Stumbling Towards Zion by Connell O'Donovan
In 1980, just a few months prior to my departure for a mission to southern Brazil, I was a dancer and singer in two large musicals that were being put on by the LDS Church as part of its "sesquicentennial" (150th anniversary) celebration. Promised Valley and Within These Walls were both about the Mormon quest for a latter-day Zion - the place of peace for the "pure in heart" where the Saints could dwell in safety. During that magical summer of 1980, some 100,000 Mormons and Utah tourists saw me in these two plays as I sang and danced my way toward that promised land. The experience was astounding for me. The casts were filled with wonderful people and I really took our message about Zion to heart. Before every performance, the whole cast would gather together in the "green room" to offer prayers of gratitude for the privilege of sharing redemption stories from Zion with so many people from all over the world. I desperately needed to believe that I had found that illusive Zion. My own turbulent life as a severely-depressed, oft-suicidal, Gay LDS teen left me famished for a landscape of tranquility and stability. In my naiveté, I had no idea what excruciating trials this church would put me through during the next decade, or how deeply Mormonism's failure to deliver on its promised Zion would affect the rest of my life.
That same summer of 1980, I was also finishing up a research project through the LDS Church's Historical Department on "Blacks and the Priesthood". As part of my research, I had the privilege of holding in my hands the manuscript autobiography of Jane Elizabeth Manning James, a black woman who became a Mormon in Connecticut in 1842 and a year later walked barefoot from Buffalo, New York to Nauvoo, Illinois, then the headquarters of the Mormon Church. Upon arrival, she was met by the Mormon founding prophet, Joseph Smith, who embraced her and said, paraphrasing a passage in Revelation 7:17, "Welcome to Zion, Jane! We wipe away all tears here!" Her story - and especially Joseph's words to her - left me on fire! Like Jane James, I was a marginalized member of society. Like Jane, deep in my soul I was seeking that place of certain refuge, that sure and safe space where I could be healed and have all my tears of sorrow dried. Like Jane, no price I could pay to find that place would be too high.
When I went to Brazil on my mission, I often shared Jane's story with local congregations (especially when welcoming new converts into the church), but always ending there - Jane in Joseph's embrace, having her tears wiped away in Zion.
But that's not all of her tale. My own need to find refuge in Mormonism blinded me to certain unsavory facts about Jane's life and her trials. For example, the reason Jane walked to Nauvoo was because white Mormons would not allow her to ride with them or assist her in paying for passage. And once she arrived in Nauvoo the Beautiful, that "Zion on the Mississippi", she was either rebuffed or ignored by her fellow Saints, until finally someone pointed out Joseph Smith's home to her. Once she finally did meet Smith, he made Jane his house servant, and when Smith was murdered in 1844, Brigham Young then took in Jane James as his servant as well. Despite her faithful service to the church and its wealthy presidents, she lived much of her life in abject poverty, yet still offered her "widow's mite" to her church and the building of the Salt Lake Temple. She arrived in the new Zion of Utah among the first of the Saints in September, 1847, the first free black woman in the territory, only to find that slavery was already being practiced there - even Mormon Apostle Charles C. Rich owned slaves in Utah, which must have been a great trial of her faith (and certainly was to mine when I found out).
Many years before Jane died, she began writing letters to prominent Mormon leaders (including apostles and church presidents), begging them to allow her into the Salt Lake Temple to be sealed to Joseph and Emma Smith as their adopted child; she claimed that Emma had asked her personally but she had hesitated at the time and then Joseph Smith had been murdered soon thereafter. Despite her unwavering faith in the Latter-day Saint religion, since men of African descent were not allowed to hold Mormon priesthood at that time, Jane James and all blacks were denied entry into the temple, a painful reminder of her most inferior status within the Mormon ecclesiastical hierarchy - basically that of any eight year old child.
But Jane James was persistent in her request to be sealed to the Smiths. And finally, in the spring of 1894, she received word that she would be sealed to Joseph Smith and his family in the Salt Lake temple on May 18th of that year. But once again, she was refused entrance into the "House of the Lord". Instead, church leaders had arranged for a white woman, Bathsheba W. Smith, to stand in for Jane James as a proxy, because the mere physical presence of this strong, faithful black woman would irreparably sully the sanctity of the newly completed Salt Lake temple.
Then to add injury to insult, instead of being sealed to Joseph Smith as a daughter as she expected, Jane was sealed by proxy to Joseph Smith as his eternal "Servitor" (the only time in the history of Mormonism that this kind of sealing ceremony has been performed between a master and a servant). The words recited at this ceremony were that she was "to be attached as a Servitor for eternity to the prophet Joseph Smith and in this capacity be connected with his family and be obedient to him in all things in the Lord as a faithful Servitor". In essence, an eternal slave, bound to service a white master for eternity. Undeterred by this humiliating gesture, she continued to press LDS leaders to be allowed into the temple, until her death in 1908 at the age of 95. When I read her heart-felt yet unsuccessful pleas to church leaders, I know that Zion had not dried up her tears as promised but increased them by magnitudes. Zion not only failed to deliver its promise to both of us, but in fact made the wounding even worse; those who promised and professed Zion bound us with fetters of injustice and then made a parade of our captivity.
Where was Zion for this beautiful, long-suffering, faithful woman?
I received a phone call late one May night this year from an old acquaintance in Salt Lake informing me that my e-mail buddy, whom I'll call Daniel, apparently committed suicide in Salt Lake on the previous Tuesday evening. I say "apparently" as Daniel had been dealing with a severe case of pneumonia and after being released from a hospital stay had overdosed on his anti-depressant medication. Daniel's sister thinks he committed suicide, while his parents feel he died from an accidental overdose. However, the published obituary says "due to complications from pneumonia", which seems like a lie no matter how you look at it. Unfortunately, denial runs deep in LDS culture.
Daniel's mother is a psychotherapist who currently does "reparative therapy" on Gays. Daniel's father is a prominent Mormon psychologist who, in the late 1970s, became affiliated with the Values Institute at Brigham Young University. The primary objective of the ironically named Values Institute was to produce a "secular", anti-Gay book which would carefully explain all the reasons that homosexuality is sick and wrong. Fortunately, after spending some $150,000 in church funds to produce this book, the Values Institute was disbanded and Daniel's father was released from his position because the institute was unable to attain its goals with any credibility.
In 1992, I published a history of homosexuality in Mormonism, revealing publicly for the first time the unsavory role Daniel's father played in the Values Institute. When 32 year old Daniel read my paper some four months previous to his death, he e-mailed me and we began a really nice correspondence. He was understandably upset to learn of what his father had tried to do, which resulted in a nasty confrontation with him. His parents then left Utah to be missionaries in California and after they left, Daniel went through his father's private papers and found even more written evidence implicating his father in this unethical business, further exacerbating their deteriorating relationship. He wrote me an anguished, heart-wrenching e-mail soon afterwards, begging for some support and guidance, which I happily gave to the best of my ability.
Daniel was a vivacious, friendly, sweet guy with so much going for him. While I hope that his death was accidental, I can't help but feel that despair and anger at the practices and beliefs of his parents and the LDS culture of homophobia (coupled with the exhaustion from pneumonia) overwhelmed him, as it has so many other LDS Gay folks.
Where was the promised Zion for this beautiful, magical man? Why weren't his tears all wiped away by the Saints?
About four years ago, I was walking through the Castro district of San Francisco, the quaint Victorian neighborhood and business district populated mainly by Gays and Gay businesses (a Zion for us, of sorts). A delirious homeless man was shouting extremely caustic and homophobic things at all the Gay men and Lesbians who were strolling by him on that beautiful Saturday afternoon. I was sickened by his words. I then had what I can only call a mystical feeling of incredible power well up inside of me and without even thinking about what I would do or say, I walked up to him and shouted right into his face with all the power of my six-foot-five frame, "KNOW YE NOT THAT WE ARE ANGELS AMONGST YOU!!!??" My words must have cut him to the quick, because for one brief moment this man became completely lucid. He meekly begged my forgiveness, quickly packed up his few possessions and walked off, glancing back at me in apprehension as though I might call lightning down from the heavens or turn him into a pillar of salt.
I don't know where that statement I shouted came from but ever since then, I have contemplated it regularly and have come to several interesting conclusions, only one of which I will share here.
Just like the angels sent to report to God on the hostility of Sodom and Gomorrah, I firmly believe that somehow, in an ironic twist of fate, we Queer folks are in fact angels, here to test the hospitality of the "cities of the plain". Here to probe how the world with its governments, polities, and religions treats us. From just my own experience (and not counting the histories of so many Queer folks who have gone before me, crushed under relentless heterosexism and homophobia) I must report that the Mormon faith is failing miserably in its responsibility to love the unloved, to bind the wounds of the broken, to liberate the captives, to feed our starving souls, to wrap the tent of Zion around our trembling shoulders.
Although it is a religion based on angelic restoration, Mormonism is unable and unwilling to see that it is "entertaining angels" in its very midst. Instead of embracing us and the wondrous gifts of spirit we bring to the Feast, Mormon leaders hunt us down, then punish, excommunicate, and exile us to the terrible wastelands of Sodom. Yet somehow out of the ashes of our pain, I know we can till this god-forsaken soil with our passion, we can sow it with the seeds of our stories, water it with our tears and our very blood if need be. We can make the desert wastes of Sodom blossom into fragrant roses of every rainbow hue, dressing and keeping gardens of love, beauty, balance, and delight!
As I contemplate my own life-long quest for Zion (one of the very few remnants of Mormonism that I still cherish), my best and most certain wisdom is that Zion can only be found within the pales of our own hearts. So keep telling your stories and singing your songs of redemption, of liberation. Love yourself fiercely, proudly, joyously. Find a circle of people who also love you fiercely, proudly, joyously and become a community of lovers in the Garden. I am most blessed, for here in Santa Cruz, California I have found a magical community of beautiful, vibrant, healthy souls who nourish me beyond my greatest dreams. Unlike the Latter-Day Saints, the circle of my friends here, my beloved "family" in the deepest sense of the word, never ever promised to wipe away my tears of sorrow. They simply DID IT.
I send out prayers to all those seekers of refuge, whose tears fall in the Garden - may they water the flowers of the soul
I send out prayers for all who get lost on the road to Zion - may you see through false promises and find authentic places of safety
I send out prayers for our community, that we may strive to be open to those who need rest from the awful failings of our world; that we may assist each other when needed, and remember to love honestly and without regret
I send out prayers to rededicate myself to finding refuge when I am in need and providing refuge to others in need
A quote from an email sent to me May 26, 2006 (used with the writer's permission):
"I took the pleasure in reading your essay, 'Stumbling Towards Zion' which I thought was quite moving. Simply saying thank you cannot adequately express my heartfelt and sincere gratitude to you for remembering my dear Jane; and for sharing her story with the world.
"I applaud you my friend, not because I am one of Jane's decendents; but because it is humanly 'just'. I applaud you, Connell for being you, and for caring."
"Peace Be Still!"
Louis M. Duffy (great great grandson of Jane Elizabeth Manning James; he is not LDS)