“The Place to Be,” Liahona, Aug. 2005, 26
For Vishakha it all started in India. That was where Vishakha Ram was invited to go to something called “institute” with a friend. She hesitated because she didn’t really think religion was her thing, but she finally agreed. On her first visit, she found a small class studying about preparing for an eternal marriage. Vishakha was amazed. “They were actually talking about these things. I grew up as a Hindu, and we don’t have the concept of eternal marriage. But in this class it was interesting to me because everything was so pure and clear. It was just like looking at pearls. It was really beautiful.”
Vishakha didn’t have the opportunity to join the Church in India because she went to Berlin, Germany, on a student exchange program. But she remembered the Church and the institute class she had found so interesting. When she arrived in Berlin, she called the missionaries, and they also took her to institute. She arrived just in time to see a great change take place at the Berlin institute. The Church had finished building a new institute addition adjoining the stake center. This shared building provides room for sports such as volleyball and basketball, a kitchen, a lounge, a library, and plenty of classrooms. The center would now support a new emphasis called institute outreach.
A little over a year and a half ago, a grand experiment began in central Europe. The question was, How were Church members to support and strengthen active young single adults, reactivate those who had slipped into inactivity, and attract more of that age group to the Church as converts?
The answer: Reach out to young single adults; give them a place to feel comfortable, a place to socialize, and a place to be taught.
The first step was to make sure a suitable facility was available for a variety of activities and classes. Very quickly, four were opened. Called institute outreach centers, the four centers are located in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig, Germany. Another was added later in Düsseldorf, Germany. Fifteen others are being developed in Germany and Scandinavia. These centers are open either all day or all afternoon and evening. Young people can just drop in, come for classes and activities, use the library and computers to study, or get together to fix dinner so they won’t have to travel all the way home and then turn around and come back to class. For some, the distance is too great to make it home after school or work and then make it back for institute class or activities.
Institute outreach center describes both a place and what happens there. It is a friendly welcoming place where young single adults can come to learn, to find friends with the same beliefs, and to feel comfortable as they make their way back into full activity. It also serves as a place where missionaries can bring investigators who are in this age group.
Elder Karl and Sister Deanna Webb, the missionary couple called as area coordinators for the institute outreach centers, explain: “This is where young people can come for all kinds of activities, a place to be fellowshipped and feel the Spirit. It is a place to come to be reintegrated into the Church.”
The outreach part of the institute outreach center is missionary work. A companionship or two of missionaries plus a full-time missionary couple are assigned to each center. They are to focus their energies on the 18- to 30-year-olds—active, less-active, or nonmember. For that reason, the centers—which are a joint effort between the stakes and the Church Educational System—are in cities with universities and a large number of young people.
Just having somewhere specifically for young people has already made a difference for missionary work. Elder Webb tells of two missionaries who were on a university campus contacting young single adult students. They were turned down flat by the first 10 people they contacted. Then they changed their approach, mentioning the wonderful new center nearby for young single adults where there were all kinds of activities and classes. The missionaries reported having serious conversations with 28 of the next 30 people they contacted.
Zula Tenges is one young woman whom the missionary outreach touched. She came to Germany from Mongolia. She wanted to learn English and found a course offered at the institute. “The class was free,” says Zula. “I was liking that. I met some elders, and they taught me about the Church. I wasn’t really interested in religion, but I wanted to understand more about Christianity.”
Zula, 21, from the Tiergarten Ward, was drawn into the activities and the friendship she found at the Berlin institute. “It was so cool at institute. I have so many friends. Many of them are now on missions. That was a great place to get to know the Church.” Zula was baptized a little more than a year ago.
One of the advantages Christina Marinkovic, 23, from the Tiergarten Ward, sees in having a full-time missionary couple in the center is the example these lifelong Church members are to the young single adults.
Christina was first brought to institute by her sister. “I wasn’t interested at first,” says Christina, “but I had a good feeling. It was good to see young people who make good decisions and do the right things. And they have fun. They have fun without alcohol. That was for me a little miracle. Now I am the same way.”
Christina has come to know Elder Thomas and Sister Marilyn Alexander, the missionary couple assigned to the center. “They make institute so much better. We can see a good example of how it is to be married for a long time. It’s good for me to see that a husband and wife can be happy for 40 years and in love with each other. They still flirt. It’s so sweet to see.”
Birgit Pless, 24, of the Dahlem Ward, agrees: “Institute is a beautiful place and has a great spirit. We have couple missionaries there who are wonderful. It is a relaxed and fun place.”
And it fills immediate needs. In Hamburg, one young man was struggling to become active again. He was unemployed, and the couple missionaries spent a lot of time helping him to do his résumé on the computer. He became comfortable with them and with being at the institute center and became fully active again.
A young man who had been stationed in Leipzig with the military found the outreach center and became a regular at class and activities. The military life was so different from his home life that he longed to be around those with his same ideals. “One particular evening,” says Elder Griffiths, “he arrived just as the activity at the center was breaking up. We asked him why he had bothered to come when it was so late. He replied, ‘I had to come. I needed it.’”
Just a year and a half since her baptism, Vishakha, 26, from the Lankwitz Ward, was called as student council president at the institute. Now there are activities or classes nearly every night of the week at the Berlin outreach center. She is attending the Church history class with 25 other students. For their institute, Vishakha says, “the class is mighty big.” She is excited to get some more activities going, more chances to go out to museums and concerts, more fun activities like playing games, maybe an evening to watch movies, and more testimony meetings. “So far,” says Vishakha, “there hasn’t been a dance course. We want to do that.”
The outreach centers are beginning to bear fruit. Young single adults are finding a refuge, a place that fulfills their needs. If they are the only members in their families, they can attend family home evening at the center. If they need someone to turn to for good advice, they can find a listening ear. If they want to have fun without worrying about having their standards challenged, they can find such activities at the center. And as they desire to learn more of the Lord and His Church, they can take classes.
The outreach centers are there to help in whatever way is needed. They become safe shelters from the storms of life, a place to find peace.
“We want to create a young single adult culture at the outreach centers,” says Horst Gruse, institute director in Berlin. “The stake center was remodeled, and the institute was added on. The facility is available to serve nearly 120 young single adults in the stake.
“A missionary couple serve as leaders. We hold family home evening and classes on religion, leadership, marriage preparation, and scripture study. There are practical classes such as the teachings of the living prophets, English or other language classes, and mission preparation. We ask returned missionaries to teach them. And we have a stake sports center, dances, barbecues, service projects, and larger events such as concerts and lectures.
“We’ve seen a new enthusiasm for the work and a special focus on this outreach to the less active and nonmembers.”