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.