The glass and steel towers of the Renaissance Center rise above Detroit as a symbol of the city’s vitality and prosperity. While that prosperity has had its ups and downs with changes in the auto industry during recent years, the city’s vitality has never really been in question.
That vitality is seen, for example, in a kind of spiritual rebirth suggested by that word renaissance. Quietly, more and more people are finding new birth in the gospel, coming into branches and wards in downtown Detroit and the suburbs that spread southwest, west, and north of the city. (Due south of Detroit—yes, south—is Canada: Windsor, Ontario, just across the Detroit River.)
The Michigan Detroit Mission, which takes in four stakes (Ann Arbor Michigan, Bloomfield Hills Michigan, Grand Blanc Michigan, and Westland Michigan), has shown significant increases in convert baptisms during each of the past two years.
The Westland Michigan Stake offers a good illustration of current growth. Stretching from inner-city Detroit on the northeast to pastoral Monroe, Michigan, on the southwest, it has seen missionary successes in all the areas and socioeconomic levels it covers. Its convert baptisms nearly doubled in 1993 and increased again, by more than one-third, in 1994.
“I think there’s an enthusiasm, an excitement among our members about the fact that we’re having success in our missionary program,” says stake president Lee Freeman. “And success begets success.”
President Freeman sees three principal reasons for this increased effectiveness in missionary work over the past two years in the Westland stake.
Personal spiritual preparation of members and missionaries makes the work effective. This effectiveness is enhanced through a monthly correlation meeting involving the stake presidency, full-time mission president, missionary zone leaders, stake mission presidency, and ward mission leaders.
The stake is reaching out to people in the inner city. The small Detroit River and Detroit New Center Branches in downtown Detroit are steadily growing. Members of the suburban Livonia and Dearborn Wards, whose boundaries reach into the inner city, are active in service to people there.
The dedication of stake missionaries is outstanding. “We have a good team of people” at both the stake and ward mission leadership levels, President Freeman says. The stake’s missionary effort is so important, he explains, that when inspiration suggests taking key people out of leadership positions to be stake missionaries, he will not hesitate.
Former stake mission president Dan Devey says recent converts are frequently among the stake’s most effective missionaries. They have contact with a larger circle of people outside of the Church, and “they’re excited about the gospel; they want to share it with their friends and family, to share the joy that they’ve found.”
The Spirit of the Lord is moving upon the people of the Detroit area just as President Ezra Taft Benson promised at a biregional conference in October 1986, Brother Devey comments. He recalls the President saying that if members would open their mouths, they would find that the Lord had prepared the people of the area to listen.
Members are opening their mouths, Brother Devey says, and finding their efforts rewarded as they ask the Lord to help them. Some have been amazed by the help they received as they followed the Church’s “Set a Date” emphasis. One member of a bishopric said he hadn’t realized how many opportunities there are to share the gospel until he asked the Lord to help him find someone by a certain date.
As in other areas of the Church, the support of ward leaders is an important factor in missionary success. Nels Thorderson, former mission leader (and now Young Men president) in the Livonia Ward, says members of the bishopric constantly “go out of their way to help new converts and investigators feel at home.” They visit homes, make frequent telephone contacts, and share what they learn with quorum and auxiliary leaders. “They know what’s going on in people’s lives.”
The support of members is equally important, Brother Thorderson says. He sees many ward members reaching out to befriend and serve investigators and new converts. Some people, for example, regularly drive the one-hour round trip to bring new members from inner-city areas to meetings, and then repeat the trip to take them home again. “I think the brotherhood in the ward has helped those new converts realize that the gospel really is something they want to share with their friends.”
Since her baptism in May 1993, Lenora McFall of the Dearborn Ward has dedicated much of her free time to introducing others to the gospel—coworkers, friends, and members of her extended family living in areas from Detroit to her native Kentucky. More than ninety of the people, including some fifty members of her family, have been baptized.
What motivates her to be so active in sharing the gospel? She loves those people, Sister McFall answers, and after this life, “I want them to be with me. Wouldn’t you?”
It’s easy to find people to talk to about the gospel wherever she goes, Sister McFall says, and adds that it helps to have a Book of Mormon handy to read with them. She reaches out to friends and family members who live far away by writing them of her conversion and bearing her testimony. Many willingly receive the missionaries.
Do her coworkers ever get tired of hearing her talk about the gospel? “No, they’re all taking the discussions.” Has she ever had a negative reaction? Yes, but she continued to be friendly to the woman, who eventually agreed to receive the missionary discussions after “I took her to a baptism. That changed everything.”
Molly Snow Dayton, who has also helped bring a number of people to the gospel, says, “Missionary work is like fire. Once you start it, you can’t stop it.”
Molly and Amy Snow helped convert several friends, including young men they dated, while they were growing up in the Livonia Ward. (Both Molly and Amy have since served full-time missions; Molly—now Mrs. Taylor Dayton—and Amy both live outside of the stake.) Molly is quick to point out that those missionary successes of their teen years were never the work of just one person. She speaks of how other LDS friends, members of her family, and particularly her parents contributed.
Leslie Snow, mother of Molly and Amy, describes herself as simply the “support system” for her daughters’ missionary efforts. It is obvious, however, that she sets an example in sharing the gospel. “There are so many good people around here,” she says. “They care about their families. It’s easy for me to talk to them about what I’m doing in church, but it’s even easier to talk about families.”
Brother and Sister Snow frequently include their children’s friends in activities and home evenings as though these young people were part of the family. That kind of love helped prepare Cindi Crespi, one of Molly’s friends since junior high, to accept the gospel after Molly returned from her mission. Looking back, Molly expresses gratitude for growing up in a home where her friends “could feel the Spirit. That’s why they wanted to come back for more.”
It’s easy to find members of the Westland stake who changed their lives and came into the Church after being touched by the Spirit.
Marty Brooks was so impressed with the way his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor lived that he finally asked the man about his religion. Learning that his friend was a Latter-day Saint, Marty determined to visit an LDS meeting and learn whether this church was different from the many others he had attended. The first Sunday he attended the Westland Ward, he was deeply touched by the Spirit. “I knew I was home. I knew I was in the right place.” Soon he and his family were listening to the missionary discussions. On Mother’s Day in 1993, Marty was baptized, ordained a priest, and had the privilege of baptizing his wife, Elizabeth, and eldest son, Adam. He has since baptized their second son, Jared, and looks forward to the time when he can baptize their youngest, Daniel.
When Ryan Lumpford asked a friend from his high school what made her so different, she said it was her church. On his second Sunday at the Monroe Ward, he found himself on his feet during fast and testimony meeting expressing appreciation for her and the opportunity to know of the Church. He wasn’t sure whether what he felt as he read the Book of Mormon was the “warm burning” his friend had described, but during the first missionary discussion with the sister missionaries, he was “on fire” inside. A missionary fireside the night of his baptism convinced Ryan that he wanted to serve a mission. His father, not a member of the Church, rejected the idea but received a witness that this was indeed the right course after Ryan asked him to pray about it. Elder Lumpford is currently serving in the California San Bernardino Mission.
Though Ron Vanzo was not a member, he and his wife, Margaret, were married in the Dearborn Ward meetinghouse by Bishop Lee Freeman more than twenty years ago. Through the years, Ron resisted joining the Church. Margaret, a member since her teens, was not fully active when their son David started dating an LDS girl in 1993. But when David asked his mother to go to church with him, she knew it was time to come back. Then, watching his wife’s progress, Ron sensed that it was time for him to consider the gospel solution to problems he had been struggling with. David, Ron, and the Vanzos’ daughter, Jennifer, all were baptized within a four-month period. Ron says it would never have happened for him if members of the Dearborn Ward had not been there to provide a new circle of friends while he moved away from old habits and associations. Now, as a stake missionary, he cannot resist sharing his testimony when he senses investigators wondering about the same questions he used to have. Ron and Margaret Vanzo were sealed to each other and to their son and daughter in the Toronto Ontario Temple in January.
The stake’s two inner-city branches play an important missionary role. They offer both a physical presence and a spiritual haven in the downtown area.
The Detroit New Center Branch, for example, meets in a rented machinists’ union hall. There are bars over the glass door and downstairs windows. Before Sunday meetings, members tape a large picture of the Savior and smaller pictures of Church leaders on the bulletin board in the upstairs meeting room that serves as a chapel. This branch provides a place where inner-city members can attend meetings close to home—and bring their friends. For many of these members, the others in the branch begin to seem like members of their family.
Branch president Jim Viland says that this feeling of family is something members come to rely on. Some of them struggle day after day with difficult social and economic conditions. They may come from fragmented families, or they may live in situations that leave them feeling alone with their problems. But in the Church, they find brothers and sisters, people they can help or can rely on for help and strength when it is needed. They find love that accepts them as they are and helps them become better individuals.
DeAnne Cowans, for example, felt the spirit and the love of other Latter-day Saints so strongly that she couldn’t help but share it with members of her own family.
She had already been praying to find religious truth when she first heard one of the Church’s broadcast announcements offering a free copy of the Book of Mormon. She had not expected missionaries to deliver it in person, but she listened to what they taught, read the Book of Mormon, and prayed about it. The strong, immediate answer she received confirmed that she had found the church she was looking for.
Sister Cowans was baptized in November 1993. The spirit and love that she and her children felt when they attended ward meetings made them want to share their feelings with others. Soon they had helped to bring two of her sisters into the Church as well.
There are members throughout the stake who say that the love they felt from Latter-day Saints was a key factor in helping them accept the gospel. DeAnne Cowans and Cindi Crespi both comment that members of the Livonia Ward are “like a family.” To Marty Brooks in the Westland Ward, the Church feels like “home.”
Perhaps that explains why the feeling of rebirth seems so strong right now in the Westland stake. Through the efforts of loving members and dedicated missionaries, more children of our Father are finding their way home.