In a little corner of Murray, Utah, on a typical Thursday evening, clouds of red dust rose out of a neatly polished softball diamond as hurried feet rounded each of the four bases. The roars of enthusiastic fans could be heard from far away and high fives were given all around.
Such are the scenes of many summer softball games, but this game was different than most — it was the championship game between two qualified wards in the Murray Utah YSA Stake who were competing for the title of stake softball champions.
This event involving eight wards and held on Thursday, Aug. 2, was just one of many games that took place during the night and throughout the summer. While its intensity might have exceeded previous games, the enthusiasm of both the players and fans was just as high as it had been in games before, with additional support from other ward teams who hadn't made it quite as far. For this stake, it is the unity of wholesome activities, such as softball games, that have proven successful in bringing young single adults together in a fun and common design.
"The Church encourages social interaction and synergy among its young people," lds.org states, making enhanced social interaction between young single adults a goal of the recently reorganized YSA ward program.
"[Softball] is just one of the ways that we see is effective in reaching young single adults," said Ken Riches, bishop of the Parkway YSA Ward. "It just seems like a wonderful activity that brought our whole stake together."
In order to get more people to participate and to make the weekly games more conducive to those who weren't as comfortable with playing softball or coming to ward activities, the stake decided to incorporate food, popcorn and music into the events, which encouraged young single adults to socialize during and in between games. From that point on, game turnout was extremely successful, said high council member Grant Monson, who oversees stake sports. "It's created a ton of ward unity though and has kind of spilled over to the stake."
Not only are young single adults making lasting friendships here, but the games have also encouraged dating among members within the stake, following prophetic counsel to help young single adults find worthy eternal companions, Brother Monson said. "We've had one marriage and tons of dates. … It's doing exactly what we want it to do."
The softball-filled summer has also helped in successfully progressing toward another prophetic prompt given by President Thomas S. Monson at the 2008 Seminar for New Mission Presidents. He encouraged Church members to seek the rescue of those around them, saying that "there is … no substitute for a member-oriented proselyting program. … A member-oriented program is the key to success and it works wherever we try it" ("Motivating Missionaries," quoted by Elder L. Tom Perry, April 2009 general conference) and the softball games have helped in doing just that.
"This activity reaches a lot ... that are less active and this has been fun to see them get involved here," Bishop Riches said. "I think a lot of gospel discussion between friends has been taking place; in fact, I know that's happened."
Jeff Hansen, first counselor in the Parkway YSA Ward, agreed saying that some of the young single adults within the stake have been less active for years but through softball, they have made friends and are able to see that "these are just normal people. … Pretty soon they [attend Church] and they feel the Spirit and that's how it works."
Whitney Holmes of the Parkway YSA Ward was one such young woman whose love of softball helped to get her involved not only in the sport but also in her Church and ward activity. "I think it's easier to meet people this way," she said. "There's no pressure and you just come out and have fun."
Since playing with her ward Whitney has been called to serve as the ward sports committee co-chair. Plans for organizing golf and volleyball tournaments are in the works. "I'm pretty excited about it, [and it] will bring other people out," she said. "We're trying to kind of hit every sport in every direction, trying to bring people from everywhere. That's kind of the goal … We just want them to come out and be around the good influences. … I think if they feel welcome enough at these sports then they'll be able to come to Church."
Ultimately, the goal is to bring people to Christ and the number of young single adults who have been welcomed and re-activated in the Church is something that Janalee Hallmark, the stake Relief Society second counselor, calls a "miracle."
"There is something very tangible that's going on with the fellowshipping and those spirits that are being rekindled and coming back," she said. "I just think we've all been part of a miracle."