This past weekend I had an eye-opening and life-changing experience. My best friend, Julie, and I joined about another 100+ volunteers and we went to polygamy central- the twin cities of Hildale (Utah) and Colorado City (Arizona). The Fundamentalist Mormon church has, among other places, set up stakes there many years ago. And, generally, the residents are fearful of strangers, live a very closed-off life from general society, and live under strict laws of obedience to their “prophet” Warren Jeffs who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for child sexual assault.
Most women, until the recent edict stopping all marriages within the sect, were married off at very young ages, oftentimes to close or slightly distant family members. Many of these women have no idea that they have any legal rights or, if they do, how they would even access those rights. If one seeks to leave the FLDS church, they are turned away with nary the clothes on their backs. They lose their children, their spouse, their friends and extended family members, and any property they may have. Now labeled “apostate” FLDS members are forbidden any contact, including a “hello” on a sidewalk from anyone in the sect. That includes mothers to their own children. The horrors happening in this "religion" are unimaginable—child rape, sexual assault, rape, you name it.
Julie, me and the other volunteers were there for a dual purpose. The first was to help clean and refurbish a safe house for those hoping, considering, or having left the sect. There, they find safety, meals, beds, clothing, and support services. It is hard to describe the dark, evil presence of the home we were working on. It had previously been a polygamous home. There were some 22 bedrooms and 19 bathrooms (you try keeping that clean!). There was no beauty or peace in this gargantuan home. It was one hallway after the next of bedrooms and bathrooms. If a serial murder needed a place to hide his victims, this would be perfect because I hardly believe anyone would ever see or hear from them again, locked in one of the out-of-the way bedrooms, isolated, cavernous bedrooms. As we walked from room to room, I wanted to know how many children had been raped in this one, or a woman assaulted in that one, or a desperate young child bride wondering when her old husband would be there to rape her in that other bedroom. Many of them smelled of musk, urine, and, what, was that maybe semen?
But as we painted, cleaned, re-roofed the home, sorted through mounds of donated clothes and placed them on shelves, I started to sense something else. Was it hope? (It was certainly smelling better!) It certainly was a joyous day as we met some of the most amazing women and men who truly inspired me. Their dedication to those in horrific situations was beyond notable. I wanted to do more, sink my teeth into how anyone could find themselves in a life of polygamy and stay there. I wanted to be like these activists and volunteers. Me, too, me too. Because, really, but for the Grace of God, that could easily have been me. After all, I come from Mormon pioneer stalk. My ancestors walked across the planes to the Promised Land of Utah. They were faithful and obedient (none of this rubbed off on me, I am the most rebellious soul ever!) and several of my relatives even practiced polygamy. That’s right, I am partly the product of polygamy. (As I discuss its horrors and pure evilness with my dad, he reminds me of this, as if this is something to be proud of, as if being a child of polygamy somehow makes the practice of it more palatable. To that I say that anyone who is the product of rape or slavery does not make those institutions or acts ok. They are vile, as is polygamy.) When the Mormon church chose to abandon polygamy in order to gain statehood, the FLDS stayed true to the faith. If my ancestors had made that choice, perhaps I’d be living in polygamy, one of many wives and mother to far too many children, living a life of deep sadness and desperation. Do I owe it to these women to help? To pitch in? Yes. So in addition to my two greatest life’s passions (divorce/parenting/healing and cancer), I add polygamy rescue.