Almost nine years ago we packed up all that was important to us, said farewell to New Hampshire and started on a 2,400-mile journey to St. Johns, AZ. My family consisted of Janet (my wife), six of our children (ages 9 months old to 10 years), 5 hamsters and a dog. With sadness we left our New England friends and tried to feel a sense of adventure for the next 36 hours of driving ahead of us. About an hour into the trip, however, the alternator in our rental truck quit working and we were stranded roadside. As I grabbed my cell phone to call for help, I noticed I had a new voice mail message. To our surprise it was from our St. Johns realtor (Patti Rabie)-- the house we had under contract was no longer available, the seller had pulled out of the agreement. Within an hour of the commencement of our "adventure" we were immobilized and homeless! We wondered what we would do when we arrived in St. Johns.
It didn't take long for us to learn that news travels fast in St. Johns. For having no prior connection to the area, we were surprised how much people seemed to know about us when we arrived. But, we also fielded questions like “New Hampshire, isn’t that next to Virginia?” and “Why in the world would you move here?” and “Do you really like the color brown better than green?”
We felt greatly blessed when Craig and Jana Bloomfield heard of our plight (through Patti Rabie) and offered to move out of their house and rent it to us. They moved with lightning speed, as if they had experience with moving a time or two.
The first church meeting we attended in St. Johns was conducted by Bishop Larry Heap. The next Sunday a returned missionary, Elder Heap, spoke in church. I grinned later in the month when it was announced that Roger Heap, from the high council, would speak to us. I wondered to my wife, “Do you have to be a Heap to speak in church here?”
We were warmly embraced by the older generation in town--Ana Hansen, the Rabans, Lambsons, and Ollertons. Ted and Julie Raban were always complimentary and happy to see us. It just so happened that they had the same number of children with the exact birth order according to gender (3 boys, then 3 girls, then a boy). Even years after we had been here, the Rabans went out of their way to make us feel welcomed. Just about a year ago, Ted saw me pumping gas and made it a point to come over and tell me (again) how glad he was that my family “came to our little community” and how we had made it a better place.
Over time, I had the privilege of getting to know “Gooder than Heck” Bill Prentice. To me, Bill is a model of true manhood. Bill has skied down mountain sides in his Army gear, tamed broncos, survived plane crashes, experienced the death of his children, loved and honored his wife, and remained true to his testimony of the Savior. If Bill Prentice is your friend, the world automatically is a better place!
I remember distinctly one Sunday Chris Nielsen, referring to their acts of service, asked the question, “Who will take the place of Bill Prentice and Carl Ollerton when they are no longer able to cut wood?” The question was simple but the implication was powerful: to keep St. Johns a great place, the younger generation needed to rise up and fill the shoes of the older generation. I have come to realize that the goodness of any community depends on each individual citizen's use of his or her moral agency. Through our individual choices, we create together the environment in which we live.
There are so many stories I could tell to illustrate the goodness of the people here. Although I have mentioned experiences with members of the LDS Church, I equally admire and have been affected by those of other faiths like the Meg and Tom Robertson and Tony and Mary Jo Raykovitz families.
Through the good people of St. Johns and their acts of kindness, I have been truly humbled. One particular night, while thanking Heavenly Father for the generosity of our family friend, Orlando Mora, the scripture found in Matthew 5:16 came into my mind: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” Orlando chose to use his talents to bless my family, and by so doing, I realized that he was in essence a messenger or conduit, that the source of his goodness was truly divine; that through him Heavenly Father was sending me a direct message--that he knew me personally and intimately. I began to understand Matthew 5:16 more fully: Our good works have the power to change lives, heal hearts, and ultimately lead people to reconnect with a loving God. I love St. Johns not for the different shades of brown that color our landscape. I love it because, in St. Johns, there's a high concentration of people using their moral agency the way God had intended it when he designed the Great Plan of Happiness.