It was the first Sunday I attended my new college branch. I wasn’t even officially a member of the branch yet — I had driven Seraphine down to school a week before I got to move into the dorms. But the branch president asked to speak with me after church, and I was happy to. I was excited to be moving forward in life, and my first ward/branch away from my family was a big step. I very much wanted to fit in, be comfortable, make friends, and everything else.
The branch president was a wonderful man (still is, actually — I just saw him again about a month ago), and we had a wonderful “welcome to the ward/getting to know you” type conversation. Then, at the end of it, he blew me away with a comment something like this, “There are going to be lots of new people moving into the branch, and I want you to make help them feel welcome.” I don’t remember his exact words, but I do remember the distinct impression that it was a calling, even if not an official, set-apart one.
I was flabbergasted. After all, I wasn’t even a member of the branch yet. I barely knew anyone, and I wasn’t at all comfortable. On top of that, I am not an outgoing person. At all. Especially when I’m out of my comfort zone, which I definitely was in a new ward in a new city at a new school. But I’d never turned down a calling in my life (even an unofficial one), and so even though I wasn’t officially asked to accept this calling, I still felt like I had, and that it was now my responsibility to welcome others who were new to the branch.
As I thought about it, I decided it wouldn’t be so bad. After all, these others who I was supposed to welcome would be just as new as I was. They would be feeling just as out of place, and they would probably know even fewer people than me (after all, my sister was in the branch, and I knew a few more people by virtue of their being friends with her). And I was always grateful when someone said hi to me and made me feel welcome, wasn’t I? It didn’t matter if they’d been there a day or a year, I was just happy that they’d talked to me. It wasn’t as if these people were going to look down on me for saying hello and maybe sitting by them in church. (Yes, my thought process really went along these lines.)
Looking back, I have to say how grateful I am for an inspired branch president. I took my “calling” seriously, and I strove to make others feel welcome in our branch. I have never been more richly blessed. There were three other freshman girls that year, and they remain good friends of mine to this day. One is my best friend, and we still talk on the phone every few weeks. She lived not far from the university, and often went back to her family ward, so I don’t know if we ever would have become friends if I hadn’t spent quite a bit of time going out of my way trying to make her feel welcome and get to know her better. I certainly would be very much the poorer for having missed out.
Besides becoming good friends with the other girls my age, I think I knew just about everyone who attended that branch in the 4 years that I was there, and I have stayed friends with many of them. I have never been more involved in a ward, never felt more connected to my fellow saints, and never felt happier at church than I did there. I still look back at those years with great nostalgia, and can’t imagine a ward that is much better than that one was.
I have been thinking about this lately because we have recently moved (for the 8th time in the past 5 years), and yet again I’m trying to get to know people at church and develop new friendships. One family had us and another new family over for dinner today, and I felt very welcomed.
Yet I realized that if I really want to become involved in my new ward family, I need to not just wait around for others to welcome me. If I want to be a part of this ward, the best way to do it is to reach out and welcome them. Who cares if they’ve been in the ward 2 weeks or 20 years? When was the last time you were put off by someone saying hello and trying to get to know you better? There have been times when I’ve been in wards for a couple of years and still not felt like I was at all a part of the ward, or like I knew anybody there. I would have been grateful for someone to welcome me, even if they’d only been in the ward a couple of weeks. Maybe we would have had a really rewarding friendship. Maybe there are others out there wanting to be friends, who are too shy or uncomfortable to welcome others. The only way to receive the blessings of their friendship is to reach out to them, even if we feel more comfortable in the position of welcomee than we do as the welcomer.