Nestled among trees and old homes in an east Charlotte neighborhood, the sleepy brick church hardly looks the part of a place reserved for young Mormons to meet, worship together, and fall in love.
But thats exactly whats been happening inside, as the thick binder of wedding announcements and smiling couple photos in the lobby will attest. Last year alone, there were eight weddings in the 123-member congregation.
Once married, they had to leave.
This is a singles-only church, and all the members are young unmarried Mormons, ages 18 to 31. The goal is for each to find their mate, marry within the faith, have children and bolster the future of a denomination that enshrines the family.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is among the most conservative of religions, also teaches that the culture young singles must navigate these days is a moral minefield.
Giving young Mormons their own ward, or congregation, throws them together with others who share their beliefs and their values.
Or as member Robin Wilson, 27, a dog groomer from Gastonia, put it, You try to encourage dating in the church so that your standards are the same.
Translation: A fellow Mormon would presumably also want to avoid premarital sex, alcohol, drugs, R-rated movies, lewd music and dating on the Sabbath all things the LDS church forbids.
Members of the east Charlotte church officially known as the Hilliard Young Single Adult Ward describe it as a safe harbor against these and other temptations.
I just know that people here are going to do the right thing, said Daniel Dickey, 26, a pest control technician whos originally from Utah, where the LDS church has its national headquarters. You dont have to worry about a lot of things getting in trouble, making foolish mistakes. I know God wants me here.
Added Makenna Lewis, 20, who grew up in Charlotte and is now studying to be an X-ray technician: I just love the atmosphere, being around people my own age who share my values.
Marrying within the faith
Mormons are hardly alone in promoting chastity until marriage Catholic and Southern Baptist youth groups hear the same. And many other religions Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam also push hard for their adherents to marry and raise their children in the faith.
But by establishing singles-only churches, Mormons are more deliberate about both.
Thats partly a testament to the special place marriage has in LDS theology. Mormons believe that not even death ends member marriages that are sealed for eternity at LDS temples.
So, marrying within the faith can also pave the way for a wedding in an LDS temple, a sacred building open only to Mormons. In the Carolinas, there are temples in Columbia and Raleigh.
If I ever wanted to meet someone to marry, this would probably be the place to do that, Arica Page, 25, a special education teacher, said about the singles-only ward shes attended, off and on, since high school. As singles in the LDS church, we want to get married in the temple. And both of you have to be members of the church to do that.
Jake and Julie Graff, who got to know each other at the singles ward, tied the knot at the Columbia temple in 2008. They now worship, along with 9-month-old son, Connor, at the Pineville 1st Ward in south Charlotte.
Julie, an LDS convert at age 11, moved to Charlotte from Hillsborough in 2004 to attend Queens University of Charlotte. Being away from home was hard until she found Hilliard Ward.
It was an instant family for me, said Julie, now 26. If I really needed a hug, I knew that if I could wait until Sunday, somebody would give me one without my asking.
Yes, she said, there were cliques at the ward, and even some competition for guys. But nothing nasty, she said.
She and Jake were friends first, but eventually he got the courage to ask her out for dinner and ice skating. Six or so months later, they were engaged.
To have that (religious) unity in your marriage, that was a draw, said Jake, 27. That wasnt something we had to fight over. We already had that foundation.
There are other benefits to having a singles-only church. For the most part, the young adult members shoulder the many leadership roles, or callings. That gives them key training in a denomination that relies on an all-volunteer clergy.
On Sundays, the members do it all: fill the pews in their chapel, sing hymns, offer personal testimonies, stage and staff Sunday schools, plan days of service and sign up for social events. And they do it all in their Sunday best: White shirts, coats and ties for the men, dresses or skirts for the women.
But these young Mormons also make time for the kind of social activities that can lead to romance. Last years highlights included a night of speed-dating, Latin dancing, a chili cook-off, a Charlotte Knights game and Halloween pumpkin painting.
Later this month: A day of skiing and ice skating at Blowing Rock.
And every once in a while, the Hilliard ward gets a visit from married alumni wanting to show off their kids.
Its very heart-touching to remember when they came here as college kids or as newcomers to the area, said Bishop David Beachum, a married lay leader whos presided over the singles-only church for more than a decade. They didnt know anybody, and here they met their eternal mates.
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