While I was a child, my family didn't attend church meetings. I grew up 40 minutes outside of a tiny town called Manning, in the Peace River area of northern Alberta. The nearest branch was 90 minutes away, so we didn't go.
When I was 12, we moved to Taber, where we lived three doors away from a chapel. I remember being very excited to go to church. My two sisters and I got up every Sunday and went together. We were nervous to attend our Young Women meeting and to meet our peers, but our leaders were so kind and made us feel welcome. One Sunday, a leader invited us to sit with her. I don't remember feeling different or strange even though my parents weren't there. I felt like I was treated like every other girl in the ward.
A couple of years later, my family moved to Lethbridge when I was 14. We didn't live close to the chapel this time, so we couldn't walk to church. Unfortunately a family member discouraged my little sister and me from going to church, but we had wonderful leaders who came and picked us up almost every Sunday. They supported me through the YW Personal Progress program. There was also a wonderful parent of a friend who drove me to seminary in the early morning hours.
I am so grateful for each one of those parents and leaders who loved us and encouraged us to go and made us feel loved. If it wasn't for them and their friendship, I never would have received the testimony that I have today. Later, those experiences made me excited to serve in a Young Women calling where I was also able to bring some of our less active girls to church.
It is important that everyone in the ward feels welcome. A ward should be a warm and inviting place where fellowship is important. I feel like fellowship and friendship are one and the same. If you are to fellowship someone, you are also likely to become their friend.
Then Shane and I moved to a new ward in the Vancouver, BC area. The very first Sunday we there, a girl told me “I am from Alberta too. We are going to be best friends.” She later hosted a baby shower for me. Also a couple offered us a ride home, then invited us to dinner and family home evening. They became such good friends with us that they eventually joined us at the temple to witness our family being sealed for time and eternity.
A friend of mine who was raised in a different faith didn't understand why I am allowed to be friends with people who are of a different religion. She asked, “Loni, if I don't want to be baptized into your church, will you still be my friend?” I told her that of course I would be her friend, her friendship is important to me, and she didn't need to be the same faith to be my friend. She is aware of my beliefs and standards and helps me keep them.
A smile can also go a long way in fellowshipping our neighbours. I have since met many neighbours after frequent smiles and nods that were made just in passing.
Elder Russell M. Ballard (General Conference, 1988, “The Hand of Fellowship”) states, “We can share the love of Christ in simple acts. For example, the warmth of a radiant smile and friendly greeting can go far in smoothing the way for good neighborly relations.“
If we make our ward a welcoming place, we can bless the lives of others as well as our own. I have been richly blessed by the friendships I have made, both by fellowshipping others and receiving fellowship myself. For these blessings, I will always be grateful because of the love they make me feel.