About three weeks into his missionary service as president of the California Arcadia Mission, Brother Stephen W. Owen, who now serves as Young Men general president, pulled into the driveway of the mission home after a long, busy day.
He looked up and saw that someone had written with marker on the living room window, “I hate California. I miss Utah. I want to go home.”
He walked into the home and found his 13-year-old daughter, Jessica, sitting on the couch watching TV and crying.
“We had left a strong community here in Provo, where Jessica had been surrounded by many good friends and extended family members, so we knew the transition would not be easy for her,” he told students during a BYU campus devotional on Oct. 23. “The first few weeks were the hardest.”
Brother Owen and his wife, Sister Jane Owen, and their youngest daughter had arrived in the summer when school was not in session.
“While my wife and I were extremely busy in the mission, Jessica didn’t have much to do other than miss her friends back home,” he said.
The teenager told her parents she thought she should return to Utah. After counseling with his wife, the couple decided their daughter needed to stay with them, but that she should go to Utah for a weekend visit.
“So we sent her to stay with some family members here, with the plan that she would fly back to California on Monday morning,” he said.
Over that weekend it was fast Sunday, and both Brother and Sister Owen and Jessica fasted. Jessica wanted to stay in Utah; her parents felt she should come home.
“Well, she did get on the plane, and she did come back to California,” he said. “Within a few weeks, she was befriended by the young women in our ward and in seminary. She even made some friends who accepted her invitation to learn about the gospel and be baptized.”
Three years later on the last day of his mission, Brother Owen again drove into his driveway and was greeted by marker on the front window. This time the words read: “I love California. I don’t want to move!”
“Jessica learned — and so did I — about the strength that’s available when we gather with fellow saints,” he said.
Something powerful happens any time a group gathers as God’s covenant people — anywhere in the world, no matter how many people the gathering may include, Brother Owen said.
“That power can be difficult to describe, but perhaps these words of the Savior explain it best: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’” (Matthew 18:20).
Drawing from President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to participate in the gathering of Israel — first to the youth during a devotional and then to the women of the Church during general conference — Brother Owen spoke of three ways the Lord gathers His people.
1. Gather in families to make and keep covenants
“Most of the covenants we make are personal, between an individual and God,” he said. “And yet, as President Nelson explained, while ‘salvation is an individual matter,’ ‘exaltation is a family matter.’ The highest covenant we make here on earth — the covenant of eternal marriage — is the only one that we cannot enter into alone. We must make and keep this covenant together with our spouse.”
Just as Heavenly Father didn’t send individuals to earth alone, He does not intend for anyone to make it back to Him alone.
“Now, when we speak of eternal families, some of you may be painfully reminded that you come from a family situation that is less than ideal,” he said. “I want to assure you that regardless of your background or your home circumstances, you have a home — a heavenly home. And you have a family — a heavenly family.”
The plan of salvation is for everyone.
It is through gathering in the house of the Lord that individuals will find the strength that comes from gathering in a way the world cannot duplicate.
“God’s plan of happiness bridges all generation gaps,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you were born in Medieval China or postwar Germany or 20th-century Ghana,” Brother Owens said. “The plan of salvation is for everyone. It helps us feel a closeness and unity with all generations, for together we are all part of Heavenly Father’s great eternal family.”
Brother Owen invited listeners to make building a family a high priority, and encouraged students to “mend any divisions that have arisen in your family.”
2. Build friendships through gathering with other saints
Many people, especially young people, question the need for a church, or what they call “organized religion,” Brother Owen said. “Often they consider themselves spiritual and even religious, but they prefer to exercise their faith privately and independently.”
Recognizing there is nothing wrong with worshipping God in private, Brother Owen mentioned the great blessings that come from gathering frequently with other saints. Some blessings come from gathering in Sunday meetings — fasting and praying together, as well as taking the sacrament — but most of the blessings are beyond the weekly meeting or class.
“We need more than a 'hi' and a handshake in the hallway from fellow saints on Sunday,” he said. “I find it very revealing that right on the heels of our prophet’s invitation to take our ministering to ‘a newer, holier’ level, the Lord has also reduced the time we spend in meetings and classes on Sunday.”
Gathering together with fellow saints is not just about being in the same room together. It’s about building relationships and friendships, and that can and should happen in a thousand ways throughout the week, and not just on Sunday, Brother Owen taught.
“I’m not sure we’re taking full advantage of the opportunities we have to strengthen — and receive strength from — our fellow saints. Maybe we don’t think we need anyone’s help. Maybe we think they don’t need us. Or maybe we don’t fully realize the difference we could make in someone’s life.”
3. Connect with the Savior
“We’ve talked about how the Lord gathers us as families and as fellow Saints, but perhaps our most important gathering is to the Savior Himself and to His gospel,” he said.
People can gather and unite around all kinds of worldly causes or purposes, but most important is being unified with the Savior and His teachings.
“In other words, we gather to Christ and His gospel through sacred covenants and ordinances,” he said. “This is the way, and it is the only way. … The world would have us believe we can choose our own plan. ‘Be yourself; do your own thing’ are messages we often hear. …
“When we gather together as disciples of Jesus Christ, we not only join the great cause of gathering Israel, but we also strengthen one another in our journey toward eternal life in the presence of our Heavenly Father.”