and they dashed back to introduce themselves and make an appointment to return," he recalled. "I grew up in a God-fearing household and the gospel was nothing I shied away from. I always recognized Jesus as my Redeemer, even though I wasn't familiar with Joseph Smith.

"They came back the following week. They asked if they could open with prayer. I said, That's fine with me.' We had that prayer, and I washooked' from then on. I was really impressed and inspired by their work."

His baptismal service was held Jan. 21, 1992, an experience he will never forget, he said.

"That night I was buried in the water and resurrected a new man with a new spirit and with a new joy, never realizing what I had been missing all those years," he said. "It was an exciting feeling, a feeling of joy and happiness. After I was confirmed I was given the gift of Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.

"I can't even explain that experience. Nothing on this earth I ever experienced came close to the joys involved. If I can talk about experiences I have had in this short time, what would it be like if I had been born in the Church?"

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