I found myself in Salt Lake City for the second time this month and decided to explore with my night off. As a Canadian, Salt Lake City is often labelled in conjunction with Mormonism, so I decided to immerse myself. The city sprawls endlessly to the North and South flanked by the Wasatch mountain range and the infamous Salt Lakes. The downtown core sits on the edge of a hill, and can only be distinguished by a few high-rise buildings, particularly it’s Mormon Temples. Using the spires as a guide, I drove the numerical streets until I found myself on Temple Road, artfully sandwiched between an all-American mega mall and Temple Square.
I bought a disposable camera at Rite Aide and made my way towards Temple Square. According to the website, the Square is “10 acres of enchantment,” the majority enclosed by a massive 15 ft marble wall. Thankfully, iron gates on each side of the square allowed for access. As I entered the South Gate, I was approached by a handful of young women bearing name tags. Their directness reminded me of canvassers on the streets of Vancouver and Toronto, only this time – as the freedom of travel would have it - I did have time to stop and chat.
“Hello…where are you coming from...have you heard of LDS before? Three sentences and we were in full-blown conversation. I quickly learnt that these women were “Sister Missionaries,” the only members of the Church who work with the public on the Temple grounds. Each sister had a flag below her name tag indicating her country of origin, which reaffirmed the global reach of this religion. The men around the square were generally a lot older. The few younger men I saw were dressed in plain oversized suits and seemed a lot less inclined to strike up conversation, probably because I am large young man, and young men are territorial and insecure.
The first sister I met, whose last name I forget, was from France and welcomed me to the South Information Hall. She offered me a couple of brochures and asked whether I had heard of the Book of Mormon. I mentioned I knew the play, which in hindsight might not have been the best idea. She frowned, while the missionary beside her laughed. The French sister said that it was a bad play, and that I ought to watch Meet The Mormons, a 2014 movie that explores the lives of six members of LDS. Then came the question of my religious affiliation, to which I replied "I’m spiritual." Her reaction suggested naivety to the idea, so I went on to explain my belief that the energy between people is a force greater than any individual, and that it can only be accessed through empathy. I brought up love and karma, and quickly realized that I had entered the realm of Buddhism. This was followed by a brief pause… She opened the book of Mormon and proceeded to take me through a visual history of the religion. I’ve only seen the first 8 pages of The Book of Mormon, but I can safely say that it is a picture book. About ten minutes passed and I informed her that I had to keep moving. I thanked her for her time and wished her all the best.
I proceeded to the North Information Hall, which is a three-story monolith. Inside, I avoided the missionaries and perused the extensive collection of Mormon art. A spiral ramp lead me to the third floor where I basked in the ambience of the Christus Statue, a 15 ft tall marble replica of Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's original. The room that houses the sculpture is a massive dome painted purple and blue with clouds, stars, planets, and “other heavenly bodies.” I stared at the “heavens” and listened to a Spanish audio recording of Jesus was speaking in first person to the observers. After a minute or two the audio clip changed to English, but I left because I preferred the Spanish.
I headed to one of the Assembly Halls where I spoke with Sister Rodriguez – who, ironically was from Spain. She told me that the Church placed her in Salt Lake City, but she far preferred her hometown of Sevilla. We talked about Utah and I suggested she go to Zion National Park, but she said that she couldn’t leave her geographical confines, as there were too many missionaries to keep track of worldwide. A few more words were shared before we parted ways.
By this point, I needed to breathe outside the Temple walls. I walked out the North Gate and met Dave, an Ex-Navy Veteran sitting on the street asking for change. I offered him my few Canadian dollars, sat down and we started chatting. He too, identified as a spiritual person and we began talking about his life. He and his wife, who was asking for change at the West Gate, had been happily married for eight years. I asked whether Mormons were generous as they passed through the iron gates. He shook his head, and mentioned each family pays a tithing (10% of it's income) to the church. At that moment, a family of four was exited the gate towards us. He leant over and whispered that he was going to try and bum a cigarette off the father figure. I sat by him as he proceeded to ask twice for a cigarette. The man’s wife, daughter and son heard both times, while the father failed to acknowledge our existence. His daughter even tugged on his oversize shirt as they walked away. I asked Dave for a picture and headed towards the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is one of the most lavish buildings I have ever visited. It felt like the colonial Empress Hotel in Victoria. A massive chandelier and stained glass ceiling floated above the lobby of marble, velvet, large plants and rich mahogany. I sat in a throne of a chair and listened to the complementary pianist play an outstanding classical number. I then darted down several hallways in various directions, each leading to another restaurant, concert hall or meeting room. An old lady near the main lobby urged me to visit the tenth floor. I got in line with thirty elderly people and finally made it into one of the five elevators. At the top, were two restaurants, viewing rooms, and an indoor water fountain in the middle of the carpeted floor, which I thought was ballsy. In the viewing room, I spied a couple watching the sunset over the Mormon kingdom. I snapped a photo and jumped back into the elevator. I descended to reality, and walked towards my Chevy Impala in the mega mall parking lot.