I spent my childhood in Cache Valley, Utah, where I learned a couple of things about sheep. It was easy to see why Christ used this wonderful symbol for God’s children (and is, himself, The Lamb). Sheep know their master’s voice, they can be rescued and brought back into the fold, they are drawn to the light.
But they have other intriguing traits that many people don’t know about. For example, while we give owls all the credit for being able to see behind them, a sheep can see 300 degrees, and can do this without even turning its head. Likewise we give elephants all the credit in the memory department, but sheep can remember as many as 50 people’s faces and voices, for years. And while we think pigs are quite intelligent, sheep are just as smart and will even self-medicate by eating helpful plants when they’re sick.
However, the trait that makes them most like us is one few people know: they are highly social and even have best friends. This affection for one another touches my heart. And it’s a great reminder that we all need friends to care about, and who care about us. For a new member of the church, new friends are vital. In April of 1999, President Gordon B. Hinckley gave a Conference address titled, “Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep” and spoke about the importance of reaching out to those who have just set aside a previous lifestyle, friends, possibly even family, to take what is literally a leap of faith.
“We cannot have him walking in the front door and out the back. Joining the Church is a very serious thing. Each convert takes upon himself or herself the name of Christ with an implied promise to keep His commandments. But coming into the Church can be a perilous experience. Unless there are warm and strong hands to greet the convert, unless there is an outreach of love and concern, he will begin to wonder about the step he has taken. Unless there are friendly hands and welcome hearts to greet him and lead him along the way, he may drop by the side. There is absolutely no point in doing missionary work unless we hold on to the fruits of that effort. The two must be inseparable. These converts are precious. Every convert is a son or daughter of God. Every convert is a great and serious responsibility. It is an absolute imperative that we look after those who have become a part of us. To paraphrase the Savior, what shall it profit a missionary if he baptize the whole world unless those baptized remain in the Church? (see Mark 8:36).”
He went on to challenge lifelong members to imagine what it must be like. “It can be terribly lonely. It can be disappointing. It can be frightening. We of this Church are far more different from the world than we are prone to think we are.” He quoted a woman’s letter that said, “When we as investigators become members of the Church, we are surprised to discover that we have entered into a completely foreign world, a world that has its own traditions, culture, and language. We discover that there is no one person or no one place of reference that we can turn to for guidance in our trip into this new world. At first the trip is exciting, our mistakes even amusing, then it becomes frustrating and eventually, the frustration turns into anger. And it’s at these stages of frustration and anger that we leave. We go back to the world from which we came, where we knew who we were, where we contributed, and where we could speak the language.”
Psychologists say that acceptance is as basic a need as safety and shelter. And we gravitate to those places where we feel its magnetic pull. When a rowdy teenager gets rebuffed by the entire mutual, he soon begins hanging out with those who accept him more readily. I have a friend whose adolescent daughter attends a different faith, because the girls are more welcoming there, more excited to see her. This should never happen. As true followers of Christ, we should rejoice with every person who takes that monumental step, and that gladness should translate into action: Shared meals. Conversations. Outings. Friendship. Too often we think someone else will do it, but that someone needs to be us.
President Hinckley went on: “Of course the new convert will not know everything. He likely will make some mistakes. So what? We all make mistakes. The important thing is the growth that will come of activity.” And then, of course, giving the person a calling or a responsibility is important, along with being “nourished by the good word of God.” But neither of those will happen if the new member doesn’t first feel welcome and connected.
As you look at the roster of your ward members (not just those who come to Sacrament meeting), what names are unfamiliar? Could this be a sheep who had no friends, and thus formed close bonds elsewhere? What could be done to make this person feel included? Could they teach a seminar, help with Scouts, belong to a ward sports team, or simply enjoy a visit from someone who isn’t assigned, but just wants to get to know them?
Bringing a human “sheep” back to the fold is not as easy as scooping him up and putting him across your shoulders, but it can be done with genuine love, creativity, and effort. We know the worth of souls is great. Sometimes this takes monumental demonstrations of caring, such as refusing to back off when someone is gruff, or it can take fasting and praying for long periods of time. But often, it’s just the simple, but always rewarding, effort of being a friend.
Watch the music video of Hilton’s song, What Makes a Woman, from her new musical, The Best Medicine (with music by Jerry Williams). Her books are available on her website, here. Hilton currently serves as a Relief Society President.