Having grown up in southeast South Dakota, Don Gregg knows what it's like to be isolated from the Church.
"We only saw the missionaries every two or three years when somebody was ready to be baptized," said Gregg, a burly grandfather who farms 600 acres outside of Vermillion, S.D. "For years no other Mormons were around."Decades later, Gregg is serving as president of the nearby Yankton (S.D.) Branch for the second time. He is a quiet, unpretentious man who hopes that more Latter-day Saints will move into southeastern South Dakota because they could make a difference.
"We make members feel important out here because we need them," he said. "We have to depend on everybody. Some people are traveling 100 miles one way to do their home teaching and visiting teaching. It takes half a day for me to visit some members."
Such is the life for Church members in the Sioux Falls South Dakota Stake. The Siouxland, as the area around Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., is known, is still a frontier for the Church. The missionaries now stop by more than once every two or three years, but many towns with populations of several thousand still don't have branches.
The stake's 14 units and 2,300 members are spread out over 62,500 square miles, an area larger than the state of Iowa. The two largest population centers are Sioux Falls and Sioux City, both with populations of about 82,000. Sioux Falls is in the southeastern part of South Dakota near the Minnesota and Iowa borders. Sioux City is in Iowa, 83 miles south of Sioux Falls along the Missouri River where Iowa touches Nebraska and South Dakota.
Stake Pres. David M. Gardner, a bank executive in Sioux Falls, needs maps from four states to show the geographic boundaries of his sprawling stake.
With Sioux Falls at the hub, the stake stretches more than 100 miles south to Macy, Neb.; 105 miles north to Waterton, S.D.; 70 miles west to Mitchell, S.D., and 140 miles east to Spencer, Iowa. Other units are located 123 miles to the northwest in Huron, S.D., and about 100 miles to the northeast in Marshall, Minn. Furthest away is the St. Lawrence (S.D.) Branch, 170 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.
"Distances are something people in this area are used to," said Pres. Gardner, whose 6-foot-1 frame, dark hair and glasses give him the look of a professor. "In spite of the distances, when we have stake conference, 600 members attend."
That's a high number for a stake that's small in numbers, even without the tremendous distances, he said. Stake conference meetings are compressed into one day. Stake leadership meetings also are held on one day known as "Big Saturday."
Even temple trips are often combined into stakewide excursions to either the Chicago or Denver temples. On these trips, members board a bus at 7 p.m. Thursday, traveling all night and arriving at the temple in Denver or Chicago at 7 a.m.
"We go to the temple all day Friday," he said, "and then get up early Saturday and go until about 1 p.m. before boarding the bus for home. We get back about 2 a.m. and go to Church later that day. It's a matter of pride among the members to make it to Church that same morning."
In most of the stake's wards and branches, the coming or going of one or two active families can make a big difference. After losing many members in the early 1980s because of a troubled farm economy, the stake is growing, albeit slowly in certain areas, again.
"People like to live here," Pres. Gardner said. "Regardless of the weather - the hot summers and cold winters - it's a great place to raise a family. The communities are family-oriented."
Pres. Lester Flake, first counselor in the Brookings (S.D.) Branch, agrees. "I've been here six years and love it," said Flake, formerly of Fresno, Calif., and now a professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at South Dakota State University in Brookings. "It's a nice school and the students are great. The members are close."
Most of the branches and wards in the larger cities started years ago, surviving because of the faith of a few strong LDS families. In Sioux City, Lawrence and Sylvia Turner helped keep the Church going after a branch was formed in 1935. The Turners died last year, but they are still warmly remembered, said Ted Hurd, financial clerk in the Sioux City Ward.
The soft-spoken Hurd has weathered the ups and downs of the agriculture industry working at a stockyard in downtown Sioux City. At one time, he said, 400 were employed at the stockyard, now only 30 work there.
"The last few years, I've always paid my tithing, and my job has never been interrupted when a lot of others were laid off," he said. "I always figured paying tithing, doing what you're supposed to be doing, has helped on that end."
He was 16 when he came to Sioux City in 1945 with his family. Though he joined the Church three years later, he didn't become committed, he said, until after he and his wife, Dot, now ward Relief Society president, were married.
"I had a little adversity in my life," he said. "I turned to the Church and . . . it turned me around and helped me become a better person than I had been."
Former Sioux City Ward bishop, Dr. Joseph C. Bingham, also feels he and his family are better Church members because of the spiritual growth they've experienced while living in Sioux City.
"It has been exciting to live here," said Bingham, a native of Spanish Fork, Utah.
The current bishop, John Coleman, agreed. He came to Sioux City from another part of Iowa, where he served in city government. He's urging members to get to know their non-member neighbors and to become more involved in the community. These efforts, he believes, will help the Church grow.
"We suffer from being a little bashful, but we're getting better," Bishop Coleman said. "We have some fired-up stake missionaries and seem to be getting up a head of steam."
Two of the ward's stake missionaries, Mark and Kathy Taylor, feel one of the reasons they moved to Sioux City was to help share the gospel.
"She has never rested from missionary work," said Mark of his wife. As the Taylors sat at their kitchen table, four full-time missionaries were showing a video to two investigators in the other room. The Taylors have 11 people in their teaching pool and as many as three discussions a day are taught by the full-time missionaries in their home.
"Before I received this call, I had a feeling a stake call was coming," said Sister Taylor, her voice filling with emotion. "I remember praying and telling my Heavenly Father I didn't want to be an administrator. I said, `All I want to be is a missionary.' Two weeks later the stake president called us in and asked us to be missionaries."
She and her husband identify with the struggles investigators go through because they are converts, too. Both joined in Dillon, Mont., while in college.
"One woman feels a lot of pressure from her family not to be baptized even though she knows the Church is true," Mark explained. "I was ostracized from my family when I joined, so I can feel that. It's easy for us to talk about it."
The non-members living in the stake's boundaries are a friendly, religious people with high moral values, Pres. Gardner said. They're not necessarily antagonistic to the Church, but they look upon changing religions as breaking family tradition, he added. As a rule, few converts have been carved out of the area, and, those who have joined, tend to move to Utah, lamented one branch president.
But a pair of converts who didn't move are Bishop Dale L. Eichmann of the Sioux Falls 1st Ward and his wife, Anita. They only went out to Utah to get married in the Salt Lake Temple.
Sister Eichmann joined the Church when she was 17 after hearing the missionaries at a friend's house.
"They persuaded me to sit down and listen," she recalled. "As I listened to what they said, I thought, `I believe this.' "
She and her future husband had known each other since they were in eighth grade. They lived next door to each other and dated during high school. When Dale began talking about marriage, Anita said she would only marry in the temple.
Dale didn't even know what a temple was, but his interest was piqued by Anita. When the missionaries said families could be forever, it struck him as something he had believed all his life. He joined about two months after Anita in early 1973.
Bishop Eichmann said his ward is small and struggling, but it's beginning to build from within. Much of the success is a result of reactivation and stake missionaries teaching part-member families.
But, Pres. Gardner emphasized, the two Sioux Falls wards are as strong now as the ward was before it was divided. The stake president believes these kind of challenges are preparing the members for the future.
"The people have grown," he said.
Of course, Church leaders here want the Church to grow faster but they're not complaining. As Pres. Gregg of the Yankton Branch checked on his hogs and cattle, he described the challenges as "opportunities to serve," not obstacles. "Nobody has less than two or three Church jobs," he remarked with a smile.
But it's better than it used to be, he added. It's easy to forget that when he first attended a meeting in a room at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, only eight or nine people were present. "And that was counting the missionaries," he said.