Branch on tiny peninsula growing in strength

Situated on a pencil-thin peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific Ocean in southwest Washington, the Long Beach Branch covers an area attractive to tourists and rich in history.

In fact, on the 28-mile long and two-mile wide peninsula, the base of which was where Lewis and Clark first viewed the Pacific Ocean nearly 200 years ago, tourism is a major industry. It rivals the traditional industries on the peninsula involving fish, oysters and cranberries.But Long Beach Peninsula, with its two working lighthouses that beckon to incoming ships, is also a fruitful ground for the restored gospel that beckons to investigators. So far this year, there have been 24 baptisms in the branch, reported Branch Pres. David A. Senske. On a recent Sunday, two recent converts were speakers at sacrament meeting. Included in the congregation were two more investigators.

"I think this area has really been prepared for the gospel," said Sister Tina Hansen from Sandy, Utah, who completed her mission in September, serving the last four months on the peninsula. "The members are very supportive."

The gospel took root on the peninsula in 1958, and since then the branch has grown to 310 members. A unit of the Rainier Oregon Stake, the branch covers all of the peninsula, which has a population of about 20,000 people, and inland to the small town of Naselle, Wash. The majority of the branch members live in Long Beach or Ocean Park, two of the half dozen or so small communities that dot the peninsula. Other members are retired and live in the retirement community of Surfside. Also included in the branch is the town of Ilwaco, platted in 1852, which today is lined with fishing charter boats along its pier, and the historic town of Oysterville that dates back to 1854. The entire community of Oysterville in 1976 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The branch is the only unit of the stake located in Washington; the other units, all wards, are in Oregon. The main highway, connecting the branch with the stake headquarters, about an hour-and-a-half away by car, crosses the gaping mouth of the Columbia River over the 4.4-mile long Astoria-Megler bridge, the longest continuous-truss bridge in North America.

Originally, Church services in Long Beach were held in members' homes, Pres. Senske explained. In about 1973, the Church purchased a meetinghouse from another church, and "we outgrew that, too." Today, the branch has a new 4,000 square-foot Phase 1 building, which was completed in 1995. But, even with completion of the new meetinghouse, the branch is still bulging at the seams, particularly with an influx of visitors during the summer months.

In August of each year, the Washington State International Kite Festival is held on Long Beach Peninsula, attracting thousands of kite flyers and spectators. Many of the tourists are members of the Church and visit the branch on Sunday.

Pres. Senske said he feels the strengths of the branch are missionary work and a friendly spirit. "There is a super spirit in the branch," he noted.

Sister missionaries, from the Oregon Portland Mission, have been serving on the peninsula since last October. Before then, a missionary couple served in the area. The sister missionaries are Sister Analane Powell, from Springville, Utah; and Sister Allison Dover, from Layton, Utah.

Pres. Senske is a convert himself, as is one of his counselors in the branch presidency. Other converts in branch leadership positions include two in the Relief Society presidency, one in the Primary presidency, one in the Sunday School presidency, and one in the Young Women presidency.

Pres. Senske was baptized in 1970, and before he and his wife, Brenda, moved to Long Beach 21/2 years ago to take over a family wholesale dairy and ice business, he worked as manager of the bishops' storehouse and cannery in Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash.

Now, they deliver milk, ice cream and other dairy products, as well as bagged ice, to most of the stores and restaurants on the peninsula. While the dairy products are pre-packaged, the ice is produced with an ice machine in a building adjacent to the Senskes' home. Pres. and Sister Senske, with the help of their three children, Jon, 15, Jennifer, 13, and Emily, 8, bag and stack the ice, at various hours of the day and night, whenever the hopper, which fills up every four hours, is full. "In a normal year," said Pres. Senske, "we'll bag 60,000 bags of ice.

"Free time isn't a luxury I have," he declared as he said his greatest challenge as branch president is time. "But it has taught me to delegate."

Since he was called as branch president in February 1995, he has started two early-morning seminary groups, one with four students, including one investigator, that meets in the meetinghouse in Long Beach, and the other for three students that meets in a home in Naselle. Previously, the youth in the branch participated in home study seminary. "It takes a lot of dedication for the young people to go to early-morning seminary." The teacher for the Long Beach group has to travel 20 miles one way to teach the class.

One of the things that helps to increase the spirit in the branch is the holding of a fellowshipping dinner "of some kind" each month. One month it may be a barbecue; the next month, a pot-luck dinner; and the next month, a picnic. "We've had as many as 70 people attend these dinners," commented the branch president, "and we've always had investigators participate in them."

But the branch is not without its challenges. Home teaching is one of the major concerns. Each pair of home teachers may be assigned 15-20 families to home teach. "We struggle in home teaching, but we do the best we can," said Pres. Senske. Staffing is another challenge. For instance, currently there are only two teachers in Primary, "and we should have five. Most members have more than one calling, but our situation allows us to get new people involved right away. It makes them stretch."

"I love working with people," said Pres. Senske. He particularly has made a hit with the Primary children with his jar of Jolly Rancher candy on his desk. "If the children are able to recite an Article of Faith or a scripture, they can pick out a piece of candy from the jar," he explained. "It's been terrific to see 4- and 5-year-olders come in and recite a scripture."

"This has been good for the children," said Brenda Senske, who serves as Primary president and chorister. "It is something positive in their lives and it is a good opportunity for them to visit with the branch president."

On a recent Sunday after the meetings were over, one small girl couldn't wait to see Pres. Senske to recite her scripture. Through the open door to the branch president's office, she darted in and excitedly wanted Pres. Senske's attention. He stopped what he was doing, listened to the child, who recited the scripture without hesitation, and was rewarded with a piece of candy from the jar. The happy child left the office, with her treasure clutched in her tiny hand.