Zakopane, Poland, is a resort town, the kind of place where skiing is king in the winter and tourism fuels the economy during the summer, so residents are used to seeing people who do not fit the local mold.
Even so, townspeople strolling through the city park on a Friday afternoon slow down to gaze curiously at the young people, clustered around benches, cutting pictures out of magazines and pasting them onto poster paper.
The people in those small groups work enthusiastically, undisturbed by the curiosity of the passersby who peer over their shoulders. Their pictures cut from Church magazines are turning into posters illustrating gospel concepts.
A day later, these 65 Latter-day Saints gather in groups around the cascades of a stream in a nearby national park, discussing the scriptural answers to gospel questions posed by a priesthood leader. That evening, they linger late in a city park roasting sausages over a fire and visiting with each other. Then in a special sacrament meeting on Sunday morning, they rise quickly one after another to bear testimony of the gospel.
They savor every spiritual moment and wring every social opportunity out of this all-Poland single adult conference because they know that when they go home, they will be once again part of only a handful of members in their cities. Many will be the lone member in a family, in an office, and perhaps in a large university.
Their faces are the faces of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Poland, where a high percentage of the members are young and single.
Agnieszka Mazinska of the Warszawa First Branch is one of those faces. An office manager for an association of Polish filmmakers, she says it is sometimes hard to be the only Church member in all of those situations: “It is hard to have friends outside the Church because they have different values. I cannot talk to them about spiritual things.” Sometimes it seems hard to stay active. But she has been doing it for 12 years now, since her baptism. Members of her family have at least come to appreciate how the gospel has shaped her, and occasionally now friends show an interest in the Church.
Members like Agnieszka are the majority in the Warsaw Poland District, says district president Robert T. Zelewski. The district has nearly 500 members in five branches spread over four cities. (Poland has approximately 1,300 members in total. There is also a district headquartered in Katowice.) President Zelewski says 60 to 70 percent of members in his district are single. There are no more than 30 families in the district that include a father, mother, and children.
His family is one of them. An executive at a Warsaw hotel that is part of an international chain, President Zelewski was converted in 1989 after meeting a Latter-day Saint couple who attended an academic conference in Poland. He could see things he admired in their lifestyle, and they introduced him briefly to the gospel. A friendship developed. They invited him to the United States to help translate a book, and he was baptized within three weeks. Within a few months he was back in Poland as a newly ordained elder. Robert Zelewski was fortunate enough to find a young woman to marry who was already a member of the Church. They were sealed in the temple, and President Zelewski believes their daughter Maja, now approaching Young Women age, was the first child born in the covenant in Poland.
Things do not work out so simply for many Polish members. The rate of unemployment is high—perhaps 20 percent—and housing can be difficult and expensive to obtain for any young couple contemplating marriage. In Polish society, some young people, desirous to get out on their own, can only do so by moving into an apartment shared with several other singles.
But for Church members, the hard part may be finding a potential mate who can share their spiritual values. Not only are members few in number, but single women far outnumber men in the Church.
There are huge risks in marrying someone who is not a member of the Church, says Izabela Markiewicz of the Katowice Branch, and she would rather be single than be married to someone who could not understand her spiritual roots.
“Iza” (to her friends) grew up religious in a country where the dominant religion is often honored in name only. When she began to look for something more and prayed to the Lord for help, He “put the missionaries in my path.” At first she had only a historical interest in the Book of Mormon. But as she began to study the gospel, “I felt at home.” Baptized in 1994, she later served a mission in the Illinois Chicago North Mission.
Iza shares the enthusiasm of other young members for gatherings like the single adult conference. “Sometimes you need to feel the mental and spiritual comfort,” she says, of being with other members. She spent a year teaching in a primary school in Russia. There were more members in that country, and more opportunities to feel the strength of associations with Latter-day Saints, so Iza chose to go back for another year.
But she recognizes the good that the Church can do for the people of her own country. “We can give them an alternative,” she says. “We can show them you can live your life in a different way.” Members can show that it is possible to enjoy life without practices that violate the Word of Wisdom or other spiritual laws. Iza adds somewhat wistfully that she wishes Polish society were more open to change and less bound by tradition.
Marcin Dabrowski says tradition can be a serious difficulty in family relationships when one joins the Church. Members who are alone in their families face questions like these: Why do you have to go to church every Sunday instead of being with the family? Why can’t you drink coffee or tea with us anymore, or drink the drinks we enjoy at family gatherings? Why do you go far away to visit a “temple” when you have a church here? And when a member wants to seek spiritual guidance before making decisions, this can be difficult to explain to the family.
Missionaries who come from outside Poland will say Poles can be guarded and reserved with strangers, but once you come to know them, they are warm and caring. Marcin says the missionaries approached him in a way that won his friendship and trust. First, when they met him on the street, they asked him for directions they needed, giving him the opportunity to be of some help to them. As they taught him about the gospel, they patiently answered his questions or promised to get answers. And they shared their own personal experiences in gospel learning with him. Now Marcin is invited frequently to help instruct new missionaries in Polish. He tells them how important it is to be open with investigators, to acknowledge that they faced spiritual challenges of their own.
Marcin, who works at a university library in Warsaw, holds a degree in Polish literature. “The first holy scripture I read was the Book of Mormon. Then when I read the Book of Mormon, I began to read the Bible.” From the beginning, he felt the Book of Mormon was true, and he felt immediately the positive influence of gospel principles. While he did not grow up in a religious home, he says family members have now begun to recognize the differences the gospel has made in his life.
President Zelewski comments: “It amazes me when people survive these obstacles [spiritual isolation and family indifference] how strong they become.” When trips are organized for Polish members to visit the Freiberg Germany Temple, he says, the members typically ignore the attractions of sightseeing or other activities and spend every bit of time they possibly can serving in the temple. Temple excursions to Freiberg can accommodate 60 members, and last time there were 70 who wanted to go. President Zelewski had to ask some members to stay home. “That is one of the hardest things I have had to do in my calling.”
To help strengthen the Church in his district, President Zelewski focuses on leadership. His regular monthly meetings with branch and elders quorum presidencies are aimed at training and strengthening them. “I’ve learned one thing: if the leader has the support of his wife, it is much easier to carry the load.” Life can be much harder for a single leader who has less than full support at home.
President Zelewski is a strong believer in the importance of home teaching. He and his companion, a convert from Ukraine, have helped reactivate several members of the three families they teach.
Henry Kosak is an educator. Reared in what was then East Germany, he is now Church Educational System coordinator for the Baltic countries, Poland, and the Dresden Germany Stake. He emphasizes the importance of daily scripture study for members in Poland who have little more than the scriptures to help them become strong in the gospel.
There are 136 potential institute students in the Warsaw district, and efforts are being made to extend the reach of the program, Brother Kosak says. “We have just 12 seminary students in all of Poland.” But many members, including young single adults, have a great desire to learn the gospel in greater depth and teach it to others. Poles are very patriotic toward their country, he says, and once they become converted to the gospel, they are great patriots to God as well.
David J. Barnett, formerly an Area Seventy (2001–04), is president of the Poland Warsaw Mission. In a question-answer session with the single adults, he is asked when there might be a patriarch in their country so Polish members can more easily receive patriarchal blessings. His answer: If they will help build membership in their areas so districts can become stakes, then they will have patriarchs. He counsels them to help bring their friends into the Church and teaches about the important role of members as undershepherds to strengthen and activate others in the service of the Savior.
Many of his answers about the growth of the Church in Poland have to do with the opportunities and responsibilities of members. “I feel the Polish people will grow as they learn to serve,” he says, expressing certainty that they will find joy along the way as they take full advantage of spiritual direction. “The Lord needs everyone to serve and to strengthen, and in time He will answer their prayers.”
For the many members who are the only Latter-day Saints in their social and occupational circles, without support in the home, President Barnett says the Church is the answer—the place where “they have a family” of members. The support and love they crave can be found in the branch, in the district, among their brothers and sisters in the gospel.
Agnieszka Mazinska’s face comes alive when she talks about the gospel and about her associations with other members. “I have decided my best friends are Church members.” She works at cultivating those friendships. “Branch members are my second family.”
Even at times when they feel isolated, members know they need not be.
“I had never thought that God could give responses, but He does,” says Adrian Krajewski, a member of the Lodz Branch who joined the Church in 2003.
Joanna Maria Manowiecka, a member of the Warszawa Second Branch, also was baptized in 2003. She says the principal difference Church membership has made in her life is in the influence of “the Spirit. I’ve never, ever felt something like this before. It’s amazing!” Joanna, known as Asia (Ash’-ah) to her friends, says her mother has been pleased with the positive difference the gospel has made. Asia looks back on her life before she found the gospel and makes this comparison: It is like being lost deep in a forest and then being given a map that leads you to the pathway out. “You just have to follow the map.”
No matter what challenges they may face at times, these young members will say they do not want to go back into that forest. They know when they look at life from an eternal perspective that following the map is the only safe and productive way to live. Says Iza Markiewicz: “The fact that you are sometimes on your own and you have to stand for what you believe makes you stronger.”