The newly opened “23rd Street chapel” is unique in the American Mormon church: It is the only worship space in the country devoted solely to unmarried people in their 20s, 30s and 40s. It serves the biggest population of single Mormons outside Utah in a neighborhood so thick with church members that it is nicknamed “Little Provo.”
The chapel represents Mormonism’s exalted view of marriage and its particular strategy for getting singles wed as quickly as possible: by separating them from people who are married.
“It’s a paradoxical existence,” said Andrew Jensen, a 30-year-old, single Defense Department employee who worships at the boxy office-building-turned chapel. “We come here with the end goal of making ourselves obsolete.”
In a faith that calls getting married “graduating with honors” and believes that after death you live with your family forever, finding a spouse is central to being a Mormon.
That creates an interesting dynamic at the church, made up of three individual singles congregations, or “wards.”
The concentration of so many single men and women produces sexual tension that their faith forbids them to act upon. The chapel’s young professionals brag about marrying later than their Utah cohorts and being more independent, but also worry about being co-opted by Washington’s ambitious, individualistic culture. And everyone wonders what will happen in the afterlife if they never wed.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as Mormons are formally known, teaches that all people have an afterlife, but one must be married, or “sealed,” to reach its highest parts. While Mormons believe it’s possible to be sealed in one’s afterlife, unmarried people are barred from key leadership positions in the church and often worship in separate singles congregations.
Just last month, a top Mormon official urged young people not to delay marriage or “waste time in idle pursuits” at a biannual churchwide meeting.
Once someone from a singles congregation gets married, they move to a “traditional,” or married, congregation, which normally occupies the same building but worships at a different time. (The church assigns members to congregations based on where they live. If there is a singles congregation available, unmarried people are encouraged to join it, but it’s not a requirement.)
The push for Mormons to marry can be intense.
Kristina Southam, 23, moved to Northern Virginia to look for a job in development after graduating from Brigham Young University. In Utah, she said, a woman her age would start to feel uncomfortable if unmarried. But in the Washington area, Mormons are more likely to delay getting married, just like many other college-educated adults.