SALT LAKE CITY — Elder Erich W. Kopischke's eyes twinkled as he related his personal "discovery-gather-connect" experience.
During World War II, when the General Authority Seventy's father was 9 years old, a neighbor friend invited him to attend a tiny LDS branch in Stettin, Poland. His father loved what he found there and continued to attend with his family. Without one missionary involved, the family was baptized in 1942. Later, the Kopischkes heard the neighbor boy, Otto Dreger, was killed in a bombing raid.
It wasn't until last year that Elder Kopischke, now an assistant executive director in the Family History Department, was preparing the account of his family's conversion for publication and verifying facts that he had felt inspired to search for Otto and try a different name spelling, D-R-Ä-G-E-R. To his surprise and delight, an 83-year-old man with that name was found to be living with his wife in California.
When they connected in person, Elder Kopischke informed Dräger that because of his childhood invitation in 1942, there are now about 100 active Mormons in the Kopischke family.
"It's my own conversion story and our family's conversion story," Elder Kopischke said with a slight German accent. "But can you see how this works? This is a discover experience we had. … The Spirit whispers to me, 'Find him; he’s there.' And now I have discovered him, and now the story unfolds. So it’s, how do you say it in your jargon? You have a way. To be continued."
Elder Kopischke's account illustrates a new approach the Family History Department is calling "Discover-gather-connect," a concept designed to help enrich the family history experience. Those participating in this week's RootsTech Conference will learn more about this idea, especially LDS members serving in temple and family history callings.
Elder Bradley D. Foster, a General Authority Seventy and the executive director of the Family History Department, along with Elder Kopischke and the other three assistant executive directors and General Authority Seventies, Elder Scott D. Whiting, Elder Edward Dube and Elder Eduardo Gavarret, spoke of this and other topics related to RootsTech and family history work in recent interviews with the Deseret News.
"It's not enough to just plunder the (family) tree, you know, just go and chase the green (temple) icons (on FamilySearch)," Elder Kopischke said. "The focus now is to discover. We want people to have an experience discovering about their family. It's genealogy records, but it's also stories about their families."
All four of the assistant executive directors are familiar with RootsTech. They are generally impressed with the vast scope of its professional partnerships, its growing reach and interest in the genealogy industry.
RootsTech is helping to bring the church out of obscurity, Elder Dube said.
The largest genealogy conference in the world is also helping to fuel increased participation by young people in finding and taking names to the temple, making it a more meaningful experience.
"Our 17-year-old daughter said to me recently there is just a different spirit when you take names from the family," Elder Dube said.
Elder Gavarret said one purpose of RootsTech is to help build the bridge between generations, whether you are a member of the church or not. During RootsTech, Elder Gavarret will host the director of the Mexico National Archive, Mercedes de Vega, and José V. Borjón, the consul of Mexico in Salt Lake City, as FamilySearch is expected to announce the release of 65 million newly indexed Mexican records in partnership with Ancestry.com.
"Sharing stories with our children and grandchildren is a way to transform that bridge into a freeway," Elder Gavarret said. "That connection is important."
Speaking of the thousands that attend RootsTech each year, Elder Foster noted that FamilySearch has more general public user/subscribers yearly than Latter-day Saints, and that trend and margin continues to grow as people discover the benefits and features of the free website and its mobile app.
"Everybody deserves to be remembered," Elder Foster said.
Temple and family history consultants
Like the Book of Mormon story where Lehi discovers he's a descendant of Joseph of Egypt (see 1 Nephi 5:14-17), Elder Foster believes "discover, gather, connect" is a sustainable, long-term plan. Once you have a discovery experience, the next step is to gather names, stories and information, then connect with your ancestors in the temple.
"When he discovered who he was, it says he was 'filled with the Spirit,'" Elder Foster said. "We want everyone to have that discovery experience because we think that's what changes their heart. The rest will come automatically."
The new approach should also help temple and family history consultants to broaden and understand the vision of their duties in local LDS congregations, as well as connect with full-time missionaries.
Church leaders changed the family history consultant calling to include the temple at RootsTech 2017. During last year's conference, President Russell M. Nelson, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve, said if he were a missionary today, his two best friends would be the ward or branch mission leader and the temple and family history consultant, Elder Whiting said.
"Both of those individuals in the ward can truly help with not only finding those interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ, but helping those who have found the gospel through the missionaries to then find their family and understand the deeper connection of the gospel and how it does connect to their family, which we think will help them find immediate purpose in their membership in the church," Elder Whiting said. "This will be an opportunity, I think, to build upon that statement from last year in some very specific ways."
Temple and family history consultants, high priest group leaders and high councilors with temple and family history responsibilities have been invited to participate in a live stream of a special RootsTech leadership session on Thursday, March 1, at 7 p.m., where Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, along with other church leaders, will speak.
Young temple workers
In December, the First Presidency announced that starting Jan. 1, Latter-day Saint young men and women would be allowed to work in the temple baptistry, with priests performing baptisms and sisters ages 12-18 assisting in various tasks performed by adult women. The overall response has been positive, the five church leaders agreed.
"I have rarely seen anything that has been so exciting to young people," Elder Foster said. "It's changed the experience for young people because they are participating, they are doing something."
The change gives young people a greater purpose in performing temple ordinances, Elder Whiting said.
"It’s significant. I think it elevates them," Elder Whiting said. "I think it’s a great opportunity for the youth to further connect with sacred ordinances in the temple."
Not only will this opportunity help young people to better prepare for missions, new converts can also receive a temple recommend a few weeks after baptism and enter the House of the Lord to perform ordinances for ancestors, Elder Gavarret said.
"This will have a great impact in their lives, helping them to keep active in the challenges of their first months as new members of the church," Elder Gavarret said.
Like Elder Kopischke, each of the General Authority Seventies shared a personal experience about discovering, gathering and connecting in their own family trees.
Elder Dube first began to gain a testimony of temple and family history work when he and his wife were sealed in the Johannesburg South Africa Temple in 1992. While at the temple, he was asked what he knew about his parents and grandparents.
"I got very interested in going back, asking questions," Elder Dube said. "My parents were still alive."
Before his father died, Elder Dube accompanied him to visit his birthplace and began to gather information about his family. He learned he was named after his grandfather, the Shona word, "Kwashirai," which in English means "searching." Knowing about his heritage has blessed Elder Dube in supervising the family history work across Africa. He was especially thrilled when President Thomas S. Monson announced in 2016 that a temple would be built in his home country of Zimbabwe.
"I feel the Lord's hand in this work," Elder Dube said. "I'd never met my great-great-grandfather, but just to know about him. … You feel that connection, you really do."
Elder Gavarret caught the fire of family history as a 16-year-old priest while working on his four generations. Later, the family convinced an aunt who had "guarded" an oral version of the family history to let it be recorded in a book. Elder Gavarret learned, among other things, that the first Gavarret arrived in Uruguay in 1856 aboard a French ship called "La Lionne," (The Lionesse). The first son was born aboard the ship and named "Leon" (Lion).
"Thanks to these stories, I found the link between my family in Uruguay and my relatives and ancestors in France," Elder Gavarret said. "If we put the temple in front of us … our lives will be different. Our relatives will help us in the process."
For Elder Whiting, family history didn't really come alive until he was married with children and developed a passion for learning about his pioneer ancestors.
"I wanted to know what it was that drove them, and what it was that was in them that I hoped was also in me. … To really know the stories of my pioneer ancestors and to gain strength from their strength," said Elder Whiting, who happened to have a temple family name in his shirt pocket during the interview. "That desire, which started to build in me in my adult years, has now really turned into not only the memories, but also the seeking after and doing the temple work for my kindred dead, whether they be linear, whether they be cousins, bringing them the same blessings my pioneer ancestors brought to me."
For the past decade or so, Elder Whiting and his wife have only taken family names to the temple, a personal commitment that has brought greater meaning to their temple experience, he said.
Elder Foster admitted that he has a "death wish." When he dies and goes to heaven, he will of course look for his parents and his Grandfather Sauer, who immigrated from Germany when he was 12. But the person he looks forward to meeting the most is his grandfather's mother, Katerina, the first family member to join the church in Germany. Elder Foster's eyes watered as he described his ancestor standing on the dock, willing to leave her homeland and knowing she would never see her family again in this life.
"She's the one that brought me the gospel. Whatever I am is because of her," Elder Foster said. "I can't hardly wait to meet her. … You'll have those same stories if you go back far enough to discover."
For more information on RootsTech, visit RootsTech.org.