Friday Night. Salt Lake City, UT. I’ve come in search of Mormons. I joke with myself that I am one of the few who show up at their doorstep, rather than the other way around. Either way, I want to know more about this religion that has recently been called a “cult” in the media. I text a childhood friend:
Me: Lucy – don’t want to pry, but wonder if u can tell me more about Mormonism. Heading to SLC for weekend to see for myself.
Lucy: don’t have many friends who ask abt my faith. Would love to tell u! Ask away.
Me: what should I see in SLC?
Lucy: definitely Temple Square, Tabernacle and Family History Library.
Me: May I attend a service?
Lucy: Yes, the Sunday Sacrament is open to everyone.
Me: how long is the service?
Lucy: about 3 hours. Sacrament is followed by Sunday School and then Priesthood/Relief Society meeting for the adult men and women respectively
Me: 3 hours?
Lucy: yes, but you can skip out after main service if ud like.
Me: do I need to wear dress clothes and tie?
Lucy: they suggest “Sunday Best,” but if you don’t have it, just wear a nice shirt. They will know u are not from there anyway.
I arrive at the Royal Garden Inn – situated six blocks from Temple Square – where for $43/night I get a clean room and breakfast. A woman smoking outside notes my license plates:
“You from NY,” she asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“What are you doing here?”
“Checking out the Mormon Church,” I offer. She puffs on her cigarette and smiles at me, lopsided.
The next morning I encounter the same woman and two others in line at Starbucks:
“This is the guy from New York,” she says to her friends – they live in Salt Lake, but are at the hotel for a scrapbook convention.
“What are you doing here,” one inquires.
I wonder why everyone asks me that in this town, then say: “checking out the Mormon church.” The trio looks at one another, then back at me, with lopsided smiles.
“Why do you want to that?” one asks boldly.
“To open my mind,” I reply grasping for something.
The group runs through some church basics – not one of them is Mormon, but all grew up here.
“They stick to themselves, don’t drink, don’t smoke and no caffeine,” one comments while grasping her Venti latte in one hand and scrapbook in the other.
“They’ll try to convert you, you know,” another one adds, sipping her coffee and studying me over the rim of her cup.
“I’m prepared for that,” I lie. “I want to see the Temple today.”
“It’s like their Vatican,” notes Venti Girl.
“You wont be allowed in,” adds Coffee Sipper, “it’s for weddings and secret ceremonies.”
My Grande, 140 degree soy milk latte arrives and I move towards the door to exit.
“You should check out the Catholic church while you’re here – it’s beautiful and anyone can go in.”
I stop at the Salt Lake City Visitor’s Center, which is part of the convention center, where I am greeted by a well-dressed older woman. “Welcome to Salt Lake,” she smiles as I peruse the postcards and Made in China SLC souvenirs. “I’d like to attend a good Mormon service,” I say. She looks at me for a moment then says, “I’m not LDS.” Glancing around she then says “follow me.”
We approach a young blue-eyed, blonde-haired woman sitting at the jewelry counter. “Are you LDS?” the older asks the younger. I learn that “LDS” means “Latter Day Saints;” it’s like a secret Mormon handshake. “Yes,” the blonde says stopping whatever she is doing. It’s as if I am being hooked up with a good drug dealer – you know – the kind that can get me what I really want. “She can help you,” the older of the two says and walks away.
When the young blonde doesn’t know the best service to attend off the top of her head, I am let down. She gets online – of all places – and looks up times and locations. She asks where I am staying and what time I might be up in the morning, then writes down a suggestion. I had hoped to hear about some great Mormon preacher that everyone knows, only to find out that most services are led by congregation members . . . . so the fiery hell and brimstone sermons I dreamt up in my head are rare.
I continue on to Temple Square; the first thing I notice is the imposing 12 foot high wall, which guards the temple and surrounding buildings. Entering the Square, I see families and young couples in traditional Mormon wear: suits and floral dresses. I stand out like a sore thumb.
The Temple is a favorite wedding spot and I count no less that fifteen newlywed couples that day. For the most part they are young (early 20s from what I can determine), white, and good looking. Toe-headed children in their Sunday best (even though it’s only Saturday) run in and out of the groups of families. A few people look me up and down, indicating that they know I am not from around here; one older woman asks, without hesitation, “where are you from?” “I stand out, huh,” is my reply. “Yeah,” she says then continues on her way.
I visit the Temple, Joseph Smith Memorial Building (the former Hotel Utah – an exquisite old frontier-style building), LDS Office, Tabernacle and Church History Museum.
Through short and long conversations I glean a (slightly) better understanding of the group I’ve come to study. In the Church History Museum I learn through glass cases that God chose Joseph Smith to start a modern church for his son, Jesus Christ. “We are THE church of Jesus Christ,” one women notes. Smith hails from upstate New York and experienced revelations from the Heavenly Father during walks in pine forests there. I’m fascinated by the idea that this religion acknowledges direct communication with God.
I ask a woman with a marquis black and white name tag: “Is direct revelation possible for everyone”
“Yes,” she replies, “but you probably already know that.” In fact, I do, because I myself have experienced something similar.
“How does it work – can I speak directly with God about anything?”
“Of course,” she says, “but, it depends on who you are over.”
“Who you are over,” I inquire.
“For example, I can talk with God for myself, but not my family. My husband has revelation for our family.”
“And your prophets – do they divine information for members of the church?”
“Does that then become law that Mormons must follow?”
“Well, they are more like suggestion that we should follow.”
“What about society at large – do your prophets speak for how our society should manage itself?”
“Well, let me put it to you this way: for 10 years our prophets have been telling us to get out of debt. Don’t you think that if everyone was listening we’d be in a very different place?”
“Yes,” I agree.
She smiles, “I’ll be in the children’s section all day if you have ANY more questions.”
As I leave the museum, I ponder the idea of direct revelation. It’s an empowering belief. The only difference between the Mormons and me is that I am not sure that it is Jesus or the Christian God with whom I communicate. What I do know is that my relationship with God or the Universe is guiding me forward. Next, I head to the Family History Library.
To be continued . . . .