Young Adult Center in South Africa a Catalyst for Rescue Efforts
Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
When Ellis and Glenda Stonehocker of Calgary, Alberta, Canada submitted their mission papers in 2010, they said they’d “do anything and go anywhere.” “Anywhere” was Johannesburg, South Africa, and “anything” turned out to be helping to establish the first young single adult center on the African continent.
On November 4, 2011, the young adults of the Soweto South Africa Stake held their first activity in a building added to the stake property to be used exclusively as the young adult center.
A Center in Soweto
Although there are approximately 150 such centers throughout Europe and a few scattered throughout the United States, Africa now has just three so far. In addition to the Soweto location, centers have been created in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.
Because a physical space for a center hadn’t yet been acquired when the Stonehockers arrived in South Africa, for the first year of their mission, the couple “had a center without a center,” Sister Stonehocker said. She explained that they met in a local meetinghouse, where they held home evening, institute classes, and other events throughout the week.
Michael Letlhola Gwebu, 21, has enjoyed relaxing with friends at the center, playing games there, and learning about the gospel. In this environment, he said, he has learned about unity.
“It’s such an eye-opening experience to be accepted for who you are amongst your peers and [to face] no pressure that will lead you astray,” he said.
The center operates under the direction of the stake, so the Stonehockers concentrated their efforts on working with the young adults of the stake, particularly those in five units that had high young single adult populations and that were within a reasonable distance of the stake center, since transportation is often a challenge.
The efforts were very much focused on rescue—in other words, retention and reactivation. In their rescue efforts, the Stonehockers leveraged the power and influence of the active young single adults.
In December 2010, three of the local bishops identified a total of 40 less-active YSAs. Those who spend time at the center made Christmas packages containing cards, stories, and treats to deliver to those brothers and sisters during a caroling activity.
“The neighbors would all come out, stunned to see us,” Sister Stonehocker said. “They’d join in the singing and say ‘Merry Christmas,’ and as we drove away, kids would run after the vehicles and wave and jump up and down.” In many cases, the same spirit that attracted neighbors also touched the young single adults who were visited. A number of them subsequently returned to church.
Along with reactivation, retention has been an important focus. During the year that the YSA center was operating out of the stake center, a large number of young adults joined the Church.
Elder Kelvin J. Troy of Dublin, Ireland, was a full-time missionary in the Johannesburg South Africa Mission during this time. He had a brief experience with a YSA center back home—it was completed just before he left on his mission—and the promise of a center in Soweto excited him and his companion.
“With the construction of this new center, … we had access to a safe, inviting place for new young adults to come and feel welcomed. President [Gordon B.] Hinckley (1910–2008) said that every new member should have three things: a responsibility, a friend, and to be nourished by the good word of God. This center provided for all of these opportunities. [It] laid the foundation for miracles to take place.”
Over the next several months, 35 young single adults in Soweto entered the waters of baptism. “The center became their second home,” said Brother Troy, who has since completed his mission. “It was a sanctuary and escape from the world [where new members could] find people living the same standards they were.”
Bridget Ndivhuwo Rambedy, 22, was baptized on October 24, 2010, and currently serves on the young adult center activities committee. She sees the center as a place to draw closer to God. In addition to serving as a place for studying for school, relaxing, or holding social activities, she said, it’s also somewhere she and her peers can gather to strengthen each other.
“The center is one of the places where we as young people come together and share the gospel and educate and edify each other with the knowledge we have,” she said. She appreciates being able to read the scriptures, ask questions about principles she doesn’t understand, and have a quiet place to ponder and feel the Spirit, free from distraction.
She also likes having a place to bring friends, both those who are members of the Church and those who aren’t, because the center is a safe, fun place to play games like table tennis, pool, and table soccer (foosball).
A Place of Belonging
Brother Troy said Elder and Sister Stonehocker have consistently helped nurture these new members. Early in 2010, the Stonehockers worked with young single adults one on one to help them prepare family names for a temple trip in March, where ordinance work was done for some 81 ancestors. All of the 24 young adults who attended were new converts.
“The Stonehockers continue to work daily to make the YSA center in Soweto feel like home,” said Brother Troy. “Each brother and sister is known by name. Each concern is noted. It never matters how serious or insignificant the problem is, they are always there. They make each YSA a member of their family—their child.”
And the young adults attending the center feel part of a family. Some of them have affectionately nicknamed their missionary couple “Papa and Mama Stonehocker.”
Sinethemba Daki, 21, is among them. “I’ve learned a lot from the Stonehockers,” she said. “Mostly I’ve learned to be caring and eager to help others—to be selfless,” she said. “My favorite thing to do is cooking and learning how to be a homemaker from Mama Stonehocker and receiving words of wisdom from Papa Stonehocker. The atmosphere in the center is amazing.”
Elder Stonehocker said that because most of the young adults they’re working with have lost one or both parents, they often have no one to turn to for advice. For that reason, he and Sister Stonehocker spend a lot of time teaching them not only the gospel but also practical life skills.
“Many of the activities have a purpose that relates to trying or developing new skills,” he said. “We use our computers to help them develop a good CV (résumé). Much of our time and efforts are often one on one, helping to reassure them as they move forward with their lives. We love working with the young adults and are thankful for this experience. Their challenges become our challenges, and their accomplishments make us proud.”
The Stonehockers sense the importance of the work they’re doing because they know that the rising generation is the future leadership of the Church. Sister Stonehocker points out that it’s already happening—that in several cases, those serving in leadership positions throughout the stake are in their 20s and 30s.
Elder Stonehocker says the young adults are developing skills that will make them effective missionaries and Church leaders—developing confidence in conducting meetings or family home evenings and giving lessons.
“I see the center as a vital resource in the building blocks necessary for [them to gain] a solid foundation in the gospel as they continue to grow,” Elder Stonehocker said of the young adults in Soweto.
“Their testimonies are strong,” Sister Stonehocker added. “They have walked by faith every step of the way. They are the future of the Church here.”