I had some time to kill on a miserably hot Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City, so for whatever reason, I headed over to Temple Square, where I had planned on finding a shady spot and reading. I pulled my car into the underground parking lot on West Temple and parked next to an SUV with California license plates and two bumper stickers: “Families Are Forever” and “Marriage = Husband + Wife.” I need not point out the irony of the second one.
I got out of my car and walked up a stairwell into the massive Conference Center and out into a courtyard bordering North Temple. Up close, I noticed that the walkways and courtyard were a dark pink granite that stood out oddly from the light gray granite walls; incidentally, at least one-third to one-half of the granite tiles of the facade appear to have been patched fairly recently, as if they are having trouble keeping their integrity.
Crossing the street, I entered the north gate of Temple Square. For some reason, they have police-style barricades blocking off the approaches to the North Visitors’ Center so that people can enter only through a strait and narrow passageway. I must have looked a sight–I was badly sunburned (long story) and wearing an old t-shirt and jeans–because a smiling, dark-haired sister missionary approached with some literature and then turned away wordlessly to rejoin her companion.
Inside the visitors’ center not a whole lot has change since the last time I was there several years ago, except for a large video screen playing a short presentation about eternal families. Downstairs in a glass case were two mannequins portraying Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which I had not seen before.
Near the restroom a white-haired docent was talking to a balding white guy with several hispanic children in tow. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I did catch this: “I know his parents wouldn’t approve, and I don’t want to be devious or go behind their backs, but is there some private room where we could take him without having to let them know about it?” The docent said she was sure they could find a place.
Back outside I walked around to the Nauvoo Bell, where the descriptive sign I wrote so long ago still stands (pretty fine writing, if you ask me). I passed several bronze statues depicting events in Joseph Smith’s life and the small stone platform where Orson Pratt had used his telescope, and then I sat on a bench just south and east of the temple, where several wedding parties were having their pictures taken. I thought of the cloudy and windy July day 21 years ago when my wife and I had stood on those same steps, about to begin our married life. Tears came as I grieved for the naive young man of so long ago and for the absolute faith I had once had.
Soon I was brought back to reality by a tour group going by, a sister missionary with a Latina accent and a wireless headset explaining about the difference between a marriage and a sealing. A kinky-haired, elderly woman in a tank top and sunglasses leaned close to her husband to say, “It says that gold thing on top is an angel. His name is Moroney.”
I ventured across to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, again oddly proud of having worked on all the “signage” in the building. Two statues of the Prophet Joseph Smith watch over the ornate lobby, which is kind of beautiful in an over-the-top baroque sort of way. People were milling about, but you can hardly hear anything in there over the roar of two large air-conditioning vents near the front windows.
Back I walked through Temple Square, once again unmolested by the sisters, until I found a spot outside the north gate under a tree on the grass strip between sidewalk and curb, where I opened a book and began reading. Just east was the entrance to the temple, and just as they were fifteen years ago, homeless people stood outside panhandling, apparently in the belief that people coming out of the temple would be in a charitable mood. It wasn’t long before one of them, who looked to be about my age or younger, asked me if I had some spare change. I gave him what was in my pocket (maybe a dollar and a half), and he thanked me and went back to his post.
A few minutes later, one of the other panhandlers approached, a man with bad teeth wearing a filthy blue t-shirt. Just as I was about to tell him I had no more money, he handed me a Sam’s Club water bottle and said, “Somebody gave me more of these than I need. You look like you could use this.” I didn’t know what to say except, “Thank you,” and he smiled and walked back to resume panhandling.
As I sat reading and drinking the water, I thought of the Good Samaritan display downstairs. Of all the people I saw that day, the one man I least expected showed me kindness and empathy. It’s those small moments that are so meaningful in life, and I was deeply moved by this one. I don’t know who that man is or what his situation is, but he reminded me of the human capacity for kindness and charity.