Many hands reap rich harvest

Long a gathering place for people from many lands, Southern California continues to be a fertile field for missionary work.

Along the eastern region of metropolitan Los Angeles, near the foothills, for example, are 10 stakes that have experienced a rejuvenation through missionary work, particularly among Spanish-speaking residents from Mexico and Central and South America.In 1996, these stakes averaged more than 100 converts each. Two of the stakes had more than 700 converts each.

One leader compared these new converts and their impact on the stakes with the LDS converts of the 1840s who "brought a transfusion to the early Church."

Pres. Juan Francisco Badal of the Covina California (Spanish) Stake, which had more than 800 converts in 1996, described the transition of these new members into the Church:

"I have seen so much growth it is amazing to me. I have seen so many people who came to Church not dressed properly, unkempt. And after their baptisms, they come wearing a white shirt and tie or nice dress. It is amazing to me to see how the stake has progressed and the level of sophistication there is in some of our units in the area. Everyone is fitting into place so well." He said this is done by the leaders "following the directions of the handbooks and prayer. There is a lot of prayer, that I can tell you."

Pres. Badal said that Melchizedek Priesthood advancements come in clusters. On Sundays, he often interviews half a dozen or more members to receive their endowments and be sealed to their families in the temple. Sacrament meeting attendance within the stake has increased by about a third, and about 50 men have received the Melchizedek Priesthood so far this year.

However, among this group are highly mobile citizens of Latin America, about half of whom change addresses annually as they travel from one area to another for work, and many return to their homelands. Tracking the activity of these is difficult.

"I would say that many of them receive very strong testimonies; I would say many of them remain active," said Pres. Badal, who is from Uruguay.

Of those who remain within the stake, the majority do remain active and many are called as leaders. Each ward has a large group of stake missionaries whose work is to help the new members.

Pres. Carlos J. Garcia, first counselor, commented: "To see the freshness of the Spirit that is here because of all the newly baptized members is a very exciting thing. We talk about this constantly as a stake presidency. Training them is like teaching children who want to learn, and who accept in a childlike manner. It is an exciting time, it is an experience I will never forget."

Pres. Samuel Hernandez, second counselor in the stake presidency, described the impact of the large number of new members.

"I have lived in Covina all my life," he related. "As a little boy, I paid close attention to how the Church grew, but I have never seen it grow so fast.

"People who never considered themselves as leaders are, all of a sudden, put into leadership positions and they respond as leaders. This is one of the miracles I love to see."

Mission Pres. Douglas H. Swenson spoke highly of the leadership of the 12 foothill stakes within the mission and the efforts of members to welcome and fellowship new members.

"Missionary work is entirely based on a balanced effort between the mission and stake," he said. "Leaders make it very clear how very crucial conversion, retention and activation are. We work cooperatively to help the convert remain active."

Pres. Swenson said that efforts of the full-time and stake missionaries are carefully and constantly being coordinated at the stake and ward levels.

Foreign language stakes, such as the Covina stake, were created to help members make a transition to local stakes.

The missionaries' efforts are supported by many "dedicated ward leaders and members that week after week go to all the baptismal services," said Pres. Swenson.

His wife, Sister Laraine Swenson, observed:

"It is so exciting to attend baptismal services. Frequently there is standing room only at the services. The Relief Society president comes to welcome in the sisters, the Primary president brings CTR (Choose the Right) rings for the children, the elders quorum president is there to welcome the men, and the Young Women and Young Men presidents are there. The bishop welcomes them all into the ward. It is so exciting to go to those services to see the members supporting their converts and to know that those converts are going to be loved into activity."

Edgardo Zayas, first counselor in the Arcadia mission presidency, commented:

"Some may think that the leaders have to spend a large amount of time in absorbing the new converts, but this is the odd thing: Most of the leaders are new converts. We hope to train them very fast."

Elder Bret Jorgenson explained that missionaries assigned to work with Spanish-speaking investigators search out areas of high concentration of these people. Missionaries teach investigators about the Savior and invite them to be baptized into His Church. If an investigator doesn't show interest in a return appointment, the missionaries leave their phone number with the person and spend their time finding others who will be interested.

Many of those who are interested heard of the Church before they came to the United States, or have family members in other countries who are members.

Carmen Munoz, baptized in November 1995, has three brothers in Guadalajara, Mexico, who are LDS. But she came to Azusa, a city adjacent to the northwest corner of Covina, before she was baptized. "I love the Church very much," she said. "I hope to help others join."

Two other new converts in the Covina stake are Juan Claudio and Maria Soledad Mendoza from Santiago, Chile, now members of the Azusa 2nd Branch.

She traveled alone to the United States and expected, once here, to become closer to her family members. But her family members were experiencing difficulties and kept to themselves. Without them, she felt isolated and very alone. One day the missionaries came to her door and taught the Plan of Salvation and she believed it to be true. She was joined a short time later by her husband, a retired Chilean air force officer, and they began attending meetings.

"We really felt that the Spirit was full and we decided to be baptized. Baptism completely filled the vacancy in our hearts." In three months, her husband was called as branch executive secretary and she as Relief Society secretary. With confidence inspired by her new membership, Sister Mendoza is drawing her family members closer.

Two of those who helped teach the gospel to the Mendozas were Ernesto and Alicia Esparza. Although Brother Esparza had been a member since he was 14, he fell away and did not attend Church for many years.

His wife was searching for a church - a 15-year effort - when a relative encouraged him to return to the fold of activity as a Latter-day Saint.

"I don't know of any ward in Azusa, or one where they speak Spanish," he replied, intending to squelch the topic. But his wife found in the Yellow Pages a telephone number for the Azusa 2nd Branch. They attended the following week, she was baptized, and they have rarely missed since.

"I visited many churches," said Sister Esparza. "I know the Lord had this Church reserved for me."

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