By Tom Kimball
In November 1981, I was a wide-eyed fourteen-year-old Aaronic Priesthood youth who had just discovered an improbably clean white handkerchief that my mother had stuffed into one of the pockets of my freshly pressed suit. She and I were occupying adjacent balcony seats in the historic Salt Lake City Tabernacle, watching a live broadcast of a dedicatory session for the newly constructed Jordan River Temple. Our prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, was recovering from surgery, so his counselor, Marion G. Romney, dressed in an all-white suit, presided at the service. I don’t remember any of the words spoken, but I do remember how I felt as we all waved our white handkerchiefs and offered the hosanna shout in what I perceived as an invitation to the Savior to accept our sacrifice in creating a clean, elegant, beautiful space worthy of his presence. I felt as if I were witnessing a magical and rare communal event, which I was honored to share with not only my mother but also my wider religious community as we gathered on sacred temple grounds. I still have my ticket from that event.
Fast forward to March 2009, when I received an email sent to the adults and youth of my American Fork, Utah, ward asking us to volunteer to help clean and beautify our neighborhood stake center, which had been selected to host a remote broadcast of the dedication of the Draper, Utah temple. Only worthy members of the Church fourteen years of age and older, and holding current temple recommends, were allowed to attend the broadcast. Nevertheless all members, “recommended” or not, were encouraged to participate in the clean-up of the building and its grounds. Our stake leaders felt that a sacrifice in time and energy to clean and beautify our neighborhood house of worship would be a show of respect to God. Our building would shine as an outward expression of our purified hearts so as to allow God’s spirit to feel more welcome in our neighborhood.
Utah is home to many natural, sacred spaces, including Arches and Zion National Parks, the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Uinta and Wasatch mountain ranges, and an American version of the River Jordan and the Dead Sea. The Mormon homeland in the Western Rockies has inspired thousands of world-class poets, artists, authors, and filmmakers. Utah houses one of the most beautiful and inspiring landscapes on our planet. And yet we freely pollute it. Slag tailings slide from our mountainsides. Toxic mercury affects the trout in our streams. Utah is also the home of a lucrative dumping site for the world’s nuclear waste. Members of Utah’s dominant faith don’t hesitate to call for neighborhood clean-ups in order to invite God’s spirit to dwell among them, but most seem willing to embrace nearly unregulated pollution of the local fragile environment—beautiful places where God’s spirit is always accessible. This blind eye turned toward pollution doesn’t end in Utah Mormonism: I’ve heard little collective outrage among the Mormon people for the pollution of our planet’s oceans, forests, and wetlands.
Hugh Nibley has written, “Man’s dominion [over the earth] is a call to service, not a license to exterminate.” This idea of respecting and preserving the environment as an expression of respect for our neighbors, families, and ourselves, as well as an invitation for the Divine presence to dwell with us, has become strong medicine for me.