I have been to Salt Lake City maybe two dozen times in my life. Growing up Mormon, it’s a place that is always in the back of your mind, where the early saints migrated to after being evicted from multiple states for various reasons. It’s the place members of the church believe God chose for them to seek refuge and build up Zion. It is the epicenter of everything that is Mormonism. Visiting Salt Lake as a child, teen, and even as recently as a few years ago with my own family, always held familiarity mixed with a somewhat unexplainable sense of excitement. It was God’s chosen place, after all.
Previous trips to Salt Lake were filled with walking Temple Square and taking pictures of the 223 foot tall granite temple, which took 40 years to build and is regarded as a testament of God’s power and authority. Visiting meant seeing exhibits at the Church Museum, watching the pin drop presentation in the acoustically impressive Tabernacle building, and touring the massive Conference Center, which cost “a lot of money” to build, as the tour guide put it.
Mixed in with religious sites would be trips to the mid-sized amusement park, Lagoon, or the so-so water park, Seven Peaks, which always inspires one of our kids to say that the names of these two places really should be switched in order to make more sense. I am not a shopper by any means, so we tend to avoid malls, even the new, expensive, controversial City Creek Center located just off Temple Square, and ultimately funded by donations from church members, which is what makes it a hot topic for many people.
Having visited so many times, and grown up in a culture regarded by outsiders as strange—at the very least—making another stop in Salt Lake City while my husband attended a training seminar for work should have been just more of the same. And I suppose it was, because the city hasn’t changed much since our last visit. It was the experience that changed, the perspective. My perspective.
Just over a year ago, my husband and I, along with our two children, left Mormonism. For someone who grew up believing they were part of God’s chosen people and would one day be exalted if they stayed faithful enough long enough, leaving Mormonism isn’t just about giving up a religious creed and gaining more free time on the weekend. It’s leaving behind a culture, a world view, a guide on how to live your life and raise your children. Sometimes, it also often means losing community, friends, and possibly even family.
Being back in Salt Lake, as an ex-Mormon, is what changed the experience. Suddenly, we weren’t part of the culture we grew up in anymore. We were outsiders, experiencing a city in a new way. Scheduled to be there for a week, I was faced with entertaining the kids while my husband was in class, without all the usual stops at church-related sights. I knew there had to be more to do in a city that size, but I had never bothered to look beyond the usual. Now, it was either a week of boredom, or rediscover a city I thought I knew.
The simplest things became new experiences. Dining choices multiplied, because we probably wouldn’t have opting for somewhere like Squatters Pub Brewery on previous trips, since we didn’t drink and had pretty strong views against alcohol in general. When friends my husband worked with, who were also in town for the training, texted to see if we wanted to go out for drinks one evening, a year ago that would have ended in an awkward refusal that, to us at least, would have felt judgmental no matter how we tried to phrase it. This trip, I was surprised to realize Salt Lake has a thriving night scene, with everything from classy whiskey bars and microbreweries, to dive bars and pool halls.
And the people who frequented these places? They were perfectly normal. Not the sad, lost people who had been demonized in church lessons on temperance during youth meetings. We met a lady from Ireland who had raised her son on her own, sent him off to college in Europe so he could experience part of where his family came from, was successful in her career, and proud of her life so far. She held her own beliefs about religion, found Mormons interesting to live amongst, but respected everyone’s right to live their lives how they saw fit—something Mormons have a very difficult time doing. Non-members are people to be pitied, as a Mormon, because they don’t have the truth. Yet, most of our closest friends have always been non-members, and as we’ve expanded our circle, there’s no pity, no judgement, no press to show them the right way. We’re still figuring out what that is ourselves, like most people. Whether or not you drink alcohol on occasion has very little to do with your moral superiority.
For as much as modern Mormons are known for never drinking alcohol, there’s a reason Salt Lake has Whiskey Street and a plethora of downtown bars named with creative Mormon puns. Early church leaders drank, smoked, and had beards—which are no longer allowed to be worn by men in church leadership positions, for vague, absurd reasons having something to do with an intense dislike of hippies in the seventies. Much of what Mormonism is today is a far cry from what it was in its early days, and somehow Salt Lake City serves as an unwitting portrait of both the old religion and its modernized cousin.
As trivial as new places to eat might seem to some, wardrobe might seem equally minor, yet it was another factor in seeing a new side of the city. People not familiar with the Salt Lake area think it’s brimming with Mormons. In actuality, only about forty percent of the city’s population are active members of the church. I knew this before, a fact kept somewhere in the back of my mind. Yet, when sorting through the suitcase looking for something to wear, I found myself worrying about sticking out.
It was hot during our trip, right around the same time Phoenix was suffering through one-hundred-twenty degree days. We also planned to walk most places, because finding parking can be a pain and I never carry change for meters. When we left Mormonism, we stopped wearing the traditional undergarments that didn’t allow for sleeveless tops or anything that hit above the knee. Over the hot summer I had been spending as much time as possible in summer dresses, tank tops, and shorts. That was fine at home or on vacation in Chicago, but in Salt Lake? In the mecca of Mormonism? I felt self-conscious walking out of the hotel in any of these types of clothes, but it was really, really hot.
My insecurity all but vanished after a few blocks of walking toward the local small, but fun, planetarium. No one was staring. Not a single person gave me a look of disappointment or disgust. No one even cared. In fact, most every woman I saw had on shorts or an above-the-knee skirt, sleeveless blouses or spaghetti straps. It was hot, and the majority of people living in Salt Lake have nothing to do with the religion, its requirements, or its constraints. They’re simply trying not to sweat through their shirts on their way to the street car station, or walking a kitten on a leash (I wish I had gotten a picture of that, but it seemed rude), or enjoying lunch with friends in an air conditioned restaurant that may or may not serve wine alongside their sandwiches. The liquor laws in Utah are very weird, so who knows.
The fact was, nearly every person I passed was oblivious to the fact that I was wearing a blue plaid skirt that hit above my knees and was paired with a black tank top. As a youth in the Mormon Church, you’re constantly reminded that the world is watching you, looking to you as an example, a candle on the hill meant to light the way for others. That kind of language makes you feel special, encourages you to be obedient, lead your wayward friends toward true happiness. Stepping outside that culture and experiencing the rest of the world has shown me over and over that Mormonism is the sole focus of only the people living inside that bubble. The rest of the world is content to blaze their own path toward happiness and success.
Finding our own path, in regards to staying entertained that week, led us to all kinds of places I’d never been to before, like The Leonardo museum.
My kids’ interest in children’s museums has been steadily falling over the past few years, but The Leo was different. Everything was interactive, from molding Claymation people to record on little movie screens, to using your body to make prismatic rainbow reflections. What stuck out to me the most, however, was a temporary exhibit on indigent people. Told through portraits and written stories, visitors could see into the lives of people who had ended up in a situation of homelessness for various reasons. The point of the exhibit was to break down stereotypes, and it had me and my kids fascinated.
I’m of big fan of podcasts like “This American Life” and “Beautiful/Anonymous” because I love hearing people’s stories, epic or everyday. This exhibit struck me, not only because of this, but because on our walk to the museum I kept noticing signs around downtown asking people not to give money to the homeless. Salt Lake does have a high population of indigents (around 14,000 in 2015), and while I understand the reasons behind asking people to give money to local shelters and services rather than directly to the people, I also saw this city in a new light than I ever had before.
The Mormon Church receives millions of dollars in donations from members every year, yet only a small percentage is actually put toward philanthropic ventures. Most goes toward payroll, church schools, and real estate. As we walked back from The Leo with a statistic on my mind that most homeless people only need shelter and help for about two weeks in order to get back on their feet, I saw those same signs and considered how my own viewpoints had changed.
A year before, I would have agreed with commonly held ideals of my former faith that most of these people had landed themselves in these situations through their own choices, and a handout would only enable them. Give money to the church instead, and they would take care of the rest, led by God’s influence. I grew up with hardline concepts of choice and accountability, of a person needing to succeed on their own and not make excuses for failure. Salvation comes through acts, not grace. Leaving Mormonism blurred the lines between what I once thought was black and white.
The stories from the museum kept going through my mind as we walked back to the hotel, one in particular of a couple who had been addicted to drugs and living on the streets for years, yet made the difficult decision to turn their lives around. An elderly woman the man had once known agreed to take them both in while they tried to get clean, and they spent years working their way up from odd jobs for neighbors to regular landscaping work, amending wrongs they had committed the best they could along the way, even when it meant jail time.
I kept thinking about that story, wondering how it might have been different if the elderly woman had turned them away and told them to ask a shelter for a bed instead. Yes, shelters and services meant to help indigent are good places to contribute time and money, but sometimes a single individual can be the best force for change if we’re willing to see the world and the people in it a little more clearly, a little less blurred by our own limited experiences and what we think we know to be right.
Culture is a strange thing. How you see it and experience it has so much to do with what side of the line you stand on: insider or outsider. A trip I’ve made dozens of times in my life provided me with a view of both what it was like to experience a culture I was well acquainted with from a completely new viewpoint as an outsider, as well as see the world outside Mormonism from a clearer perspective. The culture you grow up with is always a part of you. Stepping outside of it, experiencing new cultures, new places, new viewpoints, it doesn’t erase what you started with, but rather adds to it, allowing you to see, know, and understand more than you could have before.