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Portrait of a Ward

Susan M - February 13, 2008

The ward meets on the wrong side of Division Avenue. The poor side. The side with small, run down old houses, whose thin walls offer little protection from the harsh elements outside. There is a house nearby with peeling paint, a sagging porch, and a yard full of old Harley Davidsons. Another house, painted bright mint green, is covered with dirt and grime. The neighbors refer to it as the dirty house, instead of what it really is. A crackhouse.

The old and the very young are huddled around propane space heaters someone has placed in the back of the chapel. Long cylindrical tubes with big blue flames inside them, they blast out a cloud of warm air, but they don’t do much to warm the building. The chapel has no other heat, and very little, if any, insulation.

Those sitting in pews don’t feel any benefit from the heaters. But they’ve come prepared with thick winter coats and with blankets. They make do.

On this particular winter Sunday, the ward is not meeting in their home building, and they haven’t been for weeks. Their home building, one of the oldest LDS buildings in the state, is being renovated. The ward has gathered in a nearby chapel rented from another church that usually stands empty.

The chapel they are meeting in is old. And small. It has a rickety front porch, and when one opens the front doors, one finds oneself inside the back of the chapel. The pews face away from the entrance, toward the other end of the building, where the altar rests. Except for restrooms and a few rooms in the basement to be used for classes, the chapel is the entire building.

In a middle pew sits a very young mother with a baby wrapped up in blankets and a small toddler dressed in a thick snowsuit. She sits a few rows behind a slightly older woman, the young mother’s visiting teaching companion, whose kids are old enough to be in school.

They had recently visit taught an elderly woman. The young mother was shy and intimidated to venture into the nursing home where the old woman lived and never would have done it on her own. Distraught by the conditions they found there, she wished she could be more like her companion, who informed the caretakers there was an old man that needed assistance—he was sitting in his own urine. The young mother wondered what she would say to an old woman she’d never met. She wanted to do or say something that would brighten the elderly sister’s day, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to.

It turned out the young mother had something that brought more light and joy to the old woman’s face than anything either of them could have done or said—she had a baby in her arms.

Turning to her child now, she touches the baby’s rosy cheek, worried she might be too cold. But the baby is snug and happy, bundled up warm and tight.

The Bishop has fallen asleep on the stand, but no one comments. They are used to it. He is a young man, in his early 30s, with a young family. He’s a fireman and often comes to Sacrament Meeting directly from his overnight shift. No one blames him for falling asleep during the meeting. They are just happy he has made it there.

He is the steward over a small city ward, most of which is strikingly poor. It’s impossible to keep ward positions staffed. Those who accept callings often don’t fulfill them. Many members are occupied more with barely scratching by than they are taking Sunday School roll or showing up to teach their primary class. He carries a heavy load.

The Gospel Doctrine teacher is one of the more colorful members of the ward. He is an older man, with long, thinning grey hair, which he usually wears in a pony tail. He once taught a very memorable lesson on whether or not Christ was married. Obviously, He was.

The young mother notices she can see her breath fogging in the air. She wraps her blanket a little more tightly around her. The Bishop has been nudged awake and stands to announce the close of the meeting.

Normally he would direct the congregation to attend the second hour’s classes in the basement rooms. The ward meets for only two hours, and rotates having Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society every other week. Instead, he announces that the second hour of church is canceled, and everyone should head home.

It’s snowing outside.


  1. Beautiful post Susan.

    Comment by jjohnsen — February 13, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  2. I have lived and served in such a ward as this. The greater disappointment was that the Stake Presidency had set the boundaries such that nearby people of means/capability were in a different ward. Those people didn’t want to have to attend church with the downtrodden.

    The SP first counselor should have been attending that inner-city ward but the SP allowed him and his family to attend a different ward.

    The week I moved to a new state three other active families also moved and suddenly there wasn’t enough MP holders to continue as a ward. An emergency boundary changed moved some talented and devoted people into the ward better distributing the load.

    I still cry sometimes when I think of the man who was our Bishop in that ward. He worked so hard and received so little support. I understand he left the Church not long after his release.

    Comment by Chad Too — February 13, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  3. That’s sad Chad. Part of the problem this ward had was the stake had just created a Samoan Branch, and many Samoan members left the ward to attend the branch.

    There were some families who were more well off and they were the backbone of the ward, but to be honest I don’t remember much about them.

    Comment by Susan M — February 13, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  4. Beautiful post, Susan. Brought back memories from the mission field, in those forgotten cities with a handful of faithful members, lacking everything materially, but feasting on the spirit of their togetherness, in the certainty that they have each other.

    Comment by Wilfried — February 13, 2008 @ 6:55 pm

  5. Susan, this is very moving to think of those Saints. I attended some modest wards or branches on my mission–but nothing like this. I did like how down-to-earth the members seemed in some of my areas. They lived the Gospel and were so natural. In my area, we are probably one of the poorer wards. They took part of boundaries and formed a poorer branch from what I could tell. However, it was to build up that area and serve that area. Also, I think that there was a time when one of the more affluent wards would help Home Teach people in my ward. Or may I just thought that was so. I liked what you shared about the woman visiting a nursing home. Babies and old people are so right for each other! My Home EC teacher used to take her children to visit the elderly and I think play the accordian or something. She said that they would get nice attention from the elderly. She was one of the coolest and funniest teachers ever. Keep up the good posts! You are setting a high standard here. :)

    Comment by Barb — February 13, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  6. Thanks, Susan.

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I’m touched to see a face put to what I’ve been thinking about in a more abstract manner.

    Comment by Wm Morris — February 14, 2008 @ 8:41 am

  7. Wow- thanks Susan. I appreciated reading this.

    It makes me glad our stake is divided into longer, narrow wards- it would be easy to let all the well-off folks stick together in a nice square ward, but making the boundaries have members of different socio-economic means is very important- as you clearly illustrate.

    Comment by tracy m — February 16, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

  8. My husband joined the church at 25 in Boston. After we married he talked me into moving to his poor rural home state. He was Branch President in his 20′s and Bishop in his 30′s. We worked hard in the church, in a very different way than I had seen growing up in suburban California. When our children became dating age I began to push to live in at least a larger city in the midwest. The oldest was married and 2 were on missions when we moved to a city of 2,000,000 with 2 stakes. Still hard work, but at least more social for the YWYM. Wards here are divided along school district lines, reflecting socioeconomic divisions, but my children see much more diversity than I ever did. After 3 senior missions my dad (back in Utah where he was raised)complains constantly of being ‘left on the shelf.’ I tell him to move near any little temple and get to work and be appreciated. Also, we can spread our left leaning King Benjamin attitudes here quite freely without the smackdown one gets some places.

    Comment by Karen — February 25, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

  9. Wards here are divided along school district lines, reflecting socioeconomic divisions

    That could be Indianapolis.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 2, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

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