My Book of Mormon, Part 4: Sacrament

Sunday Morning.  Salt Lake City, UT.  I wake late and stumble around the hotel room searching for clothes.  Fuck, no time for Starbucks.  My plan is to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir followed by Sunday Sacrament at the ward Sister Steigelmeier suggested.  “They’ll know you’re not from here anyway,” repeats in my head as I pull on my Sunday best: dark jeans, a blue and white plaid shirt, and grey and orange New Balance sneakers.  I look like some sort of gay lumberjack.  “I hope I won’t stand out too much,” I think to myself as I speed walk towards Temple Square.

Inside the Tabernacle

Arriving at the Tabernacle, a blue starch-suit woman with black and white name tag stops me: “no backpacks,” she says.

“But it has my laptop and camera equipment,” I whine, “where am I supposed to leave it?”

“Bag check,” she points back the way I came.

“Look at her,” I argue pointing at a woman with suitcase-sized tote, “her handbag is bigger than mine.”

“No backpacks,” the starch-suit holds my gaze.

I squint at her, then walk the other way.  When I return she catches me again “I’m sorry about that, I realize your bag is smaller than many of the ladies’; it’s just we were told ‘no backpacks.’”

“It’s OK,” I joke, “just sexist.”  She smiles awkwardly.

Inside, I sit next to an older woman who recently lost her husband to a motorcycle accident; it’s still painful, I can tell.  She is about to embark on a mission, which, as a convert, she didn’t do in her youth.  She is excited I have come to check out the church.

“I hope you find what you’re looking for here,” she says.  After a brief pause, she asks “are you married?”

“No,” I reply wondering if ‘gay lumberjack’ is an accepted LDS look.

A smile crosses her face, “well, you should definitely stick around, we have many fine, young, eligible girls from all over the world here.”

I look at her twice – is she offering me women, I wonder – then just smile.

Awaiting our Exit - Tabernacle

The Tabernacle building is beautiful and the choir is amazing, if not slightly traditional for my taste.  After the program, I say goodbye to my neighbor and exit the building where I am greeted by a slew of young, beautiful women from all over the world; just as predicted!  They hold signs indicating their language of origin – Deutsche, Cantonese, Spanish, Armenian.    The hostesses offer to provide more information about Mormonism.  If I were a different kind of man in another lifetime, I might take them up on their offer.  But, I need coffee and breakfast.

Across from Temple Square I find a cheap all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, where I eat, uh, all I can.  The French toast causes bloating and gas, which makes my jeans tighter than when I left the hotel.  Now, I’m a gay lumberjack in skin tight jeans.  No time to change – it’s off to Sacrament.

Finding my way into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where the service is held, proves challenging.  I try three entrances, all of which were open yesterday, then decide to follow a young Mormon family.  Gaining access, a guard sitting in a lounge chair stops me: “May I help you?”  I watch as others in their Sunday best walk past unimpeded, “I’m here for the service at 11.”  “Proceed,” he says.

I don’t find Sister Steigelmeier, but sit next to a woman who, noting my camera, says “you can sit here if you don’t take my picture.”  I don’t want to anyway, I think to myself, then say “no problem, I’ll put it away.”  Ms. Camera Shy and I will become close friends over the next hour as she takes it upon herself to translate the service.  I scribble questions on the program and she writes answers.  We go back and forth like this for the entire Sacrament.

Books of Mormon

Mary – I learn her name later – points out every inside joke during the service, of which there are many.  “He’s a pilot,” she whispers after one speaker jokes about the safety procedure on a plane ride.  “He’s from North Carolina,” she notes in a hushed voice after another man jokes about the previous speaker’s mission.  I experience the same feeling as in the bar the previous night when I realize that everyone in the room know’s each other and likely knows I am from out of town.

At the end of Sacrament, Mary asks if I have any questions. I do and she sits with me for thirty minutes answering them. Before I leave, Mary finds the a Ward officer and tracks down a Book of Mormon.  Handing it to me, she says “I hope you enjoy this and find what you are looking for here.”  “Thank you,” I say as I leave her, Temple Square and the Mormons.

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My Book of Mormon, Part 3: Excommunication

Saturday Night.  Salt Lake City, UT.  After a long day visiting the Mormons and Temple Square, I’m curious to experience this town after dark, to see the other side that I know is there . . . . and I am interested to get the ‘gay perspective’ on the church.  I Facebook a friend who used to live here: “any suggestions on places to eat?”  He recommends a vegetarian restaurant that happens to be within walking distance of the hotel.  I set out on foot.

Wide Avenues, SLC

This is a driving town, not a walking one, which is demonstrated by the fact that the streets are wide – wider than I have seen in other municipalities – and laid out in an almost perfect grid.  Along the way, other people smile and say “hi.”  It catches me off guard being from NYC; I guess that with fewer people on the streets it’s better to be friendly than not.  The restaurant friend suggests is no longer in business, but I notice an interesting spot on the opposite corner: Sapa.

Unfortunately it’s too cold to eat on the back patio – a reincarnation of a Thai palace, complete with small wooden huts, buddhist statues and bamboo.  The woman seating me seems surprised that I don’t want to sit at the sushi bar – I prefer to dine on the main floor where I can breath in the atmosphere and people-watch.  I order their homemade Gyoza and the veggie Chapchae dish.  They are both delicious, especially the Gyoza.

Mentally, I divide the patrons into two groups – those with cocktails I assume are not Mormon, those with only water are; it appears to be a 50/50 split.  I spy an obviously gay guy working in the back.  Walking up and glancing sideways, I ask “are you family?” in a hushed voice.  It’s the secret gay handshake that allows us to identify one another in strange towns.  “Yes, honey.  What’s up?” he responds quickly.  I wonder if he is snorting cocaine.  “Where’s a good place to go out tonight?” I ask.

Street Art, SLC

Taking me by the hand he leads me through the restaurant to the entrance where he locates Q Salt Lake, the gay newspaper.  Thumbing through he talks to himself and me at the same time: “I know it’s here somewhere.”  Flip, flip, flip go the pages, which all seem to scream “gay this!” or “gay that!”   A group of six pink-cheeked Utahans walk in, looking both me and him up and down.  “No, that’s the bathhouse – do you just want to get laid or actually go to a bar?” he asks.  “A bar,” I reply.  One of the guys waiting with his group smiles at me.  I look at the floor.  Mr. Fabulous gives me two recommendations; one is within walking distance.

TryAngles is one of the few bars in the city that remains a private club.  These clubs are how bars got around the Utah prohibition laws, which only two years ago were abolished.  It’s an unassuming saloon with parking lot and entrance in the, uh, rear.  I pay the $2.00 membership fee, find the bar, and order my standard mocktail: cranberry and soda with a lime.  The waiter shakes his hand when I offer to pay; the man behind me in line comments that I must be from out of town.  I smile.

I find a position from where I can observe the room.  Only it’s not long before I notice that I am the one on display.  The men in the room are staring at me, hard.  It’s like I have arrived on the set of the Twilight Zone; their stares make me somewhat uncomfortable.  Are they judging or cruising?  Probably both.

Downtown SLC

I reposition myself in another area.  Guys look me up and down and then whisper to one another.  I make up things in my head about what they are saying.  Then, standing near the pool table, which not in use tonight, I start to laugh.  It’s one of those uncomfortable, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening, laughs.  I walk away to recompose, performing a mine face-swoosh with my hand, then decide to break the ice by walking up to one of the main stare-ers.

He’s a little drunk – beer glasses in this bar are – comically – the size of footballs.  The men hold them and look almost like children with play steins in their hands.  We exchange niceties then he asks me “you in town for business?”

“No,” I say, “here to check out the Mormon church.”

A lopsided smile crossed his face as he asks “why would you do that?”

“I want to move out of my comfort zone,” I reply.

“I’m not LDS, but my roommate is,” he says pointing to a drunker dude next to him, who leans, err falls, into me.

The roommate’s story is touching and I am taken aback by what I hear.  He grew up in the Mormon church and, like many young LDS’s, served the organization and even went on a mission.  When they found out he is gay 12 years ago the church excommunicated him.  He says “it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” but the expression on his face betrays other feelings.

“They threw you out just for being gay?” I ask.

“No, they threw me out because I don’t want to change who I am – they will allow you to stay if you’re willing to be reformed,” he says.

“Reformed?” I ask.

“Yeah, you know, reprogrammed.  You have to give up any gay friends and they will set you up with someone who will check on you to make sure you are staying on the straight and narrow,” he says putting air quotes around “straight and narrow.”

A moment passes while I digest this information.  The he says, “I am happy with who I am – with being gay – I don’t need the church in my life.”

As the evening progresses, I learn that many of the gay men I meet have either been excommunicated or simply drifted away because of the church’s anti-gay stance.  It seems to be a common point of pain that they are distanced from both their family and community.  Mormons are incredibly close-knit and to be on the outside of that is hurtful.  The pain of trying to live a lie of who they are, however, is greater.  These are, it seems, men in limbo.

I get the sense that if the church were to change it’s stance that these guys would return and become active and valued members.  In the meantime, they have found their own zion in a close-knit, imperfect community around a pool table in this private club within walking distance of the Mormon Temple.  I leave the bar, alone, well after 12am and well after my bedtime.

To be continued . . .

My Book of Mormon, Part 2: Baptism

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.

Temple Reflected

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.

Dancing in front of the Temple, SLC

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.

Church Office Building, SLC

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 . . .

My Book of Mormon, Part 1: Revelation

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.

SLC: Smith Statue and Temple

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.

Temple behind the Wall

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.

Joseph Smith: Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood

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?”

“Yes”

“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 . . . .

Timon and Me

Half way to Salt Lake City and tears still fill my eyes and run down my cheek.  I sob, then laugh, then sob again.  It’s a good cry, but my heart is breaking at the same time.  Timon, with whom I spent the last 12 hours, is back at his shelter and I am sixty miles north.  I don’t know if I will ever see him again; the woman at the desk said she would let me know what happens to him.

Timon is a dog living at the Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS) in Kanab, Utah.

Ready to go Home with you!

My relationship with the society starts with one serendipitous conversation – something I have come to cherish on the road.  Hiking the hoodoos in Bryce, I encounter a trio snapping pictures of each other – you know, two in each picture, rotating the camera, but never capturing the whole group.  I offer to take one of the threesome; they are grateful and we strike up a conversation as we walk through the amazing variety of red rock pillars.

They make annual volunteer pilgrimages to BFAS.  After telling me about their experience, I make plans to arrive the next morning.  Once there, the woman staffing the information counter tells me “there is a volunteer orientation at eleven.  If you want to take an animal on a sleepover, you must volunteer with dogs or cats.”  “A sleepover,” I inquire.

“Yes, where you take one of our animals overnight,” she says.

“Dogs,” I say after explaining my complete allergy history.

Before the end of the orientation, tears fill my eyes.  The Sanctuary overflows with love; it’s in the air and the people working or volunteering here.  I make it to Dogtown Headquarters after a wonderful vegetarian lunch in the cafeteria.  It’s dusty and hot as I drive up to the main building, which is situated in the middle of the Utah dessert.

My assignment is to take dogs for walks, one at a time so they don’t bite each other.  Andy, a Dogtown caretaker, walks with me to show me the trail.  Along the way, we swap broad stroke stories of our lives – how he ended up here and where I am going.  We also talk about the dogs.  He knows practically every one by name and each has a story, many unfortunately unpleasant.  Michael Vic’s pitbulls are here, as are dogs who are abused, neglected or sick.  No matter, BFAS provides a place for every animal to live out their life.

Jagger behind Bars

After the walks, it’s feeding time.  We prepare meals in a sink with special ones prepared by the handlers.  Andy tells me “many dogs have allergies and eating problems so we have to be careful what we give them.”  Jagger, a dog I walked earlier, eats too fast, so receives her food in an upside down bowl that slows her down . . . slightly.  Other dogs need enzymes or vitamins.  I laugh – they take some of the same stuff I do, with food.

There is amazing calmness that comes over the place after the dogs have eaten.  The ones that were barking or digging or feverishly running around are now sitting quietly, resting.  “If you’d like to socialize with some of the dogs, you can go into cage 2, 4 or 7, but don’t go outside at 7 and the dog in 4 might nip at you – it’s a nervous thing,” Andy says to me.  I choose cage 2 because it seems the safest.  There I meet Timon.  He’s a friendly, warm 2-and-a-half year old mutt.  His run mate is almost as friendly, but I notice that she is eating her stuffed toy – well, ripping it apart and then eating it.

The dogs and I talk for a while and I pet them while in their home – a five-by-five cinderblock cell with a metal gate for a front door and a cot and blanket for each pup.  This is where unwanted, unhealthy or dangerous dogs end up – doggy prison.  The difference between this and human jail is that someone else is responsible for them being here; they’ve done no crime, but suffer the punishment anyway.

Timon in the Dunes

“Have you connected with any dog to take on a sleepover?” Andy asks.  “Yeah, Timon,” I reply.  A broad smile comes across his face as he says “he’s a great dog, one of my favorites.”  Moments later, Timon and his overnight bag – a bed, water bowl, leash, doggy bags and treats – area ready to go.  We climb into my Jeep and drive to the Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park.  The reddish-pink sand is amazing and I let Timon walk around with leash in tow.  He stays close, sometimes venturing away, but when I call him, he perks up his ears and runs back, tongue dangling to one side.  We walk and dance on the dunes for an hour.

That evening we dine at a local Mexican restaurant that happens to be dog friendly – many businesses in Kanab are, the work – I suspect – of the BFAS.  There are no seats available in the outdoor patio, so two grey-haired Texan women invite me to sit at their table.  They have two small dogs with them on their Colorado – Texas trip.  Over my chicken chimichanga and their burritos we agree on the best path forward for our country and solve several other world problems – this is another one of those moments I cherish on the road.

Timon and I head back to the hotel room; he sleeps in his bed and I sleep in mine.  Andy said he thinks dogs get better rest on sleepovers because they don’t have to sleep with one eye open.  I image that’s true and Timon barely moves all night.

Adopt me!

The next morning, we get up, have breakfast (Timon has a handful of Scooby snacks) and head back to the shelter.  As soon as I’m in the car with him in the back seat, I start to cry, then sob.  I’m not at a place in life that I can care for a dog and myself at the same time, but if I were, I would adopt this dog.  I cry all the way to the facility, while I wait to turn him back over to the caregivers, then half way to SLC.

The folks at BFAS are grateful for the half-day I spend there and the sleepover with Timon.  But I think I get so much more than the dog or anyone there.  I get my heart back . . .and it breaks as I drive to SLC without my new buddy.

An update as of this publication from the BFAS: “Timon is doing great, still living with Dixie and is continuing to go on sleepovers.”