BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — Silence fell over the crowd of some 200 young missionaries standing together in neat rows at the back of the cultural hall in the stake center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Moments before, someone had said, “He’s coming,” and almost immediately the room had quieted.
“You look wonderful,” Elder Cook told the missionaries.
The group laughed and relaxed a bit as Elder Cook came to join them for a few photos to capture the momentous occasion of the entire Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission — which covers most of Louisiana and Mississippi — coming together for a devotional with the Apostle on the weekend of the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple rededication. Elder and Sister Cook then took time to shake hands with each of the missionaries as they filed into the chapel.
The last time Elder Cook had visited that same chapel was in 2005, just a few days after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through the coastal areas of the southern state, leaving total destruction in its wake. At that time, Elder Cook — who had accompanied President Boyd K. Packer, then-Elder M. Russell Ballard, Elder D. Todd Christofferson and other general leaders of the Church to the area — had been greeted not by the smiling faces of missionaries but rather by a room full of cots and other emergency response supplies along with a group of weary but resilient survivors of the storm.
“I was so impressed with the resilience of the people,” Elder Cook told the missionaries, recalling his last visit. “The people weren’t destroyed, although things around them were destroyed.”
Noting that a foundation of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can help buoy people up, even through times of tragedy and difficulty, Elder Cook said he is not surprised that the people of Louisiana and Mississippi have shown resilience time and time again as they have encountered natural disasters over the years. Faith is part of the culture in the South, he explained, echoing the words of Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy who also spoke during the devotional.
Elder James B. Martino, General Authority Seventy and president of the North America Southeast Area; his wife, Sister Jennie B. Martino; Elder Duncan’s wife, Sister Nancy S. Duncan; and Sister Cook also addressed the missionaries during the Saturday morning devotional.
As Elder Duncan explained, Louisiana and Mississippi are known as two of the most religious states in the U.S., according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. And within those highly religious populations, the vast majority are Christians. Such statistics, he noted, should give comfort to missionaries in the South because it gives them a chance to build upon testimonies of the Savior that are already present in many of the individuals they teach.
Today’s world offers many challenges for missionaries, Elder Cook said, adding that missionaries in many areas face more rejection now than they have in the past. But despite the difficulties or sense of failure that can often accompany such rejection, the work of missionaries can bless individuals and families in many ways yet to be seen, he said.
“The time will come when you realize that what you’re doing … blesses everybody you love,” he said.
After hearing that promise from an Apostle, Sister Lisa Parkinson, a young full-time missionary who is nearing the end of her 18 months of service as a missionary, said she could feel God’s love for her through Elder Cook.
“I think there was a lot of power in the last promise that he left with us,” she said.
Sister Parkinson said she has often felt a sense of discouragement after constantly getting rejected. At times, she has wondered whether her efforts would have been better spent at home rather than on a mission. But after receiving a blessing and promise from Elder Cook that her work as a missionary has blessed and will continue blessing everyone she loves, she said it reaffirmed to her the importance of the work she is doing.
Speaking of the importance of representing the Lord as disciples, not just as full-time missionaries, but as members of the Church as well, Sister Duncan noted that while some religions use symbols like the cross to demonstrate that Christ is at the center of their beliefs, the Church of Jesus Christ is best symbolized by its members.
“People will want to be like us if we represent the Savior and His light,” said Sister Duncan, explaining that there is no stronger symbol of Christ than a true disciple engaging in His work. “We are engaged in a wonderful work,” she said.
Highlighting some of the changes made with the release of the new missionary handbook, Elder Martino noted that the new handbook has an increased focus on the importance of actually “becoming” like Christ.
“It’s not just what we do, it’s the attitude with which we do it,” he said.
Comparing the experiences of Nephi and his brother Laman from the Book of Mormon, Elder Martino explained that although the two brothers made many of the same choices, their difference of attitude led Nephi and Laman to “become” two very different people.
The process of “becoming” like Christ is lifelong, Sister Cook said. And while individuals may not be perfect today or any day during this life, they can strive to do perfect things each day and make choices that lead them to become more like Christ.
That’s the amazing thing about the Atonement, Elder Cook said in his concluding remarks. Through the power of Christ’s Atonement, everyone can become better. Everyone can overcome sin, receive salvation and exaltation and return to live with God the Father and Jesus Christ.
Closing with a powerful testimony of his role as a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ and His continued work on the earth through His Church, Elder Cook ended the devotional by saying, “I am a sure witness of the divinity of Jesus Christ. He lives and guides the Church.”