I'll never forget the first time someone told me I was going to hell. I was twelve.
The grounds of the Conference Center were breezy, the buds of the coming spring dappling the many thin trees in shades of light pastels. All around me, packs of women and young girls - some my age, some older - bustled towards the great, granite building that towered above us all. I held tight to the large, square ticket that was going to grant me entrance, huddling close to my small group of friends as we were guided towards the gate.
It wasn't until we rounded the turn that I saw them. There was a small cluster of people who had lined the entrance to the grounds, holding signs and blow horns. One man was standing above the rest, holding himself up on the wall as he called down to the throng of swishing skirts and flapping ponytails. "Ladies!" he bellowed, his voice cracking like thunder above the traffic sound of Salt Lake city. "Ladies, I warn you! You step into that building, and you're stepping right into the gates of Hell!"
The man quickly disappeared as I was pulled along with the crowed into the safe harbor of the Center's iron gates and spacious court yard. But his words rang in my ears, like the suffocating static that comes after being caught in an explosion. "...stepping through those doors... gates of hell."
It would be a hard thing to explain just why those people where there, screaming out my damnation without telling you the whole story about Latter Day Saint history. Or Mormon history, if you'd like that name better. Stacks upon stacks of books have been written about the life and times of Joseph Smith, and whether or not he was truly a prophet of God. I am not here to argue the hows and whys of his story. Whether you want to believe he was crazy, or power hungry, or a humble man of the Lord has to be your own decision. Just know that I am a follower of the religion he helped bring about and that, for better or for worse, being a Mormon has helped shape the twenty-one year old woman who sits before her laptop, tying these words.
We're very good at making people angry, we Mormons. Since the founding of our religion, we've been running from the mobs and the occasional assassin. Thankfully, the modern world has started to frown upon such things and has instead replaced them with the massive, crushing force known as protesting.
America has had a love affair with protest ever since our inception. Our worship of free speech has insured not only rights for women, such as myself, but also civil rights for all peoples and creeds. Well, almost all. Hot button topics such as illegal aliens, gay marriage and abortion have become the battle fields that most of us find ourselves being pulled into. In fact, most of you will likely remember the many protests that have taken place outside of Mormon temples. Perhaps you were even there.
It's always been a hard thing for me to swallow, protesting. Not because I believe that the right of free speech should be taken away, but because the twelve-year-old rattling around inside of me can still remember the terror of what it felt like to know that someone out there would believe the religion you adore to be a pawn of the devil. And yet, I can only imagine the agony one must feel to be told that you'll be sent down to Hell for loving someone of your own sex, or for choosing to kill the fetus inside of you that was created because you were raped.
Such haunting and twisted thoughts were swimming through my brain only a few weeks ago, as I sat across from my mother at an Olive Garden. We had listened to the radio during the trip across town; listening as news casters debated over the current political scene. As I picked at my salad and sipped the strawberry sparkler that had just been brought to the table, I fretted over just what I was going to do come November. It was enough for me to worry about getting a job, or finding a place to live now that the lease on my townhouse was coming to a close, but now I had to figure out just which of the grabbling political voices I should listen to.
While we waited for our food to arrive, my mother and I mused over whether or not we could trust Mit Romney, a fellow member of our faith, with the future of this country. "I'm sure he's a nice person," I said, licking olive oil off of my fingers "but there's something... off about him."
My mother opened her mouth, looking like she was going to agree with me, when her ring tone bubbled up from the bowels of her purse. She looked at the caller ID and lite up like a the fourth of July. "It's Howie!" she whispered to me, and then immediately went to answering her iPhone.
I leaned in my chair and went back to stabbing a fork into my salad, watching the new wedding band that glimmered on my mother's ring finger. Howie - or Howard as the world knew him - was the step-father I now found myself belonging to. After over a decade of mourning the sudden and bloody end of my father's life, she was moving on. Her hunt for love had started with my leave for college. She had found the house suddenly empty, and it seemed as though that was too much for her. And so, though I knew she would never stop loving my father, she had went out a caught herself a husband.
I waited for the phone call to end, and watched my Mother sigh. "So he managed to find the devil child?" I asked quietly. The "devil child" was apparently one of the new step-brothers I had inherited only a few weeks earlier. Howard apparently had a son who disliked actually telling anyone where he was living. So my step-father, on a mission to see him, had traveled down to southern Utah and checked out all of the man's usual haunts. As my mother nodded, I could only assume he was successful.
Letting out a long sigh, I said. "It's hard, trying to discuss politics with Howard. I mean, he just seems to have an answer for everything." My one track mind had suddenly slammed the two topics of the conversation together. With the knowledge that my step-brother was apparently still alive, I could only seem to think of the several times I had been irritated by Howard. The man was not horrible, not even the slightest, but I could feel that it was going to take me quite some time before I could ever live peacefully with him. Especially if he continued to leave up the toilet seat.
I looked back up to my mother, waiting for her response, and found myself puzzled by what I found. She was staring down at her plate, her expression twisted into an emotion I didn't recognize. "I know," she said quietly. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. If I didn't know any better, I would think she was about to start a prayer. "You remember that Howard served in Vietnam, don't you?"
I nodded. Howard had spent the early years of his manhood plowing through the jungles of Vietnam, being exposed to that deadly, life shattering substance known as Agent Orange. The poison had nestled into his body and ruined his heart, causing him to nearly die of a heart attack a few years before he and my mother had met. Agent Orange had also claimed the life of a man named Ron Drapper, the husband of my neighbor and family friend Tamalee. Ron had been one of the many to lose his life to the toxin, which the soldiers had used to kill the vegetation that their enemies had used as cover to ambush them. The man fought for years as a cancer slowly ate his body from the inside out before finally passing away, leaving Tam alone to raise their five children. For years, all I could know of him were the stories told to me by the Drapper clan and the crisp, dark green suit that had been encased in glass and hung upon the wall in the sitting room.
"When Howard came home after the war," my mother finally continued "there were protesters waiting for the soldiers on the tarmac. They showered him, and the rest his company, in pig's blood."
Something cold and steely clamped down around my stomach as our table grew suddenly quiet. The clatter of knives and forks seemed to be drowned out by the horrors playing out in my mind as I imagined a more strapping, tired version of Howard, the man who I had found so much petty complaint with, being covered in sticky, foul smelling crimson. "Howard told me," my mother whispered "that ever since that day, he's never stopped reading. He wanted to understand just why someone would do that to him. And that's why he knows so much."
My mind hasn't wondered far from that image, or from that time when I was twelve, and was on the receiving end of a blow horn. As a writer, I enjoy the luxury of free speech. I live in a country where I have the right, the privilege, to share the tangled, knotted mass of my brain with the rest of the world. And yet, within that same country, I find myself living with people who would slaughter a pig and use it's blood to spray a war battered soldier.
I've found myself wondering what those who have come before us must think of our behavior. What would the men and women who marched, peaceful and strong, say when if they knew that in our quest to have the strongest opinion, we would be willing to trample over someone else? Perhaps we will never know how to handle our rights correctly, but I certainly hope that one day, we will at least find a way to speak out minds without being cruel. After all, what is the point of having freedom if it is only to be abused?