Sunday, October 3, 2010
Trek is for Suckers
Mormonism has always strenuously exerted to keep its youth "unspotted from the world." Some of these efforts, like Boy Scouting, persist. Others, like Road Show, have slipped from prominence. The search for a new way to "engage the youth," to help them understand that they are "a royal generation," is constant.
In my day, we had the supremely creepy Plane Crash Fireside: the evening starts as a happy little play, depicting a typical LDS family getting ready for a big family vacation. This all goes down in typical Mormon style, with slapstick and sappiness and some really lame efforts at appealing to contemporary sensibilities (playing Kevin, the teenage son, in one of these productions, I was required to refer to myself as "Big Daddy," because our director, the imperious Sister Frond'ohdiak, thought that was the way Kids Today talked. This was in 1980: it was as authentic as Pat Boone rapping.)
So it's a typical feel-good Mormon night of fellowship, until the plane crashes (or the car is rammed by a drunk driver, or the houseboat is sunk by a North Korean torpedo: there are variations). The family is dead; after whatever special effects were employed to convey this concept, the newly departed reappear on stage, dressed all in white. Then they are judged. For their sins.
The afterlife consisted of a quick tour of the three degrees of Glory, represented by graduating intensity of spotlight and quality of chair: folding chair for the Telestial Kingdom; Relief Society room chair for the Terrestrial Kingdom; wing back from the foyer, covered by a white sheet, for the Celestial. High Council members, dressed in white, acted as "angelic guides" for the evening. I seem to remember that Big Daddy Kevin ended up in the Terrestrial Kingdom.
It was all meant to be edifying for the youth, to spur them to greater heights of devotion and fidelity. Mostly, it made us scared, scared and confused.
The sure-fire save our youth program du jour is Trek. Youth dress in homespun and gingham outfits, and spend three days pulling plywood handcarts through a local state park or farmer's field. Food and water rations are kept to a minimum: hard-core Treks often include a night where the youth are presented with a dinner consisting of live chickens, which they are required to slaughter, clean, pluck and roast over open fires.
Trek hits all the traditional Mormon high points: it's a lot of work to prepare and execute, and we LOVE for things to be hard; it acknowledges our shared pioneer history, though in a convert Church, most members' connection to the pioneers is more conceptual than literal; it is something that no one else is doing -- can you imagine the Presbyterians going on Trek? -- and we wear our peculiarity like a badge of honor. And it teaches Gospel Principles to our youth, dips them into a long weekend marinade of Sacrifice and Good Works and Building the Kingdom of God.
Except it doesn't do any of those things, not really. Trek is built on hoary tradition, turning a difficult and challenging period of Church history into a fetish.
Something like 100,000 people made the journey to Salt Lake Valley, over a period of about 45 years. Roughly 2,700 traveled by handcart. Brigham Young came up with the handcart idea as a stopgap: the Church was near bankrupt; ox teams were expensive to maintain and in short supply; and the converts -- mostly poor people from Great Britain and northern Europe -- just kept coming. Handcarts were meant to be a cheap and efficient means of conveying large groups of people to Salt Lake.
There were ten groups, or "companies" of handcart pioneers, and the 1,200 miles from their base camp at Iowa City (then the terminus of the westbound trains) to Salt Lake represented only a portion of their journey. There was behind them a more than 3,000 mile journey by ship from Liverpool or some other European port to Boston or Philadelphia or New York, then a 1,200 mile train journey (no easy thing in the 1850's) to Iowa City. Once they arrived in Salt Lake, they would be assigned a place to settle, somewhere within the Great Basin expanses of Deseret, and there were hundreds of miles more to journey, to the far edges of what is now Utah or Arizona or Nevada or Wyoming or Idaho or for a lucky few, southern California. Walking the plains was the least of their challenges.
Most of these handcart pioneers came from industrial centers; the mills and factories of Manchester, England were a particularly fruitful ground for the Mormon missionaries (in his exhaustive journals, Wilford Woodruff writes of his first day in the soot and poverty and filth of that northern city, "I have seen Hell, and it is Manchester"). They were novices, ill-suited for the demands of cross-continental pioneering. Coupled to their inexperience was the near-complete inattention from Church leadership. Then as now, a significant number of Church members saw the converts less as a blessing than a burden, and many leaders were resentful of their assignment to shepherd these neophytes across the plains.
This combination of inexperience and inattention results in a shameful episode (given the Mormons' actions against the Indians in the Black Hawk War and the massacre at Mountain Meadows, it's hard to call it the most shameful episode of the period, but it's close). Two companies of completely inexperienced converts, the Willie Company and the Martin Company, were allowed to leave Iowa City at the end of summer, weeks behind the recommended schedule, mainly because leadership in Iowa did not want them hanging around all winter. The expectation was that they would move more quickly than previous companies, and that winter would come late that year.
They moved more slowly, and the first snows hit three weeks earlier than normal. Food stores ran out. In the hard country of what is now southern Wyoming, the companies were hit by disease, blizzards, and death. Hundreds died before scouts found the beleaguered pioneers and arranged for a rescue team of oxcarts to recover them. Dozens of survivors lost toes, fingers, even limbs to frostbite. Heroic efforts were made to save the stranded travelers, but the central lesson of Willie and Martin is that poor planning and negligent leadership creates chaos. Brigham Young admitted that the handcart experiment was a failure, and by 1860, just four years after its inception, the handcart program was scrapped in favor of ox-drawn wagons. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at decade's end, those desiring to "gather to Zion" were doing it by train.
None of this is addressed in Trek.
Trek embraces the Handcart Myth, which is itself an extension of that strange Mormon ethos: To be good, it must be difficult. Had the trains been running in 1856, there never would have been a handcart movement. (As it is, those who traveled West by train are not considered "pioneers" in official Church histories, further evidence that we are conditioned to respect efforts more for their degree of difficulty, than for their utility.)
I have a hard time understanding how dressing teenagers in calico and keeping them sleep deprived and hungry leads to Great Spiritual Insight. If my appreciation for the pioneers is wholly dependent on my living like a pioneer for a weekend, then it must follow that restaging historical events is the only way to grasp them. Are we prepared to say that the only people on earth who truly understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ are those guys in the Philippines who nail themselves to crosses every Good Friday?
Trek doesn't enrich understanding; it reduces the very real sacrifices of those 19th century converts, their earnest desires to unite with the Saints and their willingness to gather with the righteous or die trying, to a Nike-clad weekend of minor inconvenience, seventy-two hours without iPods and cell phones.
There are so many people who need our service, our influence, our love. Three days repairing the homes of elderly poor people, working in a soup kitchen, volunteering at a hospice: there are so many ways to teach our kids to serve, to sacrifice, to feel the Spirit that drove those pioneers to take up their handcarts and walk. We don't need the silly stuff. We don't need to turn our children into the Mormon equivalent of Civil War reenactors in order to stir their souls.