By Ellen Koester
“What am I doing here,” I muttered to myself as I stepped off the plane in St. Louis. “This is too close. My past is too vivid here, it’s too vulnerable. I don’t belong here… this is the one place that I cannot go.”
As I collected my bags, and met up with the other Affirmation members I was carpooling with, I was filled with a conflicted sense of pain. I didn’t feel like the confident 24 year old that I’ve grown to be; I had been replaced with my 18 year old self… the wanderer, traveling aimlessly into an unknown abyss.
We all piled into a Suburban, and started the drive north along the Mississippi River. I had a lot of time to think, and ponder on what the weekend would bring, and the emotions it would create. Nauvoo is of utmost importance to the Church, and its members, but as a convert, it had no significant place for me. For me, the City of Joseph was a place filled with religious history, a history filled with holes, and tainted with doubt. I never felt an affinity with Nauvoo… not until I arrived in the city itself.
As we all ate dinner, and set up things at the Nauvoo House on Thursday night, I could feel the Spirit lingering, and the pain that had occurred there. I could feel it hovering… pooling around the buildings, the trees, and the roads. I could feel the aching pain in the Smith family cemetery, and inside the Nauvoo House, the house that Emma had last called home.
Nauvoo’s birth was veiled with trauma – the Saints were forced to leave behind their beloved temple in Kirtland, and the Prophet Joseph was imprisoned at Liberty Jail, leaving Emma and the Saints to fend for themselves while being expelled from Missouri. The Saints continued to experience pain with the doctrine of plural marriage, and the eventual martyrdom of Hyrum and Joseph. Nauvoo, while indeed the beautiful place that had inspired its name, was not a place of joy… it was a place of injury and inexplicable pain and suffering.
Friday morning and afternoon, I had the opportunity to explore the historical sites of Nauvoo. I walked down Main Street and stopped at the Times and Seasons, the home of Apostle (and 3rd President of the Church) John Taylor, and Scovil Bakery on my way to the LDS Visitors Center, where I took a wagon ride along the historical districts of the city. I was struck by the abandoned feeling of the flatlands of Old Nauvoo. Most of the buildings had been torn down within the first 40 years after the Saints crossed the plains. All that was left were empty fields and the handful of buildings that had been preserved and renovated.
As I made my way back to the river to Emma’s Nauvoo House, people had started to arrive. Dinner was being made in the kitchen, and volunteers were beginning to set up the parlor with tables and chairs. These were my people – my family – and my heart began to fill with joy. These were the people who knew me, and understood my journey as a gay Mormon.
We sat down to dinner, and the conversation flowed. I was catching up with old friends, and planting the seeds with new friends. Everything was wonderful. After dinner was finished, we pushed the tables to the side, and started the ice breaker activities. We went around the room and shared 3 adjectives about our anticipation of the weekend. Many described feelings of joy, and excitement, as well as faith and devotion. Mine however revealed my cloud of apprehension – my adjectives were hope, fear, and trepidation.
The next activity had us move around the room in a game called “social mapping”. We were first told to move to where we lived. For me, that was Salt Lake City… easy enough. The next however threw that cloud of uncertainty over me. Move to where you call home. I don’t have a home. I was born and raised in Defiance, Ohio, but that is far from anything I would consider home. In Salt Lake, I have a house that I live in, with a roommate and a dog, but it isn’t home. I was homeless, so I moved to a corner that could only be called limbo.
That night was plagued with restless sleep. I tossed and turned, wrestling with the parallels drawn between myself and this place. Nauvoo was too close to home. It represented everything that I had run away from – everything that I had left behind, and never looked back to remember. It represented a place that required a recommend of worthiness I cannot obtain.
Saturday morning, I awoke and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I gathered my things, and drove over to the Community of Christ Visitors Center where we held a scripture study session led by John Gustav-Wrathall, Judy Finch, Todd Richardson, and Tom Christofferson. As we discussed passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, an interesting point was made about how the LDS Church, and its members, handle pain… we smile through it. I realized that I’ve done this my entire life. Every step I have ever taken, I made sure to take it in a way that showed my friends, my family, and the members of my ward that everything was fine, even as my world was crumbling before my eyes. I tried to look at it from a point of view that turned it into good, but did it without taking the time to mourn, to sob, to anguish, and to panic. I tried to turn it into a blessing before I had given myself to opportunity to heal. It was during this session, that I learned to confront my own demons, and mourn my losses. I learned that everything is a blessing, but it can’t be a blessing until I am ready to fight back against the abuse that I had left unchallenged.
Our second session was conducted on the banks of the Mississippi, at the end of the Trail of Hope where the Saints had left Nauvoo to begin their trek west. This is where the Saints looked back on their homes, their businesses, their schools, and their beloved temple, and chose to abandon them, so as to leave and search for a better life. I reflected and meditated on the loss the Saints felt as they left their homes. I was reminded of the Atonement of the Savior, and how the Saints had to have leaned on Him for their strength and good spirits in that desperate time of need. Aside from the temple, this is where I felt the Spirit most strongly. It kept pushing me toward the bank, saying, “Go. The pain of your personal exodus in life pales in comparison to the pain here. Go. Find your own joy.”
After a morning of exploring that opened my eyes to understanding I had never before uncovered, we took a break for lunch and free time. The first couple of hours I spent with the women of the Conference. We had our lunch overlooking the river and getting to know one another on a deeper level than we had the previous night. After lunch, I went to find my scriptures, and my journal, and I was overcome with emotion. The closer I came to understanding the events that transpired here, the more I was brought back to my own past, and the experiences that made me who I am today. I fought the tears that came from a place buried deep inside of me. No matter where I turned for peace, the peace was overwhelmed by pain.
After dinner, we all gathered into cars and we drove up to the temple for our group picture. The sun was just beginning to set, and the view from the hill overlooking the land and the river was remarkable. It was here and here alone that I felt at peace. I watched the boys skip down the hill, and looked over at the young couple taking their wedding photos. I felt a very distinct feeling that told me that everything would be ok, and that all things would ultimately turn out for my good. With all of the conflicting emotions I had felt this weekend, that confirmation and blessing of peace from my Heavenly Mother and Father was exactly what I needed for my journey to inner peace.
The last event of the night was the meeting we held on the second floor of Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store. Berta Marquez shared her story of being a Guatemalan refugee in the oppressive conditions of her country’s dictatorship. She was able to create new life for herself, and she pulled herself out of a place of despair, into a place of hope. I grew up being taught, and had eventually begun to believe that I was to shoulder my burdens, and accept the side effects and limitations that came with them. This was yet another confirmation to challenge the things taught to me, and to forge my own path.
Carol Lynn Pearson was the last to speak that night. Her presentation struck me, and transformed my experience. She spoke about Emma Hale Smith, Joseph’s beloved wife. She spoke of the devotion and unconditional love she had for her husband, but also spoke of the suffering and anguish she endured through the revelation of her husband’s plural marriages, and then the crippling trauma of his assassination. She performed a monologue that she had written about Emma in her play, Mother Wove the Morning. It was so touching, and so moving that I had tears flowing down my face the entire monologue. She summed up, in 10 minutes, the thoughts and feelings that I had harbored, and clutched so closely to my heart for all of these years.
Sunday morning, we had a testimony meeting in the Seventies Hall owned by the LDS Church. The Nauvoo Mission President was present, and he spoke to us briefly before the stand was opened to us to share our feelings, and our testimonies. Every single one of us spoke straight from the heart, and spoke with a vulnerable authenticity that we can’t always express in our wards and branches at home.
As I walked up to the stand to bear my testimony, I was sustained with a shot of confidence that I had been lacking for the last few days. I went up, and I shared my favorite passage from the Book of Mormon. The first 8 verses of the Book of Enos begin with Enos wrestling before God, and his soul hungering for truth. He knelt down before his Maker and “cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.” It goes on to read, “all the day long did I cry unto him, yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.”
This is what I had done for so long… prayed, cried, and anguished for the Lord to fix something that was unfixable. I had pleaded with the Lord to help me with the trials of my childhood and adolescence, so that I could be made whole once more. My Heavenly Mother and Father had helped me accept myself as a gay woman, but now I needed Their help in calming the waters of my past, and allowing me to grow.
Like Enos, I prayed for the Lord to bless me with forgiven sins, and a calm heart. Like Enos, I don’t know how it was to be accomplished, but I knew that it would be done. The Lord tells Enos, “Because of thy faith in Chrst, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, they faith hath made thee whole.”
The rest of the day was filled with hugs and goodbyes as people set off to drive back home, and to the airport. By the end, there were only a handful of us left. We drove to Carthage, to see the site of the martyrdom, and once again the Spirit there was one of anguish. The room where the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed held a chill… it was an eerie sense of finality and certitude. It’s a feeling that I will never forget.
When I got back from Carthage, and after all the chores were finished, I went outside, and looked out over the river for the final time. I walked over to the Smith family cemetery and placed my hand on Emma’s marker. I laughed with her, and I cried with her. I shared in her joys and in her triumphs, and mourned with her over her losses, and her pain. I shared with her my love for her, and my admiration of her courage, and driven nature. I poured my heart out to her about my life – sharing the joy and pride of my success, and sharing the pain I’ve harbored for so long. I told her of my family, and explained how I yearn to be reunited with them someday. Emma and I developed a sisterhood that night. I created that bond that I so desperately needed to create with this place. And I was finally at peace.
As I boarded the plane to go back to Salt Lake City, I allowed Nauvoo to stay with me. I didn’t leave and never look back like I had so often done before. I allowed myself to see that Nauvoo was home. I am a Saint. I have been left behind, I have been left abandoned. I have been the one driven out; I have been the one with an extermination order written against me. I had once been the weary traveler; I had once been the aimless wanderer. Nauvoo welcomed me with open arms; The City of Joseph is home.