From Surviving to Thriving

“From Surviving to Thriving,” Ensign, Mar. 1998, 23–26

Life in a Small Branch

From Surviving to Thriving

Latter-day Saints in Warroad, Minnesota, like those in other isolated branches, have gained greater acceptance and respect over the years through faithful commitment to Church and community involvement.

If it’s Thursday, the place to be in Warroad, Minnesota, may well be the home of Jerry and Lori Milne, stake missionaries who heartily and happily open their home, hearts, and hospitality to anyone from newborn to 90 to drop in for hot dogs, baked beans, and potato salad. Served outdoors in the summer, the down-home dinner and warm welcome sometimes draw in more than 50 people. “We open our house to everyone,” says Jerry. “Members bring friends. Missionaries bring investigators. It’s a way to help the missionaries.”

While the Milnes’ love for people is an important factor in the popularity of their open houses, they offer one more treat. “We bring them together before the end of the evening and have a spiritual thought,” says Jerry, who has seen hearts change as a result of their efforts.

Open-hearted efforts such as this make a difference in Warroad, whose name comes from the route Chippewa Indian tribes in Canada followed to battle the Sioux Indians in today’s Dakotas. Only six miles from the Canadian border, this picturesque town is adorned with flower-bordered streets and dotted with well-kept homes shaded by stately oak and elm trees. The people, mainly descended from hardy Scandinavian settlers, are self-sufficient and enduring. Like many Latter-day Saints living in small branches, Church members in the Warroad Branch not only face considerable challenges related to both distance and weather but also face community misunderstandings about their religion that provide ongoing challenges. In the end, strong testimonies and genuine caring for each other and the community where they live help them meet and overcome these challenges.

Weathering Through

The branch, whose boundaries take in parts of both the United States and Canada, is very isolated and draws people from more than 60 miles away. “The nearest ward to us is in North Dakota, 130 miles away,” explains branch president Orville Janzen, a science teacher at the local high school, “and the nearest stake center on the U.S. side is more than four hours away.” For this reason, the branch belongs to the Winnipeg Manitoba Stake in Canada.

Many branch members have lived for years in this rural area, scattered throughout a scenic wonderland of pines, prairie, and picturesque lakes in northern Minnesota. For Church members, such long distances call for sacrifices of time and travel expense. “I put 1,000 miles a month on my car in connection with my callings,” says high councilor Ron Storey, who is assigned to visit the Kenora Ward, located three hours away in Canada. And auxiliary leaders face a constant communications battle. “I live 75 miles from my counselors,” explains Charleen Haugen, Primary president. “It’s a long-distance call each time I need to talk to them.” Other members struggle with home and visiting teaching, which sometimes requires a 150-mile round-trip. Many branch members, however, make the long drives necessary to complete their Church assignments—even in winter.

Winters are cold, and snow is deep in northern Minnesota. Dump trucks are sometimes used for snow removal. Many cars have block heaters, which are plugged in during Church meetings so the engines will start in the cold weather. Chris and Gina Joens, who moved from Texas to their own ranch in Canada, learned quickly their first lesson about winter. “One Sunday we made the 65-mile drive to church, but the building was locked,” recalls Gina. “That’s how we learned that when it reaches 30 degrees below zero, church is canceled.”

Both cold winters and long distances, not uncommon in many branches, are overcome by the Saints in Warroad through dedication and a willingness to sacrifice. “Because they are out there alone,” comments Winnipeg stake president George Spencer, “their attitude is We are going to make it!

Growing Together

One of the first Latter-day Saints in northern Minnesota was Lena Thompson, who recalls that in 1936 missionaries walked more than 70 miles to hold cottage meetings in her home. When the Meikle family showed interest, some people in the community began persecuting them. “One man walked up to my father and verbally attacked him with great bitterness—before he was even baptized,” recalls Aleen Meikle Wakefield, whose family finally joined the Church in 1940. It wasn’t until 1962, however, that a branch was finally organized in Baudette, some 40 miles east of Warroad. The Thompson and Meikle extended families provided branch leadership during those early years.

“I recall when we used to meet in homes,” says Arletta Thompson, whose husband, Jim, is now the Winnipeg Manitoba Stake patriarch. “Winters were very cold, and we would take the children upstairs for classes and wrap them in quilts and set them on a bed.” To teach them, Arletta wrapped herself in another quilt and sat in a rocking chair facing the children. “It was freezing up there!” she recalls.

Over the years the branch met in a variety of places and by the 1970s was meeting in a dingy hall rented out on Sundays. The year 1977 proved to be a turning point. Jim Thompson, who had recently been called as branch president, was asked to find permanent meeting quarters. “We drove out to Swift [a nearby village] to look at a little church we thought might work. On the way we passed the old Swift two-room schoolhouse—and it was for sale!” recalls Jim. The building was purchased, and the branch’s name was changed to Warroad. “That was a highlight of our branch,” says Brother Thompson. “We had a place to call our own!”

Fitting In with the Community

Now that he had a building for branch members to meet in, President Thompson was challenged by priesthood leaders to hold activities often and invite friends and neighbors, especially nonmembers, to come and learn more about the Church. Branch members began a tradition of holding activities nearly every Friday, and soon they adopted the term “Friendly Fridays” for their almost-weekly events. Despite disfavor by some members of the community, a few curious neighbors responded, and during the next two years about 30 people joined the Church. For the first time the branch began to experience growth.

In 1990 a turning point came in branch members’ ongoing efforts to build positive public awareness for the Church when Ron Storey, then branch president, was asked to serve on a committee to organize a reunion for former students of the old Swift schoolhouse. “They wondered if they could visit the building as part of their reunion activities,” says Ron. “After discussing it with my counselors, we agreed to open our meetinghouse for the evening.”

Branch members did more than just open the doors. Inside, each auxiliary set up displays explaining its program, and in each room was a picture of the Savior. “We wanted everyone who came to know about our belief in Jesus Christ,” says Brother Storey. “It turned out to be a great nostalgic event. I began to see the tone of the community soften after that evening.”

One evidence of that softening came when parents, concerned about teen drinking parties, invited branch members to help them organize a high school post-prom activity. They gladly helped out.

Other signs of softening have resulted from the example set by a number of Latter-day Saint families, longtime residents who are well known and well respected within the community. Jim Thompson has been active in a political party and was village clerk in the nearby town of Williams. Ron Storey has been deeply involved in officiating for hockey games, one of Warroad’s most serious winter pastimes. The Pratt, Atnip, Reeve, and Schempp families have been highly supportive of Warroad’s local summer theater productions, both on stage and behind the scenes. Scott McFarland, who had been cooperating with a community Scout troop that meets on Sundays, organized his own LDS patrol to meet Wednesday evenings. Also highly visible are the full-time missionaries, who have been devoting an hour a day to teaching reading in the local kindergarten.

Service opportunities are also increasing. When the Special Olympics holds events in Warroad, organizers traditionally call on the branch to help. And when flooding hit Fargo, North Dakota, last summer, the Red Cross turned immediately to the Church to request help with displaced persons sent to Warroad. Young women made quilts for flood victims.

Supporting Youth

Well-established and stable families radiate not only continual support to community causes but also contribute to building strong testimonies in their children. Parents in the Warroad Branch work hard to see their children get the benefits of the full Church program. Sometimes that means making the two-hour drive to Winnipeg so that their young people can attend stake dances even though they arrive home late—or volunteering to help with youth conference even though it’s usually held in Winnipeg.

“We teach our kids to be strong—and to be flexible,” says Denice Fuller, Young Women president. “It comes from parents who are committed.”

Like other parents, Ron and Diana Storey help their children face the challenges of growing up in an area where their beliefs set them apart from the norm. Few Latter-day Saint youth attend the same school, so they need to be strong from a young age. Dawna Storey, 11 and in the sixth grade, helps broaden understanding by volunteering to talk about the Church during history lessons at school and inviting her friends to come to the house, spend the night, or attend Primary Achievement Day activities. “Do you like being a Mormon?” she was once asked. For Dawna, the answer was an easy “Yes!”

Latter-day Saint high school students who live near Warroad began meeting together for early-morning seminary two years ago. This did not go unnoticed at school. When the seven students began arriving as a group—often singing a song from seminary class—their obvious cheer and happy attitude caused friends and even teachers to ask about their early-morning activity.

“These young people look out for each other,” says Merle Pratt, who was seminary teacher until this year. “And they often invite nonmembers and friends to attend seminary, especially on Fridays, when we serve breakfast.” Sometimes the missionaries drop in on Fridays to mingle with the young people.

One day students Jerry and Michelle Milne showed up to seminary class with a cousin from Canada, Wade McCool, who was transferring to the Warroad high school. The young man sported a two-foot ponytail. After class, some of the students talked together and decided they would help Wade feel a part of their group at school rather than let him drift away. “We tried to help him fit in,” says Jerry. “He came from a totally different lifestyle than ours.”

It worked. “I felt more accepted with the kids in seminary than I had with my friends back home,” says Wade. “And I am grateful to Sister Pratt for helping me understand the gospel.” Wade was baptized two months later. As a result of these and other experiences—such as lobbying for and getting caffeine-free drinks in the school’s pop machines—Latter-day Saint youth are increasingly respected at school for their standards.

Getting the word out that Latter-day Saint students not only had high standards but were also Christians was harder. Each spring the local Ecumenical Council hosts the baccalaureate service the night before graduation. A few years ago Aaron Pratt was asked by the senior class to sing at the program. He was denied participation on the claim that he wasn’t a Christian. Yet attitudes softened so much that during the 1997 services, April Fuller, senior class president and a member of the National Honor Society, offered the prayer and Jessica Pratt provided the music.

Meeting Challenges

While change and acceptance were slowly developing within the community, branch members faced a problem among themselves. As the branch grew and families expanded, occasional rivalries and hurt feelings entered in. When President Janzen, a convert, was called as branch president, he knew very little about the causes of discord. He let it be known immediately that he did not want to hear one single criticism of branch members—that he would not take sides. Seeking some way to mend a rift between some branch members, stake and branch leaders accompanied members on a bus trip to the Chicago Illinois Temple. Thirty-nine members—most of the active adults—signed up for all-night travel and two days of temple attendance. “It was a turning point for the branch,” said President Janzen. “We needed to get rid of the tension so we could move ahead, and it helped.”

Today Warroad Branch members pull together to strengthen one another. Friendly Fridays, held now about once a month, usually revolve around a potluck dinner and games, skits, or a program held in the branch’s new first-phase building that has replaced the old two-room schoolhouse. Together, adults and children socialize and build loving ties. Those ties are part of what, in the end, helps hold the Warroad Branch together and impresses those looking on in the community. So if you find yourself in Warroad, Minnesota, on a Thursday, drop by the Milnes’ home for a hot dog. And if you’re not in a hurry, stay over for a Friendly Friday. The welcome is warm, and don’t forget: it’s potluck.

Photography by Judy C. Olsen

Above: The 200-acre farm of Dan and Charlene Hougen (inset) is typical of many that stretch across the northern Minnesota countryside. Below: Ron Storey, Winnepeg stake high councilor from Warroad, reads to his son Aaron.

From left: Stake missionaries Jerry and Lori Milne, whose Thursday evening potluck suppers draw people in, with two of their four children, Danielle and Michelle. Right: Well-managed evergreen forests stretch as far as the eye can see.

The elders quorum helps maintain an isolated country cemetery as one of many community service projects.

Above: Jack Atnip greets Gospel Doctrine class members. Like many Saints in small branches, members here forge deep friendships over time. Below: Warroad Branch president Orville Janzen with his wife, Jean.