This past weekend I had an eye-opening and life-changing experience.
My best friend, Julie, and I joined about another 100+ volunteers and we went to polygamy central- the twin cities of Hildale (Utah) and Colorado City (Arizona). The Fundamentalist Mormon church has, among other places, set up stakes there many years ago.
And, generally, the residents are fearful of strangers, live a very closed-off life from general society, and live under strict laws of obedience to their “prophet” Warren Jeffs who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for child sexual assault.
Some girls, until the recent edict stopping all marriages within the sect altogether, were married off at very young ages, oftentimes to close or slightly distant family members. Many have no idea that they have any legal rights or, if they do, how they would even access those rights. If one seeks to leave the FLDS church, they are turned away with nary the clothes on their backs.
They lose their children, their spouse, their friends and extended family members, and any property they may have. Now labeled “apostate” FLDS members are forbidden any contact, including a “hello” on a sidewalk from anyone in the sect. That includes mothers to their own children. The horrors happening in this “religion” are unimaginable—child rape, sexual assault, rape, you name it.
Julie, me and the other volunteers were there for a dual purpose. The first was to help clean and refurbish a safe house for those hoping, considering, or having left the sect. There, they find safety, meals, beds, clothing, and support services.
It is hard to describe the sad presence I often felt, whether it was in the home we were working on, or the community itself. Where was grass, flowers, well paved roads, beauty? Actually, the area is spectacular, it sits at the base Zion park on the opposite side of the entrance. The natural beautify sits in stark contract to what we saw. It is my opinion that when the balance of power is so out of whack, that no one benefits, including the communities. Anyhow, there home we were working on had some 22 bedrooms and 19 bathrooms (you try keeping that clean!). I had literally seen nothing like it– it was one hallway after the next of bedrooms and bathrooms.
I couldn’t help wondering, as we walked from room to room, if any children had been raped in this bedroom, or a woman assaulted in that one, or a desperate young child bride wondering when her old husband would be there to rape her in that other bedroom. Fair and accurate assumption? Who is to say? I can say, however, that as we painted, cleaned, re-roofed the home, sorted through mounds of donated clothes and placed them on shelves, I started to sense something else. Was it hope?
All things aside, it certainly was a joyous day as we met some of the most amazing women and men who truly inspired me.
Their dedication to those in horrific situations was beyond notable. I wanted to do more, sink my teeth into how anyone could find themselves in a life of polygamy and stay there. I wanted to be like these activists and volunteers. Me, too, me too. Because, really, but for the Grace of God, that could easily have been me. After all, I come from Mormon pioneer stalk.
My ancestors walked across the planes to the Promised Land of Utah. They were faithful and obedient (none of this rubbed off on me, I am the most rebellious soul ever!) and several of my relatives even practiced polygamy.
That’s right, I am partly the product of polygamy. (As I discuss its horrors and pure evilness with my dad, he reminds me of this, as if this is something to be proud of, as if being a child of polygamy somehow makes the practice of it more palatable. To that I say that anyone who is the product of rape or slavery does not make those institutions or acts ok. They are vile, as is polygamy.) When the Mormon church chose to abandon polygamy in order to gain statehood, the FLDS stayed true to the faith. If my ancestors had made that choice, perhaps I’d be living in polygamy, one of many wives and mother to far too many children, living a life of deep sadness and desperation.
Do I owe it to these women to help? To pitch in? Yes. So in addition to my two greatest life’s passions (divorce/parenting/healing and cancer), I add polygamy rescue.
I supposed if this is all you know from the cradle, how much of a choice do you truly have? You are told that the only way to salvation and heaven is through the faith. To leave, means eternal damnation.
Your TV viewing is heavily prohibited. You reading materials heavily censored. Your friends and family all believe the same. Those that escape are heroic but it comes at an extremely high price. Your children, your family, your sense of heaven, because you are told you are now going to Hell.
How does a mother allow their child to walk away, never to speak to them again? This one I cannot even fathom. Anyone who hurts my child encounters one very angry, hungry mother grizzly. It really is not pretty.
I can’t even fathom watching my child walk away from me forever and going along with it. Just like that- poof. All I can do to make sense of this is to think that in order to survive, one must lose their soul at a very young age. Simply check out, a shell of a human being. And when that happens, so what? Does anything matter, even your own sanity or children?
The second reason we were at this event was to attend an evening rally decrying the deep corruption of the police force. The police officers, judges, DA—nearly all are FLDS members. So if someone calls in to, say, a rape, they are ignored and harassed, oftentimes arrested.
This must stop immediately. With safety in numbers, we were there to support residents who were tired of the endless harassment and total lack of support services. We held signs, sang songs, made a presence and received lots of media coverage. Terrific, no more hiding in the shadows of a very sick religion.
The event was far heavier than we anticipated. Days later, I’m still processing it. But the next day, Julie and I went to Vegas and had time to hit up brunch at Bellagio and a relaxing massage. We needed it. It helped bring peace and sanity back to our lives—and to begin a strategy of our next step.
There is another service project weekend being planned for April. You can believe we will be there—this time with our husbands and a big truck.
I want to adopt a bedroom and re-do it. New linens and fun, colorful comforters, big bold artwork depicting, say, Paris or New York, new shower curtains and fluffy towels and robes, lotions, and fabulous spa-quality lotions and shampoos— a reminder that there is a whole world out there awaiting them and it’s kind of cool. I want to add a TV/DVD player and non-religious books and games to my Lizzy-fide room. Anything to provide fun, hope, peace and respite.
It’s awesome finding real and true ways to help others. As a mother, I know how imperative it is that we teach our children how to be good citizens. The only way to do that is through example. And besides, getting involved can be incredibly fun. It can literally change your soul.