|Photo of Enterprise, OR from Google Images|
Several years ago, my sweet husband and I had an opportunity to take a get-away weekend of fishing, hiking and camping near Enterprise, Oregon. We had a wonderful time there. The weather was perfect, the scenery was gorgeous and the fish were biting. We got a chance to fully unwind and connect. However, it is neither the fishing success nor the great views that we have remembered best over the years since that long ago visit. What we have always held in our minds and close to our hearts about that particular trip is the experience we had going to church there on Sunday.
We have visited many different congregations in various parts of the country as we have traveled over the years. Because the LDS church is based on direction and guidance from a central leadership in Salt Lake City, the overall format of how meetings are run is fairly consistent no matter where you show up. There is a welcome from the pulpit by whichever leader is conducting the meeting . Then there is an opening song and a prayer. There is more singing, followed by administration of the sacrament. After that there will be talks presented by members of the congregation who have been assigned to address a particular topic. Whether in Maine or Montana, in small rural communities or big urban centers, in this country or in other parts of the world, an LDS church services look pretty much the same.
What was quite different in our experience at the church service in Enterprise was the way that we were welcomed by the members. They truly set the gold standard by which we have measured every other ward or branch we have had occasion to visit.
In most congregations a few folks will say hello to newcomers, coming over to introduce themselves and shake hands when they see an unfamiliar face. In Enterprise, however, the welcome we received far surpassed any standard social courtesy. The people there greeted us with a level of warmth and graciousness we had never ever experienced before, and truth be know have never seen since.
The congregation in Enterprise was a small "branch", meaning there were fewer people and not all of the administrative organization typically found in a "ward", the general LDS meeting group. However, what they lacked in numbers they more than made up for with their big hearts.
We were astonished by how many people came up to us to say hello and introduce themselves. This was not your run-of-the-mill be polite to the strangers sort of greeting. They genuinely showed pleasure about having us there. There were so many handshakes and warm smiles, invitations to sit with others that we felt like part of a large extended family. When we said we were "just visiting" they made it very clear that they were sincerely delighted to have us join them. They asked about where we were from and then really paid attention to our answers. The level of eye contact, warm smiles and presence that these members extended toward us just blew us away. When we left at the end of the three hour meeting block we got many invitations to come back again. We felt genuinely cared about in that branch, even though it was the only time we were ever there.
During the past several weeks we have had opportunities to visit different congregations while we have been in this "in-between time"...no longer in our home ward back in Boise, but not yet officially in the mission field. Most of the congregations we have visited have been welcoming and friendly. In a few we have scarcely been acknowledged, leaving us feeling like ghosts.
Whenever I have an experience like that, rather than point fingers at the people who did not take the time to extend themselves toward me more warmly, I begin to personally reflect on my own patterns of how welcoming I am towards people I don't know. How consistently do I look for unfamiliar faces at church and then make a point of going over to greet them? Beyond that, how open and friendly am I to the people that I do know? Do I make people feel more like my Enterprise experience or do I contribute to anyone there feeling overlooked or unappreciated?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared a portion of a letter from a friend who learned how to find joy in attending church:
“Years ago, I changed my attitude about going to church. No longer do I go to church for my sake, but to think of others. I make a point of saying hello to people who sit alone, to welcome visitors, … to volunteer for an assignment. …In short, I go to church each week with the intent of being active, not passive, and making a positive difference in people’s lives. Consequently, my attendance at Church meetings is so much more enjoyable and fulfilling” (quoted in “Unselfish Service,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2009, 96).
I can remember to smile and go out of my way to greet others, even when I am a guest in an unfamiliar ward. I do not have to wait for people to come to me. If I leave a church service feeling like a ghost, then I have not done my part.
I will continue to remember the good people of Enterprise, Oregon and do all I can to emulate their kindness. Beyond that I can follow their example in other areas of my life - not just how I act in church. How we treat the people around us really does matter.