Sunday, July 24, 2005

This is the Place

Most likely, in Mormon congregations throughout the world, but especially in the western U.S., today is being honored as "Pioneer Day." This day celebrates and memorializes the moment when Brigham Young, sick from the long, long journey, sat up from his bed in the back of his wagon, pointed out over what would soon be called the Salt Lake Valley, in what the saints would call the State of Deseret, but that the United States would derisively name Utah (after the Ute Indians of the region, who were said to run around in very little clothing; the joke was that because Mormon men had many wives, and therefore spent a lot of time attending to matrimonial duties, they didn't bother putting on clothes) and said "This is the place," bringing to an end a journey that had begun in the cold of winter, when the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois had been burnt to the ground and the saints had fled the U.S.

Pioneer Day falling on a Sunday means that on this day, sacrament meetings (what the main service in Mormon churches is called--where you take the bread and water sacrament, listen to talks from members of the congregation, and--best part--sing hymns) are being opened or closed with the Mormon hymn "Come, Come Ye Saints," and speakers are memorializing their ancestors' sacrifices, as they left the hostile United States and ventured into the territories. Maybe they are drawing parallels to current times, when Christianity sees itself as under attack, admonishing each other to stay the course, be brave, and have faith. Maybe they are pausing to be grateful for their comfort and wealth and security; for their limbs which didn't fall off from frostbites; for the family members who sit comfortably in the pews in front of them, not having died and been buried in makeshift graves along the road; for the roast beef cooking slowly even as they speak, in anticipation of the Sunday dinner they will eat in a few hours, in their middle class homes, protected from wild animals and the elements.

When I was a kid, my ward (congregation) used to have Pioneer Day picnics in the park, with a childrens' parade. We decorated our bikes and dressed as pioneers. I LOVED getting to wear a pioneer bonnet--I would have worn one every day if I could. I have a distinct memory of playing in the sand afterwards, one year, still in my dress and bonnet, and poo-pooing the new movie all the boys were talking about, Star Wars. "I'll bet it'll be stupid," I remember saying.

As soon as I remembered that today is Pioneer Day, I started this entry, planning on noting the day and then making sarcastic remarks about Mormons and their goofy celebrations and their creamy, squishy, no-need-to-chew food--the treacly-sweet red punches, the cheesy, cream-of-soupy funeral potatoes, the squishy white Parker House rolls and endless parade of jello salads. We have tentative plans to have people over tonight. I thought, okay, I'll run to the store and pick up some ingredients, and serve my friends a Mormon-style Sunday dinner, heat be damned.

But first I pulled up i-tunes and checked to see if they had "Come, Come Ye Saints" in the data base, because I was feeling kind of homesick for it. (Notice the familar Freshman English-style conversion narrative rhetorical strategy.) Of course they did, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. So I bought it, because it's only a buck, right? So I girded my loins and listened to the hymn, (written in 1846, while the pioneers were still mid-journey, and tired, and hungry, and scared, but hopeful) which is THE quintessentially Mormon hymn. Predictably, I cried, because I still don't know what to do with my feelings of pride in my ancestors, horror at their imperialism, sadness at the current church's ideology of exclusion and hatred. But mostly, I cried out of pure longing and sadness. I cried because I left my people, and I'll never really belong anywhere again. I don't often feel like this, but today, as I listened to the hymn, I did.

One year, on a visit to Utah, my grandmother decided to buy each of her grandchildren a copy of this illustration of the Willie Handcart Company, which her grandmother had been in.

The company set out from the east coast much too late in the season, in handcarts hastily made of still-green wood. By the time they got to the Rocky Mountains, the winter snows made it impossible to go any further, and the company lost many members before rescue parties arrived. My great-great grandfather, who had baptized my great-great grandmother in England a year earlier, was in the rescue party and after their snowy reunion they got married. She was the first of his four wives. My grandmother wanted us all to have this picture so that we would remember our heritage, and be proud of it.

Come, come, ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy, wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
’Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell
All is well! All is well!

We'll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints will be blessed.
We'll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we'll tell,
All is well! All is well!


Blogger La Lecturess said...

Enjoyed this very much; thanks for it.

On a related note--though not Mormon myself (though I grew up within sight of the local temple, so I knew lots of 'em) I was a "pioneer girl" for Halloween a couple of years in a row and my Mom made me an awesome costume. Like you, I LOVED the brown calico bonnet especially. There are many pictures of me running around on non-Halloween days wearing it.

11:03 PM  
Blogger What Now? said...

What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing it with us and for telling us about Pioneer Day (which I didn't know about, American Culture Gal though I pretend to be).

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is beautiful and poignant. I think so many gay people feel that conflicted sense of rejecting our conservative religious and cultural heritage on the one hand while simultaneously feeling a real sadness that we've lost our community. I know that I periodically do. I would never want to go back to the Church in which I grew up, and yet I also envy my family members who still feel such a sense of belonging and certainty.--CD

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a neat post—as anonymous said, very poignant—but I’m really sorry that you feel “the current Church’s ideology [includes] exclusion and hatred.” What little I’ve been able to glean from your blog makes it seem like your problem is the Church of Jesus Christ’s position on homosexuality, which has never changed (although it was reiterated in the scripture you cited).

The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, who currently serves as president of the Church, was asked the question: “What is your Church’s attitude toward homosexuality?” His response:

“In the first place, we believe that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God. We believe that marriage may be eternal through exercise of the power of the everlasting priesthood in the house of the Lord.

“People inquire about our position on those who consider themselves so-called gays and lesbians. My response is that we love them as sons and daughters of God. They may have certain inclinations which are powerful and which may be difficult to control. Most people have inclinations of one kind or another at various times. If they do not act upon these inclinations, then they can go forward as do all other members of the Church. If they violate the law of chastity and the moral standards of the Church, then they are subject to the discipline of the Church, just as others are.

“We want to help these people, to strengthen them, to assist them with their problems and to help them with their difficulties. But we cannot stand idle if they indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation. To permit such would be to make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage and its very purpose, the rearing of families.”

Margo, darling, that doesn’t sound like hatred to me. While President Hinckley certainly does not condone homosexuality, it’s obvious that he—and theoretically by extension, the Church—is filled with compassion and understanding for a very difficult situation. I, for example, was involved in transvestitism for many years and can honestly say that I was never the victim of “exclusion and hatred.” In fact, just the opposite was true: my various priesthood leaders worked long and hard to help me overcome my problems, all the while supporting me as a beloved child of God.

Anyone that responds to you with “exclusion and hatred” is not a Christian, Margo. Just because someone calls him- or herself a “Christian” or a “Latter-day Saint” doesn’t mean that he or she is, and just because someone has made you feel excluded from the body of the Saints doesn’t mean the Church wants you to be.

Jesus loves you, Margo. He wants you to come back to Him and His Church, and is waiting with open arms. I promise. :-)

2:05 AM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

I left the church not because of its stand on homosexuality, but because I do not belive in Jesus Christ or Joseph Smith. I am proud of my heritage, but am not a Christian.

The church's attitude about homosexuality is a problem not because there is no place for homosexuals in Mormonism, as per basic beliefs of the church, (yes, I get that; I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher and a devout member for 26 years. I understand the doctrine behind their rejection of homosexuality) but because they insist on involving themselves politically in an issue which by definition does not effect members in good standing. Their efforts to deny homosexuals' legal rights in no way furthers their message of love or of the good news of their christ.

10:43 AM  

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