Mormon Relief Society president finds “intense joy and intense frustration” in the inner city

Print More

BWR face at weddingHow do you spell relief in an inner city Mormon congregation?

In today’s guest post, Atlanta Relief Society president Bryndis Roberts points to some unique challenges in the inner city — challenges that make it hard to foster the close-knit sense of community that usually characterizes a Mormon ward. I welcome her voice and her perspective and hope we see her back here again as a guest columnist. — JKR

A guest post by Bryndis Roberts

For the past two years, I have served as the Relief Society president in an inner city ward in a large metropolis. Those two years have been filled with intense joy and intense frustration as I have worked to fulfill my calling in a ward that is not typical in Mormondom.

Each local Relief Society is charged with helping those in need by providing compassionate service, coordinating assistance efforts during emergencies, and, under the direction of the bishop or branch president, planning ways to address welfare needs. At any given time, these tasks can be difficult to perform in any ward. However, I have discovered some particular issues and challenges facing the Relief Society in an inner city ward.

1. Transportation. For many of us in the United States, with our two- and three-car garages, it may be surprising that transportation is a problem in 2015. However, the harsh truth is that many of the members of our ward do not have vehicles of their own and must rely on either public transportation or rides with their friends and family members. Unfortunately, our ward boundaries include several areas where there is no public transportation. Moreover, the existing public transportation is lacking or inadequate as compared to other metropolitan areas, so a trip that would take fifteen or twenty minutes in a vehicle takes three times that long on public transportation.

The end result of this situation is that a simple act of service, such as providing a meal or taking someone to a doctor’s appointment or the grocery store, becomes much more complicated in our ward. Many of the sisters who have the willingness and desire to serve are unable to because the service that is needed requires a mode of transportation, which they do not have. In fact, a former bishop of our ward once remarked that service here required “time, talent, and transportation.”

2. Geographical size. Whenever someone moves into our ward, they are immediately struck with how large it is. They compare it to their stakes because it includes several different towns and cities. So, unlike a ward where all or most of the families live in the same neighborhoods and all or most of the children attend the same schools, our families are spread across several neighborhoods and the children attend many different schools. The size of the ward makes it more difficult for us to get to know each other or foster that sense of community that is one of the wonderful attributes of our Church.

3. Babysitting. Our ward has a large number of single mothers. For them to attend a Relief Society function, they either have to bring their young children with them (which interferes with their ability to participate in and enjoy the activities) or use their limited resources to pay for a babysitter. While some wards may be able to meet this challenge by asking the young women or young men to serve as babysitters, this choice is not viable for us because of the transportation issues, the size of our ward, and the small number of active teenagers.

Despite these challenges, the sense of sisterhood in our Relief Society is strong and unwavering. Last month, in the midst of the holiday season, one of our sisters passed away. Despite the fact that this sister had been inactive for years and very few people in the ward knew her, the sisters eagerly and willingly put aside their own holiday preparations and stepped up to offer comfort and support to her family.

I have witnessed this same phenomenon in other instances, whether it involves transporting a sister to her doctor’s appointments several times a week (even when doing so means traveling over thirty miles each way) or one sister using her limited resources to pay for transportation for another. Time and time again, the sisters in our ward have exemplified our Relief Society motto of “Charity never faileth.” Circumstances, geography, and limited resources may make it more difficult for sisters in the inner city to fulfill our divinely assigned tasks, but our faith and commitment enable us to succeed.


Bryndis Roberts is an adult convert to the LDS Church from the Black Baptist faith.  She is currently serving as a Relief Society President in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an attorney and has her own firm – Jenkins & Roberts LLC – where her law partner is her ex-husband, who also happens to be her best friend. She is the mother of two wonderful daughters.  She is passionately interested in genealogy and her favorite vacation spots are any locations where there are lighthouses.

  • HarryStamper

    Great story…I enjoyed reading it….Love the area….this is the backbone of the church, this type of service. The people in the Atlanta area are some of the nicest I’ve ever meet, I used to live there and would go back in a heart beat.

  • Kate Holbrook

    Fantastic post. Thank you Jana and Bryndis.

  • A Happy Hubby

    You highlight some real issues. I have seen them in previous wards I have been in. I hope you can feel how much your efforts still do make a difference. It is always best when a ward has a balance of those in need of more service at times and those that are willing to help. But as you point out, sometimes even “willing” does not equal “able” to give service .God bless you Sister Roberts in your service.

  • maddy

    Sister Bryndis
    I’m guessing many LDS congregations located outside the Intermountain West, near to or encompassing large cities such as Atlanta can totally relate to the challenges you face. I truly am humbled by the immense dedication of resources and time it takes to carry out your responsibilities. Having lived back east, in a stake encompassing a large city (though we lived 35 miles away in the suburbs) I was familiar with similar situations. Even where we lived, the youth in our ward (a relatively small group) came from 6 different school districts. I only had a small glimpse of the challenges experienced in the city wards. Often the leadership of the city wards were students–medical, dental or those seeking advanced degrees, dealing with the challenges you mention as well as challenges dealing with cultural and language barriers.

    I admire your positive attitude and resilience!

  • Mark Steele

    Thank you for sharing your story, Sis. Roberts, and for providing a platform, Sis. Riess.

  • Great post! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Tim

    I spent three wonderful years in a small ward that included a big slice of the inner city, as well as working class neighborhoods and a little bit of middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods. Lack of public transportation–especially on Sundays–certainly created problems for those without vehicles. We had the same problems with babysitters too. Our ward covered much of the downtown area of the big city, and it took probably 40 minutes to get from one end to the other. In our ward boundaries, there were several thousand people for every active member of the church.

    And yet the ward was more tightly knit than many other wards I’ve been in. We stuck together regardless of race, politics, or income level. Most everyone was friends, and there was definitely a sense of community, despite the fact that we were so spread out geographically.

  • Carrie

    Thank you for this. I have never lived in anything like this. Your post was my spiritual bread today. I have been so discouraged by recent events I didn’t even take a minute to think about the rest of my religious brothers and sisters. Please forgive me for my oversight. You reminded me that I am in charge of the charity of my life, and even if my local area is easier, that doesn’t mean I should sit back and neglect. I pray the blessings of heaven on you and your ward. Please thank your congregation for ministering to me. Thank you for sending this sermon of love.

  • thebigsamoan

    Amazing story of what true charity and Christlike love is about. Thank you for sharing, Bryndis. We live in a ward with huge boundaries too and this is very typical of the challenges that we face. Widows and widowers, the crippled and physically impaired, single mothers with children, part member families, the perpetually unemployed, etc, etc. We have all of these in our ward and are among the poor and the needy we are asked to serve. And though there are many challenges in our efforts to help, there’s none more glaring and so utterly frustrating than lack of transportation. It’s a royal headache (for me at least sometimes) that often leads to frustration and discouragement to many who are asked and called to serve. We’ve been providing rides to and from church for years and still do, and oftentimes we drive separate vehicles in order to accommodate everyone we’re asked to pick up. Then there’s the matter of members moving in or out of the ward, or just changing residency. And if you’re one of the very few in your ward that owns a pick up truck, then you know what that is like. The challenges we face in serving “…the least of these my brethren…” are seemingly endless and insurmountable at times, but the Lord has no one to rely on but us. The growing number of single mothers with children living on welfare assistance is also a huge challenge. A good number of these didn’t have to be in these kind of situations, but such is the result of the breakdown of the family structure in our society. Many grew up in homes on welfare and are continuing the cycle of dependency on the govt with no desire to move out from under it. Unfortunately, way too many have been sucked into this faulty government system we have which continually gives and offer free stuff in the form of a welfare check, subsidize housing, food stamps, free phones, free medical, etc. I mean why work if you can get them for free, right? Well not exactly! The problem is that they’ve bought into the lie that all that stuff is free when nothing really is. Someone is paying for it and it certainly ain’t the government. But that’s another subject.

    Now I know missionary work is paramount in the plan of our Heavenly Father and we must not discriminate when it comes to sharing the gospel message, but when you have a lot of these kind of converts that comes with tons of needs, it really puts a strain on the faith of the few who are able to help. We have converts in our ward who are immigrants, and some from families who were on welfare for years and now they themselves are under that same yoke. Sadly, they seem to be content with it, which is sad. Our challenge is to find a solution to break off that yoke. Until then, these problems in the church will continue. Everything works wonderful when every member is self sufficient, able and willing to give and serve. Not so much when most are not, unable, or even worse unwilling or fail to see the need to improve their lot. In America, there’s no excuse for that unless you are severely impaired or handicapped. The question is…how do we solve this problem?

  • A Happy Hubby

    This reminds me of a post not too long ago where many of the people going through a “faith crisis” don’t realize what a privilege this is. Someone fighting a bit closer to more life and death don’t have time to have this mental belly-button contemplation.

  • DougH

    A wonderful post! While I’ve never been in a ward/branch that spread out, I have seen some that were as poor as anywhere in the US and the spirit of those members is magnificent.

  • It is good to help others, but helping others doesn’t save a person from judgement. Only the Gospel does.

  • Dan the Mormon

    Excellent post. I recall attending a ward in West Philadelphia that experienced several of the same issues. The members who were trying their best to help and serve had a life-changing, challenging, and wonderful experience in that ward. It was hard but extremely spiritually rewarding.

  • Amen, Downtown Dave. I hope someday you will see the light and overcome your distorted, Refomration-corrupted interpretation of Truth.

  • 8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
    9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
    10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
    11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
    12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
    13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
    14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
    15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
    16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
    17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

    (New Testament | James 2:8 – 17)

  • maddy

    “Many grew up in homes on welfare and are continuing the cycle of dependency on the govt with no desire to move out from under it. Unfortunately, way too many have been sucked into this faulty government system”

    There was an interesting article in the journal Science, (2013 I was only able to read the summary) “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” in which the researchers reported “poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks.” I believe poverty in and of itself has real physiological and emotional consequences that can be life-long. It is very sad we have so many children growing up in poverty in this country who may never reach their full potential.
    What changes could be made in how we help these families? any ideas?

  • Steve

    The conservative narrative about welfare is pure fiction. First of all, there isn’t a jurisdiction in America where welfare offers anywhere close to the standard of living as a paid job. Second, impoverished areas often see large numbers of applicants for every job opening. Third, time limits were put on welfare in 1996. Fourth, even before the time limits 70 percent of recipients were off in 2 years.

    If we had universal day care, so single mothers could send their kids somewhere when they went to work, the welfare rolls would drop dramatically. If we had a higher minimum wage there would be less need for food stamps. And if you offered a temporary government job, for minimum wage, to welfare recipients most would jump at the opportunity, if only to get something on their resume to help get a future job. Then again, many state’s welfare programs already have a work requirement.

    Welfare is a terrible life, and no, not because the recipients are somehow stripped of their work ethic and lured into a life of dependency. It’s a terrible life because the standard of living is low and people on public assistance are treated like garbage. Using food stamps to pay for food often leads to public disrespect. The people on federal aid are not different then the rest of us, seduced by liberal values, and lacking in shame. They often have to deal with being shamed on a daily basis….and it hurts like hell.

    Universal health care, and especially birth control, would help to solve this problem, since most people on public assistance need it to support their children. Sex education, that focuses on how to control reproduction, would also help a lot.

    But that is not what conservatives want. What they want is absolutely no sex outside of marriage. And when there is sex, and it leads to pregnancy, they want a 100% relinquishment rate. In other words, they want every single child born out of wedlock to be given up for adoption. Welfare helps to avoid that outcome by preventing single mothers from being forced to accept a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

    And that’s the key here. Welfare is usually a temporary situation. Most people don’t make it a way of life. But that’s the real problem for some: they don’t want the temporary fix. They want those mothers to lose their children. They want revenge for the pre-marital sex. And the punishment they have in mind is awful.

    Birth mothers don’t just give up their children and move on with their lives. They usually grieve for their lost children until the day they die. But I guess that is what some people want for them.

    The welfare conversation isn’t really about money….it’s about sex.

  • Norman

    Whereas the blessings of living in a country that provides a health service for all free at the point of delivery means that the extremes of poverty experienced in some of the US inner city areas are unfamiliar to me, so much of this post resonates with life for Latter-day Saints in the British Isles. It is a real eye opener for missionaries coming to us from the Utah bubble, where Stakes can be walked across in less than an hour and wards are a few streets wide to have to spend hours just moving from one end of our branch boundary to the other. There are places where there is no point doing missionary work because there is no way for investigators to routinely get to church meetings without a huge investment of time by the half dozen or so members with cars. It is heart breaking seeing families in trouble in our remote areas who we cannot reach more than once a week or less to give the help they need daily. Home and Visiting teaching requires military planning a general launching his army into battle would be proud of. Our children are the only members in their schools and often only meet groups of their peers at Stake events. Seminary is taught by mum or dad or done on line because class members live too remotely from the chapel to attend daily seminary classes…..and yet there is so much love and unity in the small branches and wards and we do reach out, we do get people to church, we do home and visit teach and we do look forward to serving our missions in places in the world where members live in far more challenging circumstances than we will ever experience personally.

    Thank you for reminding us that this Gospel is for everyone, all God’s children, and that the life experience of the many is not wealth and comfort but need, want and challenge. It is good also to be reminded of the wonderful work our Relief Society sisters do wherever they serve and that even those brothers and sisters living in comfort experience spiritual and emotional isolation that needs our recognition, our love and our support.

  • Pingback: Mormon Relief Society president on LGBTQIA rights: "I must choose" - Flunking Sainthood()