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A Special Place for Young Mormons

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine young people attending three religious congregations that will one day ask them to leave.

The young adult congregations--called wards--of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Camarillo have been created in such a way that--if all goes as planned--the members will eventually have to go to another congregation.

Ward members must be single and between ages 19 and 30. As soon as someone finds a mate and gets married, the new couple go back to their “home” ward.

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Of course, the wards anticipate being rejuvenated by other young people looking for a place to worship and an opportunity to socialize with and serve their peers.

The worldwide church, which has more than 10 million members, is headquartered in Salt Lake City and organized in geographic regions called stakes, which include smaller geographic regions called wards. Sometimes wards, or congregations, are created using other criteria besides geographic boundaries. An example is the young adult ward, which brings together unmarried people within a certain age group.

“The young adult ward gives me a chance to be among people that I can relate to who are experiencing the same things I’m going through, like work and school,” said Brent Mackay, 23, an Agoura Hills resident and a leader of the Newbury Park Stake Young Adult Ward.

Mackay’s ward serves young adults in Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Newbury Park and other parts of Thousand Oaks. It was organized about six weeks ago, around the same time as the young adult ward in Thousand Oaks, which draws from those living in Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. The Camarillo Stake Young Adult Ward serves Camarillo and Oxnard, and has existed for 15 years.

Members of each of the three wards meet for three hours each Sunday for sacrament meetings and Sunday school. There is also a Relief Society meeting for women and a priesthood meeting for men. It is not uncommon for ward members to return later that evening to listen to a speaker at a worship service called a fireside.

They also meet Monday nights for a short Family Home Evening lesson followed by refreshments and a fun activity. Sometimes they play flashlight tag or Pictionary.

The young adults who meet for Family Home Evening in the church’s Institute building next to Moorpark College have been known to hold water balloon fights.

If this sounds a little different from activities usually associated with people their age, it could be because Latter-day Saints--also known as Mormons--do not smoke or drink coffee, tea or alcohol. Their church doctrine also prohibits premarital sex.

Every church is built with a gym and basketball courts. The Institute buildings have pool tables and other recreation equipment.

One other night during the week, young ward members attend Institute, where they take college-level religion classes and study Scripture. They also meet to watch videos, go to the movies or out to dinner.

Every Friday night at one of the church gyms there is a dance, complete with a deejay, fog and laser lights.

Even with all these activities, members still find time for service projects and to take volunteer positions in the church, Mackay said.

“They have a very full calendar,” Newbury Park Stake President Kevin Hamilton said. “The main purpose of having this special focus unit is to provide a common denominator so they can form friendships, provide service and have an opportunity to serve as leaders in ways they might not get in a more traditional ward.”

“The young adult ward helps young people focus on things eternally significant and helps them face the ordinary challenges of life by providing opportunities to serve each other and their community,” said Thousand Oaks Young Adult Ward Bishop Grant Brimhall.

And in a religion that strongly encourages members to marry within their faith, it serves the obvious purpose of creating an environment for young people to do just that.

The leaders of the ward and teachers are all volunteers and come from the congregation. Those who attend the young adult ward include nonmembers and young people who have left the church and found their way back. But the majority are active members who have attended the church their whole lives, and are used to a strict religious regimen. During their high school years, they got up early for 6 a.m. seminary before attending school, and many have paid their own way to serve as full-time missionaries in cities and villages all over the world.

According to Brimhall, the young adult ward in Thousand Oaks has young people who have returned from missionary duty in, among other places, Africa, Alaska, Sweden, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand.

There are about 90 members of the Thousand Oaks ward currently serving as missionaries. But the ward is also for those who have never left town.

“Having our own ward has been so exciting. It gives those of us who didn’t go away to college and stayed home to work and go to school a way to socialize and meet people we normally wouldn’t get to see,” said Newbury Park resident Hollie Henderson, 21.

“The purpose of the young adult ward is to provide transition for young people,” Camarillo Stake President Gary Miller said.

Young adults do not have to attend the special wards, but can stay within their traditional congregations if they want to, Miller said.

But there is a definite incentive to attending the young adult ward of a church that focuses on the importance of marriage and family.

“Most don’t turn 30 without getting married,” Miller said. “We had 15 marriages last year.”


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