Stuck in a Missionary Position

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After a three hour flight, we were wheels down in Salt Lake City. In town for work, it wasn't a destination I normally would have chosen for a vacation. I really didn't know what to expect. I had recently seen the Book of Mormon musical, so my perspective was a bit like South Park. Even in the months running up to the presidential election, I learned less about what Mormons actually believed and more about whether it mattered for the Republicans.

Was polygamy still kosher? If so, were any of Mitt Romney's five sons looking for an extra mate (wink, wink)? I was clueless. The most notable thing I knew about the Church was that it boasted a world renowned choir. What they sang about, I couldn't tell you. Mindful of my ignorance, I admit I half expected a neatly groomed young elder in suit and tie and scripture in hand to evangelize me in the airport (obviously in song, Stone and Parker style). Instead it was Jose directing me to baggage claim.

The next day, as I prepared for my visit to Temple Square, I still didn't know what to make of this sleepy city in the mountains. The only thing I had decided was that the people were very friendly -- suspiciously friendly from the view of this Chicagoan. It was an adjustment. The cab driver was almost too nice, offering me a free map, and spoke at length about how much he enjoys his job. When the barista at Starbucks asked, "What are you up to today?" I responded with a confused stare as I contemplated why he wanted to know.

I approached the Square keeping an eye out for the Temple itself -- you know, the one that serves as the backdrop for the Book of Mormon set. Finally, between some buildings (the hotel bellhop described them as skyscrapers, but I'm not endorsing that statement), I spotted it. With its pristine towers of granite rising toward the sky, it looked more like a majestic Bavarian castle than a temple. Architecturally, it's beautiful. Seeing it in person makes it all the more unbelievable that it was built with such rudimentary tools by a group of pioneers over 150 years ago. You might truly believe you've been dropped into King Ludwig II's pre-Germany if you ignored some of the structures around which the temple is surrounded.

For example, just beyond the beautiful temple, obstructing the picturesque backdrop of snow-capped mountains, rises a large concrete monstrosity, more reminiscent of a Soviet government building than acclaimed architecture I'd expected. I wondered how the Church could allow such an eye sore to disrupt the post-card worthy scenery behind the temple, only to realize the building was actually another part of the LDS complex -- the church office building which serves as the headquarters for the Church. Just another part of the 35-acre Church complex (for comparison's sake, the Vatican City State comprises 110 acres).

Disagreements on city planning aside, I'd say Temple Square is most aptly described as a Disney World of religious pilgrimages. Everything is optimized for the tourist experience. Friendly missionaries assist you in researching your family history (for free) at the Family History Library. The pencil and family tree are included. The Church History Museum offers free audio tours via iPod Shuffles and a life-size replica of the cabins the early pioneer saints built upon settling in the Salt Lake Valley. Though non-Mormons aren't allowed in the Temple itself, a model in the visitors center showcases the interior, accompanied by a monitor which points out each room's significance.

Their message is carefully weaved into each attraction. Adults can watch sermons from modern day prophets on various topics. A separate section for children allows them to navigate through videos with cartoons that pose questions like, "How can we truly be happy?" Even the ill-placed church office building includes a must-see attraction, a 26th floor observatory with incomparable views of the Salt Lake Valley.

Upon entering the South Visitors Center (oh yes, there are two visitors centers) I was immediately greeted by the cheerful Sister Lee from the United States. I was caught off guard, accustomed to the experience of visiting old Catholic and Protestant churches where one is generally left to one's own devices. If you're lucky there might be an audioguide available in your language to guide you through the architecture and point out significant statues or windows. As a reared Catholic, I've seen my share of statues and windows.

When I told her I had some spare time and came to wander the Square, she immediately phoned for two missionaries, sisters from Australia and Japan, to show me around. While waiting for the sisters, I was invited to sit in comfy leather chairs and watch video profiles of Mormons around the world, including celebrities and professional athletes as well as your "every day Mormons." A happy Vincenzo shows you around his Italian home, where he lives with his wife and four children. He keeps busy as a contractor and amateur beekeeper. Each segment ended with "I am a Mormon." They seemed to be welcoming viewers with the message: "Hey, we're more diverse and cool than you think we are, so stop with the polygamy jokes and give it a chance."

The sisters arrived and walked me and another Jewish couple around the Square, explaining the significance of certain traditions and buildings as we went. They were knowledgeable, but not scripted. The Australian sister asked if I was a religious person. No, I said, just a lapsed Catholic. "Yeah, we get a lot of those," the sister replied.

We finally reached the end of our tour at the North Visitors Center where a magnificent statue of Christ looks down on visitors in the center of a domed room, the walls of which are adorned with a mural of the cosmos. The sisters began to talk more about their faith and why the appreciated the statue. The Australian sister liked the manner in which Christ looked down on visitors, she believed he was watching over and guiding his proudest creations -- us. The other woman on our tour interjected, "Well, do you expect God to intervene to do everything for you, or are you supposed to better yourself?" The sister responded that of course we are. God can't force us to make the right decisions. But these choices are hard, too hard to go through alone, and that's why Jesus is there. To support us, and comfort us, and be there for us. We have a lot of work to do on ourselves, but in the end we're not perfect. He makes up the difference.

Her words were powerful. I'm not very devout, but I couldn't help but respect her dedication and faith. She talked about Jesus lovingly, like he was a close friend. It clearly made her happy to share this relationship with us. I was profoundly struck by the willingness of the people at the Square to share their faith.

It's not something today's Catholics are particularly good at. In many cases it seems like many Catholics are the opposite of evangelical -- they're apologists. This was especially true during my time at the largest Catholic university in America, DePaul in Chicago. If you didn't know any better, you might think the official motto is "We're Catholic, and we're really sorry about that. What can we do to make it up to you?"

While the Mormons have nothing on Rome's collection of old stuff, they sure know how to market their faith. Did Jesus take a vacation to America? Probably not. But as the Catholic Church continues to hemorrhage members, perhaps Catholics ought to work on shared values, including the importance of family and respect for life. And these are good things to value, no matter what you believe.

At the airport, ready to return to the land of true skyscrapers, I tried to put words to my overall impression of the city. It was a struggle. The entire Valley seems suspended in much the same way our country seemingly is -- somewhere between modern secularism and the traditions of the past. Salt Lake City is actually now populated by more non-Mormons than Mormons. But the beautiful state-of-the-art mall which includes many of the most popular shopping destinations you can find in Chicago is still closed on Sundays. The city offers an impressive array of restaurants, but the strict liquor laws prohibit you from accompanying your meal with a double scotch.

Where does religion fit in 21st century America? Salt Lake City is an interesting test case, and I'd submit it really hasn't fully answered that question yet. So I come home having resisted conversion, but a lot less ignorant. I'd imagined I'd have more negative things to say about my experience at Temple Square, but they were just so damned nice!

Stephanie Auditore is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law.

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