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.
"We have some amazing sisters here," he said. "They are single-handedly holding their families together, trying to raise their kids and grandkids right, and keeping the faith. I've never been around a more humble or receptive group of people in my life. Our testimony meetings are incredible." (Testimony meetings are special worship services held on the first Sunday of each month during which members of the congregation are invited to stand spontaneously and share their spiritual feelings.)
At age 72, Emma Clark is the president of the branch's Relief Society, a church-wide organization for women that focuses its work on benevolent acts of service. Emma is an oncology nurse at nearby Detroit Medical Center, and a recovering cancer victim herself. She said her message to the other women of the Grand River Branch is simple: "Heavenly Father loves you."
"Sometimes you forget to think about God because you're trying to find a way to put food on the table for your family," said Emma, who is supporting several of her grandchildren who are currently living with her. "I tell them that I know they are hungry, and we'll take care of that. But first, come feast on the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Then we'll deal with the rest."
Emma works closely with Davies to help provide food and other commodities to those in need through the LDS Church's massive welfare program. It is her job to visit the homes of members who are in need, traveling through the mean streets of urban Detroit with nothing but love and service in her heart.
"I don't feel threatened or nervous," she said. "This is my home. This is where I live. You have to be careful sometimes, but I'm used to that."
For Davies, meeting the surging welfare needs of the economically challenged branch is unlike anything he has ever encountered in his church experience.
"It's been an eye-opener," he said. "I've had members in this branch who have gone without running water for months, or who have had no heat in their building for weeks during the winter months."
Most of the homes, he said, have been stripped of pipes or anything that could be sold. "You can buy a house for $2,000 if you're prepared to fix everything — and I do mean everything," Davies said. "So we've had plenty of service projects, installing pipes and such. Our full-time missionaries are called on all the time to help the members fix up their houses."
Meanwhile, Davies spends most of his time just monitoring the welfare needs of the branch.
"Thank goodness for the welfare plan," he said. "We've made a huge difference in people's lives here, and Sister Clark and our other Relief Society sisters have been a big part of that."
For her part, Emma said she is happy to be able to provide welfare assistance for so many people who are truly in need.
"I try to convey to the sisters that I love them and I am available to them for whatever they need," Emma said. "I think they feel comfortable talking to me. They know I'm not going to talk about their problems with anyone else. I try to make them feel not ashamed of being poor. We are truly daughters of our Heavenly Father, and we are all in this together as sisters."
Thelma Lapkins preceded Emma as branch Relief Society president. She remembers dealing with a lot of welfare issues, but not nearly as much as there is now.
"Things have changed," she said. "It's harder now. So many people without jobs. I don't know how some people do it."
Even for Thelma, who is in her 70s and is now on a fixed income, it's a struggle. She lives with her two daughters, Pat and Doris, and together they are raising the child of her son.
"We get by, probably better than most," she said. "You just do what you have to do. You pray and you believe and you have hope for the future."
That hope is what Danita Rouzer is clinging to. Because of some property issues, she had to close her car wash in January. She has received spiritual assurances that all will be well, but that she needs to be patient.
"I'm not very good at patience," she admitted. "I'm a fighter. I'm a soldier. I don't know how to sit still and wait. But Heavenly Father told me things will be better, so I'm exercising my faith. I'm waiting on him. I don't go against God."
Meanwhile, she continues to do what she can to help her sisters in the branch. She teaches a monthly lesson in Relief Society, and she helps to coordinate rides to church for those who live too far away to walk. "We don't have many cars in the branch," Davies said, "so we dismiss our leadership meetings early every Sunday so we can go out and pick people up and bring them to church."11 comments on this story
"If I'm available to help, I help," Danita said. "The women in the branch are like my family, and you have to take care of your family."
And that, Emma said, is what makes the hours of service and care giving so worthwhile — even in a tough neighborhood going through gut-wrenching times.
"We love each other," she said. "We're sisters.