Don’t ask Charlie Reitze to move to Boston, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine. “Too crowded,” he says. For Charlie, 15, he’s right at home living in rural Maine. There aren’t as many people, it’s a slower pace, and he likes smaller towns. And, like a lot of other young Latter-day Saints, Charlie feels right at home attending church in a small branch.
The big blue sign below the roof of the building housing the Rumford Branch reads “Rockemeka Grange P/H No. 109 1904.” The smaller sign just to the left of the front door reads “LDS Services Sunday 9:00 A.M.” To Charlie, the first sign has little meaning. He can’t say the same thing about the second sign.
The Rumford Branch is his branch, and he’s glad about it. “You can learn a lot here,” Charlie says. “You interact better, and that suits me.”
“Sometimes it’s difficult coming to a branch where I’m the only guy my age,” says Brian Davis, 18, who moved with his family to Maine eight years ago from Brigham City, Utah, and is a priest in the Rumford Branch. “It can be frustrating. That’s why I like having the full-time missionaries assigned to our branch because it’s nice to be with somebody my own age.”
Brian has experienced both large and small versions of the Church. In Utah, there was a huge Young Men program. In Maine, Brian is the branch’s only priest, and one of only six total young people. He is also the Sunday School president, and he has served as a Primary teacher.
“Most people here, even the youth, have a calling. I’ve learned a lot from these positions and developed leadership skills. I’m glad I have the calling I have,” he explains.
In Brian’s Utah ward, the members met in a large building constructed specifically as a church. It had a big chapel, a gymnasium, and plenty of classrooms. In Maine, the members of the Rumford Branch meet in a Grange Hall, built in the early 1900s (probably 1904 like the sign says) as a meetinghouse for a fraternal organization of farmers. The branch rents the Grange Hall from the city for its services. Priesthood meeting is held in the kitchen. There are no benches, only plastic chairs, in the room where sacrament meeting is held. There’s no gymnasium.
“It’s really different here,” Brian adds.
The Somerset Branch is nestled deep in the heart of Appalachia. The young men and young women of this branch, located in the southern part of Kentucky near the Tennessee border, live in places called Pine Knot, Whitley City, Science Hill, and Nancy. The Daniel Boone National Forest is next door. The members live miles apart from each other in different directions. Nobody walks to church.
Like its Maine counterpart, only six young people make up the Young Men and Young Women program in Somerset. With very few teenagers, the challenges are similar to those the Rumford Branch faces.
“I think in some ways I like a small branch. In others, I like bigger wards because there’s more people,” says 16-year-old Jamie Johnson. “We don’t have a lot of people here, but you get a lot more attention. And everybody knows each other so we’re all close friends.”
“I look forward to stake activities, and have gotten to know a lot of kids from other wards by going to camp and youth conference. You can make a lot of friends that way,” says Crystal Hoey, 14. “It’s hard to attend many of the activities, though, because we’re so far away.”
Near the southern tip of Louisiana, Morgan City really isn’t in the middle of nowhere. It only seemed that way to Itielu Tilo, 18, who moved from the populated area of Kearns, Utah, to live with his aunt and uncle more than a year ago.
Life in a small branch was exactly what Itielu, or “T,” as his friends and family call him, needed in his life. “I wasn’t doing some of the things I should have been doing back in Utah, so my mom thought it would be best if I moved in with my aunt and uncle,” he says. “It’s been good for me because there aren’t as many influences like gangs here in Louisiana as there are in the big city.”
And what’s to miss? Sure there might only be five or six young men and young women in the entire branch opposed to maybe 30 or 40 in a larger ward. But just because there aren’t as many members in their areas doesn’t mean the gospel is any different in places like Rumford, Maine; Somerset, Kentucky; or Morgan City, Louisiana.
One distinct characteristic of many small branches is that the youth have the opportunity to take an atypical approach to callings and responsibilities. Like Brian in Maine, many of the young people in these branches have callings before they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood or are members of Relief Society.
Brian’s younger sister Heidi, 15, feels a need to be at church every Sunday since she serves as the branch’s sacrament meeting chorister.
“I feel a lot of responsibility being here,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of people here, and because I have a calling it’s important for me to show up.”
Echoing those sentiments is 15-year-old Aimee Kaulback, a Mia Maid in the Rumford Branch. “When I was teaching the Star class in Primary, that helped me realize how important it is for me to be here,” she adds. “Those kids expected me to be there every Sunday.”
Each week Lianter Albert, Jr., teaches the Blazers in Primary in Morgan City. Check that; he teaches the Blazer. Lianter’s younger brother, Benjamin, is the only boy in his class.
“I like teaching my brother. It’s great. The best part is, if I miss anything in my lesson, I can grab him at home and say, ‘Look, I forgot to tell you this.’ It makes it really convenient,” says Lianter, a freshman at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. “I could go to a ward near the college, but the branch needs my help here on Sundays.”
When “T” arrived in Morgan City, he was immediately recruited to play volleyball, but with only four young men in the branch, fielding a complete volleyball team forced them to use some creativity.
“Since we don’t have enough guys to have a full team, we have to invite nonmember friends,” says Ronald Albert, “T’s” cousin, who is four days his senior. “We’ve used volleyball as a fellowshipping tool, but we have a rule that half the team on the court has to be members. It’s a good way to do missionary work.”
In Kentucky, the Somerset youth do the same thing, only with basketball. There are only three boys in the branch, so recruiting nonmembers to play is necessary to fill out the roster. Each Saturday during the season, identical twins Todd and Tony Hansford, along with Bobby Kinney and a couple of nonmembers, travel to the stake center in Lexington for their games.
“It’s hard to practice much because we live so far away from each other,” Todd says. “It’s even tough going to the games because it’s a 70-mile drive to the stake center. But it’s fun to do things like that together as Mormons.”
Callings and activities aside, the best part about being a Mormon in a small branch is the friendships with other members. At Shayna Facundo’s high school in Kentucky, she is the only member of the Church. Remember what we said about the members of the Somerset Branch being so spread out? Lianter says during his high school days in Louisiana, it “averaged three Mormons a year” and “two of us were from the same family.”
For that reason, it’s obvious why these young people lean on their fellow branch members so much. “My family and the Davises have been in the Rumford Branch since the first day the branch was organized,” Aimee says. “Heidi and I do stick together a lot, and I know I’d feel totally lost if I didn’t come to church here. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
With so few young people in each of these branches, a scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants takes on an added meaning.
“Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33).
The “small” portion of the scripture definitely applies to these young men and young women, which is okay with them. And like it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, these youth are laying a foundation and expecting great things.
The Church brought them together, and now they rely on each other for guidance, strength, and friendship. With very few Mormons in their respective areas, it has to be that way. And that’s the way they like it. To them less is more.
When the Church was organized in 1830, many of the early LDS congregations were called “branches” because of the way they were created—members sharing the gospel with enough people in neighboring communities making it possible for new congregations to be established. In other words, they “branched” out.
Today, a branch is generally the smallest organized unit of the Church and typically has less than 200 members. Unlike a ward, where the bishop is the presiding priesthood and must be a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, a branch is headed by a branch president, who only needs to hold the office elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood. However, the branch president and his two counselors have responsibilities similar to that of a bishopric. The organization in auxiliary callings is similar to that of a ward, as well. Like wards, branches have Primary, Relief Society, and Young Men and Young Women presidents. However, sometimes these presidents don’t have a full complement of counselors because of a lack of members in the branch.
As of October 1992, there were 7, 124 branches in the Church compared to 12, 652 wards and 1,901 stakes.