You don't have to be single, attractive and unattached to be a member. Let's just say that if you are, you won't be alone at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Ohio Avenue in Los Angeles. It is a Mormon ward--the equivalent of a congregation--for the young and unmarried.
Any unwed Mormon age 22 to 33 can join this variation on the typical family-based congregation. Church members as well as clergy say that the Mormon's long-standing emphasis on family values is the very thing that created a need for this other option.
"When you hit age 21 or so the family concerns don't apply to you," says Matthew Workman, 27, a lifelong Mormon who recently came to Los Angeles from Utah and joined the Ohio Avenue ward as a way of meeting people. At the risk of losing young people like Workman, church leaders have allowed for singles wards since the 1960s. Their numbers rise and fall based on demand. Currently there are two singles wards in the Los Angeles stake, a geographic territory comparable to a diocese.
They tend to be less than half the size of a typical Mormon congregation. The Ohio Avenue group includes about 190 members. While family wards are known for taking good care of their own ill, unemployed and otherwise needy families, singles ward members volunteer more time for community service work, says Bishop Tom Andersen, 59 and married, who leads this congregation. Members recently helped paint a public school.
There is one other activity unique to Andersen's congregation: "You go to a singles ward to date," says Sharon Woods, a 33-year-old Santa Monica-based social worker who joined five years ago. She will "graduate" in June and move to a more typical ward, but she will miss this one. "You meet people with the same interests. And you don't hear a lot of children crying."
In the past five years, 150 or so ward members have met and married as a result of the lively dating scene, says Andersen.
"If we took a straw poll we'd probably find one-third of the young people here are actively pursuing marriage successfully," he says. "One-third want to but haven't got a clue. And one-third don't want it yet. We don't mention the 'M-word' but we don't have to. They'll bring it up."
On a recent Sunday, during a socializing break between worship service and the study groups that follow, there was no evidence of wall flowers. The sunlit courtyard of the church was the scene of lively conversations and inviting smiles.
Sunday gatherings extend from 1 to 4 p.m. with frequent breaks for getting to know one another. This day's plans also include an afternoon barbecue. Group activities continue through the week. A volleyball game on Monday, a quilting bee on Wednesday, and Saturday plans to help a member recovering from knee surgery to move to her new address fill the agenda.
Meeting people, and perhaps marrying, are at the heart of this community's life. But many members say they also need the freedom to explore their faith that this ward allows.
"I came because I'm at the age when we go through spiritual experimenting and questioning," says 24-year-old Matthew Andersen, a schoolteacher who lives in Long Beach. After this serious start, he turns silly and boasts about the high marks Mormons score on "top 10" articles he finds in pop culture magazines.
His latest data includes two memorable statistics. "Mormon missionaries are the second most sexy people, after firemen," he says. "And, the most beautiful girls are at Brigham Young University," he recalls reading of the Mormon-owned university in Provo, Utah.
Bishop Andersen--not related to Matthew--says that waffling is expected of his ward members. He refers to his congregation as embryonic. They want to be part of the Mormon church, but they are not ready to make a full commitment.
Still, he sees moments of profound clarity. "Many are extremely spiritual. At times I have been blown away by the very strong and deep feelings."
Members of this singles ward say they are often asked to explain their beliefs.
"People always want to know about polygamy," says Laurie Langford, a 31-year-old writer who lives in Beverly Hills. The practice was banned by the Mormon leadership in 1890 when the state of Utah rescinded the law allowing it.
"They want to know if we believe in Jesus Christ, which we do," she says.
"And they want to know about drinking." She relates it to health rules. Bishop Andersen says church members who take part in sacred Mormon ordinances must not drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
Langford, who was raised in the Mormon church, launched out from her religious moorings in her 20s to explore other faiths. By breaking some Mormon rules she learned to appreciate their value--enough to write her first book, the recently published "If It's Love You Really Want Why Settle for Just Sex?" (Prima Publishing).
"You can't choose a religion like you choose a dress," she says, now that she has returned from her odyssey. "If you're really seeking truth, some spiritual confirmation will come."
Singles wards are unusual, but the concept is not unique in the Mormon church. Most other special wards are for Spanish or Korean-speaking Mormons. "As they become fluent we encourage them to move out," says Bishop Andersen. "We want everyone to be part of the larger church."