Some Thoughts on How to Approach a New “Place”

July 23, 2009 | 13 comments
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I reside in Alexandria, Virginia, about 10 miles south of Washington, DC.  My ward’s boundaries encompass the western half of the City of Alexandria. Because of its proximity to Washington, DC, our ward, like the city, is largely composed of professionals working in the federal civil service, the U.S. military, or for private companies that provide services to the federal government. It also includes a smattering of immigrants, mostly from Africa. These demographics make for a ward that is constantly changing. From July to September of 2008, for example, approximately 100 new families joined our ward. Of the 550 members on the rolls, less than 100 are members that lived in the ward when it was formed in November 2005.

I have provided this background so you can understand that we are a rag-tag group of saints. In economic terms, many live unstable lives. Most come and go with the start and end of job assignments or educational pursuits. Few are the active members that own homes and plan to stay indefinitely.  The result, in my opinion, has been unquestionable spiritual growth. Here are my thoughts on how we have grown into a community, a ward family even.

Last fall our ward commemorated its third anniversary with a special fast and testimony meeting.  Bishop started the meeting by speaking about how we have become a united ward family. He shared some statistics–numbers of convert baptisms, sealings, priesthood advancements, etc., and several examples of miracles in our ward. It was incredible to hear of the number of people whose lives have been blessed by others in our ward. In many instances, people were healed and lives were saved. More impressive than these experiences, in my mind, were the stories told about people reaching out to each other in times of need.  In most cases, these were simple acts that required little effort.

Throughout the rest of the meeting, members stood to bear their testimonies. Most spoke of a time when one or more members of the ward touched them through a visit, an act of service, or by being an example of Christ–small acts of kindness at difficult times. In most cases, the person performing the kind act did not understand the impact the act had on the recipient. For example, I was moved to tears when one young man testified that a turning point in his life was when the Young Men’s President and counselor visited his home to invite him to church. At that moment he decided to involve himself in good things. He has been saying “yes” to good things ever since. This young man comes from an unstable home, but by making commitments and honoring his priesthood he has become an example to me of how an Aaronic Priesthood holder ought to act.

During priesthood meeting, our Elders Quorum president spoke about Missionary Work. His basic point was that we don’t make friends with people in order to share the gospel. We share the gospel with people because they are our friends, because we care about them as neighbors, as members of our community, and because we understand that our ward is a family with a common bond, a place of safety.  His text was the story of Ammon from Alma chapters 17 & 18. This section is often used to teach missionary work, but in light of our Sacrament Meeting and my thoughts about unity and community, these chapters took on additional meaning:

Alma 17:11 — “be patient in long-suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.”

Alma 17:22 — “And the king inquired of Ammon if it were his desire to dwell in the land among the Lamanites, or among his people” [a people described in verses 14 and 15 as wild, hardened, ferocious, delighting in murdering, robbing and plundering, with hearts set upon riches, indolent, idol worshipers. NOTE: I highlight this not to compare the people in Alexandria to the Lamanites, but to understand that Ammon commits himself to remain with the Lamanites for the rest of his life knowing full well that they did not share all of his values; not to mention the apparent risk].

Alma 17:23 — “And Ammon said unto him: Yea, I desire to dwell among this people for a time; yea and perhaps until the day I die.”

What I realized while reading these verses is that each of us makes decisions about how to involve ourselves in our “place” in life. Through work, education, church callings or circumstances beyond our control each of us will have to make a choice similar to Ammon’s at some point in our lifetime. God would have us approach each place just as Ammon approached his new place with the Lamanites–act and serve the people, your neighbors, as if you will dwell with them forever. Similar to what has taken place in my ward, I feel that the Lord will bless us with opportunities to form strong communities and to experience miracles by touching the lives of others, even through small acts, like visiting a young man in his home, that require little sacrifice on our part.

I am grateful for the moments when I have been blessed to recognize the importance of these small acts by observing their collective effect on our rag-tag community of saints.

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13 Responses to Some Thoughts on How to Approach a New “Place”

  1. Becky on July 23, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Amen to that Brother Blakesley. We are a rag-tag community. And still somehow one of the best wards I’ve ever been privileged to call home. A thousand little acts have made it so.

  2. Cameron on July 23, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Thanks for this article. It requires an active effort and is certainly something that I can do better at, regardless of how long we plan on living somewhere.

  3. James Olsen on July 23, 2009 at 7:25 am

    Jayme, this was a very moving piece. I’ve been in highly transient wards for the past 10 years–will be moving to an established for the first time next week. It will be interesting to compare the two. I’ll admit, my experience in transient wards has not been nearly so positive. Your writing forces me to consider my own actions with regard to these experiences. You’ve certainly given us a good message for the future–even in established wards, the social norms of community have drastically deteriorated; there are wonderful movements and efforts bent on changing this; we need to be a part of such, and actively work to build the community of our own ward. Two quotes I can’t help but give in response to your post:

    “Let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other good place. And if we go to hell we’ll turn the devil out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society. What do we care where we are if the society be good? I don’t care what a character is; if he’s my friend–a true friend, I will be a friend to him, and preach the Gospel to him, and give him good counsel, helping him out of his difficulties. Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism”; to revolutionize and civilize the world….Let us pour forth love…. Friendship like Bro. Turley in his Blacksmith Shop welding iron to iron. . . . Get all the good in the world. Come out a pure Mormon.” (HC 5:517, adapted from Joseph Smith Diary, 23 July 1843, kept by Willard Richards (I used both for the quote)).

    and

    “All the heaven we shall ever have is the one we make for ourselves” (BY 9:170)

  4. Rob on July 23, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Amen! When we were still at BYU, our residential ward bishop in Provo told us to “unpack our bags” and serve as if we were going to live there forever. I’ve taken that thought with us wherever we’ve been. Some of our best Church experiences have been in wards or branches where we didn’t end up staying too long (eg. Capitol Hill Branch in DC) but jumped right in and “unpacked our bags”.

  5. Nathan on July 23, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Yes Brother Blakesley, I am in the Belle Haven ward and from out west (CA). I love our stake wholeheartedly. I love the fact that we live far from the “Mormon West” yet our stake is thriving and growing, we have a temple 40 minutes away, our entire stake is the city of Alexandria (tons of members), and the caliber of individuals here in the Mount Vernon Stake almost rivals that of those whom I grew up with back in Orange County, Calif.

    Every summer our wards lose a lot of stalwart, faithful saints, due to the transient lives most lead; however, it is always refreshing to know that the Lord is watchful over our ‘rag-tag’ stake, and sends families or individuals who are just as faithful and stalwart to take their place.

    When my wife and I moved out east I was afraid the wards would be small – like on my mission in Ohio. I couldn’t be any happier to call the Mount Vernon Stake my stake. Combined with those transient members, we homesteaders can do great things in this part of the vineyard!

  6. Marie on July 23, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Thank you for the fantastic post. It has been my prayer for the last year that those in my Ward might be touched by the Spirit in this regard as many do not feel our Ward is a “family” yet. We have military members in our Ward (including my family) and we do not feel loved. We have been told that because we aren’t going to be here “forever” we are not worth taking the time to get to know. That was actually said to me, personally, about the general feeling of the permanent residents towards the military in general. It is so sad. But, as you say, we each have to choose how to be in our own “place” and I know that no matter how everyone else chooses to be, I am making a concerted effort to make sure that everyone else who is new (or old) and temporary (or permanent) knows that I care for them individually. That’s all I can do.

  7. Chelsea on July 23, 2009 at 9:22 am

    We spent a couple of years in the Mount Vernon Stake (Belle Haven ward too!) and found it to be a wonderful area. I’ve been in several transient wards and the experience hasn’t always been as positive. I agree that the right attitude (and good leadership from a bishopric with a vision) makes all the difference.

  8. Marc Bohn on July 23, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    A beautiful piece. Reading it, I felt a little guilty for not having fully engaged in a few wards that I knew I was only going to be in temporarily. Just after my wife and I were married, we lived in Henderson, Nevada, working for just under a year before heading to the East Coast for law school. We attended our local ward during our stay there (though, to be honest, we did travel up to Utah on more than a few weekends), but we never received callings and I can’t claim that we built any meaningful relationships while there (to be honest, I can’t claim to remember virtually anyone in the ward except a few missionaries I frequently helped out). Perhaps we were afraid of letting ourselves get too settled in because of our pending move, but I’m sure we missed out on a lot by essentially keeping the community at bay.

  9. Jim Donaldson on July 23, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I live in a center city ward that has routinely 100% annual turnover (really)—lots of real live transients, plus students, interns, and flakes. The great advantage the ward leadership has is that we can’t afford to be picky. If you attend regularly, we use you. For something. Everybody has a calling of substance (no hymn book coordinators). It is our ward’s strength. We need everybody and people you wouldn’t expect to make significant contributions regularly do. Sometimes newcomers’ disengagement (“We’ll be moving back to Utah in a year, so why should we mentally move here at all?”) proves frustrating, because we still need you even if you don’t want to be needed. But mostly it turns out great. People get great experiences doing things many would never get the chance to do, especially at that age, in wards with a football team’s worth of former bishops. A ward filled with people who have amazingly diverse life experiences and personalities can teach you things quickly that it would take years to learn in a more homogeneous ward. It is amazing to see how for some the experience is fabulous and life-long friends are made, and for some, it is the loneliest most unpleasant experience in their young lives. And the ward has almost nothing to do with the result.

    For most, it is a great thing to be a part of, even if only temporarily. And that’s the reason I’ve been here my whole adult life.

  10. Jayme Blakesley on July 23, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for your comments. Its fun to see some familiar names.

    A few thoughts in response:

    1. The Mormon community is small. One motive, albeit a selfish one, for treating people kindly no matter the duration of your stay, is that you will likely cross paths with them, or their friends or family members, in the future.

    2. I have had good experiences in Utah wards, too. While I attended law school, Katie and I lived in an older, more established ward in the Salt Lake City Monument Park Stake. We lived in an apartment building surrounded by single-family homes. The ward welcomed us with open arms. Within one week of moving in, the Bishopric and RS visited. Within one month we had callings. In that case, it was the Ward leadership that set the pace. They made it clear that we were welcome and that we were expected to contribute.

    3. I’m very interested in communities where the same families have lived together for generations. There is a beauty to that type of interdependence. Read anything by Wendell Berry for more on this topic.

  11. Bro. Jones on July 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

    I love the Alexandria ward, and I’m incredibly blessed to serve in it. Nothing “rag tag” about it! Seriously–if the opposite of rag tag was the crusty, cold, horrible “established” ward I previously attended in the western suburbs, then sign me up as a permanent member.

    #5 How in the world do you get to the temple in 40 minutes? Can I share your helicopter? :)

  12. annegb on July 25, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Yes, very moving.

    I liked everything you said in your comment #10; the wording, everything.

    I’ve lived in my ward for thirty years and we have several families where the parents came here as young marrieds, raised their kids, and their kids have bought homes in the ward and are raising their kids. Their daughters-in-law are serving as PTA presidents and their grandchildren, many of them, are already adolescents.

    A wonderful circle of life. I rather enjoy that part of my ward.

  13. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 27, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    My parents moved into their ward in Kearns, Utah in 1959. My father passed away a couple of months ago, and many of the ward members who came to the funeral had lived there with them throughout the last 50 years. One of the 11 year old boys I taught in the “Guide Patro’” scouts in Primary grew up to become the bishop.

    On the other hand, with 20 years of military service, and changing jobs that took us from California to Utah to Washington to Idaho and back to Washington, we have lived in many wards with shifting populations. Our ward here in Washington has grown and split several times in ten years with new subdivisions. The wards have varied a good deal in how well the leadership is on top of getting to know new members and integrating them into the ward. Our current ward is at the point in the cycle where membership is growing to the point that natural turnover does not produce a lot of opportunities to issue callings.

    One aspect of the ward insularity issue is the fact that, as long as people are raising kids, the kids move out to establish links with wards elsewhere in the country. Our ward has two or three families visiting every Sunday. Another “agitator” is when senior couples serve as missionaries outside their comfort zone, in places like New Jersey or Omaha or Key West or Nigeria.

    We who become complacent about our comfortable wards should remember how transient the entire Church was in its early years. How long did anyone live in the Palmyra Branch? In Kirtland? In Far West? in Nauvoo? In Kanesville? Saints who made it to Salt Lake were dispatched to colonies in Arizona and Idaho, Montana and Nevada and Colorado. The example of Joseph Smith was to embrace every new member and make him or her into a new friend.

    I have to question the faith of someone who says it is not worth knowing you if you are leaving the ward in a year. if you believe in eternal life, there will be a million years available to follow up on each and every friend we ever make on earth.