SALT LAKE CITY – The Temple’s granite facade, tucked safely behind tall walls across the street from a shopping mall, gleams in the afternoon sunlight. At the top stands a gold statue of Moroni. Smiling missionaries from all over the world greet visitors with large smiles and chipper, accented hellos. The diversity here is more apparent on the edges than inside the visitors center, where the videos feature white families, and where the photos and video of the stained glass inside the Temple features a blonde Jesus. Besides the friendly missionaries, everyone I see downtown and inside the Temple complex is white.
Utah got its start in much the same way Texas and the Dakotas did. Settlers came here when they were unhappy with the US government. The Mormons were persecuted for their views on Christianity and polygamy. They moved from upstate New York to Illinois and elsewhere before deciding that Utah, then a part of Mexico, was where they would go to settle. Eventually, a war was fought to annex these areas.
Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, with its roots – like those of the settlers in Texas and the Dakotas – deeply entrenched in western expansionism and white settlerism. “The whole of America is Zion itself from north to south,” wrote LDS founder Joseph Smith.
Despite its reputation as a missionary religion, sending youth all over the world to convert people of color, the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has an extensive racist history. Joseph Smith preached that dark skin was the sign of a curse from God. Black men were therefore not eligible to hold the Priesthood until 1978, black men and women were not allowed to participate in Temple ceremonies, and slavery was allowed. One could pay tithes by leasing slave labor to the church. Miscegenation, a nasty word to indicate inter-racial love, was strictly prohibited. Heterosexual, patriarchal structures are heavily promoted by the LDS Church, and sober living encouraged. Utah calls itself the ‘Family State’.
Alicia would disagree.
A mother of five, Alicia has suffered from 3 strokes in the last year and is unable to work as a job coach. She is 40 years old. Her husband, whose identity is not mentioned for his safety, is undocumented.
“We have to worry about him getting pulled over with the risk of being deported because he’s the main breadwinner in the household. So yeah, it’s kind of scary.”
They met at a dance almost a decade ago. He works in construction and takes care of Alicia and her children while earning the money for the house while Alicia attends physical therapy to regain use of her hand.
“We haven’t gotten the documents yet because it’s expensive.” Alicia says the process starts at $1,500. That’s a lot of money to a family of seven with only one person working.
“Especially when he’s paying everything else, the rent, and everything. It’s very expensive.”
She lives in terror of her husband being deported. She even has nightmares. “Recently we’ve had ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids in this area. We’ve had a couple of them in the last couple of months. So we worry about that stuff too, because we don’t know who’s giving out information about who’s undocumented and who’s not, we don’t know where it’s coming from.”
She breaks into tears. “He’s all I got. But one day we’ll fix that, hopefully. I tell him we just have to keep praying. Because he’s such a good guy. He’s always helping people. He does everything he’s supposed to do. He pays his taxes, he contributes to society, he does everything he’s supposed to do. He’s a great father and an awesome husband. He does everything he can to take care of me and my kids. I can’t ask for anybody better than that.”
She takes a tissue and apologizes for crying. “He’s my guardian angel.”
Alicia has long been a local activist for migrant justice and has experienced harassment from right-wing groups, including the Minutemen. She and a few others who protested them earlier in the decade still live in fear of their repercussions. In the last five years, three of her friends have been deported. She does not know what happened to the children whose parents were deported.
She cannot figure why Utah has been so cruel. “If I remember hearing some stories about the past, Mormons were also segregated. They were treated poorly.”
“Utah is supposedly known as the ‘family state’. But when start separating families you’re not so much of a family state anymore.”
“It’s terrifying because then you wonder what happens to the kids, especially the ones who don’t have family here. You wonder what happens to the kids.”
“I’ve realized people don’t care about something unless it happens to them. A lot of people – really, not everybody – but a lot of people don’t worry about something unless it happens to them personally, unless it affects them personally.”
“I think some people are tired. They’re tired of fighting, because we’re not getting anywhere.”
Does she think anything will get better after the election in November? “No.”
Alicia tells me the doctors told her she had to give up her activism, that the constant stress was causing her strokes. But living with nightmares about your husband and breadwinner being deported seems to me like it would cause more stress than organizing rallies and charity drives.
“I think we need a whole new system. Even my husband was telling me that we need to get rid of everybody. Like congress, all our representatives, start over.”
Victoria, mother of two and an immigrant from Lesotho, is not under any illusions. “We cannot do placards for over ten years, petitions for over ten years, and expect a different outcome.”
“I was looking at the whole journey from the apartheid era. I’m [now] looking at the protests all over the country. And I said with this many protests, there’s still nothing happening? There’s nothing happening! For me, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like the time for placards and things on the street is over.”
She has lived in the US since 1998. Victoria suffered from spousal abuse and political problems in Lesotho so decided to come to Utah, since she was a Mormon. When she started to have issues with ICE and the Church was unwilling to help her, she noted that the racism the Church was distancing itself from was still alive and well.
“You know, I was talking to a friend yesterday and said sometimes I want to pinch myself and wake up to the United States that I hoped for. Because I feel like I’m on my way to the United States, and I’m not exactly sure that my initial perception of what America ought to be is even as clear as it was when I left home. When I left my country, America was this place where you could fight and earn freedom. It was a place for justice. And it was a place for people who wanted to work hard and make their lives better. I’m still looking for that place.”
What did she find instead?
“Quite the contrary. If I were to say word for word, just the reverse of what I said. You can fight hard for justice but you might not even get it. In the process you might be harmed for trying to find justice.”
Working hard towards success is out of the question for her as well. Despite having a master’s degree, she says her skin color, her marital status and her accent stand in the way of her getting a job.
Despite its reputation as an all-American, wholesome family city, almost 21% of the population lives under the poverty line. Despite 65% of the city being counted by the census as white, the Latinx population continues to grow, as well as the number of migrants like Victoria who come from overseas.
“I left the church because, well, a part of my struggle here with immigrant rights and injustices that I suffered in this state forced me to go back to revisit me becoming a Mormon. Why was a part of this community? If, in reality, in office, they don’t act out the principles they preached when they were in Africa. Love your neighbor as you love yourself?”
“As I was digging into what they believed in, I noticed that black people had the lowest status of the human race. At some point during the Mormon history, black people were not considered full human beings.”
“But I found out about all these things after the fact. They didn’t tell me about this when I was signing up. And people say, well why didn’t you read?” But in the village where she grew up, the library was sparse. There was no internet. How was she supposed to know? “Who would have books about all the world religions?”
Victoria believes that black people are oppressed all over the United States, but that there is a unique flavor to white supremacy in Utah. “The excuses change. Here, I believe whatever happens is very inundated in the Mormon culture.”
“I think that the Salt Lake City history about black people is peculiar. Whether or not the Mormon church wants to admit, from inception, the church barred black people.”
While studying for her degree, she experienced issues with her immigration status. She tells me the Church was unwilling to help her, and she began to feel like she was being pushed out. Once she discovered her Bishop was accessing her medical records against her wishes, this was the last straw.
She speaks to me about how, when she was vocal about the Church’s lack of support for her immigration status, she then received a visit from ICE. She says that the agents asked her religion.
“I said, why are you asking me about my religion? He said because sometimes we just need to make connections with immigrants and religion. I said ‘well, people back home would tell you that when I left – if that’s the connection you’re trying to make – they’ll tell you that I was a Mormon. I hope that answers your question.’ At the time I still had a picture of Jesus on the wall.”