the Lion of the Lord

lion.jpg

“Welcome to the Beehive and Lion House. Hopefully you all had a chance to try one of our delicious, famous rolls with honey butter next door. Now, if you will all follow us, the tour is about to begin.”

The two sister missionaries led the crowd of 15 people through a narrow passage and up a flight of stairs, where we gathered in a room filled with a dining room table and chairs. Pictures of old bearded white men lined the walls, with Brigham Young’s being the first.

The two missionaries were pleasant-looking in colorful skirts and shirts, sweaters on their shoulders to keep them warm. One was slightly shorter with brown hair, and she had a tag that read ‘Sister Miller, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ on it, with an American flag fastened beneath it. The other sister, blonde with longer hair, had a similar tag, except her name read ‘Sister Bellows’, and her flag was Canadian. The both held a copy of the Book of Mormon in their hands as they guided the tour in this historical building.

Over the next few minutes, the sisters recounted how the Mormon pioneers had settled into the Salt Lake Valley and how Brigham Young had become prophet, and the first elected governor of the territory. This home, they explained, was where he conducted his business, as he spoke for the Lord in his day-to-day dealings, calling 12 apostles to serve along with him and run Christ’s church. (Thus the other pictures on the wall).

Sister Miller’s voice was low and it droned on a bit, like a college professor reading from a textbook for an afternoon class as sun poured in the window. She kept a false smile plastered on her face as she spoke in a voice without enthusiasm.

“And just as Brigham Young was a prophet, so was Joseph Smith, the man to whom the true Church of God was restored upon the Earth.” She then proceeded to give a full account of the First Vision, when God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. I could recite her entire speech verbatim from my own days as a missionary 20 years before.

As she spoke, I saw a few of the tour group give each other looks, confused. One man muttered to his wife, “What does this have to do with the tour?” and another mentioned something about “propaganda.”

When Sister Miller finished, Sister Bellows mentioned how Brigham Young, no matter how busy he was, would always make sure to be home with his family every night for dinner.

“Family was very important to him. His was a forever family. What do you all enjoy doing with your families?”

After an awkward silence, a few muttered answers cleared the air. “Watch television.” “Travel.” “Play games.”

Then someone interjected with a question. “You mentioned Brigham Young’s family. Isn’t it true he had dozens of wives?”

Sister Bellows smiled, showing no teeth. “I haven’t really looked into that. But in another room you can see a painting of the wife who lived here with her children.”

The tour shuffled into another room, then another, and in each the sister missionaries gave a small historical blurb, then shared more information about the church they belonged to. Their voices maintained a lack of enthusiasm, and they sounded almost bored sometimes.

“Did you know that Brigham Young served 12 different missions? I am happy to just be serving one, here and now, so I can share my testimony of the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

“In this painting, you can see one of Brigham’s daughters who died. But as Saints, Mormons get the chance to be reunited with their forever families in the next life, just as all who believe can be reunited with their families. I’m grateful for my forever family.”

In the final room, the confused crowd asked a few last questions, the answers only increasing their perplexed looks.

“And, um, how did Brigham Young die?”

“He died of old age!” she said, finally, bizarrely, enthusiastic.

“And what about Joseph Smith, didn’t he die in his 30s?”

“Yes, he died in Illinois, a victim of an angry mob of people who had painted their faces black.”

“Ma’am, is it true that the original Latter-day Saints were, according to your beliefs, the actual Native Americans, and they believed in Christ even though they hadn’t met him?”

Sister Bellows nodded, slowly. “Yes, that is true. The Book of Mormon is an account of their ancient history, between 600 BC and 400 AD, and Christ visited them after his death because they believed in him like I do.”

“”I heard from a friend that the Church of Mormons actually owns the mall across the street, is that right?”

Sister Miller didn’t even look at the man. “Yes. Well, if you will all look over here, you will see Brigham Young’s actual desk. Over there are some dishes he ordered but never got to use because he died first. And over here, you will see a picture of a lion. The lion is there because Brigham Young’s nickname was the Lion of the Lord. He was called that because he was never afraid to share his testimony. In his honor, I’d like to share my testimony now.”

She looked straight forward, not at anyone, just through us all. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I believe there are prophets who walk the earth today and who give us new scripture, like that in the Book of Mormon. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. If any of you feel nice feelings of peace in your heart and would like to learn more about the church, we could gladly give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon on your way out. Now please, follow me out the front door of the house here and feel free to come back anytime.”

As I walked out of the tour, I was laughing on the inside. The friend who attended with me, the one I had been showing around Salt Lake City, looked at me with wide eyes.

“What. Was. That. Like what actually was that?”

And I could only laugh because, although this was all very familiar to me, a manifestation of the culture I had grown up in, I still had no idea how to answer him. I could only think of how differently I would have seen all of this ten years before.

So instead, I turned to him, put a false smile on my face, stared out into nothing, and said, “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Would you like to learn about my church?”

Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.

Gusher

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It’s four am and I’m listening to NPR as I’m driving down a dark windy road in north-eastern Utah. I’m sure the terrain all around me is absolutely beautiful, given the signs I’m seeing telling me I’m in a national forest, but it’s pitch black outside. My headlights illuminate the windy roads around me, and I navigate them with speed. I rarely see other headlights, not at this time of day. When another driver comes toward me, we both courteously dim our headlights from bright to standard, then turn them back to bright as we pass each other.

I’m appalled by the roadkill. I have seen at least a few dead deer, a porcupine, three rabbits, and two skunks, their obnoxious and cloying odors stretching a full mile around their tiny corpses. In addition, I have slowed my car at least four times in the last hour, once for some large bird, twice for rabbits, and once for another skunk, animals that scampered across the road at fast speeds. I roll my eyes at each of them silently, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for them to just wait the ten seconds for my car to pass and then to cross, cause it ain’t like there is any other traffic out here.

I haven’t spent much time in this part of Utah, though it isn’t far from where I live, only a few hours drive. The whole state is packed with mountains and bodies of water, so I don’t have to look hard for beautiful places to visit. I know there are lots of camping areas here, several reservoirs, and a ton of hiking, but the towns are small.

The reporter on the NPR station I’m listening to is interviewing a woman in Canada, who is sharing her opinion on American politics. I can’t remember her exact words, but she says something like “American politics is the best reality show I’ve ever seen, only much more horrific. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what they will do next. America is rather like the crazy neighbor who lives next door. Mostly I leave them alone, but on occasion, I have to peep over the fence to see what shocking thing they are doing next.” She voices her support for Bernie Sanders first, Hilly Clinton second, and then admits that Canada is mostly a nation of Democrats. She talks about Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit with President Obama, and outlines some of the complicated trade history between the two countries. I navigate the turns with a smile on my face.

My eyes flash to the bright screen of my phone, showing the map of the area I’m driving through, and a few of the names of small Utah towns, some of them unincorporated, some just groupings of farms and houses, others cute little towns. I’ve never heard of most of these. Duschene (pronounced Du-shane). Strawberry. Myton. Ouray. Altonah. Neola. Randlett. Tabiona. And then Gusher. Gusher? There is a town called Gusher, Utah? A few houses, fences, barns, and cows are visible in the dark, then I’m already past it.

I think back to the history of this region, how it was settled by Native American tribes for hundreds of years until the fur trappers and gold miners moved through here. Then the Mormons came in the 1800s and settled in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young sent members of the Mormon church all over the region, for hundreds of miles, creating farming communities, mining industries, trade posts, and settlements. I’m not a big fan of Brigham Young, but I have to admit that his settlement of the state of the Utah at the time was absolutely impressive.

Later, during my long work shift, I look up some of the communities that I’ve driven through. I look into the origins of their names, some after Native American chiefs, some after early settlers, some after rocks or crops. But I am most fascinated by Gusher itself. About ten miles outside of Roosevelt (a much larger town for the area), it’s described as a “roadside settlement” rather than a town. I learn that when it was first settled, it was jokingly called Sober City, a name given by the locals, making fun of the town’s habit for getting drunk.¬†They later renamed the town Moffat, after David Moffat, a railroad magnate, but the town wasn’t successful and it shut down for decades until, in 1922, a man named Robert Wood moved to the area and named the town Gusher, hoping to make a successful oil business there, though that never happened.

I think of the farmers that have lived there likely for generations, the same families there since the beginning. The demographics for the area list the residents as, literally, 97.99 % white, and well over 90 % Mormon.

Later, as I leave the city of Vernal, I take the same road back to Salt Lake City. This time, I can see the small houses, the barns and cows, the fences, the rolling hills and trees, the snow-capped mountains, and, yes, the roadkill. Gusher looks nearly the same in the daylight as it did in the dark, an eyeblink of small town Utah farms where families have built their homes and lives.

I pull my car over at one of the reservoirs and look out over the beautiful mix of rock and water, and I think of my grandmother, who spent over 90 years in a town in southeastern Idaho with a population of less than 500 people. And from her little space there, she had five children and dozens of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. She worked as a schoolteacher. And from her little spot on the globe, she made the world a better place and impacted hundreds of lives.

I turn back from my spot on the road, from which I can’t see another human in any direction, and I wonder about my grandmother, and about Gusher, and about history, then I get back in my car and drive toward a different kind of civilization.