CARY, N.C., Sept. 13 (RNS)--Heartbroken and depressed over the breakup of her engagement, Tina Lunde of Cary needed the help of her church more than at any other time in her life.

But there was just one problem: She was pregnant, and as a single woman she assumed her church would have nothing to do with her.

"I knew there were churches, especially in the South, that would kick me out," said Lunde, 26, a hairdresser. "They would have looked at me like I was disgraceful."

But to her amazement, the Cary Church of God welcomed her with open arms. Members called to see how she was doing, organized a baby shower, and tucked envelopes with cash in her hands.

Two years later, the church is still there. Lunde gets practical help and encouragement in a bimonthly support group for single mothers. And on Sunday mornings, the men of the church make her son, Joshua, feel special--hugging and holding him before and after services.

Lunde is lucky. Across the country, churches are only just now beginning to explore ways to help single parents. Once shunned as irresponsible or branded as sinners, single parents as a group are now getting more of the church's attention.

With divorce rates as high among the faithful as in the rest of society, and with government championing church initiatives to help mothers on welfare find work, many religious leaders are recasting single parents in a new light.

No longer symbols of disintegrating family values, single mothers and their children are now seen as today's version of the widows and orphans of biblical days.

"We see ministry to single parents as a mandate to take care of those in need," said Brenda Armstrong, the director of single parents ministry at Christian Financial Concepts, an evangelical organization based in Gainesville, Ga. "We see this as being obedient to the word of God."

Although churches have come a long way in ministering to all kinds of minority groups, including people with AIDS, there has been no systematic outreach to single parents.

There's no denying the need. About 26% of all families in the United States are headed by single parents, according to census figures. The majority of children with single parents--85%--live with their mothers. But while most single mothers work outside the home, their median income in 1998 was only $18,000 a year, barely above the poverty level.

Traditionally, churches help out in a pinch with emergency funding for a single parent who has lost a job or a home. Now many congregations are launching a range of programs intended to offer more consistent support.

Some churches are helping single parents with quarterly car-care ministries, in which church members perform an oil change or a maintenance check free of charge. Others are starting housing ministries to help single parents repair a washing machine or a broken doorknob. Still others offer help with financial planning.

And many churches, like the Cary Church of God, a congregation of both black and white members, offer support groups for single mothers.

"The biggest problem single people face is isolation and feeling like they're the only ones this is happening to," said Skippy Clark of Raleigh, who leads one of the single mothers' support groups at Cary Church of God. "We've got to break that cycle. The church is here to help."

Many of the single mothers in the group said they felt a tremendous sense of relief in being able to share their problems, offer advice, and pray for one another.

"You're so used to just staying by yourself and going to God on your own and battling it out and sitting in a room and crying," said Rose Marie Romanelli of Cary, a single mother with an 11-year-old son.

"We need to recondition ourselves to know it's not a bother to call each other. It's OK to call someone and say, 'Listen, I'm having a bad time.'"

But the majority of single parents never find a support group in church, and few even attend services.

According to Armstrong, only 5% of single parents go to church regularly.

"Most of them leave the church because their needs aren't met," she said. "They don't want to be known as a needy family. There's an issue of pride. They've been wounded, and it's hard for them to ask for help."

Part of the problem is that single parents require so much help--from finding affordable day care to job training and career development.

Many pastors say they are vaguely aware of those needs but in the past have been reluctant to help simply because they didn't want to appear condescending.

"We didn't want to insult them, so we didn't ask them what they need help with," said the Rev. Eddie Thompson, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Apex, N.C. Thompson's church now plans to launch what he called a "full-blown singles ministry" for about 20 single parents in his church.

When they have tried to help, some churches often lumped all singles together. But while singles without children like to eat out or go bowling after services, single parents can't afford it, don't have the energy, and need to rush back home.

Single parents who do attend a church with special programs for people like them say faith in God can be a source of strength for many families struggling to understand their lot in life.

"Having our children here, with the Lord, has provided that stability we cannot provide them as a single parent," said Danielle Piccini, a single mother with two children who goes to the Cary Church of God. "It gives them men and mentors in the church as guides for them to use so they're not alone."

Many single parents at the Cary church say they are grateful beyond measure for the small acts of kindness the church has shown them.

Shortly before Christmas, for example, the church decided to honor single parents with a special dinner. It provided day care for the kids, while church members decorated one of the halls, laid white tablecloths and candles on the tables, and presented the women with a choice of steak, salmon, or chicken.

"It made me cry," said Lunde. "I hadn't been out in a long time, and it was a really big deal for me. I felt welcomed and loved. They made us feel like special people."

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