Thursday, June 12, 2008

In These Shoes?

Last weekend Adeet and I attended two weddings in upstate New York. On our way to wedding #2, we saw a sign beckoning us to Hill Cumorah in Palmyra: Only 5 miles away! The hill is the site where Joseph Smith is said to have found golden tablets left by the angel Moroni, which Smith translated and published as the Book of Mormon.

Adeet was keen to visit. After reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, he grew interested in Mormon history and particularly in Mormon fundamentalism. He can cite dates, towns, and names of people associated with the religious movement and coherently explain Mormon practice and belief. His interest is academic, but he was curious to see the birthplace of this religion. I agreed, always ready for a field trip.

We thought it would take ten minutes to run to the top of the hill and have a quick look before heading to the next wedding. I should have known a hilltop experience would require a little more time.

We entered the Visitors’ Center, where an older man welcomed us enthusiastically. After an initial, “Where are you from?” he asked if we were members of the church. When I responded in the negative, he laughed, “Well, we can take care of that,” followed by a hasty, “Just kidding!” Then he called over two young women to give us a tour of the center. They wore nametags identifying themselves as “Sister Nielsen” and “Sister Friere.”

We told the Sisters we wanted to go to the top of the hill and asked if we could walk up. Sister Nielsen looked me over and laughed, “In those shoes? I think you better drive to the top!” My shoes were impractical—kitten heels adorned with faux foliage. I hadn’t factored in a hiking trip when I got dressed for the weddings.

We were ready to make our ascent, but first the women wanted to tell us about Joseph Smith and his discovery. They showed us a small replica of the forest where Joseph Smith said he received an angelic visitation; it resembled the type of dioramas found in older wings of natural history museums. Each time one of the Sisters started to share a piece of Mormon history, Adeet would finish their sentence or make a comment that indicated his knowledge of the topic. They were impressed: “A lot of people come here and don’t have their facts straight. Are you a religion professor?”

This amused both of us, and I couldn’t resist mentioning that I was the one who had studied theology.” Sister Nielsen giggled and said, “With those shoes, I thought you were going to say you had a degree in fashion!”

We listened respectfully to everything the Sisters had to say, but Adeet couldn’t help inquiring, “Has anyone ever found archeological evidence of the Nephites?” Mormons believe the Nephites were a group of people who left Jerusalem in 600 BCE and traveled to the Americas. Sister Nielsen smiled, “Oh, I don’t know enough about that, but I can give you the e-mail addresses of people who are doing some very interesting archeological research.”

“Now we’d like to take you to the Christus room,” Sister Nielsen smiled. The women led us into a small auditorium and closed the door. A large statue of a muscular-looking Jesus with prominent wounds stood in the front of the room. I sat near the door, but Adeet went for a center spot in the first row, thinking they might show a movie. Instead, they switched on a recording of a man speaking as Jesus, telling us in a deep baritone that we could come to him if we were weary or burdened (a verse from the book of Matthew). Earlier, the Sisters had talked exclusively about Joseph Smith but now they focused on Jesus. Sister Nielsen’s eyes grew wide as she explained how this Bible passage was a great comfort to her. I smiled and nodded, acknowledging her comfort but wondering if they were going to press us, at least a little, to convert. Instead they asked us if we’d like to visit their research room. We declined, and said we’d make up our way up the hill now.

It took only a minute to drive to the hill and park the car. As we neared the statue of the angel Moroni marking the sacred spot, we saw a woman look up at the angel and lift her arms in a victory salute. She appeared athletic and wore sensible footwear. When she turned to walk past us, she gave me a look that seemed to say, “Really? In those shoes?”

Hill Cumorah Visitors' Center
603 State Route 21 • Palmyra, New York

photos by Adeet Deshmukh

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