“I can’t come over,” he told his friends when they invited him out. “Tonight’s the ward Special Interests family home evening, and I don’t want to miss it.”
What? This was the same man who only a year before, shortly after his wife died, said, “Special Interests? No way. I’m not interested in getting married again, and if I did I wouldn’t need a marriage bureau.”
His attitude changed when he caught the vision of what Special Interests should be, can be, and quite often is. In a family-oriented church, the widowed, the divorced, and the never-married Saints often feel left out. Yet when the Special Interests program was devised to help meet their needs, many were skeptical.
“They called us ‘Mutual Interests’ at first,” says one man, now active in the Special Interests program, “but frankly, it wasn’t mutual and it wasn’t interesting.” His quip points out a problem that has slowed several Special Interest groups’ progress: All that the single Saints have in common, at first anyway, is a lack—the lack of a spouse.
“If that’s all you concentrate on, then the program is dead,” said a young mother who helped with the program in a Florida ward. “If you sit around mourning together about how terrible it is not to be married, then those who want to be happy will stay away—and those who want to be miserable will just make each other feel worse!”
There is a recipe for Special Interest success, one that every successful SI leader we talked to had worked out for himself. The ingredients are simple to list:
1. Priesthood support.
2. Concern for others.
3. Help for today’s problems.
4. Enjoyment without tension.
Rosy Powell, a Special Interests leader in Rochester, New York, found that the program does not just magically appear. “If Special Interests people don’t have a program going, then it’s up to them to get one going.” Too often Latter-day Saints are used to organizations that already function smoothly. But Special Interests is new, flexible—“Don’t wait for things to happen—make them happen.”
But without priesthood support, there is no program, according to every Special Interests leader we talked to.
Why is it so essential?
“We adult single people have been hurt,” said one sister who had lost her husband in a devastating divorce. “Widows have been faced with the death of someone they had given themselves to, completely. Divorced people have seen their marriages fall apart. People who’ve never married begin to doubt themselves. So they’re usually distrustful, unwilling to commit themselves to something that might just make them feel worse. Unless the bishop is urging SI people to take part, unless the home teachers and visiting teachers are helping them take part, perhaps even babysitting now and then, or providing a ride—unless that kind of support happens, many hurt single people are likely to stay home.”
One of the most important things priesthood leaders can do, says Cordea Key, a Special Interests leader in Orlando, Florida, is to help change the image of the program. “Some people in our area won’t come because they think we’re trying to get them married off. That’s not what we’re working on at all. Lack of marriage may be a problem for some of our people, but marriage isn’t the only solution. Special Interests is a place for friendship. If romance comes for some, fine. But that’s not the focus.”
“I go to Relief Society and hear about how to make lemon meringue pie and how to be beautiful for my husband when he comes home. Well, my husband doesn’t come home at all,” says one sister. “What I need is a good lesson on how to tell if the garageman is trying to trick me into repairs my car doesn’t need, and how to fix a leaky faucet, and how to help my sons feel like they belong in the Church even though they don’t have a father.” She was a Relief Society president before her divorce. “I never knew how little we sometimes offer to those sisters who don’t have husbands. It’s as if they lived in a different world.”
A man who had never married confessed, “It got too lonely, week after week, coming to church and seeing all those families sitting together. They had found somebody they loved and wanted to share eternity with. I hadn’t. I just didn’t fit. And so every few months or so I’d catch myself falling into inactivity. It took tremendous effort just to come to meetings.” And yet this man wasn’t negative toward the Church—he had served a fine mission and now is a stalwart support to his ward in Virginia.
Something that meets their need is the priesthood leader who “lets us feel like our programs are as important to the ward and stake as the programs for families and married people.”
And the singles programs can be vital. Besides the good a successful Special Interests program does for the single Saints, it can be a very effective missionary tool. In New York, in Florida, in Arizona, in California, in Utah—wherever we found the Special Interests program going strong—we found people being converted and baptized into the Church.
“After all, who joins the Church?” Rosy Powell asked. “People who aren’t happy with the way their lives are going, and who find that the Church offers a better way. Well, Special Interests does that!”
Concern for Others
One single elder in a Michigan ward was the despair of the ward Special Interests leaders. He refused to attend meetings and parties, turned down every invitation to take part; then they had an inspired idea and telephoned him.
“Our group’s home evening program just isn’t working,” said the sister assigned to call him.
“I can’t come,” he answered, as he always did.
“I think,” she went on stubbornly, “that the problem is, there’s no priesthood holder present. Would you be willing to prepare a lesson for next week? All of those children need to know what it’s like to have a priesthood holder teaching in a home evening.”
And suddenly he decided he had the time, after all. He was needed. After he started teaching the lessons, attendance tripled and then quadrupled at the monthly Special Interests home evenings. He had something that other Saints needed—and he needed to be able to give it.
Dorothy Shlyk, a Special Interests leader in Tempe, Arizona, emphasized this. “Single Mormons need to turn outside themselves, away from their own problems and toward helping someone else. Your own problems don’t go away, of course. But by helping others, you can really begin to feel like you’re worth something, like somebody needs you.”
Three stake Special Interests leaders reported that their program really started working when they asked people to give rides to at least three other single Saints. These drivers knew that if they didn’t come, somebody else would have to stay home, too. And many good friendships began in those cars on the way to the meetinghouse.
Cordea Key talks about kinds of mutual support that developed in their group. The men, sensitive to the needs in single parent families, have gone out of their way to provide a male image for the children—one taught all the sons of single mothers how to fish—and another takes a personal interest in keeping the Special Interests sisters’ cars running.
Since his divorce in 1976, Steve Finlayson has discovered the enormous potential of the Special Interests program. At first he balked, but then he found that he could really serve people who needed him.
Brother Finlayson’s job required him to travel, often spending several days in a city. On every trip, he called to find out who the local Special Interest leaders were, and visited whatever activities he could. An insightful man, he was asked to speak at SI conferences and firesides. And always his message has been self-worth. “People who’ve been used to saying ‘we’ suddenly find themselves alone—just ‘me.’ Sometimes you get to feeling like you just can’t make it alone.”
We have heard again and again, “If I only had someone to talk to. But my married friends just don’t understand. And I don’t know any single people.”
That’s what Special Interests is for. To bring single Saints together to help each other.
Help for Today’s Problems
In a recent Special Interests “miniconference” in Rochester, New York, individual sessions included such topics as “Avoiding the Spiritual Doldrums,” “Single and Sane,” “How to Hold a Single Home Evening,” and a lecture on the Dead Sea scrolls. And radiating throughout the sessions was a feeling of mutual trust and caring.
Few people held back. Many participants shared what they had learned through hard experience.
“Monday nights can be terrible if you’re alone and you know that all the other members are with their families,” one sister would say; then a dozen others would come back with ways they had found to spend Monday evenings productively, in the spirit of the home evening program.
Craig Fotheringham in the spiritual doldrums session pointed out that people can get themselves completely lost in a “Bermuda Triangle” of such attitudes as self-pity and doubt. One sister added, “You begin to wonder if you have what it takes. After all, everybody else is going through life in pairs, and you’re alone! Sometimes it’s so much you just want to quit!”
Another sister answered, “I always have to look back and figure, the Lord understands. Sometimes after a day at work I come home and find the house in a mess, but I suppose the Lord will forgive a messy house if I choose to spend time with my children, instead. Or even, occasionally, alone. I just refuse to judge myself by the standards of women who don’t have to be breadwinner and housekeeper both!”
Special Interests is where single members can find help with their needs. And those needs vary.
One Special Interests leader, whose group was almost entirely sisters, realized that all of them were fighting a battle with their waistlines. So one activity was to get them all up to a ranch. “We went horseback riding, a lot of physical activities. And I told them all that I’d pay for the trip for whoever lost the most weight while we were there. We had a real battle up there, trying to win the free weekend!”
A sister in Phoenix with seven children—one on a mission—suddenly found herself abandoned by her husband. She was distraught, depressed. But a sensitive Special Interests group began to encourage her a little. Nothing pushy, just signs that they cared. Literally signs! This sister began to find little smiling faces cut out of cardboard stuck on popsicle sticks, posted in her front lawn. Then she was invited to a basketball game by a sister whose children were about the same ages as hers. She found herself and her children getting a free ride in one member’s airplane—the children had the time of their lives. These things didn’t solve her problems, but it helped make them easier to bear.
Dorothy Shlyk testifies that there is a lot that a woman suddenly left alone simply doesn’t know. Little things that have just been left up to her husband—the care of the automobile, when the insurance is due, and what type of coverage to get. How to get a loan. And husbands who lose their wives are often just as confused. How much soap goes into a washing machine? The children’s clothes cost twice as much as he had thought. Where should he shop—and where do you skimp to save money without losing quality?
Special Interest groups have often held workshops in such subjects. In the Menlo Park Stake in California, those who have expertise in a subject offer classes, and those who are interested come and learn. Many stakes arrange special classes by Latter-day Saint marriage or family counselors on such topics as “How to teach boys to be men—without a father,” and “How to stop the children from quarreling.”
But perhaps more important than learning principles in classes is knowing that you are not alone: you can call on a fellow member of the Special Interests program and get help. Someone to tend the other children while you rush to the hospital with the little girl who fell off her bike; someone to hold up the awning while you screw the braces into place; someone to tell you that the funny noise in your car is just a loose wogglebinket rather than a cracked engine block; someone to teach you how to cook a decent meal for one person when you’re used to cooking for seven—if at all.
Someone who has been through your problem and survived, to show you how to do it, too.
Enjoyment without Tension
“Hello, my name is Linda, and I’m single.”
“Hello, my name is Ted, and I’m trying not to look nervous.”
Social occasions can be one of the biggest gaps in a single Saint’s life. “What most married people don’t realize,” says Sister Key, “is that for single people outside the Church, the only social life is in the cocktail lounges and singles bars. If there isn’t some social opportunity for single Saints in the Church, then some people get pretty desperate.”
Time after time, single members recounted the same story. “After the flowers and the casseroles and the sympathy cards, there was nothing. It seemed that nobody invited me anywhere. I’d go to ward dinners, and spend the entire time wrestling with four little children. And no one ever seemed to offer to help. Even conversations were limited.”
Shayne McCook, a former Special Interests worker in Tempe, tried to overcome that barrier. She and her husband, Ron, were a married couple who had been called to assist in their stake’s Special Interests program. They knew married couples often don’t understand the problems of single people and worried about communicating. “But we decided that single people are people first, and single only incidentally. They needed what Ron and I needed, only perhaps more of it. So we decided that first and foremost, they would enjoy being in the Special Interests program.”
The McCooks were starting from zero—they didn’t know any of the people they were supposed to work with, and the Special Interests program hadn’t even existed before they were called. “So we started small. We just got to know our ward representatives and stake officers really well. When we had extra tickets for a football game, we would call them and have them and their children go with us. Meetings weren’t enough—we needed to be friends with them, have a good time, get to know each other under pleasant circumstances.”
Predictably, the single people had reservations at first. “But,” Sister McCook remembers, “it just took time and caring to build that relationship—and then everything fell into place.”
Because single Saints have often experienced a great deal of emotional pain, they are often quicker to notice insensitivity or hypocrisy. “If Ron and Shayne hadn’t been such honestly wonderful people, it wouldn’t have worked,” one of the widows said. “But we knew they didn’t care about filling out a report or about having a record number of people at a fireside. They cared about us. They wanted me to be there because they liked me. They even liked me between meetings!”
And when love is there, it becomes something that Special Interests people—anyone—can build on. “Whoever would have thought that a hayride would be any fun with thirty middle-aged ladies and two old men!” one Special Interests ward representative remembers with glee. “But we’ve had dances with two women for every man—and nobody spent the whole night without dancing! And home evenings with forty children. If I didn’t love the people I’d hate it. But I love the people—and so I love those activities.”
Dorothy Shlyk remembers, “People who are heartbroken—the ones who’ve just ended a bad romance, or who just lost a husband or wife—they think they aren’t going to live another day. But they’ve found out that they can sit there and laugh their heads off with the rest of us—it’s just so exciting to see that.” Her ward had a “munch bunch” of singles that ate out together once a month. “I took three ladies home, and Sister Lyons was the last one to be taken home,” she said. “We sat in front of her house from 9:00 until thirteen minutes after twelve. She told me about her life—she was widowed when she was very young, and remarried three years later, and then the last four or five years she has been a widow again.”
Sister Shlyk smiled as she remembered that night. “If anyone had told me four years ago I’d be excited to sit in a car and talk to a 75-year-old woman for more than three hours, I probably would have said, ‘Never!’ But I loved Sister Lyons before that evening was half over, and it was one of the most wonderful nights I’ve ever spent.”
Many Special Interest members confessed, “I didn’t think the program would be very fulfilling.” They were delighted to find out they were wrong. Of course there are still many places where this new program has not yet found its wings, but as one single brother said, “If somebody thinks that Special Interests is a drag, it’s either because he’s never gone and doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or because he went with a chip on his shoulder thinking that somebody would come up to him and hit him over the head with a stick and say, ‘Wake up! Have fun!’ Nobody’s going to do that. You only find enjoyment when you’re trying to help other people enjoy themselves. You can’t have a good time while you’re feeling sorry for yourself.”
This recipe for a successful Special Interests program only works when people actually come out. And every Special Interests leader we talked to said that was the biggest obstacle.
“They’re afraid. Many don’t want to come,” said one single sister who tried everything she could think of to get the program started. “I mailed postcards to all the singles in the ward, asking them to come. One other sister besides me showed up. So the next week I called everybody, twice. A few more came. Finally I began arranging a car pool, and then a group began showing up regularly.”
Another Special Interests leader was even more direct. “I just called up and said, ‘We’re having a fireside tonight. I’ll pick you up at 6:30.’ My gas costs soared, but now the program is working fine.”
Another sister said, “I don’t wait for budget, I don’t wait for help. I just make sure that no matter what happens, the program goes ahead. Later, when people see that it’s worthwhile, they begin to help out, and you can relax a bit. But getting started means good, hard work.”
Rosy Powell agreed that a lot depends on individual initiative. “I often hear Special Interest sisters complain that nobody takes their sons fishing or to baseball games, or things like that. Well, I’ve found two good answers to that problem.
“First, I can take those boys fishing or to baseball games myself!
“And second, I invite some other ward member’s son or daughter to join us when we go! Sometimes that has led to forming really fine friendships, either just for my children or for my whole family and another family in the ward.”
And that is important. Special Interests people have a lot to offer the whole Church, not just each other. Sometimes married couples ignore singles because they’re unsure how to act. They may think of inviting a single member along with their family, but then they think, “Oh, he wouldn’t want to go with a lot of children,” or, “It might make her feel bad, so soon after losing her husband.” Single members can overcome those fears by not waiting for their married friends to take the first step.
“My roof was leaking,” said one sister in Mesa, Arizona. “When I realized that nobody was going to help me unless I asked, I swallowed my pride and asked. And I was amazed. The high priests quorum was on my roof one Saturday, and the job was done. Ever since then I keep getting phone calls—offering to help. I would hear strange noises in the driveway, and come out to find a sheepish family washing my car. ‘We know you’re busy,’ they said, ‘and we had some soap left over after washing ours. …’ You just can’t be too proud to ask.”
The recipe for Special Interests success, then, comes in four steps: support from the leadership; being concerned for others instead of oneself; providing help for the real problems that single people are actually facing; and providing opportunities for singles to enjoy themselves, without pressure.
Because the program is still new, there’s tremendous room for adaptability. Though the Special Interests groups we talked to had much the same recipe for success, all the groups were different. Regional activities work well in some areas. In others, like Rochester, many things need to happen at a ward level—they’re just too spread out to have a big program at the stake level, which would make people drive as much as two hours to stake functions.
In some places an activity is scheduled every week, or several times a week. Where members are sparse or scattered, the Special Interests leaders concentrate on one or two events a month. Some activities involve children—some activities are for adults only. In all cases, though, the program is shaped to meet the single Saints’ needs.
As one Special Interests leader said, “I don’t know where I’d be without the Special Interests program.” When we pointed out to her that she was the backbone of her ward’s program, she only shook her head. “I needed to give that service as much as they needed to get it—maybe more. Because in the Special Interests program, I’ve found a way to live the gospel and be active in the Church—I feel like a first-class citizen in the kingdom of God, because I know where I fit.”
And then she echoed the words of many, many others:
“With my group of friends in Special Interests, I belong. They’re like a family to me.”
And after all, that family feeling is what it’s all about.