Monday, February 04, 2008

Life in a Branch—Come join us!

With an average sacrament meeting attendance of between 50 and 55, our wee branch makes up for its small numbers with large personalities and a fair amount of drama. I told a colleague that being branch president was like being a “bishop lite.” However, as I continue getting into this calling, I think I misspoke. There’s a lot to do in a branch. In some ways, I don’t have as much to do (not as many tithing settlements or interviews, for instance), but in other ways, there is more I do individually. For instance, I go out with the missionaries or have them over at least a couple of times a week (We currently have 3 pairs of elders, and I’ve requested a pair of sisters. We put them to work in Primary, Priesthood, Sunday School, and home teaching. I want another set of visiting teachers. These folks are members of the branch, and we work ‘em), I serve concurrently as the YM 1st counselor, I help the clerk out with his duties (good thing I’d done that job before), and I’m my own executive secretary. Jobs get delegated out, but in a branch, we all take on multiple roles (YM pres/secretary, RS Pres/VT coordinator/supervisor, Melchizedek Priesthood leader/branch missionary/taxi, Activities chair/seminary teacher, and the list goes on). Sadly, there are branch members who cannot or will not do more. Their reserves have been tapped.

Whatever it was I did or failed to do as a missionary, I really feel that here in the branch I am back at that work. We’re out here on the fringes, where the real action is. People take different attitudes about living here in Detroit and in the branch, and these attitudes are similar to those Hallie and I saw among expatriate members living in the San Isidro (English speaking) ward in Buenos Aires. For an American not familiar with Argentina, the culture shock can be pretty intense, and I think the same can be said of Detroit’s unique culture for those of us who have come from out west especially or for people who from a context where they have not interacted with people of different races and ethnicities on a daily basis. Some take the attitude of, “We’re only going to be here for a couple of years. If we just slug it, out we’ll get through, and then we can escape to a real ward close to family or where there are lots of members.” Others are fully engaged. They may live here for two years or twenty, and you’d never know it because they are fully present and involved in the work here in the branch. Having members in this branch with the latter attitude is such a blessing, because we face some stark realities and challenges that don’t happen in robust wards that cover small geographic areas. We have no Scouting program. We have a half dozen active YM/YW total. We’re grateful we have that many, but it means that our youth find many of their friends outside the church community.

Families go inactive from too much stress to perform in callings or from a perceived lack of support or from being offended, and when they go, we feel it deeply. When people move out or in, we immediately feel the impact of their absence or presence. Living in a branch is not for the casual member; conversely, if you want to do the work of building the kingdom in ways you felt like you were doing as a missionary, a branch is a wonderful place to be. You get to know all the active members really well. We are in the process of finishing construction of a building on Detroit’s southeast side. I just found out that the building will not be built in stages—it will always serve a small number of members. Once we outgrow it, a new small building will be built, and we will split the branch, so Hallie, Landon, whatever other children we have, and I will more than likely spend the rest of our time here in small units like Belle Isle. I have reservations about the prospect. When I served in Buenos Aires from 1992-94, we had baptized several members in General Rodriguez. Rather than building the unit into a ward, two branches were formed in 1994. By the time I returned a few years later (1997), the newly formed branch had withered, and by the time I went back a second time a few years after that (2002), membership in the remaining branch had continued to dwindle. I now hear that the branch and the church unit it Lujan have had to combine. There is a strength in numbers that you don’t find in branches unless all members stick it out. I hope the powers that be will help us navigate the risks of a small unit strategy.

I realize that we as parents have goals for our children. We want them to be strong, to have friends that influence them in the right direction. We want a robust community of faith where we can feel safe sending them out into the world. These things can be found in the branch here, but they have to be worked for and earned. We can’t take the fulfillment of these goals for granted here, and being far from family, we can’t have their casual company to support us from day to day. We have to build our family here with the friends we make here. We have to exert ourselves. I see the fruit of the strength our children earn here as they bear testimony of defending the gospel and their beliefs when schoolmates mock them. I see the fruit of the strength of our adults who stretch their schedules to accommodate missionary visits and make friends with nonmember neighbors. In a society that is generally disengaging (read Bowling Alone for a good treatment of the phenomenon), branch life offers a potent cure. I sound like I’m preaching here, but I have come to feel these sentiments deeply. I wish more of our members in the branch, the stake, and the church felt the same way. I wish more of them would come share what we have here and help us build and strengthen the kingdom of God in the weaker places.

In fact, we’d love to have you out here on the frontier! This is the front line in the battle to bring souls to Christ. This is where people who want to make a genuine contribution can make a difference. This is where notions of living in the world without being of it get put to the test every day and where gospel living takes on tangible meaning. Come to Detroit. You will be put to work in the branch, and you’ll feel the impact of your efforts in real ways.

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