In the different churches and Mormon congregations I’ve visited or frequented around the world, I’ve always encountered a globally representative mixture of kindhearted loving souls, unkind people, and middle-of-the-road neutral types. But a couple of years ago, I discovered a special, unique congregation in Gretna, Virginia.
Introducing: The Gretna LDS Branch
Gretna, Virginia is a charming town of about a thousand people. Its quiet streets (only one stoplight!), small country schools (think “Little House on the Prairie”) and close-knit, homey feel make it the perfect place to raise a family.
And for Mormon families, Gretna is an even more exciting prospect, because Gretna’s LDS church is the friendliest, most hospitable, and most “heaven on earth” place a person can find to attend each week for worship!
Reasons the Gretna LDS Branch is the Best-Kept Secret in the Mormon Church:
- The branch is nestled away in a small town surrounded by lush, green forests. It doesn’t draw attention to itself–no Ensign covers or Church News features. Just humble, Christ-following folk.
- Each week, an amazing Mormon family with special-needs children brings three-to-five special needs friends to church with them, allowing them to spend their Sundays listening to hymns and enjoying the fellowship of the Saints, instead of leaving them locked away in an institution.
- Despite these special-needs guests not being LDS (nor their families) this branch instituted an extra, special-needs Sunday School class that teaches sweet, simple lessons to these guests each week, complete with an incredible teacher and wonderful teaching materials!
- This branch is composed of mostly elderly members, many of whose children are far away from them. Apparently, many of their children went away to Utah for college, then married and stayed to raise their families in the west, so when I showed up at the Gretna branch with my children, I was instantly surrounded by several dozen sets of grandkid-missing grandparents who were anxious to love on us and spoil us. And spoil us they did!
- The branch President instituted a strict “no gossip” policy in this branch several years ago. As a result, whenever I wanted to know anything about a fellow member, I had to go introduce myself and ask that member on my own. Any whispers of, “What’s his story?” will go unanswered by the members in this church, because they adhere so faithfully to this wonderful rule!
- Mormons in Gretna date back to the 1890′s (and even before), so the non-LDS townsfolk in Gretna consider the branch a staple of local history. Unlike in other Southside Virginia towns where I have lived, people of other faiths in Gretna treat the Mormons with courtesy and respect, and do not exclude them from social events or activities. I love how friendly this town has been to us!
- A visit to the Gretna branch is a time travel adventure! The carpet and furniture throughout the building are the same that I saw each week in the LDS chapels of my childhood. These sweet, humble members have kept them clean and neat for several decades after the church stopped even using these colors or furniture. Talk about a walk down memory lane–check out these photos:
8. And last but not least, the people of this branch are exquisitely humble.
No need to wear designer clothes to impress these folks. No need to live in a 2,000 square foot home to appear illustrious in their eyes. These members love everyone, whether you are a resident from a special-needs home, an invalid hunched over in your wheelchair, or a lonely woman in need of a friend.
On my first Sunday at the Gretna branch, I was an emotional wreck after a very trying/harrowing move to a new home. That day, I met their wonderful Relief Society president, who wanted to know what she could do for me. “Nothing,” I said. And I meant it—I was so drained that I just wanted to be left alone.
But as we were pulling out of the parking lot after church had ended, this Relief Society president chased down our car, her arms flailing.
Had I forgotten my purse or something?
I looked around me. Nope–I had it right next to my seat.
I rolled down my window.
“Oh Jenny, I’m so glad I caught you before you left! I just want to say I love you! I hope you have a lovely day, okay?”
I bawled all the way home.
This image–taken from inside the women’s room at the Gretna Branch church–says it all:
These hand-crocheted soap dispenser covers are lovingly removed, hand-washed, then replaced each week by the wonderful souls who take care of this church. These gracious elderly members do not have a custodial staff taking care of their building–they clean it themselves! And they do so with so much care and attention that they even work hard to make sure that the soap dispensers have a touch of humble, homemade elegance:
The sight of these precious soap covers–and the immaculate countertops that they adorn–makes me weep with gratitude for the good people who treat their church building like more of a privilege than a right. Oh, how I love them!!
In recent years, Gretna’s LDS population has been dwindling because the stalwart LDS families’ children continue to go to Utah for college, then marry and stay in the west, which breaks my heart. The Gretna branch was in danger of being closed down by Salt Lake several years ago because of their dwindling membership, so I hope that whoever reads this blog post will share it, and help the members of the world know that if ever they find an opportunity to move to Southside Virginia, they need not worry about raising their children outside the Mormon hotspots.
In Gretna Virginia, Mormon members will find the humblest, most Christlike, most dedicated branch of the LDS church that I have ever seen, and their children will be all the better for it. I know my own children–and I!–have made immeasurable spiritual progress because of the good examples and service of the wonderful members in the Gretna LDS Branch!
If anyone reading this blog and contemplating a move to Southside Virginia is wondering if it is safe to raise their children outside Utah/Idaho, please watch this video, in which church leaders extend instructions and a promise that we can all raise strong, righteous children NO MATTER WHERE WE LIVE:
Today, I pray that people around the world will all get the chance to either join or visit the Gretna LDS Church at least once, so that they might watch, listen, and learn, then share the incredible love and Spirit of the Gretna branch with their churches and congregations throughout the world! The church will be a much better place because of it!
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