Wednesday, April 15, 2009

LDS Branch On Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Near Rapid City, South Dakota Closes Because Of Lack Of Participation; One Branch Member Feels "Betrayed"

In Rapid City, South Dakota, construction will soon begin on a $3 million Mormon chapel at 2250 Moon Meadows Drive, across from the U.S. Forest Service office on south Highway 16, in order to adequately house a growing local membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When the 14,600-square foot facility, paid for entirely by church members' tithing funds, is completed early next year, it will house two wards, or LDS congregations, including a new one created by splitting Rapid City’s Second Ward and redrawing the boundaries of the First and Third wards. Wards are generally split after they reach 500 members and show evidence of continued growth, and the Second Ward is now at 600 members.

Unfortunately, the LDS Church is not thriving everywhere within the Rapid City Stake, which supervises several wards and branches in the area. The longtime Pine Ridge branch of the LDS Church had its chapel, two miles west of Pine Ridge village, closed in December 2008, according to Marie Fox Belly, a longtime Lakota Mormon. Read the full story in the Rapid City Journal.

Lack of support hastened its demise. Although the LDS church estimates its Pine Ridge membership between 525 to 550 members, Fox Belly said there are 1,000 Mormons on Pine Ridge, although both she and the church agrees most are inactive. The Pine Ridge branch has existed for at least 50 years, but Sunday attendance now runs anywhere from two to two dozen.

And Rapid City Stake President Lonnie Dunn said the inactivity was the killer. Dunn said a lack of attendance and the failure of the Pine Ridge Mormon community to produce men willing to assume church leadership duties forced him to close that branch in December. In the LDS religion, only men who meet certain church standards can become a branch president or a bishop, with all the priesthood authority those positions entail. “That just wasn’t possible from Pine Ridge and it was putting a real strain on the rest of the stake,” Dunn said. “It makes it harder and harder to support it, not financially so much, but for those who have the priesthood authority.”

Dunn said the Church waited as long as possible before taking this extreme action. "It’s never really had much growth to it for the last 20 years, at least,” Dunn said. “We’d been looking at closing it for a long, long time.” So it appears the Pine Ridge membership, particularly the male Priesthood holders, had ample opportunity to prevent the closure. The primary responsibility clearly lies with the Pine Ridge LDS community. Dunn also said this is a problem with some other Indian reservation branches around the United States, some of which have dwindled to just one extended family.

As for the Pine Ridge community's options, Marie Fox Belly has the option of attending church at LDS branches in either Kyle or Hot Springs in South Dakota, or in either Chadron or Gordon in Nebraska. Rick Galligo, a Lakota Mormon who lives in Rapid City, is the branch president at Kyle, but he makes the 100-mile drive from Rapid City twice a week.

But Fox Belly said she can’t afford to drive to services in those nearby towns, much less make the trip to Rapid City to join the newest ward in the Rapid City Stake. She’s feeling abandoned by the faith she joined as a teenager more than 40 years ago. “My parents embraced the church and accepted its teachings,” she said. Now that she can no longer worship in the chapel where she was baptized, she wonders why Mormon missionaries came to her community at all. “Why did you send the missionaries in the first place? We’d have been better off if you’d left us alone,” she said.

One can only hope that Marie Fox Belly doesn't lose her faith and leave the Church as a result of this setback. This could prove to be a major test of faith for her. If she will persevere, the Lord will meet her spiritual needs even if she cannot attend services.

But for those who complain about so many callings in a typical ward, this ought to give them pause. There are obviously a minimum number of callings which must be filled simply to keep a ward or branch going. One can combine different Sunday School classes or Primary classes together, but one cannot completely eliminate those functions and still have a functioning ward or branch. The real problem with some of the callings is the excessive number of coordination and planning meetings necessary. The Internet can be used to cut down on planning and coordination meetings and make callings more sustainable.

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