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Despite woes, Detroit Mormons still serving others

Published: Saturday, March 3 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

- Emma Clark - small lady.

Bruce Black

DETROIT — What first attracted Danita Rouzer to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the neatness.

"I like cleanliness," she said during a phone interview from her home in the Grand River area of Detroit. "I'm attracted to cleanliness."

In the inner city area in which she lives, cleanliness can be hard to come by. All around her are boarded up homes, and houses and apartment buildings that have been vandalized, covered with graffiti or burned to the ground by who-knows-who for who-knows-why.

Which probably has something to do with her decision to open her own car wash. She wanted to clean Detroit, one hand-washed car at a time. So when the Knox family drove their Land Rover in to be washed, she noticed them.

"They were all so clean," Danita recalls. "They were wearing clean dresses and clean white shirts and ties. I notice things like that. Those kinds of things impress me."

When the family stepped out of the car while her staff did the cleaning, Danita couldn't help herself. "You guys are so clean," she said. "Are you all Christian or something?"

Yes, she was told. They were Mormons.

"Black Mormons?" she asked, incredulous. "I didn't know Mormons could be black."

That moment planted a seed that grew through six years of subsequent interactions with missionaries and other Latter-day Saints in Detroit, until she became a Mormon herself about 15 months ago. Today she is an integral, dynamic part of a small congregation of mostly black Latter-day Saints that is faithfully coping with economic and cultural adversity in what is, by any measure, a rough part of town.

The Grand River Branch, or congregation, of the LDS Church is located a little to the northwest of downtown Detroit. According to Mike Davies, the lay leader of the congregation, the branch covers about four square miles, with about a third of the residences in the area boarded up or burned down. About 80 percent of his 180 branch members are black.

"That's just the demographic make-up of this area," he said. "A mile to the south of us, the population is largely Middle Eastern; southeast of us there is a Spanish-speaking branch."

The nation-wide economic turmoil of the past decade has been particularly impactful in Detroit. While unemployment rates nationally have gone from 4.7 in 2001 to 9.6 in 2010, in Detroit those rates have gone from 10.1 in 2001 to 22.7 in 2010.

"The economy has hit this area real hard," said Davies, who actually lives about 30 miles to the west of the branch meetinghouse and has been asked by LDS authorities to bring his veteran leadership — this is the fourth LDS congregation that he has been asked to lead — to the Grand River Branch. "Employment is down. The inner-city folks are struggling. Right now, I think I have only about 15 members of the branch who have full-time jobs. Most of our members are trying to get by on less than $1,000 per month."

In addition to the harsh economic realities of the area, there are cultural realities in Davies' congregation as well. He says only two families in the branch have a husband in the home. Outside of the leaders who have been brought in to help, there are only five LDS priesthood-holding men in the congregation — and one of them is ill and not able to serve much any more.

"Almost all of our branch consists of single moms and grandmothers doing the best they can to raise their kids," Davies said. "We are a very matriarchal congregation."

Which is why women like Danita are "kind of the glue that holds the branch together," he said.

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