Moving from Utah to the Mission Field

I used to chuckle when my nonmember friends in Logan, Utah, described their feelings about the different world they encountered when they moved to “Mormon country.” I didn’t really understand the culture shock they experienced, however, until I moved away from Utah—my corner of Zion—to a corner of South Dakota.

I had lived thirty years in the valleys of the Wasatch Mountains, and nearby had always been a solid brick meetinghouse containing a real organ, pianos, a library, blackboards, and carpeted rooms. The ward leaders all had years of experience, and the various meetings and organizations were run with familiar precision. I was part of a close-knit group who loved me as a daughter of God. Parents, friends and neighbors, seminary teachers, and many college professors all understood who I was, why I was here, and where I was going; and they did all they could to strengthen me in the right kinds of goals.

You can imagine my feelings, then, when my husband, Ray, was offered a position with the University of South Dakota. Ray was finishing his doctorate at Utah State University in Logan, just twenty-five miles from my “home” in Whitney, Idaho. I was born and raised in this area. I was accustomed to frequent visits with my parents and brothers. How could we just … leave?

Nevertheless, we counseled long and hard with each other, with our family, and with our Heavenly Father, and we made the decision to go.

The Sunday before we left, we went home to attend the rededication of the Whitney Ward chapel. President Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve, who had lived in Whitney as a boy, was there to speak. Afterward he conversed with a boyhood friend, my father, and dad was quick to tell President Benson about our plans to leave for South Dakota. President Benson turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Good! That’s what I like to hear!”

I was mildly surprised at this exclamation, as was my father. Perhaps we had both been hoping for other advice. I was also very curious at President Benson’s excitement about the news. I couldn’t think what would be so wonderful about moving to South Dakota.

By the next Sunday we were in our new area. We arrived in Vermillion, South Dakota, early on Saturday night after driving our rent-a-truck more than eleven hundred miles. There was a note on our door that read, “Welcome! Please call 624-6246, and we will come help you move in.”

I thought it very nice that a close member-neighbor would volunteer to help. I called, and within half an hour ten strong elders had arrived. I didn’t find out until later that most of the men who so cheerfully unloaded the truck, set up our beds, and connected our appliances had driven more than thirty miles to come to our aid.

The next day, of course, was church—not in a brick building a half-block away, but in a rented third-story auditorium half an hour away on the Yankton College campus, with a bare floor and a none-too-solid piano.

We were welcomed by about two dozen Saints as if we had been returning to our family. Complete strangers threw their arms around our necks and greeted us with overwhelming enthusiasm. Never had I received such a welcome. These people knew all about us and were so glad to see us that I wondered what we had done.

The branch president approached us that day with callings. This was something new as well. We had always been allowed six months or so to “settle in” before being given a job. But I soon had three—branch music director, junior Sunday School chorister, and junior Sunday School teacher. (These were pre-consolidated schedule days.) Ray was called to be a counselor in the elders quorum presidency. Even our twelve-year-old, Anna, was given an assignment—Beehive president, since she was the only girl in the class. The missionaries also got acquainted immediately, reminding us of the need for contacts to teach. We drove home that afternoon in thoughtful and surprised silence.

As days went by, we observed our nonmember neighbors carefully and were delighted when we found that they faithfully attended a church in our community. They were also very thoughtful and friendly. And Ray’s associates at work were caring and considerate.

But there was something missing. None of these wonderful neighbors knew the things that we knew, the things that we had taken for granted all our lives. When we talked of our Father in Heaven, we were talking about a personal and loving Father; they spoke of a universal spiritual power. When we talked of gospel principles, they discussed ritual and formalities. When we told them our church contained the true restored gospel, they replied that all churches were true as long as they professed a belief in Christ.

Ray and I came away from such discussions about religion (which were and are very frequent) with a mixture of dismay and thankfulness, but with friendships still intact.

Our social situation was just as interesting. We had entertained very little while living in Utah. There was no need. We always seemed to be at a ward social or a family gathering. In South Dakota we found ourselves being invited to associates’ homes for cocktail parties, celebration dinners, and just plain “keggers.” (The last were politely declined.) We, in turn, invited some of our closer friends in for oriental cooking, Relief Society work meetings, and just plain “ice creamers.”

The workings of our new branch took some getting used to as well—not everything was done like we did it “back home.” In Relief Society, especially on Spiritual Living day, I was used to seeing flowers and a pretty lace tablecloth. Now there wasn’t even a table to put them on. The librarians at home had pictures, chalk, tape, and countless other teaching aids that you could pick up just before class. Now there wasn’t enough storage space for the sacrament trays and hymn books, let alone a library. Mutual should have been held on Tuesday nights, with some kind of activity following. But there were only three kids of mutual age (Anna was the only Beehive), and they lived over fifty miles apart—one way.

But somehow things got done. We learned to make do, rough it, go through our own magazines for pictures, take our own chalk and chalkboard, and live with the consolidated meeting schedule long before it went into effect Churchwide.

Winter came, and we got used to our routine—thirty miles to church at Yankton and thirty miles back, sometimes an eight-hour absence from home. The auditorium we were renting had no heat on Sundays because those in charge of the buildings at the college had been told to conserve energy. We wore our warmest coats, gloves, and hats in our meetings, and we still shivered. It got so cold that our car engine actually froze on the way home one Sunday.

Then one day the branch president had good news for us. Because of recent move-ins and converts, we were just large enough to have a building project approved! We didn’t care what the cost to us was going to be, if we could just have our own building—with carpet, blackboards, and a library.

In the meantime, however, we were going to move our meetings to another rented building that had one very big attraction: we could control the heat. There were two large rooms, one on the main floor and one in the basement. By the time we moved into the building, we were on the approved consolidated schedule, and when the various Primary, Sunday School, priesthood, and Relief Society classes gathered in their assigned corners, it sometimes seemed like a shouting match as each teacher sought to be heard above all the echoes.

Another problem was that this was also the building where driver’s license testing was done during the week. Our meetings were frequently interrupted by people who noticed that the building was open and came in to take their tests.

But at least it was warm.

As winter progressed, our neighbors told horror stories of the terrible storms that plague the area. We listened politely, but we had come from the mountains, and it was our opinion that these flat-country folk had never seen a snowstorm until they had seen one in the mountains.

On one particular Saturday night, the weather man warned of an expected two-inch snowfall. We shrugged off his warnings of high winds. The wind blows here every day. We awoke the next morning to discover that we would have to dig through a five-foot drift to get our car out of the garage. As we stood there wondering where to begin, the telephone rang. There would be no church. The drive was too hazardous.

No church! Our only extended contact with the Saints—cancelled?

A member volunteered his home for sacrament meeting, so we braved the eight-block walk to his home. Oh, for the good old days when the bishop lived on one side and the elders quorum president on the other, with the Primary president’s backyard meeting our backyard and the Relief Society president just around the corner.

Yet, I learned more in that meeting than in any I had ever attended. We held a testimony meeting that lasted far beyond the hour allotted—testimonies of thanksgiving and praise to our Father in Heaven for his blessings, testimonies of the truthfulness of the restored gospel, and the great work of Joseph Smith, and the wonder of having a living prophet to lead us.

I who had been raised in a home in the strongholds of the Church sat in awe as a sister who had been a member only a short time and who didn’t even know what a home teacher is bore strong testimony of the divinity of the gospel to which she had been converted.

I felt that I understood at last what President Benson had in mind when he declared, “Good! That’s what I like to hear!”

As the years have gone by, we have become more self-sufficient spiritually—relying heavily on our family prayers, family home evenings, family councils, and other activities that bind us together. At the same time, we have come to treasure more than ever our associations with all the friends and neighbors we have found in our new “home.” We have a deeper understanding of the member-missionary program because we are an active part of it. (A new sister missionary who arrived from Utah still has a hard time believing that there are “all these houses, and none of them contain members!”) There is no temple nearby for us to attend often. But in genealogical work we have discovered eighty individuals on my husband’s side, many of whom lived their lives in Iowa and Kansas.

The miles we have to travel to take our children to various Church activities sometimes seem long. (When President Gordon B. Hinckley came to our area to organize a stake last year, he remarked with a smile that there is a Fargo Stake in North Dakota, so perhaps the new Sioux Falls Stake in South Dakota should be called the “Go-far Stake.”) But in an area where there may be only one Latter-day Saint youth in an entire high school of a thousand or more, we’re very anxious indeed that our young men and young women have every opportunity to socialize together, to learn gospel principles, and to grow in their desire to serve—no matter what the distance.

But the kingdom is growing—even (or, perhaps, especially) in South Dakota. On Sunday 25 October 1981, we held our very first meeting in our new meetinghouse. It had been six years since the land was purchased, two years since the project was announced. There was a lace tablecloth under the vase of flowers.

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Moving from Utah” individually or as a family, you may want to discuss some of the following questions with your family during a gospel study period.

1. List some of the challenges a family might encounter in (a) missionary work, (b) family solidarity, and (c) temple/genealogy work when they move to a new area. Suggest ways in which a family might turn each of these challenges into a special opportunity.

2. The author notes the many advantages of adequate meetinghouse facilities and a good library. If your family has access to such resources, how can you better appreciate and care for the facilities available to you? How can families make the best use of resources available in a meetinghouse library?

3. The author describes her family as “more self-sufficient spiritually” as a result of their experiences in a developing area of the Church. What can your family do to achieve greater spiritual self-sufficiency no matter where you live?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Scott Greer

Karen B. Thompson, mother of three, is music director and second counselor in the Relief Society in the Yankton Branch, Sioux Falls South Dakota Stake.