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Lesson Helps: Befriending Converts (Teachings for Our Time Lesson 9)

October 22, 2003

Read the following excerpt from Gary J. Coleman's new book, The Journey of Conversion, for some additional insight into the Teachings for Our Time Lesson 9, Strengthening New Converts.

After joining the Church I had a transitional experience with a former pastor, one whom I had assisted for several years as an altar boy. I had received my patriarchal blessing eighty- nine days following my baptism and was thrilled at its inspired counsel. I had not known the patriarch beforehand, but that did not matter. He knew the Lord, and the Lord knew me. This humble patriarch made many pronouncements that were able to comfort and guide me throughout my life. I think it was a divine rendezvous that he gave me the blessing three days before I received a long letter from Father Graff.
Father Graff, as any church leader might do, was trying to recover me from what he perceived as a tragic, even spiritually fatal, error of leaving my former church. "Did your parents fail to teach you the lesson that your first obligation was to save your immortal soul in and through the Catholic Church?" he asked. "Your trust should be in your God, the God of your faith which you received at the time of your baptism into the Catholic Church." He quoted Matthew 6:25-27, 31-33 in an effort to convince me to seek first the kingdom of God. "To renounce your inherited faith in favor of someone else's is not true. No man can be happy if he throws away the only sure means of obtaining happiness in this life and in the next, his faith. In the name of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I beg you to reconsider your course of action. It is not too late now, it will be later." It was signed, "Your former pastor and friend."
I knew he was sincere and was reaching out to me in a way he thought was best. But I had found the truth and could not back down from my convictions despite my respect for and relationship with Father Graff. I had learned and would continue to learn that converts encounter opposition to their desire to find the truth. It is as the prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon said when challenged by a nonbeliever: "He had hope to shake me from the faith" (Jacob 7:5). This is a universally common occurrence for new converts. The support system of nourishment, friends, and responsibility must be well in place early in the process of coming into the Church. Luckily for me, when Father Graff's letter arrived, I was not shaken enough to return to my previous religious life. I was founded in the truths beyond the traditions and religions of men. I was staying with the First Vision, the restoration of the priesthood of God, the additional testament of Jesus Christ, and other latter- day scriptures. I was sticking with the restoration of the true church and the plain and precious doctrines of Christ. I wanted to be a Latter- day Saint, live my newfound religion, and follow the living prophets and apostles. It was a time of testing and a time of moving on in my new faith.
CONVERTS NEED THE SUPPORT OF GOOD FRIENDS TO ESTABLISH ROOTS IN THE GOSPEL.

Converts through the ages have all faced the challenges that come from living their newfound truth. That is why the prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley, has counseled that every convert must have a friend. However, much of what is involved with being a good friend to our prospective members and new converts involves our willingness to rely on the Lord and use faith in our efforts. Joseph Smith said, "Doubt and faith do not exist in the same person at the same time; so those persons whose minds are under doubts and fears cannot have unshaken confidence; and where unshaken confidence is not there faith is weak; and where faith is weak the persons will not be able to contend against all the opposition, tribulation, and afflictions which they will have to encounter" (Lectures on Faith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985], 6:12). We must really believe that this is the work of Jesus Christ, that He has asked us to help Him move the gospel cause forward with faith, and that we are empowered to assist others in coming unto Christ. When our testimonies are strong, then we can offer to share the burdens of our prospective members and new converts by loving and friendshipping them. Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). We must be willing to bear each other's burdens. In so doing we will receive the help we need from Christ. The Lord opens doors for us. To the apostle Peter the Lord said three times, "Lovest thou me?" And three times the Lord responded to Peter's answer with "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17). The Lord has said that He knows His sheep. He invites those who will hear His voice to join His church. He has asked us to shoulder part of the responsibility to recover His lost sheep and to keep them in the fold.
In the Book of Mormon we read that the faithful missionary Ammon faced trying times with the people he taught, but his faith in the Lord was strong. He said, "When our hearts were depressed, and we were about to turn back, behold, the Lord comforted us, and said: Go amongst thy brethren, the Lamanites, and bear with patience thine afflictions, and I will give unto you success. And now behold, we have come, and been forth amongst them; and we have been patient in our sufferings, and we have suffered every privation; yea, we have traveled from house to house, relying upon the mercies of the world—not upon the mercies of the world alone but upon the mercies of God. And we have entered into their houses and taught them, and we have taught them in their streets; yea, and we have taught them upon their hills; and we have also entered into their temples and their synagogues and taught them" (Alma 26:27-29).
Once the commitment has been made and a person is baptized, we must not give up our efforts. Nurturing through friendship and sharing is vital to the new convert's success. New converts are fresh and eager to live according to the truths they have just learned about. Exercise the faith required to know how to be a friend, how to take care of our converts after baptism, and how to help nurture their newly formed testimonies. A new convert's growth can come from the strengthening qualities of good friends in the gospel.
Now, let us take a journey across the United States as we peek into the landmarks and roots of the Restoration. After we familiarize ourselves with where the Restoration took place, let us then examine the role of friendship in reestablishing the Savior's true religion on the earth.
I-90 traverses America from east to west, from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast. Literally thousands of exits are provided. Major cities are located along this historic interstate highway, such as Boston, Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Madison, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Sheridan, Missoula, Coeur d'Alene, Spokane, and Seattle. Millions of people, all children of our Heavenly Father, travel I-90 day and night, day after day, year in and year out. They are going somewhere, coming from somewhere, being tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine like the bushes and trees blown and whipped by the thousands of vehicles that rush by on this great highway.
Westbound on I-90, after Syracuse and before Rochester, a single exit sign carries the name "Palmyra." This is a tiny town, lying beside the old Erie Canal, dotted with monuments called churches and rich with history of the doctrines of men, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
In about 1815, Joseph Smith's family came to this quiet place. God prepared a marvelous work and a wonder in this obscure wayside. There is a forest glade there, reverently called by Latter- day Saints the Sacred Grove. The God of heaven and His holy Son, Jesus Christ, beings beyond description, full of light brighter than the noonday sun, appeared to the boy- prophet right in that place—just off I-90 and just north of that busy highway of life. Think of it! The world again had access to truth about the Supreme Being of the Universe, God the Eternal Father: Our Father in Heaven was again revealed to the fallen and apostate world. Could such a thing really happen in our day? Could God be so profound, so real, so willing to help His children? It did happen, and Jesus was there as well. Jesus instructed Joseph in plainly spoken words, and the heavens were opened again for us. Truth was revealed to a prophet, and even a record was available to testify of the Savior—yes, even another testament of the living Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. Where was the record? In a nearby hill called Cumorah, just off I-90 westbound, right along the Palmyra Road. A record was there, a record seen five thousand years ago by Enoch. It was truth sent forth out of the earth, bear testimony of [the] Only Begotten; his resurrection from the dead; yea, and also the resurrection of all men" (Moses 7:62). This sacred record, translated by the gift and power of God and known today as the Book of Mormon, was prepared for mankind near little Palmyra. It was published to the world right in this little town.
Let us leave I-90 for a moment and pick up I-80 south of Syracuse and just into Pennsylvania. Here we find Harmony. It is not even identified as an exit, but this is the place of the restoration of the holy priesthood, called today the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood. There is a river there, the Susquehanna, on whose banks holy events took place in which God's authority was restored to man and sacred ordinances were performed as Jesus would direct. So much good for so many people—for all the people of the world—yet it is hardly noticed by the masses who hurry to their busy lives, their self- declared forms of worship, and their worldly distractions.
Returning to I-90, before we leave New York state, the sacred record called the Doctrine and Covenants, section 20, leads us to another scene so small it is also not mentioned on the highway exit signs. In fact, it is not mentioned in many road maps of New York state. I refer to Fayette, New York. This tiny place, the simple log home of Peter Whitmer, was the location of many sacred events. The testimony of the Three Witnesses was signed there, the Book of Mormon translation was completed there, the Church was organized there, twenty revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received in that home ten miles south of I-90, just east of Palmyra. It was a remarkable time of schooling for the Prophet Joseph Smith. He was now twenty- four years old, and the heavenly process had begun when he was fourteen years old with the remarkable vision of the Father and the Son who appeared to him in the Sacred Grove. On Tuesday, April 6, 1830, with nearly sixty people crowded into the humble cabin, the church of Jesus Christ was again established upon the earth by proper authority and with the ordinances necessary for salvation. The restoration of the gospel was well underway.
Real places, real people, real authority, real revelation to do God's work in the latter days. If we hurry on westward and cross Pennsylvania into Ohio, we will find another sacred place. Watch for the exit off I-90, where hardly a public notice appears. There it is—Kirtland—Kirtland, Ohio. Sixty- six revelations were received in the vicinity of this hamlet. More doctrines of the Restoration were revealed there. Angelic beings with keys of authority and the truths of eternity were brought from heaven to the Prophet Joseph Smith in this place. Jesus came here, and Joseph declared, "He lives! for we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father" (D&C 76:22-23).
The first latter- day House of the Lord was erected in this little place. Moses, even the mighty prophet of Israel, came to this temple—Elias and Elijah also. They revealed wondrous blessings from the eternal throne of God. That's right—it happened at Kirtland, just off I-90, east of Cleveland, a little to the south of that main thoroughfare traversing America east to west. The magnificent libraries of the world do not hold these secrets of the kingdom of God. Not even the mighty cities of the world were the places of the restoration of the eternal gospel. The mysteries of the kingdom of God were revealed in Palmyra, Fayette, Harmony, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and even today in Salt Lake City.
Though I have seen the places of the Restoration, have stood on those sacred spots, and have trodden the Holy Land of America and the ancient Holy Land, or today's Israel, I knew before I visited where Jesus walked and prophets talked that the events of the Restoration and the Lord's life were true. I bear witness that I knew it was true before I saw the places with my eyes, before I felt the feelings in those places in my heart. The Restoration did occur—just off I-90, in holy places, in our day. I know by the power of the Holy Ghost that these things occurred, that Jesus is the Son of God, that this is His church, that Joseph was His prophet, and that the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ, proclaiming the Redeemer's holy life and teachings. This is His church and kingdom on earth today. I write reverently of Jesus and Joseph. For me, their names are inseparably linked as friends of all mankind. Jesus taught Joseph, and Joseph taught the wondrous revelations of the Restoration.
These events did not occur without some difficulty and persecution, however. The road was long and hard as Joseph Smith and the other believers worked to establish the Lord's church on the earth. Joseph Smith was the first latter- day example of a truly retained convert. As Jesus is the prototype of salvation or a saved Being, so is Joseph the prototype of converts in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. His father and mother and other members of the family were also valiant in their conversion to the Lord and the restoration of all things in these last days. New converts often feel somewhat the way those first members of the Church might have felt—unsure of the doctrine, infantile in experience, and even alone in their efforts. The story of Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum provides some insight into how Joseph was able to withstand the pressures of a newfound religion.
Joseph had a challenging life as he decided to stand by his vision once he had committed to the process of restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ. Among the first to challenge his revelatory experiences were the ministers of the local churches. Most converts are tested as to whether they will have the strength to stay committed. One poignant relationship through all of this difficulty for Joseph was with his brother Hyrum. Through the years of establishing the Church, Hyrum stood by Joseph, sustained him, and supported him. They were faithful in the gospel together. Fourteen years after Hyrum stood with Joseph as one of the first members of the newly organized church, they faced the greatest trial of their lives: death at the hands of those who opposed this restored religion. When Joseph knew he was going to be killed, he begged his brother to return to safety, but Hyrum would not leave him. The scripture records, "In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated" (D&C 135:3). From the time of his conversion, Joseph had a friend who was willing to stand by him and never leave his side. That friend helped him in all aspects of his life—even until their tragic death in the Carthage Jail.
I also feel honored to call Joseph my friend. I have come to know the meaning of the words penned by John Taylor after the Prophet's death. He said, "Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it" (D&C 135:3). I cannot express adequately my love for this friend of all of us who have found the joy of the restoration of the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
What about our convert friends? Will we help them, love them, and nourish them—never giving up on them? Will we help sustain them through their trials, hardships, and difficulties as well as their joys? I regard my brother Jerry as one of the most valiant of  Latter- day converts and a true friend to me. Since his conversion, we have been able to share a brotherhood of the highest respect and regard. One year after his baptism, he served as a faithful missionary in the Franco Belgium Mission. This was made possible by members of an elders quorum who contributed the funds for his service. Just days after he returned from the mission field, he was called to serve his country in the Vietnam War. He did so as a medic and as an ordained seventy. He taught the gospel in foxholes, bomb craters, and jungle camps and was regarded by his companions as a faithful and devout follower of the Lord. Miracles were part of this man's daily walk in the hazards of war. He has married in the temple and raised a beautiful family of missionaries and examples in gospel living. We have both served as bishops, in stake presidencies, and on high councils, and we have performed temple work for our deceased ancestors. How I love faithful and obedient Gerald S. (Jerry) Coleman. To be with him, or hear his voice, or anticipate time together with him is one of my greatest joys in this life. I feel sweet nourishment from his faith and humble testimony and friendship. Jerry stood with me in my decision to join the Church. He still stands with me, and I with him. We are brothers in flesh and brothers in the gospel. Oh, what a difference dear friends and family make in a convert's ability to stay committed to the decision of baptism!
Another good friend in the Church is my wife. The Lord led me to the gospel through Judy England, and together we grew in knowledge and understanding through courtship, temple marriage, and raising a family. We have served and studied and prayed our way through the challenges and joys of this life. I was very fortunate that this friend, who introduced me to the restored gospel, has become my eternal friend and companion.
John Madsen and I have also followed similar gospel paths. One of my first gospel education experiences was attending his seminary class. If you remember, that is where I gained a testimony of Joseph Smith. Isn't it interesting that I have followed him in his vocational pursuit. I am grateful that he encouraged me to enter the Church Educational System as he did when we were young married men. We both served as Church leaders and full- time mission presidents. Our families were together often in pursuit of masters' and doctorate degrees in education. I consider it a great honor that we have grown and served together in the work of the Lord. Perhaps the greatest blessing we could share in this life as eternal friends came when we were both called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy in June 1992 and to the First Quorum of Seventy in April 1997. Two men, one baptized by the other forty years ago, now serve full- time in the latter- day work of our Master and Savior.
I pay tribute to these three special friends, my faithful brother, my eternal companion, and my steadfast mentor. They have supported my search for the true ways of the Lord. What greater friends could a convert have? They helped me establish deep gospel roots, and I have been strengthened by their love and companionship during these years of enjoying the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. May we be the kind of friend to new converts that will strengthen them and support them in their newfound religion as my friends did with me.