It was early last year that leaders of the Reading Pennsylvania Stake decided, after prayerful consideration, that top priority should be given to reaching out to every less-active family within their stake- all 650 of them. They then rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
More than a year later, stake member have received significant blessings as a result of visits made between May and November 1993 stake conferences to less-active households. To appreciate the efforts that went into inviting many back into full fellowship, it may be helpful to understand the geographic and economic circumstances of the Reading stake and its membership.Reading, a city of about 80,000, is located 60 miles northeast of Philadelphia. Stake boundaries run from Pottstown- just above the Pennsylvania Turnpike- north for 70 miles and east and west nearly 100 miles across. More than 1,000 of the stake's 2,200 members live in the Reading and Allentown wards, with the remainder spread among two additional wards in the Kutztown and Pottstown and six small branches.
Geographically, the area, settled largely by Pennsylvania Dutch of German descent, consists of lush green hills on the southern fringe of the Poccono Mountains and Pennsylvania's coal country. The Appalachian Trail runs through the middle of the stake, which also is the home of scenic Hickory Run State Park. The Amish with their immaculately manicured farms reside within the area and to the southwest in Lancaster County.
Economically, the region has been hit hard by declines in the steel, coal mining and slate mining industries and has never fully recovered. One-time giant Bethlehem Steel near Allentown is only a shell of what it once was, and several other manufacturers of trucks and heavy equipment have relocated elsewhere or closed their doors. Stake members impacted by these changes have adjusted and pursued other careers. Many work in various contracting professions, farming, engineering, assorted small businesses and related industries.
"It's beautiful country with its rolling hills and rich farmlands," explained Stake Pres. Frank F. Judd. "We are a very rural stake, and most of us live more or less out in the country. Allentown and Reading are the only cities of significant size within the stake.
"We have a lot of hard workers here. People tend to be down to earth, and many live in humble circumstances, though we certainly have plenty and are not destitute. There is not the high concentration of professionals that you might find among Church members farther to the east."
Pres. Judd said the biggest challenge facing the stake has been the large number of less-active members, attributed in part to the lengthy distances many need to travel to attend meetings and make visits.
With those people in mind, the stake presidency early last year compiled a list of less-active families in the stake. With the help of priesthood leaders in the wards, they counted 650 households. At that time, about 40 percent of the families in the stake were not assigned home teachers. A concentrated fellowshipping effort was introduced at stake conference in May, and priesthood leaders were asked to visit each of the 650 families three times before stake conference in November. All were visited three times with the exception of a few who would not allow it. Often it required several repeated attempts to catch people at home.
"It was a stake goal, so we used primarily the Melchizedek Priesthood leadership for the visits until the last several weeks, when we invited the general membership to participate," Pres. Judd said. "It was thrilling to have the elders quorum and high priests group leadership shoulder most of the responsibility for the visits. We, of course, coordinated our efforts with the bishops and branch presidents, but didn't want to put the burden of planning and follow through on them. It was done through the Melchizedek Priesthood leadership."
Pres. Raymond W. Griffin, second counselor in the stake presidency, said those who went into the homes of less-active members invited them to Church and offered priesthood blessings to those who desired them. "We found great success, and many people were receptive," he added. "We are still seeing people coming back to Church as a result. Many have accepted callings and are serving faithfully. In addition, missionary activity increased and several convert baptisms were a direct result of visits to part-member families."
Pres. Judd and Pres. Griffin estimated that about 90 people were activated and are still participating due to the invitation extended them.
Pres. Griffin said that in one instance branch conference was planned in the Hometown Branch. Members extended an invitation to every branch member to attend and told them the stake presidency and high council members would enjoy visiting their homes after the meetings.
"Most of the people we had planned to visit came to Church that day, and we didn't have to go to their homes but met with them at the Church," he recalled. "A good percentage of those people continued to come to Church and participate."
Pres. Judd said that though the effort to reach out was spearheaded by Melchizedek Priesthood leadership, the spirit of what was done permeated the entire stake membership. He said many faith-promoting experiences were reported by stake members, young and old, and those who made the visits received many blessings for doing so.
He told of one Relief Society president who caught the spirit of the effort and wanted to do her part. "We had told leaders that if they would commit themselves and pray, the Lord would send people to them."
There were two sisters who she was concerned about but couldn't locate since their addresses had changed. She went home and prayed about them, and the next night, one of the sisters called her on the telephone. The president was able to get a new address and set up an appointment to visit. The next night, that same Relief Society president was attending back-to-school night and waiting in line to see her son's teacher. To her surprise, the woman in front of her was the second of the two sisters she had been trying to locate. She introduced herself and arranged for future visits.
Another sister in the Pottsville Branch was called as Relief Society president during this time, and in the spirit of visiting the less-active and after prayerful consideration, recommended two totally inactive sisters as her counselors. Both were called, accepted, returned to Church and are serving faithfully today.
"The brethren had equally faith-promoting experiences," said Pres. Judd, "and there were a lot of great things that went on during this time that carry on today."
The increase in activity, though it has not by any means "overrun" the stake, has been a particular boost to the smaller wards and six branches. Each of the units in the stake has a unique and colorful history, with common threads of sacrifice and dedication running throughout the tapestry of each. Members who have moved into the branches from established wards said they had some initial concerns about raising families in a small Church unit, but have found the branches more like large, loving families, offering tremendous support and fellowship.
Larry K. Hartley, president of the Hometown Branch, moved with his family from Orem, Utah, to Pennsylvania in the summer of 1993.
"We were a bit apprehensive at first about how we would fit into a small branch, and about the small number of children and youth for our own children to interact with," Pres. Hartley reflected. "But we found nothing but open arms and loving hearts. It has been a great growth opportunity for our family as we have learned from branch members and shared wonderful experiences with them, particularly the past six months since being called as branch president."
Lehighton Branch Pres. Gary G. Schoenberger and his wife, Jo Ann, recalled the colorful history of the Lehighton and Hometown branches, remembering in particular the acquisition of the home that was converted into the current Hometown Branch meetinghouse.
After the property was acquired, it was decided to put a baptismal font in the basement. Pres. Schoenberger – a convert who had been called to teach the gospel essentials class prior to his baptism, thus "teaching and converting myself" in the process – was doing the work with a missionary couple and other members. They selected a spot for the font, cut through the floor and began excavation when they hit a rock. It turned out to be a huge boulder, the size of the entire space needed for the font.
Fortunately, the sturdy I-beam that supported the structure of the building ran right above the rock. The workers were able to get a chain around the beam and the rock, back a vehicle into the basement area and wench the stone up in the air like an engine would be lifted out of a car. They were able to get it high enough to back a pickup truck underneath it and haul it out, then they lined the hole with concrete for their baptismal font.
Sister Schoenberger's brother, Greg Semanoff, then a non-member, had worked in concrete and helped with the font project, having the clutch in his car burned out in the process of moving the rock. Nevertheless, it didn't dissuade his interest in the Church, and he was one of two people baptized during the first baptismal service conducted in the new font.
"Jo Ann's brother joining the Church was such a high point in our lives," said Pres. Schoenberger. "When the missionaries were going to challenge him for baptism, I was so excited I couldn't stand being in the room and had to get up and walk out. I don't know what I would have done if he had said no. Since that time, he has had a myriad of callings including branch president and Scoutmaster and is now serving as branch mission leader here in Lehighton. These small units give you a lot of wonderful opportunities to serve."