Dominic Gutierrez remembers the first time he felt God’s love like it was yesterday.
As a teenager in Safford, Arizona, childhood memories of abuse and homelessness had caught up with him, and his feelings of loneliness seemed inescapable. He didn’t think he had a purpose and didn’t believe that God existed. But then one day, he remembered something that would change his life forever.
Previously, his friend had given him a copy of the Book of Mormon, which Dominic stored away in his room. But on this occasion, he decided to crack open the cover and turned to the introduction.
Seven words in, he felt something he never had before.
“It was the best thing I had ever felt in my entire life. I wish I could describe it in words. … It felt as if everything beforehand didn’t matter. It felt like someone actually cared about me that entire time, and I didn’t see it until then,” he says.
Now Dominic goes by the name of Elder Gutierrez as a full-time missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Texas San Antonio Mission. Baptized in 2019, the recent convert could have taken an easy out from missionary work—his past challenges and the pandemic could have been enough of an obstacle to deter anyone. But his desire to serve is unshakable because of his love for the God he once didn’t believe in, and because of his conviction that small invitations from members can literally change lives just as they did for him.
More in Store
Born in Tucson, Arizona, Elder Gutierrez had a hard life from an early age. His mother had four kids by the time she was 23, and with no education or a stable job, she and her children would go from one of her abusive boyfriends to the next. The situation soon took its toll on everyone.
“These guys just didn’t treat us well physically, mentally—you know, the whole bit,” Elder Gutierrez says. “And eventually it got to the point where my mom said, ‘We can’t keep doing this.’ … So we started going from abandoned houses … to abandoned apartments.”
He recalls eventually arriving with his mom and two of his brothers in Silver City, New Mexico. While they lived out of hotels, his mom started getting dependent on prescription drugs, and the problem became severe.
“She eventually got addicted and had a few overdoses and seizures, things like that. And eventually she ended up overdosing and dying when I was about eight,” Elder Gutierrez says. “Things didn’t really get much better after that.”
He and his brothers lived with his dad for a year, after which they were taken to Safford to live with their aunt. But money was tight, so their aunt decided to move two hours away to Tucson, Arizona, for work while the boys stayed behind.
Given a debit card with an allowance each month, the boys lived on their own (Dominic was in sixth grade while his brothers were in eighth), and they picked up jobs on the side. When his brothers graduated and moved away to college, Dominic, a sophomore in high school, lived by himself.
“It was hard,” he says. “I really didn’t feel like I mattered, or [like] anyone loved me. … I wasn’t going down a good path at all. It was probably the darkest and loneliest time of my life and I didn’t really know what to do.”
But then he met Emma Hackett, a member of the Church who befriended Dominic. The two had been on cross country teams together and had a free hour close to Emma’s seminary class, so the gospel would naturally come up in their conversations.
“It was never like ‘Oh, this kid’s in a really bad spot. He needs the gospel,” Emma says, who adds that Dominic was always so positive she didn’t even realize what his challenges were. “It was just a part of my life that I didn’t want to hide from anyone. And if you were going to be friends with me, then that was just something we were going to talk about. And so it was just a natural conversation—and Dom is so easygoing in the sense that I could talk about anything and he would make me feel like it was an important thing to talk about.”
Emma invited Dominic to a missionary farewell and afterward extended an open invitation to come to church with her and her family. Dominic went a handful of times with the Hacketts and would sometimes join them for scripture study and prayer in the evenings for about six months.
“They were the most loving, kind-hearted people I ever met in my entire life,” Elder Gutierrez says. “Never did they ever force the Church, their beliefs, [or] anything like that on me. They were just so nice to me. I couldn’t understand why because my entire life I just assumed that nobody wanted to be around me.”
When he had his experience with the Book of Mormon, Dominic knew he wanted to meet with the missionaries. Just a few weeks later in June 2019, he was baptized—but that was just the beginning of Dominic’s conversion story.
“I Need to Do This”
Two days before his baptism, Dominic, who had recently graduated from high school, was reading the Book of Mormon in his car. Pondering what his late mother would think about him joining the Church, a memory suddenly came to him.
“I was a little kid, like four or five years old. I remember my mom woke me up. We were in this … apartment we snuck into just to sleep in overnight. And my mom [was] folding clothes and putting them back in the suitcase or something,” he says. “And she woke me up. She’s all, ‘Dominic!’ … I remember all my brothers were sleeping. She looked at me and said, ‘My favorite thing about you is you always put people before you put yourself.’ … I had never remembered it until that point. The Spirit works in crazy ways.”
When he remembered that, Dominic thought about different ways he could share the gospel.
“I knew that I would need to serve a mission,” he said. “Some of my friends had served missions, and I was thinking that’s the most selfless act in the world I can think of. And I was like, I need to do this. There’s no other way for me to go. I know exactly what my mom wants me to do. I know exactly what God wants me to do. So I’m going to do it.”
While he understood he had lived a hard life, Dominic felt like there were many others who needed to hear about the Savior just as he did.
“I knew that there were so many people out there that didn’t have that opportunity to meet a family like that—that didn’t have that opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, that didn’t have all these opportunities that I had. And I felt as if it [would] be the most selfish thing in the world if I had this and I didn’t share it with others,” he says.
The day after his baptism, Dominic met with his bishop to tell him about his plans to serve. After learning that he would first need to wait a year (before receiving the endowment, one year must pass after a member’s confirmation, according to Church handbook requirements), he moved to Tucson and started college. But just as he was getting his medical visits taken care of for his mission papers, doctor and dentist offices shut down due to COVID. So Dominic had to postpone submitting his papers for another two months.
Perhaps just as clearly as he remembers the day he first read the Book of Mormon, he recalls the morning when his mission call came in at 7:00 a.m.
“I literally could not feel my legs. I was so scared. I’d been waiting for this for so long and it finally came,” he says. After calling Emma, who was studying at Brigham Young University, to tell her of the call’s arrival, he decided to open it first and then call her back. But he stared at his phone screen for 20 minutes before seeing where he was called, feeling emotional that this moment had finally arrived.
“I remember ... I opened [my call] and saw ‘You’re called to serve’—and I stopped [reading] before I saw where I was going. I got on my knees. I said a prayer and started crying, and I opened it and I saw where I was going,” he says.
Emma recalls anxiously waiting to hear the news from Dominic of where he would be serving.
“I was so nervous about it and I couldn’t even imagine what he was feeling. I was just so excited for him to get that call and to see where he was going to spend the next two years,” she says. “I just was like, ‘He has got this. He knows what he’s getting into and he is way too excited to not just be amazing [at] this. And I knew with Dom’s personality, too—he’s so friendly and so nice to everyone that he would just be excellent. And so I was just really, really happy for him to be able to serve and to be able to share the light that he felt so passionately about.”
In fact, Dominic was so passionate about missionary work that before he began his full-time service, he shared the gospel with his best friend in Safford and baptized him three weeks before starting the virtual Missionary Training Center on November 18, 2020.
Holding On to the Gospel
Elder Gutierrez was only able to attend the temple a few times before leaving for his mission. But when the San Antonio Texas Temple reopened after being closed due to COVID-19, he went with a small group from his mission where he had a remarkable experience. Remembering that his mother still needed her endowment, he asked that her proxy work be done for her that day.
“I remember sitting in the celestial room and thinking about … literally every single moment that had happened in my life. And I felt all this stuff that my mom had to go through in order for us to get here,” he says, remembering his mother as the most Christlike person he has ever met. “And to finally think that [we] did it, … [we] both had all these ordinances. … It was the biggest victory I think I’ve ever had in my life was that moment. It was my favorite experience I think I’ve ever had in the Church.”
Elder Gutierrez says he’s working on understanding Jesus Christ’s Atonement and has especially resonated with the Savior’s love for Heavenly Father. And in his relationship with God, he feels His continued support.
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m not doing this by myself. I see as I’m trying to be like Him, He’s trying to help me be like Him,” he says. “He’s always been there every single step now that I see it, and it just keeps building my testimony that He is my dad. He’s literally like the dad I always wanted … through and through every good and hard time.”
He adds that while he’s still learning Church doctrine, he knows that charity can be one of the most powerful ways to bring people closer to Christ and he wants to share that love with others.
“I think that’s been the best thing I’ve learned from the mission because I don’t know all these crazy scriptures. I don’t know the Church lingo. I don’t know things like that. But I just know that if I love people as much as I possibly can then they’ll see Jesus Christ in this church. They’ll see that this church is the most Christlike as it can get,” he says.
Brother Jason J. Tveten, president of the Texas San Antonio Mission, says he’s been impressed by Elder Gutierrez’s optimism and testimony.
“Elder Gutierrez radiates happiness. He has [a] big warm smile, and he has a beautiful ability to minimize challenges that might get others down. … Elder Gutierrez has a powerful testimony of feeling God’s love through reading the Book of Mormon. I think the transition to feeling loved just makes it natural for him to want to share the love of the gospel with others.”
In his own life, Elder Gutierrez has seen that it's the small invitations that make all the difference in helping others find the gospel.
“It started off with [the Hacketts] really just wanting to help someone. I could never, ever thank them enough for what they did for me. And I think so many members could have that same impact on people’s lives. I just can’t explain how thankful I am to have met members of the Church like that,” he says. “I think the importance of members sharing that with people is the best thing that we could do on this earth.”
Member missionary work is a blessing that goes both ways, Emma adds, saying that the opportunity to share the gospel helped her own testimony.
“Having to break down the gospel to simple subjects … made me really think about why I’m here and why I stay. Growing up in the Church, I think it’s really easy to get caught in the flow of things and to just go through the motions and not really think, ‘OK, why am I doing this?’” she says. “It was the first time in my life that I had to decide for myself, ‘This is what I want to commit to.’ Because of [Dominic] and because of his faith in this gospel and despite the rough life that he’s had, he is able to commit to something. And if he can do it, then I can do it too.”
A New Purpose
When he completes his service next year, Elder Gutierrez plans on attending college in Utah and has been applying to schools there. Brother Tveten says the things Elder Gutierrez has learned on his mission will set him up for success on the road ahead.
“He has a bright future. In addition to spiritual learning, a mission teaches great skills like setting goals, studying, and communication. Missionaries interact with so many people and if their eyes are open, they will see patterns that lead to happiness and success. Elder Gutierrez will be close to a great network of return missionaries from San Antonio, which will also help him thrive as he goes forward.”
After his mission, Elder Guiterrez plans on staying committed to the Church, saying he “can’t let this go.” He also encourages others going through challenges of their own to hold on and to never give up.
“You really don’t know when it’s going to get better. But try, and try, and try. Just never give up and keep going,” he says. “Then something’s going to come along the way. And when that thing comes, hold onto it with everything in you and don’t let go. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. … Just hold on to that.”
On his mission Elder Gutierrez helps others hold on through the hard times by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because he remembers that moment not so very long ago when he opened the Book of Mormon as a teenager in the desert of Safford when he felt something. And not just anything—the love of God. And he wants to share that love with as many people as he can.
“I love God so much. Never in my life until I was 18, did I ever think He was real. Never did I ever think there was a God,” he says. “But now that I’ve had that experience in the Book of Mormon, that’s what I love more than anything in the world. That’s all I want to do, is just tell [people] how much I love God.”