The call to serve prompted Ross Varner to quit his job in his native Utah and take a volunteer mission position in Baton Rouge.
Varner, 61, is the newest president of the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I love the opportunity to reach out and to serve others,” said Varner. “That's the foundation of the ministry: to live the teachings of Jesus Christ, and in doing that we want to be disciples in his name and reach out and love with the principles that are taught.”
Varner, who worked in commercial real estate, volunteered in the Mormon church in many capacities before he and his wife, Anne, were called to the full-time mission to Baton Rouge this summer.
“We readily accepted and left our families and loved ones at home and all the activities we loved to do — the outdoors — and just came to Louisiana, and it’s been a wonderful experience. Our families at home support us very much," Varner said.
A 1978 graduate of Brigham Young University in business finance, Varner was active in real estate development and management for 39 years.
“I loved my assignments and those I got to work with professionally, and I really enjoyed the real estate profession," he said.
But when he answered the call to the three-year mission assignment, Varner had to leave his profession behind.
“I made a call to my boss, who is a member of another faith, and indicated that we have been called for this opportunity and would be retiring and what we needed to do to make that transition," he said. "They were very supportive. We’ve made the transition very well.”
The opportunity to continue working with young people has helped Varner make the transition.
As president of the Baton Rouge Mission, Varner oversees 165 Mormon missionaries in a region that covers south Louisiana to Alexandria and into Mississippi.
“They make me feel young. They have such energy. I always look forward to serving with them,” Varner said. “Everyone who serves knows how it reinvigorates and uplifts us, and it’s just exciting to be with young people that are so willing and able to reach out in principles of faith and living these principles of the gospel.”
The missionaries, most under 25, serving in Louisiana come from all over the United States, Canada, the Pacific islands and Australia. You've probably seen them in their white shirts and ties for men (usually called elders) and modest dress for the women (called sisters) with black name tags.
“As mission president, my responsibility is to prayerfully consider where they are to serve, and they serve in those different areas," Varner said. "They’re just wonderful young people, and we love being around to coordinate their efforts and make sure their needs are met and be a part of service here."
Missionaries serve 18 to 24 months, working in the community, food banks, thrift stores, the American Red Cross, in museums as docents and during natural disasters. All that’s in addition to proselyting.
“We find great joy and service by being members of the church,” said Varner, who was an honorable mention All-America defensive end at BYU in 1978. "Their day is filled with service, caring and sharing uplifting messages of Jesus Christ's restored doctrine. Through their service, they bless the lives of those around them and also develop more Christ-like attributes themselves.”
Varner said one of the inspirations for the young people’s work and one of his own favorite passages comes from the Book of Mormon’s 2 Nephi 25:26: "And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins."
One of the biggest misconceptions about Mormons, Varner said, is the belief they are not followers of Christ.
"People reference the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Mormons, and I think sometimes that sends the connotations that we are not Christian. And there's nothing further from the truth,” he said. “We are Latter-day Saints, who believe in Jesus Christ as our savior and redeemer, and his teachings are at the center of our church doctrines and practices.”
'I Can Only Imagine'
Imagine going to a faith-based movie and not getting a little teary-eyed.
That may be the challenge for those watching the film "I Can Only Imagine," a movie based on MercyMe lead singer Bart Milliard's 1999 hit song by the same name. Tamela Mann also recorded "I Can Only Imagine" to great success in 2012.
The movie isn't due in theaters until March 16, but religious and community leaders were invited to a free screening recently at the AMC Mall of Louisiana theater.
The emotional film is the story behind the song, emphasizing forgiveness and the transforming power of God. It is based on the life of Milliard (played by J. Michael Finley) who was raised by an abusive father (played by Dennis Quaid), who later found God and a bond with his son before dying of cancer.
Country singer Trace Adkins, Cloris Leachman and Priscilla Shirer also are in the movie.
After the showing, Hilton Glass, the movie's project coordinator for the region, said he was reminded of the movie "Facing Your Giants" and the importance of these faith-based films to the Gospel message.
"It’s about how God can use movies to reach his children. There’s so many people that won’t go to church, but they will go to the movies," Glass said. "God has given us an opportunity just like he did 11 years ago with 'Facing the Giants' for us to go out and reach his children and spread the word. ... I've been praying specifically about this movie and how we can reach not only our children but nonbelievers."
Following the movie, one audience member commented: "I wanted to tell everyone here that if you've ever been from a home like that, from a bad background or been through pain like that, it just shows you that there is hope and that you can always follow your dreams. And forgiveness is the No. 1 thing, that God can forgive anybody, and I think the show really proved that point. I loved the story."
Said another: "For me, and probably everyone else in this room, after watching this movie you will never listen to that song again the same. Never. Amazing. Amazing song."
Faith Matters run every other Saturday in The Advocate. Reach Terry Robinson at (225) 388-0238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.