Standing at around five-foot-three – probably around my height – with a smile that never leaves her face, Kim, for me, has become the face of Salt Lake City. She’s not from here, and she’s not even American – she’s from South Korea. But she typifies the quality I have come to love about the city. More than the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS), Utah’s capital, I quickly learn, is a welcoming haven populated with warm souls – an oasis in a vast expanse of desert, in more ways than one.
After six hours on the interstate, concrete buildings finally take over the wide expanses of meadows. Salt Lake City is the first city we arrive at after two days in the rural West and the urban trappings enliven our increasingly drained legs. And because, as Richard puts it, we’ve been good in following the schedule, we have arrived in Utah earlier than expected, so we have time to squeeze in a trip to the Temple Square – the LDS headquarters – fittingly right smack at the city center. Our bus is divided into two groups – those who are herded off to a Chinese-speaking guide, and the rest of us who speak or at least understand English. And that’s how we end up under Kim, who’s assisted by a fellow LDS volunteer from Ukraine.
“Mabuhay!” Kim exclaims, shaking a green flag in mock jubilation, upon learning where I come from.
Surprised, I ask her. “You know Tagalog?”
“Not really, that’s all I know,” she replies quickly, perhaps to prevent any chance of me talking to a language she isn’t that all familiar with. “I just learned it from some of the Filipinos here.”
“So there are Filipinos here, huh.”
Kim nods. The place is a virtual United Nations.
I pause, then ask her again. “Can I take your picture?”
Kim smiles but shakes her head. “You can take pictures anywhere in the compound. But taking pictures of volunteers is prohibited. Sorry. Security reasons.”
Salt Lake City was established when Brigham Young, the LDS founder, tried to escape persecution from the eastern coast in 1847. In July that year he reached the barren deserts of Salt Lake Valley and proclaimed, “This is the place.” Soon enough, the Salt Lake temple was created and a city was established, becoming the capital of Utah, which was then a U.S. territory.
Today Salt Lake City is a bustling center in the otherwise sparsely populated state. Mormonism (a colloquial term for the LDS Church) retains a firm stronghold on the city – streets are named according to their direction and distance from the temple and auxiliary operations play a great part in state growth – but the city has long opened its arms to diversification; only about half of the city’s residents are members of the LDS Church.
Kim takes us to the Visitor Center, where an image of Christ – Christus – stands below a large dome painted with planets and stars on a night sky. She introduces us to the dogma of her faith. “We believe God created the world and that all that we see here came from Him,” she shares. “We also believe that Jesus is His son and He came to save us from our sins.” Just then, a deep voice booms across the room, expounding on what Kim has just said. “I am God,” the taped voice thunders. And so on.
Kim then leads us to the Tabernacle. “This place is where we used to hold the general assemblies,” Kim points out.
“Is it compulsory that all members attend the general assembly?” someone from our group asks. “I mean, how do you manage to fit all members here?” I get her point. Even though the Tabernacle is a gigantic structure, it seems impossible to squeeze perhaps hundreds of thousands of people inside.
“It’s not required,” Kim clarifies. “Remember, the proceedings are shown on television, so if you’re from another state or another country, you can watch it from the comforts of your living room. Though of course, coming here is some sort of an honor for a member. Nonetheless, because the number of our church’s members has grown over the years, we have built a conference center across the street, which is where we actually house the conferences now.”
She leads our eyes to the majestic organ on stage. Beside it are numerous chairs. “That’s where the choir sits. If you have the time, you can drop by to hear the choir practice. They sing beautifully.”
A few minutes later and the tour ends. “I wish we have more time,” Kim says, as she bids us goodbye. We board our bus to go to dinner.
The next day we stop at the state capitol, an elegant building that houses the chambers of the state legislature. Standing on top of the Capitol Hill, the structure overlooks a panoramic view of the city and provides a pleasant trip on a cool morning. The interiors are reminiscent of neoclassical architecture, with a cupola on the ceiling featuring seagulls flying.
Petite Singaporean girl kind of learns of my background in photography and asks me to take her picture in front of the capitol. I’m not sure I know where the good angles are but you really can’t go wrong with a beautiful building like this.