“I’m not lost,” says the sign outside Hooters restaurant on State Street and 6700 South, “I’m just exploring.
Anyone who’s tried to figure out a religious direction in life knows exactly what those words mean. Amidst the panoply of old and new religions, mega-churches and one-man-bands, the quest to find a spiritual home sometimes feels like being in a tiny boat buffeted by a sea of ranting slogans and flailing ad campaigns.
Some might argue that Jesus Christ, arguably religion’s first great marketer, is to blame. Who better understood the value of word-of-mouth and simple ads masked as parables to spread His gospel? Regardless of fault, those methods belong firmly to the past. The religious marketing strategist has an arsenal of modern weapons'web pages, TV commercials, billboards, bumper stickers, and high-end fanzines'to draw upon in order to solicit attention. We’re here, we’re different, and we’ve got a direct line to Upstairs'oh, and don’t forget your wallet.
Which leads to one question.
Before you’re separated from your hard-earned bucks as you seek to invest in eternity, reincarnation, karma or whatever tickles your fancy, how are you to make your choice? Easy. What do you do before any purchase of consequence?
And who better to fill out the report cards than someone raised on the other side of the Atlantic in the stuffy environs of the Church of England, for whom Mormon and Baptist, Muslim and Buddhist, are all equally (wholly and, er Holy) virgin territory?
“TO WALK MODESTLY WITH YOUR GOD
Congregation Kol Ami
2425 E. Heritage Way
The layout: Just up off of the beltway, the synagogue boasts spectacular views, at least from the parking lot. In the temple, the seats fan out before the main podium, behind which, protected by glass doors, is the Torah, the parchment scroll on which is written the Pentateuch, the first of the three Jewish divisions of the Hebrew Bible'the term “Old Testament” is for Christians'from which Judaism draws its foundations.
The system: Normally high-profile Rabbi Tracee Rosen leads the congregation. In her absence, the cantor'a professionally trained Hebraic singer'led the congregation in prayer and word, then the Torah was taken out, trooped round the faithful, who touched it with the talit (prayer shawl) and then kissed the shawl. Readings from the scriptures are given, discussed, prayers sung, the Torah returned to its place of abode.
Catchphrases: Cry out “Mazel tov” (“congratulations” or “Thank Godâ€) if a couple announces a wedding or there’s a birth in the family.
Mind your manners: Your choice of accessories prior to entering the hall is a kippah (for men only), a small, slight black skull-cap that has a habit of slipping down the side of your head like egg yolk and/or the prayer shawl, good for either gender. The cap seemed a safer, less intrusive bet for the skulking journalist. On entering the Shabbat service once Saturday, promptly at 9 o’ clock, my companion and I were asked our religious affiliation by a middle-aged man whose exact role was a mystery to us both, but whose manner rather set the tone for the rest of the proceedings. “She’s Jewish, the man’s not,” he shouted across the nearly empty hall. A quorum of 10 Jewish men or minyam, is needed for study or worship (It is only with 10 people that God is thought present).
Most of the congregation drifted in closer to 10. A more mobile congregation would be hard to imagine. Lots of seat swapping, moving up and down aisles, hugging and animated conversation, and all while the cantor crooned on. But despite the service’s disheveled nature, everything eventually came together.
Social life: After the service bagels and lox, fruit salad and cookies were laid out in the adjoining social hall for Oneg Shabbas. A young couple were celebrating their upcoming nuptials. Everyone knew everyone else. New faces, gentile or Jew, were fed, but politely ignored. This is one big family, happy to be with their own.
Entertainment value: For the linguistically challenged, the Hebrew sometimes grows a little monotonous, however well Cantor Laurence Loeb sang. “Jeez,” said my exasperated companion, who speaks Yiddish, but not Hebrew, “why don’t they do it in English?” My thoughts exactly, but â€¦
Spiritual value: That said, Loeb’s voice was so pure, so melodic, so constant, at times he filled the air with a sense of something older than comprehension, of meanings archaic and beautiful, a stillness at the heart of all this jovial social disorder.
What you take away: Jacqueline Osherow read out Lines from the Hebrew Bible in English: “He has told you, O man, what is good. And what God requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:6). The congregation stopped their circling, their glad-handing and conversation, caught up in the passion with which she spoke. “To walk modestly with your God,” Osherow said. “Isn’t that the loveliest line in the Torah?” Or anywhere else, probably.
PLEASE, NO â€˜JANGLING’
Religious Society of Friends aka Quakers
171 E. 4800 South
The layout: An old Methodist church built in 1914, ownership has changed hands numerous times, from Lutherans to the Murray Bible Church and even channelers called the Teaching of Inner Christ in the 1980s. The main hall is the Quakers’ central meeting room, with a stage and stained glass windows. No crosses, just bare walls.
The system: Could be mistaken for a snooze-fest. Gather round in a circle on chairs, close your eyes and set the alarm for 45 minutes, because that’s about it. If the spirit moves you, get up and say what’s on your mind, spiritually-speaking. After three quarters of an hour there’s a volley of hearty “good morning,” a shaking of hands and an adjournment downstairs to a somewhat gloomy basement for tea and muffins.
Catchphrases: “Friend” is the by-word of the day.
Mind your manners: Two teenage girls ran out of the hall after 15 minutes. Longtime Quaker Gordon Remington stood up, eyes closed, and said that George Fox, the Quakers’ founder, had advised that coolness and stillness help with meditation, in the face of “jangling” or disturbances.
Social life: The members put their money where their souls are and took on a mortgage to buy the building. These folks mean business, but be prepared to stand your ground if the idea of a group hug, offered to new members, makes you squeamish.
Entertainment value: If you stare hard enough you can weave and unweave the fabric of the carpet. Trying to work out what is going on in the minds of those around you also passes the time. A little on the dusty side.
Spiritual value: For those who take their God neat, who like nothing better than one-on-one negotiation. Definitely not for the restless, or the easily bored.
What you take away: You have to be in the right frame of mind for this one. Everything’s slow, ponderous, even the organization. “We do everything by consensus,” said Remington. “Which makes decision-making very complicated.”
SWEAT IT UP AND PRAISE THE LORD!
Calvary Baptist church
1090 S. State
The layout: A lobby leading to a large hall, three sections of pews. A large mirror above an immersion tank showed that morning’s catch being baptized. The male and female choir lined up in three rows, then four men in high-backed chairs'according to Pastor France Davis, their function was to keep him from getting distracted'and the high-profile pastor himself at the pulpit. The aesthetic pleasure of this church, however, was not the building, but the sartorial elegance within: men in fine suits, women in dresses, wide-brimmed hats, native headgear. Indeed the congregational wardrobe approached the sensual. Even a homeless gentleman munching on food provided by the church sported a parrot-bright yellow T-shirt.
The system: Baptist, so the name says it all. A Christian denomination in which the baptism of believers is central. The program pamphlet featured an oddly militaristic series of titles for the service: “Mobilizing the troops” (devotion), “Esprit de corp” (Responsive reading and battle cry, i.e. message in song), “Orders from the commander-in-chief” (the pastor’s sermon) and “Falling out.” If you are taken by the spirit and want to be baptized, go and kneel before the congregation at the end of the service and a young lady with a clipboard will take your details.
Catchphrases: “Amen, preach it brother, ah-heh, yes sir, thank you Jesus, we’re here to praise You Lord, no one but You lord,” etc.
Mind your manners: All singing, all dancing'and make sure you stand up to be counted. If you bring a friend, bring five more next week. The pastor’s into numbers. And not only of the congregation kind. A helpful diagram on the back of the rule sheet showed how to calculate your weekly and monthly tithe to the church, from 4 to 10 percent, depending on your current fortunes. As long as you’re dressed well, almost anything goes. Just ask soul singer Al Green, himself an ordained Baptist minister.
Social life: If the weekly gatherings the church hosts are anything to go by (30 all told), whether members actually have a life outside of the church is open to debate. You will find counseling, Scouts, Women for Christ, and a lot of choir practice. This is one busy institution that believes in its own people. One congregation member standing for political office in Kearns was asked to stand so everyone from that district knew who he was.
Entertainment value: Something for everyone, be it the fashion watcher, the music lover or good old-fashioned preaching from the pastor with plenty of homespun tales laden with symbolism: a hawk flying over the chicken coop, the congregation as chicks was a central metaphor. The call-and-response singing used novel examples from modern-day life (the drafty inconveniences of the backless hospital gown for example) to illustrate both the frustrations and the joys of our spiritual journey.
Spiritual value: Not for the shy or bashful, nor those leery of protecting their personal space. “Hug your neighbor,” said the Pastor. The woman next to me took pity and patted my shoulder. For those who love to dance, clap, sweat it up a little and praise the Lord!
What you take away: A church with a big heart and a loud voice. But it is the smallest gestures that count the most. When the Pastor said hold hands for prayer, my neighbor’s 2-year-old child, Alexxana Burton, sat in her lap and took hold of two of my fingers inside her mother’s hand.
POTLUCK AND A HANKIE
Valley View 12th Ward
The layout: Don’t be fooled into thinking a Mormon ward house is nothing more than a cookie-cutter chapel. Basketball court, theater stage (the youth put on a road show every year) or gym are other uses the building is put to. Valley View’s chapel had three seating areas, with the Bishopric (the high priests) at the front facing the congregation, the Sacrament table on their right. The place was barren of any religious symbols.
The system: The most exciting event of the Mormon month is probably fast and testimony meeting, which takes place the first Sunday of every month. Skip two meals, then come and tell your fellows how you feel about God, Christ, Joseph Smith and the LDS Church. The sacrament is dispensed on a plastic plate handed down the aisle, followed by tiny plastic cups of water you toss back into a dispenser'clinical but practical. The Bishop led the testimony with his expression of gratitude, plucking tissues from the box next to the podium that magically moved up and down to accommodate the height of the speaker. After the first hour, the congregation split up into men, women and children and the service continued for another two hours of contemplation, scriptural analysis and church business.
Mind your manners: White shirt and tie for the men, long dresses and sensible shoes preferable'but not mandatory'for the women, who expressed their affection for their men folk by rubbing and scratching their backs with much abandon. A more alacritously lachrymose congregation would be hard to find.
Catchphrases: “Gratitude” is the word to coin'whether to Christ, Joseph Smith, the church, your Bishop, spouse or children'followed by, “I know the church is true.”
Social life: The church is life; life is the church. Dances, potluck dinners, Dutch oven cook-offs, We knew the prophet fireside chats. The key is attendance, regularity, belonging. To quote Brigham Young, “We are so liable to forget'so prone to wander, that we need to have the Gospel sounded in our ears as much as once, twice, or thrice a week, or, behold, we will turn again to our idols.
This was the most family-oriented faith of all those surveyed. The ward house burst with people of all ages and yet an eerily similar expression glazed over many faces. Was it boredom, a religious epiphany or contemplation of what to fix for lunch?
When a baby boy was blessed, the members of the Bishopric and the father gathered round in a circle like a rugby team huddling for a strategy, their arms round each others’ shoulders so you could not see the child. The proud new Dad intoned a prayer, welcoming the baby into the fold, while warning that Satan had his hold on so many brothers and sisters in this world.
Entertainment value: If you love public speaking and pouring your guts out to your peers, this is the place for you. After sacrament, the podium was thrown open to those who wished to testify. Five women and two men got up to tell their story. All were profoundly grateful to Joseph Smith.
Spiritual value: At one point the Bishop called four women who had been charged with taking on volunteer work for the primary school and the Relief Society to stand. For a moment all that was needed were old-fashioned bonnets to plunge you back two centuries, the pioneer spirit that drove the Mormons to this state became visible for all to see.
MEET YOU AT THE MOSQUE
Khadeeja Islamic Centre
1019 W. Parkway Avenue
The layout: The two-story mosque rears out of the industrial/office landscape it is set in like a 1001 Arabian Nights fantasy. Enter through the main doors, go through a series of arches and you find yourself in a square hall with a high ceiling centered on the gold-leafed dome.
The system: The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, by the way) founded Islam, and its manual is the Holy Quran. The men pray to their one and only Allah on the ground floor, the women upstairs so as not to distract men with their female attributes, explained Islamic Centre president Nadeem Ahmed. Work those knees and pray five times a day, 35 times a week, anywhere you want. Many Muslims, said Imam Schuaib-Ud Din, make it only to the Friday lunchtime prayers, which are mandatory, even if only for the 10 minutes when everyone lined up shoulder to shoulder.
Catchphrases: Without being fluent in Arabic, it would be hard to say, although no doubt “Allah” is central. “Islam” means submission to the will of Allah and “Muslim” one who submits. S/M freaks, however, need not apply. To convert, you need someone to witness you say, “I believe Allah is the one God and Muhammad His prophet.”
Mind your manners: Shoes off before you enter; the carpet’s soft. Clothing ranges from the smart to jeans and untucked T-shirts.
Social life: According to the Imam, the mosque is the social life. “We tilt to the conservative,” he said.
Entertainment value: The Imam’s sermon was in English, if a tad on the dry side. After explaining there are three kinds of animals (vegetarians, those that kill for food, those that kill for pleasure), he told a story from the Quran that, to this uneducated observer at least, showed how justice was delivered at the behest of Allah, not man.
Spiritual value: Watching rows of men kneel and bow toward Mecca while you sat behind them may not be everybody’s cup of tea. But when the muezzin sang out his call to prayer at an open door at the far left of the mosque, the effect was spellbinding, transforming the strip-mall landscape of Salt Lake City to a dusty corner of an Arabian city.
What you take away: Cryptic, but of the holy texts of all the faiths surveyed, the Quran was the only book this journalist came away wanting to read.
Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple
9589 Dream Circle
The layout: Set amidst fields in South Jordan, where foals graze to the sound of a cock crowing and a lonely train whistle, the temple is down a narrow side street. Go in through the gold laminated front doors down a corridor to the main temple. The deity Ganesha, the Hindu God of wisdom, takes centre stage. Two more deities have their shrines either side of her. Even more line the walls round the back of Ganesha’s shrine.
The system: You’re on your own here. Temple spokesperson Indra Neelameggham said Hinduism “is a very personal faith. You don’t have congregational service. You come, you meditate, you socialize, you leave.” Western minds, which require a more structured approach she went on, have a hard time getting to grips with this idea. “It’s tough for the Judeo-Catholic mindset to understand. There are no rules, no â€˜Thou shalt nots’. It’s an inner state.” You can even attend different religions. “You can go to a mosque and it doesn’t stop you being a Hindu. The supreme God is one, no gender or form or manifestation. All waters flow into one ocean. Every path is OK.
Catchphrase: Karma. Didn’t you know?
Mind your manners: Check those pesky shoes at the door, but don’t show your feet to your elders. It’s disrespectful. And if you’ve just been to Costco to stock up on steaks for the weekend barbecue, leave them in the car. Cows, after all, are sacred. You become what you eat.
Social life: The temple is the focal point of social life. The temple bulletin board announced various services from the Indian community, including Chan’s Indian bazaar offering eyebrows and facial threading. “Do you want to look great and attractive?” it asked. Neelameggham said she treated the temple as if it were her own child, buying cloth for it when she bought clothing for her family.
Entertainment value: A bell is rung by each entrant so that he or she may leave their worries and troubles behind to allow proper meditation. Do they pick them up on their way out?
Spiritual value: So much coming and going, it’s difficult to say. During a brief conversation with one of the two priests, a 25-year-old called Satish, his limited but agile English lasted long enough to explain he had spent 11 years from the age of 12 in a forest learning his vocation with 400 other students. But the gentle, unguarded nature he exhibited was far more telling than anything he might have said.
What you take away: Convert Parvita (Jan) Frederick was a Mormon who despaired over the church’s philosophy regarding blacks and homosexuals. An aesthetician by trade, she headed off to San Diego, where one day she dreamt of a guru. Two weeks later he came to town; the skincare expert rang him and he told her he had indeed summoned her in the dream. (Cue Twilight Zone theme tune.)
“I’ve always felt separate from God,” she says. “With Hinduism there’s no middle man. If you have faith, he will come to you. The thing I really liked was there are so many different Gods, you can find the God that matches you.” Wrapping your mouth around the sounds of Sanskrit is, however, a more daunting prospect.
ENLIGHTEN YOUR BURDEN
Chau Tam Bao
469 N. 700 West
The layout: In the garden, which looks onto I-15, there is a 20-foot white statue of Buddha just so you know where you are. Go up the stairs into a small wooden building and you find the man himself sitting in the central shrine, deities either side. It is a cramped but very colorful temple, full of flowers and fruit.
The system: The idea is to break, through enlightenment, the miserable circle of birth and death to which desire chains us. This particular temple is for the Vietnamese community. Two resident nuns lead the ceremony'on this occasion, the Vulan holiday, to honor ancestors. Lots of chanting, ringing of bells and banging of a drum interspersed with children dancing and clutching paper flowers. One of the nuns gave a long, long sermon.
Catchphrases: It’s all in Vietnamese.
Mind your manners: Shoes outside, learn to sit cross-legged for hours in excruciating pain and smile while rubbing knees with your neighbors, one of whom may accidentally grab your little toe, making you grateful for your new-found hygienic attention to said extremities.
Social life: Clearly a gathering point for the local Vietnamese community, the congregants are mostly middle-aged women and children, few men or teenagers and no Caucasian faces to speak of. The Buddhist center next door hosted a vegetarian lunch, including spring rolls and pink-colored rice.
Entertainment value: The head nun showed a droll sense of humor, batting one of the children on the head with her microphone when the little girl wondered where her late-arriving present was after the dance, for which all were rewarded. At times, as the only white person there, you might be forgiven for a sense of deja-vu, perhaps best put down to Oliver Stone movies and National Geographic documentaries.
Talking to one young man, Anh Lee, who is studying computer science at university, it turned out the Vietnam war was not so far away. His father, who sat beside him while munching on a vegetable dish of some description, was a pilot in the South Vietnamese air force, fled the country in 1975, returned a year later and spent three years in jail. Upon release he moved to the United States. “If we went to a meeting like this in Vietnam,” said Anh Lee, “we’d be watched.
Spiritual value: Tranquility may be found watching the nuns with their shaved heads and pale blue robes or looking up at Buddha and wondering what his belly laugh might sound like.
What you take away: At one point still on their knees, the congregation to a man and woman raise themselves to pray. Looking around at the rows before and behind of 80 people, their hands pressed together in devotion, their eyes closed and it was hard to conjure a more moving sight.
GOD AS PLAYMATE
But what if organized religion is not for you? Is there another way? In the age of Home Depot and DIY, the answer has to be “You bet!”
Ask Lynne Whitesides. She was a famous or, depending on your religious background, infamous member of the September Six, a group of scholars who in 1993 left the LDS Church over various doctrinal issues. From the age of four, she has been on a quest to find God. “I’d lie on my bed and try to imagine what God looked like, watching everything getting bigger and bigger until I got so scared I had to stop.” So what does God look like for her? “Golden, foggy.
An LDS member from 1970 to 1993, she grew angrier and angrier as the years went on that the church refused women as priests. “I entered the church thinking I could change it, but finally realized that wasn’t going to happen. I felt the confines of that God slowly strangling.” For a while she was constantly being interviewed on TV about her high profile differences with the LDS church. “It got darker and funnier. I thought I could change the church, instead I ended up a big mouth.
After disfellowship, she said she fell apart. “I hit rock bottom, never felt quite so abandoned by everything I believed in. I was looking for peace, God, a path of some kind, a relief from all the pain. I wanted to find a loving God.”
She went to transformational seminars. Then someone suggested she attend Native American ceremonies. Which was how she ended up in a teepee in the middle of nowhere in Utah with a medicine man. “I found that God was everywhere, is all there is, that I am so loved. I stopped being so angry, wanting to kick the crap out of the church. I saw how afraid I had been, and I had an experience of the playfulness of God.
After what she described as “the absence of the feminine” in the LDS church, where women’s bodies absolutely belonged to men, in Native American ceremonies the feminine was brought back into her life.
Now Whitesides works as a life coach and has turned for religious direction to a Peruvian woman who sings for six hours straight as part of her native religion. Recently with a group out of Sacramento she underwent a weeklong juice fast while spending those seven days alone on Mount Shasta, watching the deer cavort over rolling hills.
“It was incredible,” she said. “God is all there is. God’s message is always the same. You are not alone.” Asked to explain what she had learned so far on her spiritual journey, she replied “If you tell the truth magic happens, it brings you along to finding yourself. It saved my life.
THE RIVER RUNS TO HIM (OR HER, OR IT)
But if religious institutions or shamans, witchdoctors and their ilk do not appeal, what’s left?
Perhaps sometimes it’s best just to let nature take its course.
One recent weekend a group of Mormons went up to Tanner’s Flats for a father and son camp out. There was a Dutch-oven cook-off, high priests talked about lines of authority (how men in the church receive their power from Christ, via Joseph Smith down through the generations of priests who have ordained each other till today). Afterwards, round a fire, the young priests roasted s’mores and talked of new movies and how there was no such thing as a break when you told your girlfriend you thought it was time to have a breather.
The next morning, as the sun started to climb down the side of the facing mountains, the river that runs down through the gorge at full roar, no one yet about except for a fisherman fording the waters in search of trout, the light caught the tip of a fir tree rising out of the forest to more than 30 feet. If you listened carefully, it was as if the tree was sounding a single aching note, the call of a trumpet echoing down the valley.
Editor’s note: Freelancer Stephen Dark thanks all the kind souls who took time out to help with this article, especially Jackie Dross, Ron Thurber, Dr. Wilfred Samuels, PhD, Ron Daye and the Union Park Second Ward and Elaine Emmi of the Interfaith Roundtable.