In downtown Boston, turnpikes and rapid transit and rail lines spill their streaming traffic into a compact maze of narrow, twisting streets shaded by the press of luxury hotels, opulent shopping galleries, and corporate skyscrapers. Thronged sidewalks intensify the sense of big-city bustle and commotion.
In contrast is the Charles River, its serene waters rippled by the quiet passage of sleek collegiate rowing shells and sailboats whisked by salty Atlantic breezes. The park-lined waterway divides Boston from Cambridge, where the festive air of Harvard Square fades into the tranquility and rarefied atmosphere of outlying suburban communities.
Another refreshing scene is the Boston Massachusetts Stake. But unlike the banked, slow-flowing Charles, this dynamic, evolving stake of eight wards and five branches is overflowing its borders. At the helm is President W. Mitt Romney, who, assisted by other stake members, is helping ensure that less-active members are not lost in crosscurrents or in the wake of surging membership growth.
How are they doing it? Quite simple: In the process of testing the climate for growth by establishing branches in urban areas, the Church is effectually being taken to the people, meeting them halfway. The fact that an organized group of Saints is now in their midst makes a big difference, surmounting almost at once three reasons why some members stop going to church: distance, language, and culture.
And while the stake expands its frontiers, the less active in long-established areas are not overlooked, either. They, too, are feeling gentle tugs of loving concern that help them recapture the peace and joyful fellowship that first attracted them to the Church.
When Idahoan Leatha May moved to Boston, she stopped attending church for nearly two decades. One deterring factor was distance. Commuting to and from the Cambridge Ward took three hours by subway—an effort that seemed too much at the time for her and her three tots. In addition, she didn’t feel she fit in with the ward’s crowded student population.
A few years ago, at the behest of her visiting teacher, Sister May returned to church and felt keenly her new responsibility to teach in the Primary. Her charge was a forlorn child, the only seven-year-old in the ward. This customized calling made a world of difference for Sister May. She was needed!
Six months later, in 1989, Sister May and other members began attending a series of firesides near their homes. The firesides evolved into Sunday meetings, and in 1991 the ground swell of interest led to the creation of the Malden Branch.
“I felt the branch was created just for me,” says Sister May. Soon the branch will have a chapel, bringing the Church even closer to Sister May. But her Church activity has long ceased to depend on distance. Like other once-isolated Saints, she has grown spiritually: “I don’t need the building, but the wonderful people in it.”
The Malden Branch was more than an exploratory probe that happened to succeed. It was one of several other carefully chosen urban areas targeted in the stake’s master plan for controlled growth. Other recently created branches serve close-knit Spanish, Portuguese, and Asian enclaves. Stake leaders call these units “storefront” branches or “boutiques” because they represent a street-level effort to display the beauty of the gospel before the people. Not surprisingly, these thriving footholds of faith attract an array of people—from members long lost from local Church records to curious members of other faiths, many of whom join the Church.
Created in 1984, the ethnically rich Boston Branch was first among the stake’s successful inner-city branches. It signaled a new direction. Historically, most area Saints have lived in outlying communities, and LDS chapels have proliferated along the beltway, far from downtown Boston. In recent years the stake has experienced significant growth among Boston’s urban population.
Several years ago, non-English-speaking members had no choice but to attend English-speaking wards. Though “some members flourish on that or prefer it,” says President Kent Bowen, first counselor in the stake presidency, “most want [to become Americanized] in their daily life but have their spiritual growth in the language they can understand and feel.” Some of these members lead financially challenging lives, working long hours at three jobs. They do not own cars, so traveling to and from distant meetinghouses is a real problem. In addition, some converts “become more impressed or depressed by LDS culture or way of life than they are impressed by gospel truths,” says President Romney.
Stake leaders were sensitive to this problem. Today many of these members can learn the gospel in their native language and then adjust to both Mormon and American culture at their own speed. “We’ve had tremendously more success on this path,” says President Bowen.
“Our decision was that we were going to make a big difference,” President Romney adds. The plan was (1) to take the Church to where the people live; (2) to conduct worship services in the language of an area’s dominant ethnic group; and (3) to soften the cultural gap by focusing all Church activities on Jesus Christ. The branches draw on designated “sister wards” for various resources and are further linked to the stake through stake activities like “Super Saturday” youth programs and the popular international dinner (in which each unit showcases an ethnic or regional cuisine that’s sampled by hundreds of member-connoisseurs).
The Boston Branch modeled this plan beautifully and set an inspiring precedent.
Captivating everyone entering the Boston Branch is a picture of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched for a loving embrace. To the left is a world map with bright stars indicating the areas of the world represented by branch membership: Haiti, Cuba, Tonga, Lebanon, Nigeria, Mexico, Trinidad, Ecuador, Asia, and El Salvador, to name a few.
It is heartwarming to see the unity in diversity here. Many of these humble Saints have found refuge here from the ills of modern urban life by gathering under the gospel umbrella.
“Our branch is a neutral place; we accept people where they are,” says branch president Keith B. Knighton. “We offer them peace with God and with themselves, as well as practical solutions to their everyday problems.”
Reared in Jamaica, Joshua and Lilian Smith settled in Boston after having lived in England for thirty years. By 1980 they both were members of the Church, happily attending their meetings in Cambridge as circumstances allowed. In 1984 Brother Smith was called to preside over Boston’s first inner-city branch in recent years.
The Smiths had agreed that Boston’s urban membership would benefit from a branch in their midst, but after months of effort, the branch had increased sluggishly, and prospects were bleak. Then the Smiths were sealed in the Washington Temple.
“I was remarkably changed,” Brother Smith recalls. “I had a better feeling to carry on!” That feeling still burns brightly. “It’s my duty to be in church every Sunday and serve the Lord wholeheartedly,” he says. His great joy is to see new converts honor their covenants, like the time recently baptized Emmanuel Saintil of Haiti proclaimed in testimony meeting, “I will always walk with this church.”
In the Boston stake, where people of all backgrounds join the Church, some new converts have trouble adopting the unique elements of LDS belief and culture. From fasting and family home evening to home teaching and homemaking meetings, some aspects of Church activity can constitute major life-style changes.
Learning all the new ropes can be tricky. The transition is especially hard for those whose desire and energy to change are quenched by the inertia of comfortable old habits and long-cherished secular attitudes. For others, the desire to become integrated with the Saints is there, but the know-how isn’t.
This was the case with Ray and Debbie Glazier, baptized in 1989.
“It was wonderful at first—we loved the fellowshipping and what we were learning,” Debbie recalls. But family members opposed their being in the Church, and “we thought we felt a pulling away of some of the members, too.” Feeling no one cared, the Glaziers found it easy to “latch onto negative currents” and eventually drop from Church activity.
“If we’d had the tools to begin with—a better understanding of how to be good Mormons—we’d not have felt a lack from the members,” Debbie explains.
Occasional notes, dinner invitations, and visits from ward members had no observable effect; the Glaziers needed time to sort things out. Nearly two years passed. Then one day Debbie shared her frustration with a friend who urged her to visit the newly called bishop, Gary Crittenden. The opportunity came unexpectedly when an ailing Sister Crittenden took a treat to the Glaziers and Debbie returned the kind gesture by taking flowers to her. In walked the bishop.
“When he said, ‘I’m so happy to see you,’” Debbie tearfully recalls, “it just hit me: he was genuinely happy to see me! I felt connected.” An appointment was scheduled, and in it Debbie shared with her bishop a list of all the things that upset her. “That poor man listened the whole time and said he thought he could work it out.”
In weekly meetings, the bishop fielded the Glaziers’ questions on a variety of basics: how to read the scriptures, how to hold family home evenings, how to grow spiritually, and how to implement other practices they believed in but didn’t know how to do. “Our bishop is sort of coaching us in Mormon culture. He took a special interest in us,” Ray says.
“The Glaziers already had the desire to change; they wanted to put forth the effort,” says Bishop Crittenden. “Their change of attitude broke down the barriers.”
Roy and Jo-Ann Einreinhofer became united in their faith upon joining the Church in 1978. Their first five years as new members were busy and demanding, crescendoing to a tempo so brisk that they felt exhausted in body and in spirit.
“We weren’t used to that in our churches,” says Jo-Ann. Roy adds: “It seemed that the more we got involved in church, the less time we had for each other and for family. It got to the point where something had to give.”
For the next five years the Einreinhofer family did not attend church. “Making a total break from the Church was a poor choice, but that’s what we did at the time,” says Jo-Ann. “We had no belief problems; we just got into the habit of not going to church.” In the meantime they were regularly visited by caring home and visiting teachers.
A turning point came while they were dining out. The subject of the Church came up, and fourteen-year-old Donna said to her parents, “I don’t know why, but I know that church is true, and I just know we should be going.” The next day they returned to church in the Weston Ward. “It was like coming home to all of our friends,” says Roy, who now serves as stake clerk.
What helped clinch the family’s renewed devotion to the Church was that Donna’s Young Women class had accepted their teacher’s year-long challenge to pray regularly that Donna would be touched to return to church.
The process of activation is soul-stretching and soul-saving for all who are involved in it. It’s the transforming power of the gospel in action. But before that spiritual power can be utilized, it must be recognized for what it is: help from the Lord. For those who hope to help activate others, it’s the power of personal example that, aided by the Spirit, can help influence other people’s lives for good. (See D&C 58:27–28.) For the less-active member, it’s the desire, faith, and courage to change self—to become, through repentance, a “new creature” in Christ. (2 Cor. 5:17.)
Inspiring examples of the power of the Spirit operating in the lives of concerned members and those they help activate abound in the Boston stake.
One example is Margaret Cameron, Relief Society president in the Lynnfield Ward. Visiting teaching in that ward hovers between 98 and 99 percent, and it’s no wonder why. Sister Cameron is an inspiring example. Over the years, she has been instrumental in helping a number of less-active members return to church.
“I have a strong feeling in my heart that this is what I should be doing,” she says. “I don’t care what calling I have—I still do this. The joy is incomparable as we gently love someone back into activity.”
Although she could be, Sister Cameron is not a one-woman activation team. She has lots of help. Sister Charleen Johnson once was in tears when she submitted her visiting teaching report. She bemoaned that one sister had not been visited that month. That 99 percent of the sisters had been visited was no consolation.
The story of Evelyn Harville’s activation is a poignant illustration of how one can find power to rise above a riptide of opposition. Evelyn anguishes over traumatic memories of her childhood. Joining the Church was a great comfort, but it didn’t cure the emotional turmoil that continued to plague her. A few years later she quit going to church.
Fortunately, a faithful home teacher visited her for seven years, earning her trust. A sensitive bishop nurtured that healing trust and encouraged Evelyn as she took her first tentative steps toward full Church activity.
“He didn’t discount what he didn’t understand [such as Evelyn’s inexplicable panic attacks], but believed it was real for me,” Evelyn says. She is pleased that ward members “don’t perceive [her] as something broken to be fixed,” but accept her where she is and love her enough to help her feel God’s love for her.
For Sister Harville and other Boston Saints returning to Church activity, the stake’s atmosphere of love is a climate for change. She explains: “There are two big parts to the Church—the gospel and the culture. I used to feel on the outside of the culture, and to a certain degree I still do; and for a long time I felt on the outside of God. But that’s changing. God loved me back into the Church by sending people who love me. I feel like I really have a chance, and I think more that way all the time.”