Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mormons XI: Jesus Speaks Spanish

The Economic History Department at the London School of Economics takes pride in the international scope of its department. They have had students from just about every country in world over the past twenty years. Over beers at department’s local near Holborn Station, trade historian Patrick O’Brien explained why the program would likely remain one country short on the global map.

“I doubt we’ll ever have a student from North Korea. It’s hard enough finding one qualified student from a country like that.” O’Brien said.

North Koreans cannot leave the country without an escort. Students only travel in pairs, and must constantly keep records on their partner, the only place free of mutual surveillance is the toilet. The Economic Historians are not willing to ask the LSE to spend its scholarship funds subsidizing a spy.

Mormon missionary teams work much the same way as the North Korean travel partners. Missionaries are paired in teams where the two individuals must eat, sleep, work, and pray together. Like the Koreans, they are only permitted alone time to use the restroom.

This makes for trying situations when two poorly matched personalities are paired together, or when one missionary begins to have doubts about his calling.

Part of the mission experience is about building character through hardship, and whether or not it’s an intended corollary, many missionaries come home and immediately seek a spouse. It is an overwhelming sensation to be alone after two years of constant companionship. Intentioned or not, a missionary returns to fulfill the Mormon commandment—go forth and multiply.

For all its secondary benefits, this buddy system is designed to provide young missionaries mutual protection from an intimidating world of unbelievers. Whatever doubts an impish skeptic like this chronicler might sow, and I’ve dropped them all—details of the racist recruitment tactics used by the LDS in the Civil Rights era south, the timing of the prophet’s proclamation that God had downgraded caffeine from prohibited substance to personal choice just in time for Coca Cola’s sponsorship of cash strapped Salt Lake City Olympics—the youngsters have each other to buttress their faith.

I have come across some poorly matched missionary pairs, but nothing like the two who were to be my guides for a second tour of Temple Square. Sister Zarate hailed from the south of Mexico. Zarate radiated wholesomeness, and not just the typical salt of the earth aura of Mormon missionaries the world over. Zarate hailed from a poor village in Michoacan where years ago two young Americans, from Boise and Provo, cornered her parents at the market and baptized them when she was a young girl. She still remembers her parents’ baptism, and the reflection of her first crush shines in her midnight colored eyes. She had never seen blonde hair or blue eyes before meeting the two Americans. Now she was the first person in her immediate family to travel outside of Michoacan. If Zarate was the pride of her village for serving in far off Salt Lake City, she bore the honor with humility.

If I had met Sister Guinare on the street, only her name badge would have kept me from guessing the tri-Delts at Berkeley had dressed her like a missionary and dumped her on the square as some sort of sorority prank. She was the first missionary I had met who was wearing make-up, her hair looked like her kidnappers had taken her to a salon as part of the Utah ruse. Her thin smile did not reach her eyes. However Guinare had begun her mission, she no longer wanted to be here.

Though their personalities, well, Guinare’s personality, might have challenged their partnership, the two young women also suffered a language gap. Zarate was still studying English and though Guinare said she had taken some Spanish she didn’t want to speak. When I asked her a question she simply shook her head. She was content to be the nail examining silent partner on this tour.

For me meeting this pair was a stroke of luck. I finally had a missionary all to myself without having to corner one in the bathroom. There is just no way to corner a girl in the bathroom without being a creep. I got the feeling Zarate would answer any reasonable questions I put to her. She didn’t have her partner taking mental notes about her responses, and there was very little risk of another Saint eavesdropping.

As we made our way through the visitor’s center, my second trip through the Prophets’ Hall of Fame in an afternoon, I asked Zarate about her conversion to Mormonism. There was no story. Her parents had converted and when she was eight she followed. I got the impression they were among the few families to stick with Mormonism in her region.

“How many Mormons are there in your community?” I asked.

“There are still several Mormon families,” she said.

“But before the ward was larger? Why is that?”

“There were a lot of baptisms the last time we had missionaries that visited our village,” she said.

“Are they not still with the Church?” I asked.

“Some yes… but there are many sects in Mexico, especially among the poor. When the Mormon missionaries come there were many that wantrf to be baptized. When the Jehovah’s Witness come, many of these people want to join them. These people take communion when the priest makes his visit. But there are some who understand. With them the Church will always be strong.”

“Do you think the other sects follow false prophets?” I asked.

Zarate thought about her answer, I looked over at Guinare who lifted red nails over her matching lips to cover a yawn.

“I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of Jesus and the Holy Father.”

Zarate seemed to speak from the heart. She was certainly not speaking from the script I had heard so many times in my encounters with LDS abroad. I had put the same question my missionary friends in Slovenia and Elder Lee had given me the official line. That the Latter Day Saints were unique because they were the only religion with a direct covenant with God maintained through a continuous line of apostles dating back to the prophet Joseph Smith. The Jews, along with the Roman, Eastern, and Protestant Church in all its denominations, had lost their direct link with Jesus.

Mohammed, I asked? Mohammed was not a prophet, according to Lee. And the Jews are no longer special. The Latter Day Saints are God’s new chosen people.

But Zarate was more reflective on the subject of a one and true religion. She had grown up witnessing the various missionaries competing in the marketplace for souls. Her family had chosen well, but their choice wasn’t any better or worse than the family that signed on with the Baptists or stuck with the guilt plagued Catholicism of the Spanish and their gold-lusting, small pox bearing conquistadors.

We ascended the wide spiral staircase to the celestial room with the Jesus statue. This was my chance. The statue had been silent on the last tour, and I had been too embarrassed to ask if the statue could talk. A girl in San Francisco had told me about a talking statue in Salt Lake City, I’m pretty sure of Jesus, and I recalled that the story ending up with security guards asking her friend for the film in her camera. That conversation had taken place well after last call. In my experience any story told in San Francisco after 2 am interesting enough to remember the next morning is a good bet for the urban legend file.

Before I asked the question I thought about how I could play this one off, “I mean, if he could talk, what do you think he would say?”

Then again, it wouldn’t be that weird a question for a sister who came from a land where the statues of saints are expected to perform miracles.

So I asked. Zarate motioned to Guinare, who looked bored as she walked out of our little solar system to toggle a hidden control panel.

I sat on a waiting room couch directly in front of the statue. Jesus welcomed me to Temple Square and explained something about his father’s miraculous creation of the cosmos painted on the walls around us.

The Jesus statue talks! I was in awe. I’d like to relate the details of his revelation, but his words escaped me. A giant marble Jesus speaking Spanish in the middle of Utah, and it all washed over my head as if he had been speaking Aramaic. I thought about asking if there was an Aramaic button. But I only had 12 minutes left to interview Zarate, so I took a quick photo with JC and followed the sisters into the next room.

Zarate seemed impressed with my questions. I decided to go a little deeper.

“These are the plates that Moroni showed Joseph Smith?” I asked, pointing to a wax reproduction of Mormon writing out his book before burying it in the woods of upstate New York.

“These are reproductions of those plates,” she said.

“Where are the real plates?”

“The originals were taken back by God,” she explained.

“The Book of Mormon speaks about two tribes in the New World,” I said.

“Yes, the Nephites and the Lamanites.

“The Lamanites were wicked, they turned away from God,” she explained.

According to the Book of Mormon, these two groups were both descended from the lost tribe of Israel that sailed to the Americas 600 years before Christ. The Nephites remained true to God, the Lamanites strayed. War ensued, and evil triumphed. The last good guy, the prophet Mormon, chronicled this ancient America and buried his work in upstate New York. God punished those wicked Lamanites by darkening their skin.

This was the Mormon’s historical explanation for the origin of the indigenous peoples of North and South America. It provided convenient explanation for the cultural inferiority of Native Americans, African slaves, and later for Jim Crowe blacks. In accounts from the old days the Saints seemed to really got off on this skin color business. If Brigham hadn’t had so many wives to please—the biography by his one ex-wife details his miserable failure as a lover—I’d say that all that Stanley, Livingston and Conrad weighing down the upstairs bookcase doubled as a porn collection.

As I looked into a face that might have given Cortez pause had girls, not gold, given him a hard on, I wanted to ask the next question. She lacked the defensiveness of the other missionaries constantly on guard against their godless inquisitors. If she saw where I was going, the serenity of her expression kept the knowledge of my wickedness well hidden.

I couldn’t do it. I felt like one of those Channel Four journalists who seek out the perversities of America by befriending fat swingers, leeching invites to their parties, and then laughing at everyone the moment the subjects are off camera. Sorry as they may look on camera, the fat swingers are at least honest about the whole thing. It’s the journalist with his mocking asides who grates my nerves. Those smug English pricks.

Was my curiosity about sister Zarate’s faith no different than the cheap-shot voyeurism passing for documentary on British television? It’s not my business how she reached spiritual resolution with a book that says her dark coloring was a curse on her people. Though if her brownness was the ancestral mark of Cain, how do any of us think we should get born with white skin?

She probably would have given me fascinating, soul-searching answers for any of the questions my sudden false-politeness would not allow me to query. They weren’t questions for her, or anyone else, all esoteric works have their shortcomings. That the Book of Mormon has so many of them need not concern our last minutes together.

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