Lansing Saints Gathering Strength

By Sue Ann Walker and Don L. Brugger, Assistant Editor

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    Slowly but steadily, the Church in south-central Michigan has grown oaklike from small beginnings into the robust, spreading strength seen in the Lansing Michigan Stake in recent decades. Created in 1962, the 2,300-strong stake gathered strength to spawn four other stakes while increasing its own membership to nearly 3,000 in 1993 and rooting itself firmly in the Lansing community.

    In the 1830s and 1840s, branches of the Church proliferated in the counties surrounding Detroit (see D&C 52:7–9) and reached westward across the state. Lansing, settled in 1837 but growing fast enough to become the state’s capital in 1847, lay just beyond the fringe of this initial harvest, which halted in the mid-1840s as Michigan Saints gathered to Zion in Missouri. Nearly a century later, in 1936, the Lansing Branch was formed.

    Today Saints in Lansing and throughout the stake enjoy living the gospel in what is for them a center place of faith. Their numbers are not uncommonly large, and their closest temple is hours away in Chicago, yet they represent a positive and lasting presence. The city is home to the Michigan Lansing Mission, the Lansing stake, a family history center, and a one-of-a-kind LDS institute of religion and student housing complex next to Michigan State University.

    “We love it here,” says Steven E. Henrie, institute director and bishop to 140 students in the East Lansing University Ward. “We have the full Church program in a region of the country where the Church is not overly established.”

    Latter-day Saints in the Lansing area enjoy the fact that they have much opportunity to share the gospel. Bishop Henrie is quick to list other amenities: “big-city convenience without big-city problems,” beautiful lakes and a mild climate, a fairly stable economy, campus sports and cultural events, and accessibility to early American and Church historical sites just hours away.

    In 1952 Sylvan H. Wittwer was called as bishop of the newly created Lansing Ward. He also served twelve years as first president of the Lansing Stake, renamed the Lansing Michigan Stake a year after his release in 1973. He recorded these memories in the stake’s history: “I was given on many occasions renewed strength to carry on, not only my Church responsibilities but those at the university.”

    Perhaps the gospel’s power to promote well-rounded personal development is most evident at the institute of religion. At this gathering place, young LDS men and women refresh their spirits by attending institute classes and Sunday meetings and by socializing with their peers.

    “There’s a strong spirit here, a real strength,” says Nancy Fichter. “The more I’m involved in institute, the better I do academically.” In 1992 she was baptized in the river that runs through the MSU campus and behind the Church-owned East Lansing Student Living Center. Nancy says of her baptism that it was a moment so special that even a fisherman said “God bless” before moving to a different spot. She serves as a chorister and activities chair in the University Ward.

    More than 130 LDS students live in the center, which comprises two 17-unit apartment buildings located directly behind the institute building. Inside the Howard J. Stoddard Men’s Dormitory is an LDS bookstore. Dedicated by President N. Eldon Tanner in 1975, the three buildings fulfilled Brother Stoddard’s dream of a Church “living-learning center” near MSU.

    The living center’s proximity to MSU makes it a unique Church Educational System facility. Head resident Dustin Tull, a seminary instructor and religious studies student, speaks of the “wonderful spirit and amazing bond” that impress all—even residents of other faiths—who live in the buildings.

    Other Lansing area Saints—many of them farmers, university personnel, and laborers and executives in the automotive industry—reflect the stake’s unified diversity, says stake president Lindon J. Robison, an agricultural economist at MSU.

    “There’s not a lot of hand wringing here,” he says. “Members are willing to sacrifice whatever necessary” to advance the Church. “Their constant dedication is part of the Midwest mentality—they pick up the handcart and start marching.”

    Jim and Terri Sill joined the Church in 1991 after seeing Terri’s sister’s family in Alaska cope well with the death of a son.

    “The support of the Church is incredible,” says Terri, Relief Society secretary in the Williamston Ward. “You can go through your life being very selfish and not recognizing what is truly important. What I used to consider a sacrifice, I now consider a privilege.”

    Jim, a carpenter for the Grand Trunk Railroad, enjoys coaching his two sons and others in freestyle wrestling. Matthew and Marshall are strong and active in the Church as well. The Sill family has lived in the Lansing area for fourteen years.

    The faith, dedication, and tenacity of Lansing area Saints are exemplified in the lives of long-serving members Val and Karleen Crow and Azalia Benjamin.

    The Crows now serve in callings that enable them to bless the lives of youth, just as their own children were blessed by caring teachers when the family settled in Jackson, Michigan, some twenty-three years ago.

    A former bishop, Brother Crow is Scoutmaster for a combined troop from the Albion and Jackson wards. Sister Crow, whose long-term ill health greatly improved as promised after she was set apart as a ward Relief Society president years ago, is the Albion Ward Young Women president.

    “If we have faith to do what the Lord wants of us, we can’t help but be blessed by the Lord,” says Sister Crow. The Crows’ Church service has proved that time and time again.

    Azalia Benjamin’s mother and grandmother, baptized in 1907, were among the earliest converts to the Church in the Lansing area. Azalia was baptized at nine years of age in 1924. The gospel has given her strength to withstand hardship; she called on that strength when her husband became mentally ill and passed away in 1961 after ten years in a mental institution. In 1951 Azalia began teaching elementary school. She retired in 1977 after years of work as a teacher and a school social worker.

    “All my life I’ve been especially blessed,” says Sister Benjamin, who directs the Lansing Michigan Family History Center. “I’ve always had a strong knowledge of the truthfulness of the Church. There is a great feeling of warmth and goodness when you come to church that you don’t get anywhere else.”

    View of Lansing with LDS institute of religion and Church-owned student apartments in the foreground. (Photo by Chris Burdick.)

    Longtime member Azalia Benjamin. (Photo by Sue Ann Walker.)

    Val Crow, Scoutmaster in Lansing. (Photo by Sue Ann Walker.)

    Show References

    • Sue Ann Walker is director of public affairs for the Lansing Michigan Stake and Region.