Ryan Blubaugh said he felt like a kid going to Disneyland the week of Christmas: in just one day, he would be baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And soon, he would reunite with the friend that had made it all possible—a friend he hadn’t seen in 29 years. But over the last several months, this high school friend, J.D. Griffith, had been there for Ryan through thick and thin. He attended every lesson with Ryan and the missionaries via Zoom, answered every gospel question during lunchtime phone calls, and comforted his friend in every moment of despair.
Months before, Ryan had reached out to his friend over Facebook, asking if someone like him could join the Church. J.D. responded with one word: “Absolutely.”
Ryan was baptized on November 21, 2020, but his conversion didn’t start that day, nor does he plan on his conversion ending that day. His is a story of seeds being planted throughout his life, including by J.D., by his late fiancée, Jennifer, and most importantly, by his Heavenly Father.
High School Days
Ryan had spent most of his childhood years in New Mexico with his mother. He remembers that a Latter-day Saint family with nine kids lived down the street. One of the kids would often loan Ryan his bicycle since he didn’t have one of his own.
“They were super nice people,” Ryan recalled. “They were accepting and so kind.”
When Ryan moved to Denver to live with his dad in the middle of his junior year, he had more experience with members of the Church through his friend J.D., who also moved to Colorado in the middle of his junior year.
The two ended up at Arapahoe High School in Littleton, Colorado, and met on the baseball team. They became friends and occasionally spent time together. Neither would say they were best friends, but that didn’t stop Ryan from noticing a distinct difference in J.D.’s. character.
Senior Pictures for Ryan Blubaugh (left) and J.D. Griffith (right)
“Everyone else would go to parties and drink and do those types of things, and that was just not something he did,” Ryan said. “He would invite me to a party, and that would include watching movies, eating popcorn, and being done by 12:00 a.m. That was the big party at his house—and it was fun.”
But it wasn’t just the parties at the Griffith home that stood out to Ryan.
“He was the most positive person,” Ryan recalled. “He never had anything bad to say about anybody. He never lost his temper. He was probably the nicest kid I had ever met. . . . He may not have been vocal all the time, but you just watched the way he behaved, and he made you want to be a little better.”
After their high school graduation in 1991, they stayed in touch for a short time through letters. J.D. received a mission call to serve in Dublin, Ireland. Ryan joined the army and eventually found himself stationed in Germany. The two exchanged a couple of letters that first year after graduation. In their letters, they would remark about how different their experience was from the average 19-year-old. Though the two didn’t share the same faith at the time, they both knew what it was like to be so far away from home at such a young age. One letter from Ryan written on March 31, 1992, would echo something Ryan would tell J.D. almost three decades later—“I know you can understand what I’m going through.”
But before the two would come into contact again, more seeds were planted for Ryan—more moments where God was preparing Ryan for His message.
A Sense of the Saints
When Ryan thinks about ways his heart was prepared to accept the gospel, he thinks about his late fiancée, Jennifer. Ryan first met Jennifer at the VA Hospital in Vancouver, Washington. They both faced PTSD from their time in the military (she served in the Air Force). Jennifer was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but hadn’t been active since her divorce. The two were seeking help and healing for their addiction to alcohol. Jennifer wanted to attend the Church’s Addiction Recovery Program (ARP), but she didn’t have a car. So she asked Ryan if he wanted to go with her, and the two attended the classes together.
“To go to the Addiction Recovery Program and actually go to a God-based, scripture-based thing was amazing,” Ryan said. “It was really a learning and growing experience, and it was my favorite activity of the week—maybe because Jennifer was involved—but also because our Heavenly Father was involved.”
In December 2018, the two became engaged, and after their engagement, they moved to Denver—a place that Jennifer always wanted to live. And though the move accomplished a dream of Jennifer’s, the dream was short-lived when she started to have some health problems related to her kidney and her liver.
One day when she was feeling well enough to do it, the couple went to an Air Force vs. Army game down in Colorado Springs. Their seats were right next to two older men, who Ryan noted were very sportsmanlike. They cheered for both sides and were respectful and positive. They never said anything negative or used foul language. It reminded Ryan of other Latter-day Saints he had met in his past.
“I just got this vibe, so I said, ‘Are you LDS?’ And he said, ‘Yeah how’d you know?’ And I said, ‘You’re just too nice. I can sense it. You care about everything that’s going on and you’re polite and I get that vibe.’”
After the game, Jennifer and Ryan agreed that as soon as she was well enough to return to church, they would go together. He promised her that together they would explore this faith she wanted to return to. But then Jennifer got sicker, to the point that her liver and kidneys were failing. Her health challenges were severe, and she wasn’t eligible to receive kidney dialysis. After several hospital stays, Jennifer decided to come home and was on hospice for three weeks. During that time, her bishop and some sisters of the Relief Society came to visit, and the impression those visits left on Ryan lasted much longer than the visits themselves.
“The Bishop came and gave her a blessing probably two days before she passed, and I know that in those two days she seemed so much more at peace,” Ryan said. “That was the moment where I thought, ‘Now I know why she wanted us to pursue this Church and become members of the Church of Jesus Christ.’”
Although Ryan lost his fiancée in March 2020, he says that in a way, she saved him.
“She got me to Denver, away from Washington where things weren’t going all that great,” Ryan said. “We got out here, and now I’m close to my family and now I’m pursuing the Church as she would have wanted, and also because it’s what I want.”
Ryan says that he is confident Jennifer would be smiling over his decision to join the Church. “She spent her last time with me showing me love and leading me to this Church—that was a blessing,” Ryan said. “Now I’m able to deal with the loss of her because of my knowledge of the gospel, which I believe was a gift from her.”
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Ryan waited a few months after Jennifer’s passing to explore the Church. He missed his fiancée, who he had rarely been apart from in nearly two years; he spent most of his time either crying or drinking. One lonely night, he found himself scrolling through Facebook, when almost immediately he saw J.D.’s face in the “People You May Know” box. Curious about his old friend and how life was treating him all these years later, he scrolled through J.D.’s page and could tell by his posts and pictures that J.D. was a true family man, still active in the Church. Ryan just knew that he was supposed to reach out to him for help.
“I knew I needed God’s help,” Ryan said. “I just was really, really low. I had tears in my eyes as I began typing out a message to J.D., and I was just glad I was texting because I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation on the phone. I remember hitting send and I almost immediately regretted it, because I just knew that J.D. would do something about it, that is just the type of guy he was. It was like, ‘Oh gosh, now I’m going to have to get sober. I’m going to have to do these things. I’m going to have to stop feeling sorry for myself.’”
Nearly 600 miles away, J.D.’s phone chirped. He was both surprised and worried when he saw the message from an old high school friend he hadn’t heard from since March 1992 when they last exchanged a few letters. Ryan said he had never felt so low in his life and that he needed help.
J.D. said, “I was really nervous when I got his first message because you can tell when someone is sincerely in trouble, and so I sent him a quick message and said, ‘good to hear from you,’ and said, ‘I would love to chat’. And then he sent me another question . . . ‘How can I become LDS? Because every LDS man I’ve met is a good man.’ And finally, ‘Am I allowed to have lived the life I have and be in your Church?’”
“Absolutely,” J.D. replied, “Can I call you?” The phone call began with the two high school friends catching up on life. But it quickly took a serious turn.
J.D. remembers that during that first phone call “Ryan described being at such a low point in his life before remembering the promise he had made to his fiancée. . . . and in his words, God told him that I could help. I was very humbled but then excited at the same time. I just wanted to reach through the phone and give him a big hug and say, ‘I’m here for you, what can I do for you?’”
Ryan said that during the course of the call, his emotions went from despair to fear to relief to some form of nervous energy about what was going to happen next.
“I had opened up something I wasn’t going to able to stop,” Ryan said. “It was moving forward, and I could no longer argue with it. The Spirit had led me to contact him, and everything he did from that moment forward was perfect. He responded. He didn’t judge. He didn’t offer advice. He waited for me to ask. I told him, ‘I know I need God’s help,’ and I asked him, ‘How far is your reach? Can you arrange for me to talk to someone?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I think I know who will help.’”
Zooming into the Gospel
J.D. used the new “refer a friend” feature, which is now available in the Tools app. He filled out some information, hit submit, and two hours later received a call from Elder Barton and Elder Hess serving in Littleton, Colorado.
The elders arranged a time to meet over Zoom with J.D. and Ryan the very next day. Ryan was put at ease when he found out that J.D. would be able to attend the lessons with him, even though he was in Kaysville, Utah.
“It made it really comfortable because I knew I’d have a friend there. And for him to take the time, like several hours a week, to be there as I relearn things and as we discuss things . . . I hope I get to do the same thing for somebody else because I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” Ryan said.
In that first lesson, the elders shared the plan of salvation and the story of the First Vision.
“Each of us bore our testimony in that first lesson, including Ryan,” J.D. recalled. “I don’t think Ryan would have realized he was bearing his testimony, but he was testifying of the experience that he had had to reach out to me, and we definitely felt the Spirit.”
Ryan’s lessons continued with the elders and J.D., and other members from the local Colorado ward also attended. One Sunday, the elders gave Ryan a tour of the chapel before their Zoom lesson that afternoon. When the elders and Ryan, logged on for the lesson, they had some news to share with J.D. The elders had committed Ryan to baptism.
“I just knew he was going to be baptized.” J.D. said. “And the minute they said, ‘We have set a baptism date,’ I just looked straight into the camera at Ryan, and I said, ‘I will be there, Ryan.’ It didn’t matter when or where; I was going to be there for Ryan on his special day.”
Ryan asked J.D. to baptize him. So after 29 years of not seeing each other in person, the two reunited at a hotel the night before his baptism. J.D.’s wife and his two youngest daughters also traveled from Kaysville, Utah, to Denver, Colorado, to attend the baptism.
When Ryan saw J.D. in that Denver hotel, Ryan felt that same assurance again, that absolute assurance that he was following God’s will.
“His sacrifice to travel to the baptism confirmed that it was the right thing for me to do. He was my brother from the beginning to the end and he followed it through, and he saw it through,” Ryan said.
From left to right: J.D. Griffith, Ryan Blubaugh, Elder Hess, and Elder Barton
For Ryan, his baptism day was full of love and full of peace.
“I’m still not perfect by any means, and my life is not all peaches and cream, but it is a thousand times better than what it was before I made that phone call,” Ryan said.
The Story Continues
After his baptism, J.D. conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on Ryan.
“I got to watch him the very next day when he actually blessed the sacrament as the newest priest in the ward,” J.D. said. “He and Elder Barton blessed the sacrament there in that Littleton ward and that was just as powerful as the baptism, watching Ryan use the priesthood that I had conferred onto him. I had conferred the priesthood onto my two sons, but this was the first opportunity that I had to confer it onto someone outside my family.”
Now, every day at noon as Ryan drives into work, he calls J.D. to discuss the latest thing he’s learned about the gospel or ask questions about vernacular he might not understand. J.D. recalled that just the other day after Ryan’s stake conference, he received a call from Ryan, who had been shocked to learn that Joseph Smith had been martyred. J.D. encouraged him to watch Joseph Smith: The Prophet of the Restoration to learn more about the Prophet’s story. When Ryan called after watching it, he just said, “That Joseph Smith, he is amazing.”
“I see the excitement that Ryan has for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I rehear the story of Joseph Smith through Ryan’s eyes and ears and it testifies to me again that it is true,” J.D. said.
Elder Barton, one of the missionaries who taught Ryan, remarked that Ryan has already taken on an active role in the gospel. He’s calling people in the ward directory to introduce himself and has started a weekly online Come, Follow Me study.
“He just really has a fire under him,” Elder Barton said.
Looking back since his initial message to J.D., Ryan sees God blessing him for following His commandments. He’s lost 60 pounds, given up drinking and smoking, and started a new job that allows him to have weekends off.
For J.D., sharing this experience with Ryan has given new meaning to why he suddenly moved to a new high school in the middle of his junior year.
“Talk about the Lord’s path and the Lord’s timeline,” J.D. said. “When my family moved to Colorado during high school, I always felt a little cheated out of my senior year. It took me 29 years to realize, ‘This was part of Heavenly Father’s plan all along.’”
‘The World Is Open for Referrals’
Ryan’s conversion story didn’t start the day the elders met with him. He often comments about how many interactions he had with Latter-day Saints in his life and how those interactions shaped his impression of who Latter-day Saints were, from his high school friend to the ARP classes to the Latter-day Saint men he met at the football game.
“It’s just shown me that planting seeds actually is a thing because that’s always been something my dad would say,” Elder Hess said. “Anytime I would go to a party [while growing up] with [my] friends who were not members, I wouldn’t give them a Book of Mormon or anything like that, but [my dad] said [my example] was still planting seeds. So that’s taught me about missionary work—the best seed and the best roots come from those small things, those incremental things, that build up to this.”
And you might never know when you are planting seeds. J.D. knows everyone in his ward boundaries since his ward is small. And because he works for BYU-Pathway Worldwide in downtown Salt Lake City, he doesn’t often interact with members of other faiths, but now he sees that his circumstances don’t limit his ability to share the gospel.
“What this has taught me is that the world is now open for referrals,” J.D. said. “It’s no longer about sharing the gospel with just your neighbor or just the person you work with. It literally is anyone in your social network around the world who can now be a part of sharing the gospel.”
Ryan hopes people realize the impact planting small seeds can have since it’s those seeds that changed his life.
“We share the gospel and our love for our Heavenly Father—and some people aren’t ready for that—but never underestimate the power of planting those seeds,” Ryan said. “The small simple acts of kindness, the smiles, the living a life that people ask about—you don’t always have to tell them about it. They ask, ‘Why are you different?’ Be that person that acts in a way that makes people drawn to it because isn’t that what He asked us to do? He asked us to show it and to live it.”