Driving along the concrete ribbon of the beltway, winding through walls of dense woodlands, interrupted now and then by man-made structures, I learned to keep my eyes on the road in order to avoid motion sickness. I can feel my body shifting side to side, rising and falling with the fluid flow of the freeway. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the steepled arms of the Mormon temple rise up from a bed of green, as if a small cluster of worshipers, overcome by the spirit, stood and shouted Halleluiah in the Garden of Eden. To one who does not know, it appears like a castle, sort of Disney-ish and mysterious. I’ve thought for years that someone should simply plant a road sign at that point, when the steeples come into view. “That there is the Washington D.C. Mormon Temple. Go check it out!” (It’s been so long since I’ve taken that road, there may be such a sign nowadays.)
Almost forty years ago I took that ride with my mother, my brother, and sisters. I entered the golden doors of that edifice, leaving my sisters at the front, and took the deeper route into the heart of the place with the woman who gave me my earthly body. Together we made covenants with our Lord that remain in place to this day. The next morning I knelt at a holy altar within, and pledged my heart and soul to God and to the man I loved, both of whom I love to this day. Those sparkling, piercing steeples will always hold a sacred place in my mind and in my heart, even when my faith rises and falls like the Washington DC beltway. I remind myself to look up, for fear of spiritual motion sickness, and keep my focus on those spires.
Two years later, after Dave graduated from law school, we would move to Pittsford NY while Dave fulfilled a federal Circuit Court clerkship. Twenty minutes from our new home was the little town of Palmyra, NY, the birthplace of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, commonly known as Mormonism. It was sacred soil, quite literally, and much of what I am was planted, took root and grew in that place.
At the intersection in the center of the town of Palmyra there is a church on every corner. Four steeples shoot up to the heavens, rising from the trees and the town. It reminds me of schoolchildren waving their hands to be called upon: Pick me! Pick me! I know the answer!
The whole thing started with steeples, calling out to the masses. A boy of inquisitive mind and yearning heart stood in the center of that intersection, wanting to know which one to join, rotating in circles, facing one doorway then the other, choirs and church bells and preachers calling him in. The options confused him. Finally, in the blessed silence of his own room he whispered a prayer and let it rise up through the pointed roof of his parents’ farmhouse. His future became history, and his history is mine. His name was Joseph.
Today, the area where I live is dotted with churches. Most of them, in this place I now call home, are of the same denomination, though I cherish the diversity of other religions that welcome our neighbors. Our good friends, the Oshiro’s, who lived in the house where Libby lives now, were Seventh Day Adventists. They are among the most holy and Christian people I have ever known and I revere them. They lived happily and peacefully among us Mormons in Davis County, Utah. I often thought that what they experienced had to be similar to my own experience as a child, being Mormon in a predominantly Catholic and Presbyterian community in south western PA.
The church where we worship now is roughly 500 steps away from our home, just around the corner and down Summerset Road. We know how many steps because our Fitbits tell us, and when Libby and Dave need another 1000 steps before midnight, they take Libby’s dog, Rags, for a walk to the church and back. It’s a lovely little rock structure, built a couple decades ago. In many ways it’s like a second home. I know every nook and cranny, even the men’s bathroom, because we take turns cleaning it every Saturday morning. We have laughed and cried and sung and spoken and ached and rejoiced in that place, with other people we love and have loved.
Not all that long ago our church building might have been perceived as an office building, or a school, or library, because there wasn’t much that told a passer-by that it was a church, unless they found the plaque welcoming visitors. Then, one summer day, as I rounded the corner on my drive home, I saw a crane lifting a steeple up above the roof of the chapel. I hit my brakes and put the car in reverse; pulled up to the curb and got out, asking my neighbors what was going on. “Looks like we’re getting a steeple.” We watched in delight as they lowered that white triangle onto the top of our church. It still brings me joy to see that steeple there on the corner of my neighborhood. It says, without apology:
“We worship here. This is where we gather; where we sing and where we pray. There is safety here. Come, join us!”
I imagine our songs, our testimonies, and our prayers rising up, filtering out the unimportant cultural stuff Mormons deal with, and lifting into that steeple. I imagine all that important gospel teaching swirling like syrup in an upside-down funnel, the steeple filtering it out before it reaches God, so that the only thing that finally escapes from the tippy top of that point, is Love.