In 2016, I made my first visit to Salt Lake City and to Temple Square. It was a beautiful complex with its architecture and gardens, though I never did mount up the courage to enter any of the buildings there. You could say that I was a little gun shy about Mormonic places of worship, thanks to the following past experience.
It was a late April Sunday back in 2001 when my college’s traveling drama team paid a visit to the Kansas City/Independence area to perform in several church services. We had the afternoon off and were clearly up to no good as we cruised the Missouri highways in our 15-passenger van. Yep, just a bunch of Southern Baptists (and me, an Evangelical Freer) looking for trouble, and we found it in an unlikely place.
While in Independence, we couldn’t fail to notice the beautiful, shell-like, stainless steel spire of Independence Temple, home to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (now called Community of Christ). We were informed by one of our teammates who lived in Independence that although they had roots in Mormonism, the RLDS was its own unique denomination. We joked, perhaps a bit sacrilegiously, that when the Second Coming should arrive, that Jesus would choose this particular place to slide down from Heaven. Intrigued by the Temple, and abounding in curiosity, we decided to pull off the highway for a closer look. After wandering around the outer courtyard in the chilly April weather, we discovered that the Temple doors were open.
So, in we went.
No one yelled at us for entering, Gentiles though we were. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anyone around. We waited in the vast lobby for a while, unsure of what to do next. Should we find someone to talk to, or were we free to explore? The first option seemed the most responsible and respectful…so, we chose the other one instead.
Our first stop was the sanctuary. It was a large and awe-inspiring space with a large pipe organ at its front. Looking upward, we had an incredible view of the inside of the spire.
After admiring this architectural wonder, the team began to drift off into smaller groups to continue the exploration. I paired up with my friend Jeremy, and we roamed the halls, occasionally meeting up with team members heading in other directions, but never encountering a single person who actually belonged to the Temple. I thought it a bit odd. They wouldn’t just open the doors and leave the place unattended, would they?
I’m not sure of how long we explored. At some point, Jeremy and I found our way to the balcony, which opened up to a panoramic view of the sanctuary. It also showed most of the team below us being sternly talked to by a woman. It was an unfortunate time for Jeremy and I to make an appearance. She looked up to the balcony, spotted us, jabbed a finger in our direction and yelled “You two! Get down here…Now!”
“Uh oh,” I said, quite eloquently.
Apparently, Jeremy and I were the final straw for this woman. As I would learn later, she had initially encountered a couple members of the team wandering around the sanctuary, and explained to them about the guided tours they offered, and how it was important to avoid any kind of defilement to the temple (I wasn’t sure what constituted “defilement,” but I was afraid to ask). Gradually, more team members began drifting in, and as her audience grew, the more agitated she got. Thankfully, Jeremy and I were the last to arrive. If any more people would have shown up, the woman might have had a coronary right there in the sanctuary, possibly causing a defilement on the carpet.
We hemmed and hawed a bit about who we were and where we had come from, not wanting to get the college into trouble, or worse, us getting in trouble with the college. After her lecture, and her stated disappointment in our conduct, she half-heartedly offered us the opportunity to join her on an “official” tour. But the look in her eyes clearly said “Get out!”
So, out we went.