“Starting with the Basics,” Ensign, Mar. 1998, 18–22
A symbolic moment in Connecticut’s inner-city Bridgeport Branch occurred one Sunday during the administration of the sacrament. An adult brother was walking with a tray of bread, and a wandering two-year-old crossed his path. “Most people would have gone around or shooed him aside,” recalls branch Young Men president Will Banks, one of many branch members who observed the moment. “But the brother stopped and held out the sacrament, and he helped the child when he wasn’t quite sure the child wanted it. You could just feel everybody at that moment thinking, Wow, this is what it’s all about.”
Once a major industrial center of New England, Bridgeport is located on the shores of Long Island Sound less than an hour’s drive northeast of New York City. Today the city is pockmarked with abandoned factories and dangerous, run-down neighborhoods. Some areas are well kept and inviting, but in other areas burnt-out and boarded-up houses are commonplace and the littered streets are partially barricaded to discourage drug traffic.
Before the Bridgeport Branch was organized about four years ago, members from Bridgeport attended church in Trumbull, a suburban town located two bus rides inland. “At one time the ward was sending as many as a dozen cars down into Bridgeport each Sunday to pick up people for church,” recalls Kenneth Openshaw, first counselor in the New Haven Connecticut Stake presidency. Still, though Bridgeport often led the stake in convert baptisms, only 5 to 15 people from Bridgeport were active at any given time.
“Our question was, How do we better meet the needs of these individuals?” says President Openshaw. “We’d heard of the success of taking the Church to the people in Philadelphia and other places. We thought that’s what we ought to be doing in Bridgeport.”
It took two years to find a suitable location, in a building shared by a bank and other businesses, but once the branch got under way progress was immediate. “We had some members who weren’t holding any callings in Trumbull because of irregular attendance suddenly become Primary and Relief Society presidents in the branch,” says President Openshaw. Before long, branch attendance was approaching 80. More recently, attendance has ebbed as some members have moved out of the area or fallen back into old habits or negative associations, but branch activation efforts and the proselyting work of six full-time missionaries are helping.
“Most of the members are in a touch-and-go daily financial situation,” says Melvin Johns, a Jamaican-born convert who was called from the Trumbull First Ward to serve as first counselor in the branch presidency. “Attending the branch is like taking Humility 101. The members are hungry for the gospel. They are soaking it up like sponges. Little things we do that might seem less significant in a ward mean a whole lot in the branch.”
“Before I joined the Church, it was always just me and my son,” says Irma Jefferson, who was baptized in 1996. Irma is one of numerous single mothers in the Bridgeport Branch. “Now my door is always open to others. The Church has taught me that our personal life and spiritual life are one cycle. I’ve learned a lot in the branch when it comes to loving and sharing.”
Irma wasn’t working when she joined the Church, but now she has a good job. “My previous neighborhood—oh, that neighborhood,” she says. “When my son played outside, I never knew what would happen. So I told people at the branch, and we prayed. My son and I were able to get out of that situation. I’m not as close with my own family as I am with the men and women of the Church. This is what a family should be. We love each other.”
When a person has been forced to survive in difficult circumstances, it’s often not easy to give and receive spiritual support. “I was used to thinking, I’ll do it on my own. I don’t need anyone else,” says Bridgette Saez, a mother of three who joined the Church a few months before the branch was started. “I have lived in a city culture that includes drugs and violence. It was easier to just go on with my everyday routine and get things done my own way. But now I stop and think, I have the gospel in my life now, so I can’t do that. I’m just going to have to wait more and pray about it.”
Bridgette was assisted by branch members during a two-month period when she was out of work, and she received much spiritual and emotional help during a painful divorce. “Bridgette and I would sit on my front porch and sing hymns and read the Book of Mormon and pray,” recalls Penny Rosa. “There were times when she wanted to drop out of the Church. I would come around and say, ‘You can’t do that!’ Whenever I’ve felt that way, that I want to quit, that I don’t want to know nothing about nobody from the Church, I hear a little voice that says, You can’t do that. Remember, we love you.”
When Bridgette was celebrating the birthday of one of her children recently, it felt natural for her to have the party at the branch. “There’s just so much love in the branch,” she says. “When one person has a problem, we’ll drop everything and help that person.”
Relief Society is a key source of strength for the sisters. “We understand that not all families are a husband and a wife and children, and in our branch that is especially true,” says Relief Society president Michele Banks. “Our big push is to help the sisters become self-reliant in everything from education to budgeting to making bread to organizing food storage and emergency kits. We’re friends, we’re in this together, and we’re here to learn together.”
Erma Jean Turpin, one of the branch’s original members, adds this: “The branch helps people pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” She offers service and support as first counselor in the branch Relief Society presidency.
Melchizedek Priesthood holders are scarce in the branch. Nearly all the priesthood leaders are imported from other units, and active adult males who live within branch boundaries can be counted on one hand. “During one three-month period, the branch had seven Melchizedek Priesthood holders and their families all leave Bridgeport,” recalls President Openshaw. “It devastated the branch, but that is probably what will continue to happen here. As individuals take the gospel into their hearts and stabilize their lives, they begin to have a whole different attitude and are perceived differently at work. They have higher aspirations, and pretty soon some of them leave the area.”
In the early stages of the branch, home teachers were called from adjoining areas—but that approach did not work well. So branch president John Simich and other leaders set a new goal: “We said to ourselves, we have limited resources, so let’s identify 10 or 15 families who we think are close to coming back into activity, who, if we extend ourselves, have a pretty good chance to come back.”
But that doesn’t mean other names on the branch list are neglected. “As branch leaders, we set a goal of visiting at least once in the home of every member on the list—that’s 110 families,” says President Simich. “We mentioned the goal to a member of the stake presidency, and he kind of smiled because he knew it would be more difficult than we acknowledged. But we’ve been working at it, and we will continue working at it. We’ve realized that some families have been lost for years—and the Lord doesn’t want that. We are making contact with a lot of people, and we are bringing some back slowly but surely.” Branch priesthood quorum leader John Lecardo says, “As we do the best we can, the Lord provides a way for us to meet many needs.”
With regard to visiting teaching, “one of the dilemmas we have is that a lot of the areas aren’t good areas to go into,” says Sister Banks. “We sisters have to be careful about where we go, and we can’t go at all after dark.”
As a result, much of the ministering in the branch takes place by phone. “When I get home from work,” Sister Penny Rosa says, “I say to myself, I need to call somebody in the branch. Who haven’t I called lately?” Sister Rosa has even made calls from her bed during a hospital stay.
Michael Peluso, first counselor in the branch priesthood presidency and a quorum instructor, takes home teaching far beyond the norm. “A lot of these sisters need a home teacher who is more than just a monthly friend,” he says. “For many, their fear is something happening to them and no one knowing. They need someone to be there for them.”
Despite working two jobs and having a family of his own, Brother Peluso drops by the homes of several older single sisters as often as twice a week. “Every time he comes, he brings fruit or something,” says Lucy Haynes. “Before he leaves, he says a prayer. He begs me to call him if I ever need help.”
Sister Banks observes that the men in the branch often act as fathers to the children. “The children know that what the men say counts and that the mothers are going to back them up,” she says. “We have a lot of respect for priesthood authority around here.” Recently several men took fatherless boys in the branch to the stake’s annual fathers and sons’ outing at Camp Liahona.
Expanding on the stake’s 1997 goal of living a Christ-centered life, three ongoing goals have been established for the branch. “The more they participate in achieving these goals,” President Simich says, “the more the light in their eyes grows.” The goals include:
Reading the scriptures. Leaders have taken pains to ensure that each branch member has a set of scriptures in the home, and specific branchwide goals are set periodically to read, for example, the Book of Mormon within 100 days. To celebrate the accomplishment of that goal, the branch made a quilt. “We wanted to present a physical representation of our efforts as a gift to the Savior at Christmas,” says Michele Banks. “Each member wrote on a patch with fabric paint about something that affected them pertaining to Jesus Christ or the Book of Mormon, and we sewed them all together.”
Attending special meetings. “In our branch, active members have always come out well to Sunday services,” says President Simich. “If they weren’t ill or working, they would be here Sunday morning. But that was about it. We rarely saw them at meetings such as general conference, stake conference, firesides, satellite broadcasts, and other special functions. So we’re trying to help the members get involved in the Church beyond Sunday and beyond Bridgeport. We announce things weeks in advance and provide transportation.”
Attending the temple. “The other two goals are all part of the cycle of getting members ready to go to the temple,” says President Simich. “There is something at the temple for everybody, whether they do baptisms, or receive their own endowments, or do work for the dead, or just enjoy the beautiful gardens and visit the visitors’ center. We’re always trying to push ahead with temple preparation classes, recommend interviews, and planning trip dates.”
Reflecting on the branch’s reason for being, President Simich says: “If the branch is active and moving and the members are open and receptive, the Lord will bring people here. This branch is growing in spirituality. It’s a dynamic branch. You get tired, but it’s exciting. The Lord is bringing people here because he knows they’ll be fed.”