I was in Gilbert, Ariz., the week after the Gilbert Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was dedicated. It was fast and testimony meeting, and I noticed one young boy who had been sitting only two rows in front of us make his way to the stand. He confidently strode to the microphone, and it was then that I noticed he had Down syndrome.
There was a lovely spirit and countenance to C.J. Udall, this 11-year-old. His brother also bore his testimony about the joy of participating in the temple dedication cultural celebration. After the meeting, his mother graciously introduced herself and we chatted briefly.
Not quite one week later, on Saturday morning, I was packing to catch my flight home when I heard my daughter-in-law, Chelsea, gasp. In checking her texts, she read that the young 11-year-old boy who had shared his testimony was missing. The family owns five acres, and C.J.'s family had hosted an overnight campout on their property. With many young boys playing and having fun, C.J. had managed to slip away.
Within five minutes, his parents noticed he was gone. Their concern was palpable because, although they had conscientiously erected several fences to keep C.J. safe, there is a canal in close proximity to their home. Within 10 minutes of C.J.’s disappearance, his family had located his entry point into the canal. They sensed he had drowned before they contacted the police and the Amber Alert went out.
When Chelsea got the email, it was two hours since C.J. had gone missing. Police, search and rescue, ward members and neighbors were frantically searching for C.J., hoping their worst fears would not be confirmed.
Just the day before, Chelsea and I were talking about the exquisite privilege of being members of the church and living in ward families where we are connected and where so much outreach and so much good transpires. This will surprise no one, but when my son Tom and Chelsea moved to Arizona, to a new town and a new home, there were ward members waiting in their driveway as they pulled up to help unload the moving truck. Members brought food, introduced themselves, and extended friendship and fellowship. It was reciprocated, and within days they had callings, and the Gilbert Gateway Ward was truly their ward home.
Now, I was observing the critical part, the “do” part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Emails, texts and calls were flying between ward members. Many were involved in search efforts to find C.J. Others solicited food and money to provide aid for the searchers. Prayers were being offered and friends gathered to support, comfort and be with C.J.’s family.
A member of the stake presidency shared a lovely vignette. When he heard C.J. was missing, he immediately got in his car to go and help. On the way, he saw police officers out of their car by the canal. He pulled over and approached. The questioning look on their faces led him to explain, “I’m a leader in C.J.’s church. If you need searchers, I can have a hundred here in a few minutes. If you need more, I can have a thousand here in an hour.”
As we left for the airport, we drove to drop off supplies. Chelsea got out of the car, and a close friend of C.J.'s mom got out of her car. They talked, hugged and cried together. Chelsea, who is the Young Women president, came back to the car. “If it’s OK, I think I better stay here," she said. "The girls and boys are at some members' houses and I think I need to be with them.”
Of course she had to stay. Of course it was hard for the youths because C.J. was a beloved member of the ward family. All were traumatized and reeling from the events of the day.
Chelsea sent me a text shortly after when she learned that C.J.'s beloved dog and close companion had been found treading water in the canal, unable to climb its steep walls. Shortly before boarding my plane, word came confirming that C.J.'s body had been recovered from the canal.
The next day, Sunday, was a somber time in the ward. I'm told that the bishop spoke and C.J.'s parents visited the various auxiliary organizations to offer comfort and solace, to acknowledge the grief and outpouring of love they and others felt. The funeral was the next Saturday. The building was filled to capacity. The message centered on the plan of salvation and on comfort, hope and healing through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
The great Christian activist Josephine Butler lost her 5-year-old daughter when she toppled over a third-story banister to a stone floor below. The family’s grief was palpable. Josephine turned to God in prayer and came to realize, “Do the words ‘accident’ or ‘chance’ properly find a place in the vocabulary of those who have placed themselves, and those dear to them, in a special manner under the daily providential care of a loving God? There entered into the heart of our grief the intellectual difficulty, the moral perplexity and dismay that dark passage through which some toil only to emerge into a hopeless and final denial of (God), the complete bankruptcy of faith; and others, by the mercy of God, through a still deeper experience, into a yet firmer trust in his unfailing love.”
As wrenching as that experience was, Josephine’s loved ones wrapped their arms around her, and through prayer she drew closer to God. She came to understand that she and her beloved daughter were under God’s watchful care, as is C.J. Udall’s family.
The gospel of Jesus Christ provides us innumerable blessings. Ward families and the support they can, and must, provide one another is one of those great blessings.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches parttime at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.
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