It’s been about three months since Rachel Garden joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and she has never been happier.
The 18-year-old college student investigated the church for more than a year and was taught by missionaries and embraced by ward members. She has visited the Preston England Temple and was recently called to serve in the Young Women presidency of her LDS ward in Glasgow, Scotland.
What’s unique about Garden’s conversion is how Latter-day Saints in Utah played a part. Digital missionaries from the Cedar Hills 10th Ward connected with Garden online at a pivotal time when she wanted to learn more about the church from members who didn’t wear black nametags.
“I am so thankful for the friendship I have with those I know in Utah,” Garden wrote in an email interview. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t know nearly as much as I do about the church right now. The missionaries and Internet were good sources of information for me at the time, but my focus was really not to just know the gospel but to be able to realistically have the capacity to apply it to and throughout my life. My friends in Utah have shown me this is possible. They are a blessing in my life.”
Reading the Book of Mormon
Garden didn’t grow up in a religious home but was raised with basic Christian beliefs and values. She doesn’t remember what sparked her curiosity in the LDS Church, but she remembers having a desire to read the Book of Mormon in December 2013. She researched the LDS faith on Mormon.org and requested a free copy of the Book of Mormon from online missionaries.
Garden was introduced to sister missionaries in the LDS Church’s Hyde Park Chapel visitors’ center in London and began interacting with them online.
She started reading the Book of Mormon. With its unique, “archaic language,” the book was unlike any she had ever read, Garden said.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Who is this guy Nephi? Why does he keep telling me he’s making a record? And why does he keep telling me what he’s doing?’” Garden wrote. “They may seem like ignorant questions, but even then I was realizing the importance of the Book of Mormon and was willing to learn why it was important.”
She finished reading the Book of Mormon in about one month. One year later (last February), Garden finished the book for the third time.
“As I continued reading, I noticed things such as promised blessings, commandments, inspiration and advice,” wrote Garden, who came up with a system for marking important verses with a variety of colored pencils. “The main focus was applying the scriptures to myself and my own circumstances, which really helped me to focus on what I can do for the church and what the church can do for me.”
In February 2014, Garden connected with the Cedar Hills 10th Ward when a ward missionary added her on the ward’s Google Plus page. She saw the notification and responded with an email, expressing interest in learning more about the church and the scriptures as well as requesting a pen pal.
“I wanted to learn about the church from actual members and from people who weren’t missionaries,” Garden wrote. “At this point, I was still scared to go to church in my local area by myself.”
A few months before meeting Garden online, Bruce Curtis, bishop of the Cedar Hills 10th Ward, was half a world away, reading Clayton Christensen’s book “The Power of Everyday Missionaries.” He was inspired by the story of a young single adult ward in Boston that engaged in digital missionary work.
Knowing that more than 90 percent of the people living in the Cedar Hills 10th Ward boundaries were active members of the church, but still wanting missionary experiences for the ward, he pondered online missionary work.
“Potential for missionary experiences within our ward is limited. I have always felt that missionary work can bring excitement and passion to a ward,” Bishop Curtis said. “I hoped doing our part to create something on the Internet would strengthen testimonies in the ward and give us something to share with the world in general.”
Bishop Curtis discussed the idea with other ward leaders. They set some goals and resolved to create a blog (mycalling.org); a Facebook page; and accounts with Twitter (@10thwardmission), Google Plus and Pinterest, among others. The bishop enlisted more ward missionaries, and they were trained to create and edit content and monitor the ward social media pages. When everything was ready, they began virtually knocking doors, said Ryan Best, one of the ward missionaries.
None of them expected to find an investigator so quickly.
“We hit the pavement by searching out and following any person who mentioned being Christian or a seeker of truth, and invited them to have a conversation,” Best said. “It isn’t simply enough to create content; you have to knock doors. Rachel responded and wanted to know more.”
In her initial email to the Cedar Hills 10th Ward, Garden introduced herself. She told them she liked the theater, films, art, British sitcoms, reading and football (soccer). She mentioned being in contact with sister missionaries and reading the Book of Mormon. She would soon attend college and had considered joining the local ward. Until then, she wondered if any young men or women around her age might be willing to discuss the scriptures and LDS faith.
Despite fears of writing imperfect posts for the world to see, ward missionaries Lana Stewart and Mitzi Robins were among the first to interact with Garden via email. Robins verified Garden’s identity and made sure her desires were genuine before involving the youths.
Stewart and Robins prayerfully approached the opportunity to correspond with Garden and felt she needed personal contact with full-time missionaries in Scotland. It turned out that Stewart’s daughter had a best friend who was serving a mission in Scotland. With Garden’s permission, they arranged for her to meet the sister missionaries in Glasgow, where she would be attending the university.
In exchanging more messages, Stewart learned Garden was nervous about moving to Glasgow without friends who shared her standards. Again with her permission, Stewart used the Internet to find and introduce her to the director of the LDS Institute of Religion in Glasgow. The director and his wife were happy to help, and Garden enrolled in institute.
At one point, Robins and Garden discussed the church’s Young Women Personal Progress program, and a young woman in the Cedar Hills 10th ward, Elizabeth Ericson, joined the conversation.
Garden and Ericson became friends on Facebook around the April 2014 general conference and mostly communicated via instant messaging. At first, the 15-year-old Ericson was afraid she might say something wrong. But as the pen pals chatted about Jane Austen novels and realized they were both learning to drive, the ice was broken and a special friendship was formed.
As emails whipped around the world from Utah to Scotland, Garden learned through her new friends’ experiences how the gospel blesses families.
Her parents, however, had no interest in the church and discouraged her from joining. One day, Garden’s mother found the Book of Mormon under Garden’s pillow and shared her concerns.
“From the beginning, I was always scared at what my parents would think,” Garden wrote.
As a result, Garden disliked watching LDS videos or Mormon Messages that portrayed the “happy Mormon family,” a lifestyle she thought was unrealistic and unattainable.
It was during this period that Ericson and the ward missionaries became her lifeline. Ericson recommended Garden read “Trial of Your Faith,” the October 2012 general conference talk by Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“I want you to know that I know God is mindful of you,” Ericson wrote. “He knows your situation, and he will help you through it. I know that you will be incredibly blessed through your challenges. Don’t give up.”
Robins said there were many times when she wanted to reach through the computer and give Garden a big hug.
“I was so impressed with her strength, courage and diligence. She did everything she could to build her testimony,” Robins said. “I learned what it means to hunger and thirst after righteousness from watching Rachel’s example.”
The examples and faith of her friends in Utah inspired Garden to keep going.
“I learned from them that my choice had a divine and eternal purpose,” Garden wrote. “I’ve learned that families aren’t supposed to be perfect, but I’ve found that Heavenly Father has given us families so we can learn from one another and support one another while we are here on Earth.”
More than a year after she opened the Book of Mormon, including months of digital conversations with her friends in Utah, Garden was baptized on Feb. 15. That day, the church in Glasgow was teeming with ward members and friends who had come to support Garden. It was a moment she wanted to remember for the rest of her life.
“It was such a wonderful day that I wrote 10 pages in my journal afterward,” said Garden, who was baptized by her friend Alexander “Sasha” Lawson, soon to be a missionary in England. “I thought afterward, ‘This is what the Savior’s love feels like.’ I felt so much love that day. I felt the cleansing power of his Atonement. Everything that happened on that day was worth waiting for.”
Participating in Garden’s spiritual journey was a team effort and a sweet blessing for the members in Utah, who all mentioned learning about the power of prayer, following the promptings of the Holy Ghost and the importance of digital missionary work. Along the way, the Cedar Hills 10th Ward found additional success within its ward boundaries, which is what Bishop Curtis wanted in the first place.
Best hopes more church members will respond more to comments, questions, shares, tweets, follows, posts and pins in order to extend the gospel invitation to learn more.
“Members need to treat digital dialogue as they would an interested person on a plane ride or a question from a friend at work,” Best said. “It’s at a ward level that the work will be hastened.”
When you show the Lord he can trust you with missionary opportunities, those opportunities will come, Bishop Curtis said.
“We are still developing the ways we want to share the gospel online, but it is a testimony to me that if we will just do something, the Lord will utilize our efforts to bless those that are ready for the gospel,” he said.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: tbtoone