Salt Lake City, Utah. Saturday Afternoon. Inside the Family History Library, I’m greeted by Sister Steigelmeier – Mormons call each other sister and brother, “because we are all children of God.” She is a polite, yet direct, grey-haired woman dressed in a starched navy blue suit that looks uncomfortable. Her husband is not far away – the pair volunteers here to help visitors find information on relatives in the heaps of historical records collected and managed by the church.
She sets me up on a computer with free access to ancestry.com and other databases, and provides a few family lineage worksheets to keep track of any new names or information I discover. “Genealogy is the number one hobby in the world – practiced more than sports, scrapbooking or any other,” she says while showing me how to log into the church database. She then leaves to greet a young Israeli couple who have come in search of family history.
I am amazed at the amount of information available with just a name, approximate birth date and location. Old census records – 1910, 1920 – return household information for some of my ancestors in Minnesota and elsewhere. I discover a few new names to discuss with my family.
Steigelmeier returns after some time to apologize for not paying me closer attention. “I didn’t even notice,” I say noting that she – and most everyone else in Temple Square – has been extremely helpful. She positions a chair to sit down facing me and asks about my journey. I offer an abbreviated version. After listening politely, she says, “there is a reason you and I are sitting together right now. I think you might just find what you’re looking for in the Mormon church.” I feel my body tense at what I think is coming next: an attempt to convert me.
Instead of trying to convert me, Sister S. shares her story of finding the Mormon church; she is a convert from the midwest, married and has two grown children who are LDS. “We are THE church of Jesus Christ,” she says running through a brief church history, mirroring what I learned in the museum. My body relaxes and I experience a feeling of compassion and connection in bearing witness to her story. She is simply trying to help me in my journey . . . and she is. I see that there are more similarities between us than differences. We are both seekers.
Next she tells me why the church is so involved in the ‘hobby’ of genealogy – it’s a question that has been on my mind. “We believe that, as human beings, we come into this reality from the spirit world to get our body and prepare for eternal life.”
“I agree with that,” I blurt out.
“Good,” she says. Then continues: “In the history of the planet, not everyone had the chance to experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ.”
“What happens to those people,” I ask “do they go to hell?”
“We don’t believe in hell in the way that others do – it’s more like purgatory, where souls get trapped in between this world and heaven.”
“So they stay trapped forever?”
“No, the good news is that we have what’s called the ‘Baptism of the Dead,’ where we take names into our temple and baptize them posthumously. So you can see why knowing your ancestors’ names is so important.”
“What if my dead relatives are not Christian and don’t want to be baptized?”
“God gave us free will, so the dead can either accept or reject the baptism.”
“If baptism is the only way into heaven, you would think that every soul would accept it,” I state.
“Yeah, you would think so,” Steigelmeier responds.
The Sister is called away by someone seeking assistance on a computer in the opposite row; it gives me a few moments to digest what I have just heard. I see that church’s involvement in genealogy comes down to a fundamental desire to help families heal their lineage. This healing of ancestors is something we do in shamanic work as well – each one of us has the opportunity to help heal not only ourselves, but our entire family history. It’s just a matter of whether we want to undertake such work.
Sister S., as I am now calling her, returns: “I hope I have given you something to think about,” she says sitting down next to me as if we have to finish an important conversation.
“Now, are you planning to attend a Sacrament Service?,” she asks.
“Yes, but I want to attend the best one in town.” She chuckles and invites me to her ward. I accept.
“What do you have to wear,” she inquires.
“I’m on a road trip, so the best I have are jeans and a button down shirt.”
“That’s just fine, everyone will know you are not from here anyway. And if anyone looks you up and down, don’t pay them any attention – you’re welcome here.”
We shake hands and I thank her for her time and assistance.
Walking back to the hotel, the wall around Temple Square doesn’t seem quite as imposing. I am starting to see that good spiritual work is happening all over the country in different ways. I don’t agree with the assertion that any one path is the only or true way to God or healing. Instead, I know there are many, equally true, paths.
Next, I want to see how this town functions after dark.
To be continued . . .