When visitors walk through the doors of the new Bennett Branch meetinghouse in Greensboro, N.C., they can be sure just about the entire branch will greet them.
"That's our policy," explained Johnnie McKoy, president of the growing branch. "Everybody in the branch has the responsibility of making visitors feel welcome and like they belong. And then, once they are members themselves, we teach them from Day One to be missionary-conscious and bring their friends and family in."It's a network of missionary chain reactions that has worked well for this small branch of 100 in the green hills of North Carolina, where 90 percent of the members are black. In the three years since the Bennett Branch's organization, the membership has more than tripled, and now includes a dozen members from Nigeria. The branch, said Pres. McKoy, is having up to two baptisms a week, every week.
"Within a year's time," he said with confidence, "we're going to have a ward, and then other wards will develop. We feel this branch will be a nucleus where blacks will come. This kind of love is going to spread throughout the black community, and thousands will come into the Church when they see the work happening here."
Because of the common bonds, said Pres. McKoy, the members are "one together."
"No one has to tell someone what to do if another member is struggling," he said. "People will just help out. If anyone in the branch has a problem, people will drop what they're doing, even work, and they all band together. It's a very close-knit group." Weekly firesides, monthly activities and temple trips keep the relationships close.
Norman Brown, second counselor in the branch presidency, agreed. "Our motto is love," he acknowledged. "New members are often overwhelmed because they've never had so many so concerned about them."
On one occasion, related his wife, Angela, former Young Women president, a single mother in the branch was going through a very difficult experience. Without anything having to be said, all the sisters "took her under their wing" and helped her with her needs.
"They were willing to love and help rather than shun," Sister Brown recalled, "and this single mother just cried and said how thankful she was for her sisters in the Relief Society. Through their love, she realized she was still a child of God."
Sister Brown has found that same love to be essential in sharing the gospel with friends. She related that she often discusses the scriptures with friends and ministers' wives, and added, "If you let the Holy Ghost teach your friends, instead of you teaching them, you can find many ways to share the gospel."
The first time she learned of the workings of the Spirit was in 1983, during the missionary discussions. "The elders told me that the Holy Ghost will give you a warm, peaceful feeling when you hear something that's true," she recalled. "I offered the Lord a simple prayer to know the truth, and that exact feeling came over me. I felt something I couldn't explain, and knew it was true." A week after she was baptized, her husband also joined the Church, after initially refusing to listen to the missionaries.
"My ears heard things I hadn't heard before, and my mind understood things I hadn't understood before," he explained. "I couldn't fight with the Lord." The couple was later sealed in the Atlanta Temple.
Pres. McKoy said that members in the branch are sensitive to others' needs, because they've all been through difficult times during their lives. He compared the black members to the people during Moses' time, saying that the Lord left the Israelites to suffer in the wilderness for 40 years to "temper and mold" them.
"Blacks are the same way," he said. "We're being tempered and molded by the Lord to prepare us. When blacks come into the Church, most are very strong, because they've had the spiritual background; they've been searching for the true Church of Jesus Christ. The gospel becomes something they can hang on to.
"The Lord has said, `When my sheep hear my voice, they will know me,' " Pres. McKoy continued. "There are a lot of black elect. You don't have to ask them to be baptized."
He should know. Nine years ago when missionaries knocked on his door, it took him only two weeks to join the Church. Three weeks later, he baptized his wife. For three years, they were the only black members in the Greensboro 2nd Ward. Now, blacks make up nearly an entire branch, a great many of whom were brought to the Church by Pres. McKoy himself.
"I just fell in love with missionary work," he explained. "The Church is a part of me. Everywhere I go I talk to someone about the gospel, and at one point I was going out with the missionaries six times a week. I'd leave food on the table, just to go do missionary work."
That spirit has triggered a domino-like effect through the branch. Fay Crist, a 14-year-old girl baptized six months ago, brought two cousins to Church the week after her baptism. The next week she brought another one, and the following week, her sister came along. In all, eight people were baptized through Fay's efforts.
"We teach new members that one of their first priorities is to bring more people into the Church," explained Pres. McKoy. "Even before you give their names to the missionaries, bring them to Church!"
The branch is naturally missionary-conscious since all the members are converts themselves, all within the past decade. Stories of immediately gaining a testimony of the gospel are common.
Marye Jones, who has been a member since 1982, recalled that she was "hungry for the word of God," and would frequently attend tent revivals, praying for Heavenly Father to lead her to His true Church. When missionaries came to her home, she said, "from the first discussion, I knew it was the Savior's word."
She was baptized in a week. A year later, her husband, Leroy, was baptized, and is now the branch's first counselor.
"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "After you know the gospel's true, nothing can change your mind, no matter what obstacle comes your way. You just get closer to Heavenly Father, and hang on." The couple was also sealed in the Atlanta Temple, in 1984.
"The Church is an anchor for all of us here," Brother Jones continued. "It pulls us through a lot of problems." He commented that many of his old friends have noticed the change in their family's life, and have expressed admiration for what they stand for.
With all the growth in membership, Pres. McKoy retains a long-term vision. "When a family is baptized," he said, "it's not just one family, but entire generations that follow."
When seen in that light, the effect of one person can be overwhelming, he said. "The gospel has taught me that one person can make a difference. Christ changed the entire world, and we should follow His example. The actions of one person can change things."
If the Bennett Branch is any indication, things in Greensboro, N.C., will keep changing for the better for a long time to come.