Morbid curiosity spawned from too many trashy reality shows and bizarre documentaries had drawn me to Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah & the Mormon headquarters of the world.
My mission was to find the biggest temple in Salt Lake City. It wasn’t hard. The whole down town area is centered around the looming Joseph Smith Memorial Building & its adjacent complexes.
Formerly the “grandest hotel west of the Mississippi”, the JSMB is outwardly impressive. It’s hard not gawk at its 10 stories of pristine white columns and arches, or at the sheer enormity of the grey spired temple that towers imposingly behind it.
Inside the building elderly attendants simultaneously guard and boast of the antique hardwood couches (“they’re original, just the fabric has been restored”) placed at the bottom of marbled columns snaking up to an immense stained glass ceiling (“completely original”) that’s punctuated by golden chandeliers that culminate with one, car-sized chandelier in the very centre (“not original but made in the very same style of the hotel in 1911”).
The attendant’s demeanors are welcoming, yet queerly stunted by their overarching agenda – promote & convert.
You can freely wander the lobby, viewing decks and the mezzanine unaccompanied, but you must not enter the church service areas. Many of the long, wood lined passageways are marked off with signs stating, “Controlled Access – Public Not Permitted Beyond This Point.”**
Never before had a building triggered such overwhelming, deeply unsettling emotions inside of me.
The sheer opulence of the JSMB, coupled with the church’s apparent disinterest in the humanity of its visitors (they do not care to know who you are, where you’re from, or what you’re doing in SLC) made me want to cry and vomit at the same time.
Pushing out of the revolving front door, a sickeningly pristine down town area greeted me. The bright, tree-lined and overly flowered streets have no trash – other than the human garbage the LDS have left behind.
The homeless in SLC have a different feeling to San Francisco or LA. There is a mean, jaded undercurrent pervading the spirit of the city.
There are no groups of youths hanging around smoking weed and shooting the shit like there are on the piss-lined streets of San Francisco.
Instead, beneath underpasses and on the town’s fringes, overly energetic and unpredictable hustlers maniacally dance around their pan handling signs. Meth has taken hold of Salt Lake City and there is no solidarity. It’s every man for himself.
“This place is weird. Really, really weird.” I said to one guy sitting on the side of the street with a dog and his bags.
“I’ve seen homeless people, and if they are LDS they are off the street in a week. If you’re not one of them, they don’t want to know you.” he said.
“I wasn’t homeless when I got here and the first thing people asked was if I’d been to prison. Because I have all of these tattoos, they assume I’m a criminal. I’m not – I just like tattoos. And for that, they don’t want to know me. I went to their church once and I was so confused by the things they talk about. My jaw dropped. It had nothing to do with the Bible.”
As we spoke, several passers by slipped dollars into his hat. Within ten minutes he’d collected close to ten bucks – a much higher rate of return than any other city I’d visited.
It seems as though the people here know, on some intellectual level, that their religious mandate compels them to give to the poor.
Yet their hearts aren’t in it.
For those who have nothing – albeit often by choice – the wealth of the LDS church is alienating, its exclusivity embittering, and its token gestures insulting.
Sure, no one will go hungry in Salt Lake City.
But it’s a city that simply doesn’t want to know you. And somehow, that’s worse.
**I later discovered that these restrictions apply not only to the historic building but to most of the temples in the city – you must be a card carrying LDS member to enter, let alone worship.
Update: After completing this article I also met another man in Salt Lake City who restored my faith in humanity.
Did your cortisol rise when you read this? Did your dopamine/serotonin/oxytocin begin to flow freely?
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