My Letters From America – “We keep ourselves clean”

Salt Lake City had been a stopover on our drive north. It’s a big diverse city, in complete contrast to the rest of Utah; here we’d stocked up at Walmart, visited Costco and stayed in a central hotel with a gazillion South Korean women (in town for a convention.) We felt we should spend a little time investigating the sights and being located in Downtown we were ideally placed. The city’s history owes everything to the Church of The Latter-day Saints. (I was slightly shocked to come to this important religious centre to find Downtown revealing a sad carpet of homeless drug addicts, many sprawled out under park trees, no doubt sleeping off their latest fix.)

Anna devised a walk and off we went. Eventually you arrive at the Salt Lake Utah Temple. This is a massive skyscraper of a building, which is currently a construction site as it’s being underpinned due to concern that it’ll topple if there’s an earthquake. Next to it is the Assembly Hall, a church, and then another large building called the Tabernacle. This was the Mormon HQ.

We knew of tours and Sister Hague and Sister Thomas appeared and introduced themselves. ‘Sister’ is the name that Mormon female missionaries use. The men are called Elders, these are the resilient but probably downhearted young men who knock on your door in the UK. Our Sisters were respectively from California and Minnesota, early 20’s and primly dressed with no flesh showing in clothes you might called conservative. Sister Thomas seemed detailed to take the lead with the party, which now included two devoted Christians from South America. She was open, friendly and worryingly enthusiastic yet I denoted some steel. After we responded to requests to tell her our names we start our brief walk around the buildings. What did we love? Anna of course got that right by advising family, I got it wrong when I suggested travel and music! All this seemed a strategy, albeit gentle, to open us up. Our relationship with Jesus was asked? I was honest. Whilst not overly convinced about wizards in the sky I did volunteer there’s a lot to be admired about the spirituality and community that those of faith create and foster.

Our young ladies had been educated in mainstream schools and Sister Thomas had been the only Mormon in her high school. They had probably experienced cynicism or negativity about their faith but had come through it. It seemed they believed every word of the Book of Mormon. This is their bible not, say, the King James. They carried the bible with them as if an answer might easily be close to hand should a difficult question arise. They talked of a life of helping, I believed them.

Assembly Hall

All life’s positive moments were down to the ‘miracles of God’. She asked what bad situation had miraculously been answered by a piece of good news? One of the South Americans, a dentist, had found during a routine appointment a growth in a patient’s mouth. This discovery led to prompt treatment and possibly saved their life. Expectant eyes turned to Anna and myself? Nope, we had no stories. Sister Thomas now threw in her miracle. She was recently assembling flat pack furniture and it was an important installation for a Ukrainian Mormon they were housing. She didn’t have the tools for the job. However, miraculously a stranger appeared with a toolbox! It’s easy to see that if you attribute every positive event to the intervention of your god you’re going to be happy. She was.

We were invited to ask questions. I asked what was the biggest misconception? Polygamy came the answer. This arose as a solution when during the faith’s migration from persecution in Missouri in the 19th Century many of the men died necessitating, apparently, this rule change for procreation purposes. This isn’t happening now. The Sisters were adamant that their lives wouldn’t be reduced to being housewives; they could pursue careers or whatever. The only other female Mormon I knew was Marie Osmond who has had a stellar career, eight children and has been married three times, albeit twice to the same man. I chose not to ask if either of them could sing. It’s not mandatory that you have to marry another Mormon, however, I think it probably helps given the strictures of the faith and lifestyle.

Sister Thomas said that she and her other missionaries kept themselves ‘clean’. I had to stop and ask her to explain. “We don’t drink, take drugs or have sex before marriage.” All that’s fine as a set of decisions but calling it ‘clean’?

Their missions last 18 months, two years for the men. There are 17 million members: it’s a large worldwide community. I envy these believers and their faith but in a world where science can explain virtually everything I can’t comprehend how they remain so convinced and committed.

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