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Friday, February 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  Fair
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Mormon Road Trip! My weekend with a group of Madison believers
A statue of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, in Nauvoo, Ill., where Mormons settled after being chased out of Missouri. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Seth Jovaag

It's 7 a.m. on a sunny Friday in late July when a trim 28-year-old named Dan Hinckley greets me, a green smoothie gripped in one hand.

We're standing in the parking lot of Madison's "university ward" of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nearby, two passenger vans are gased up and ready to take two-dozen young area Mormons five hours south to Nauvoo, Ill., a small town on the Mississippi River that is something of a mecca for Mormons.

"A journalist," Dan says wryly, "embedded with the Mormons."

He's right. I am here to meet Mormons, a group that's in the spotlight this year as one of its own, Mitt Romney, makes a bid for the White House. But what Dan means as a joke touches a nerve: I already feel a bit like a party-crasher, infringing on a trip to a sacred place that has no significance to me.

The feeling doesn't last long. Throughout the morning, Dan and others tell me how happy they are that I've joined them. Ask us anything, they say. No question's too dumb.

I was invited here by the trip's leader, Reg Christensen, a 60-year-old Utah native who moved to Madison 14 years ago. A father of seven and grandfather of 10, Reg has an avuncular manner that befits a guy who teaches scripture to young adults at the 1711 University Ave. ward. He's led this trip for a dozen years now, paying for it with money the ward collects selling parking spots to Badgers fans at nearby Camp Randall each fall.

After the latecomers arrive, Reg gathers us to talk logistics. The group then circles up for a quick prayer, eyes closed and heads bowed. We break into two groups and pile into our vans.

A half-hour later, I'm chatting with Reg in the front seat as we cruise Highway 18/151 past Epic Systems in Verona. Through the windshield, Reg and I count nine cranes hovering over the perpetual construction site that is Dane County's largest employer.

Epic, Reg and others tell me, has fueled the small but steady growth of Madison's Mormon population. The company recruits heavily at Brigham Young University, the church-sponsored school in Provo, Utah. Several employees are on this trip, and they estimate 80 to 100 of Epic's 6,000 workers are BYU alumni. (An Epic spokesperson said the company recruits at dozens of colleges and but doesn't release school-by-school totals "to respect our employees' privacy.")

The church divides into geographical "stakes," and Madison's, which stretches from Prairie du Chien to Beaver Dam and Portage to Janesville, is one of six in Wisconsin. It has 3,714 members - men, women and children - up 8.5% from five years ago.

Within Madison, there are five "wards" with more than 1,700 members. The fastest-growing fourth ward meets in a decade-old church on Bear Claw Way on Madison's far west side, where membership is up 56% since 2007, further evidence of the "Epic effect."

Still, Mormons are a small minority in Madison. And this group I'm traveling with is unique, too. Other than Reg, me, Dan and his wife, Eleanor, everyone is single. In fact, the university ward is also dubbed the "singles ward," open to members ages 18 to 30. It's jokingly called a meat market by one member, as the goal is to help young Mormons meet and - if all goes well - marry and have children.

This group, then, isn't representative of all Madison Mormons. But over the next two days, it offers a glimpse of the intersection between this unusual faith and our city.

A couple hours into the trip, I change seats to chat more with Dan and Eleanor.

Dan moved here four years ago to enter the doctoral program in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. The couple met as students at Brigham Young, rekindled their relationship years later and got married last October. They're expecting their first child in November.

By his own admission, Dan is a sort of prototypical Mormon, from a big family. He spent his high school years getting up at dawn each weekday to study the keystone scriptures - the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrines and Covenants - in "seminary," a sort of Sunday school on steroids.

At BYU he was a competitive cross-country runner, able to gallop five miles at a five-minute pace. His college years included the familiar Mormon detour, a two-year mission that took him to Santiago, Chile. Mormon men are strongly encouraged to go on missions after age 19; for women over 21, an 18-month stint is voluntary.

On the trip, I meet several Mormons like Dan. Big families, Utah connections and missionary tales of spending 10 hours a day proselytizing to strangers in a foreign tongue were common. The church's prohibitions on booze, drugs, premarital sex and hot caffeinated beverages are part of their DNA.

But not everyone here was born a Mormon. Among the more improbable converts is Kyle Wood.

A decade-long resident of Madison, Kyle, 29, is a short guy with expressive hands who tells his life story in a pleasantly self-effacing way. He grew up Amish, on his family's horse breeding farm in northern Minnesota. His home lacked running water and electricity until he was 13. They made their own clothes.

Just one day into his rumspringa - the no-rules year when Amish teens are allowed to experience life outside their faith - he "dropped the bomb" on his parents.

"It was basically, 'Hi mom and dad, I don't want to join the Amish, and oh, by the way, I'm gay.'"

That was 13 years ago; he hasn't spoken to his family since.

The coming years for Kyle could be fodder for a book. He rambled for a while but eventually earned a master's degree in dance from a small fine arts academy. He met a guy and moved to Madison in 2002. They got "married," he says in air quotes. The relationship dissolved several years later, but Kyle stayed in town. He worked various jobs, most recently as a consultant helping nonprofits streamline their organizations.

The Mormon faith "found me," Kyle says, rather than the other way around, in early 2011.

"If you had told me January first of last year that I was going to be a Mormon. I'd say you were insane."

On a lark, Kyle was researching his family tree on the Internet and kept noticing pop-up ads for the LDS church - no surprise, considering it operates the largest genealogical organization in the world.

One day, Kyle clicked an ad to, as he put it, "make it go away." The next day, two missionaries - the church typically stations a dozen in Dane County - showed up at his apartment.

Kyle was skeptical. While he believed in God and the divinity of Jesus, he figured organized religion wasn't for him. And then there was Mormonism itself, founded, Kyle jests, "by some white boy who dug up some gold plates."

"Here's the thing," he says, "I completely understand how someone looking objectively at what we believe and where we believe our religion came from, I understand how ridiculous it sounds."

Ridiculous or not, the church's story forms an amazing chapter in American history. For brevity's sake, here's a (very) condensed summary.

Joseph Smith Jr. was a teenager in Palmyra, N.Y., when he began having visions, first of God and Jesus, and later of the angel Moroni. The story goes that Moroni guided Smith to a hillside, where he dug up a book of golden plates inscribed in ancient Egyptian. Using a "seer stone" and a top hat, Smith translated the plates into the Book of Mormon. In 1830, at age 29, he printed off 5,000 copies, and a religion that now has 14 million adherents worldwide - 6 million in the United States - was born.

The book itself, famously slammed as "chloroform in print" by Mark Twain, tells of an ancient tribe of Israelites that sailed to North America centuries before the birth of Christ. It outlines wars between two races, and at one point, the resurrected Jesus pops over to keep the peace. A few hundred years later, however, the heroic Nephites are slaughtered; the last survivor was Moroni, son of the army commander, prophet and historian, Mormon, for whom the religion is named. Moroni recorded the history on the golden plates and, 14 centuries later, led Smith to them.

Many historians deride Smith as a con artist who fabricated the book to create a movement that capitalized on the religious fervor of his time. But to Mormons, he was a prophet who restored the Christian gospel.

Who could believe such a story? Well, that's where the vague realm of faith enters in.

Kyle and other converts I spoke to struggled to verbalize why Mormonism resonates with them. One likes the day-to-day commitments it requires of the faithful. Another was drawn to its promise that families will be together eternally.

"I can't explain to you exactly why I believe," Kyle says, "other than at some point I stopped not believing it."

Or, as Dan argues, if you put any religion, anything sacred, under the spotlight, "things will appear silly or odd.... But it doesn't mean they're not true."

Kyle was baptized last July. It's no small commitment: The church prohibits sex before marriage, yet forbids gay marriage, so Kyle's facing a lifetime of chastity. Church leaders have even called same-gender attraction an "affliction."

"That part sucks," Kyle says frankly. Since he joined the church, however, the only alienation he's felt has come from gay friends in Madison. At another Madison church he'd tried earlier, he says he was treated like a pariah. On the contrary, his LDS friends have become family.

"Honestly, I can say the church is the place where I've felt the most accepted in my entire life. I completely gained a family."

And, he adds, there's a sliver of hope. Mormons believe God offers "continuing revelation" through prophets. Maybe, Kyle says, the leaders in Salt Lake City will someday be moved to change doctrine regarding gays.

"Hope springs eternal!" he says.

Kyle tells me his story as we're sitting on a bench, watching the sun set in Nauvoo. In a nearby field, a couple hundred kids and parents are playing 19th-century pioneer games like stilt-walking, tug of war and the hoop roll.

A tiny tourist town of 1,150 souls that attracts 250,000 visitors annually, Nauvoo is dotted with shops and statues, wagon tours and blacksmithing demonstrations, almost all of it geared to tell a romanticized story of Smith and the early church members. Over two days, I see Smith's grave, his home and the Trail of Hope where Mormon pioneers began their exodus to Deseret, or modern-day Utah. There are musicals, square dances and, for the grand finale, a pageant at nightfall that everyone says will knock my socks off.

Nauvoo's significance to Mormons is huge. Early adherents, led by Smith, settled here in 1839 after being chased from Missouri by a government-issued "extermination" order, the only one of its kind in U.S. history. Over the next few years, the city's population swelled to 12,000, rivaling Chicago. But by the mid-1840s, Smith was dead, shot in a jail cell by a mob in nearby Carthage, and the "Saints," led by Brigham Young, were again on the run.

The town's most impressive landmark is the LDS temple - one of just 138 worldwide - a 162-foot tall Greek Revival behemoth, capped with a statue of Moroni, that overlooks the Mississippi River.

Like all Mormon temples, it's closed to the general public, and to me. Only members in good standing - who tithe and abide by other covenants - can enter.

On our second day, many in the Madison contingent take part in an "endowment" and the "baptism of the dead." The former is a secretive ritual - though Reg tells me I can read about it on the Internet (I did). For the latter, members dressed in white jumpsuits are dunked into baptismal fonts so as to offer someone's deceased ancestor, by proxy, a shot at eternal life.

Kyle estimates that on this trip, the Madison group baptized 150 people in this manner. Doing so is considered a duty, and for Madison Mormons, getting to a temple regularly - even though the closest one is in Chicago - is encouraged.

After eight hours of all this, I'm a little dazed and confused. Culture shock, I suppose. But to many members of the Madison group, Nauvoo is familiar ground that can be spiritually restorative.

Madeline Rankin, a soft-spoken 19-year-old Middleton High School graduate, has come here almost annually with family or youth groups.

It's comfortable, she says, to be with people "who share your standards and beliefs." As one of a handful of Mormons in high school, she says her peers were mostly respectful and "just curious" about her faith, though she had to field occasional questions like "How many moms do you have?" (Polygamy, though practiced by early Mormons, was outlawed by the church 122 years ago.) Those questions don't pop up in Nauvoo.

"There's just a spirit here," she says. "There's nothing else like it."

But what about Madison? Is there a welcoming spirit toward Mormons there, too?

Almost invariably, these Mormons say yes. I broach the topic with four women, ages 22 to 30. Three are Mormon-born Brigham Young grads and new to Madison - two work for Epic, the third is on her way to becoming a forensic psychologist. The other, a convert, is a Wisconsin native and recent UW grad.

The BYU grads say the typical things, about how Madison is a fun, lovely city, not too small, not too big. I ask them about Madison's drinking culture. While UW is perennially tagged as one of the nation's biggest party schools, the Princeton Review has named BYU the most "stone cold sober" college 14 years running. Yes, it's different, they say. But it doesn't bother them.

"Mormons make excellent designated drivers," jokes Suzanne Powell, a 24-year-old Epic employee.

The fourth woman, Mary, who asked that her real name not be used, posits another view. After converting her freshman year at UW, leaving behind her Catholic upbringing, she felt the pressure from old friends, peers and even family to indulge now and then.

"Honestly, it's hard," she says. "They [the BYU grads] don't know about the drinking culture here." She says her UW peers could get "kind of aggressive and mean about the fact that I don't want to drink.… It was like I was in middle school sometimes."

Mary nevertheless considers herself a liberal. While a Pew Research Center study in January found two-thirds of American Mormons call themselves conservatives, Mary sides with the 8% who lean progressive.

She loves Obama, is no fan of Mitt Romney ("He just says what he needs to say to get elected") and argues that Democratic values mirror the Christian call to help those in need.

Like others I talked to, Mary was eager to shoot down the notion that Mormons are a cult, brainwashed into toeing the LDS line. She's cites Sen. Harry Reid, the Mormon Democrat from Nevada, as an example that "we don't all come from the same mold."

Curiously, no one on this trip brought up Romney's name until I'd ask, and opinions were unanimous that his religion shouldn't overshadow his politics.

"I'm glad his religion hasn't become the forefront of his campaign," Mary says.

For the main event - the Nauvoo Pageant, held 20 nights each summer - I join Kyle on a blanket 100 yards from an enormous outdoor stage illuminated by four steel towers of spotlights.

Over the next 90 minutes, nearly 200 actors perform in a musical that - you guessed it - retells the story of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith and the early church.

Smith is played by a broad-chested, square-jawed man who speaks with a sort of breathless joy. In one moment, he gently mourns with a grieving father; in the next, he's playing with children in a way that conveys saint-like kindness.

Mormons love musicals, Kyle informs me, and the show's messages are appealingly simple: work hard, love your family, be grateful, help others, worship God. It ends in spectacular fashion when, on a hill two blocks away, the temple lights up as the chorus sings its final notes.

Later in the evening Kelsie Lynch is standing near the temple. Raised in a Catholic home south of Oregon, Wis., Kelsie began investigating Mormonism at age 19 and found it "clicked" on a deep level. She soon converted, and seven years later, shortly after the pageant ended, accepted a marriage proposal from Devin Averett, a lifelong Mormon with deep Utah roots.

Devin, like Dan, is a Brigham Young grad and doctoral student in chemical engineering at the UW. The couple met at the singles ward after he moved to Madison in 2008 and began dating seven months ago.

For Mormons, tying the knot is an eternal decision. Marriages are "sealed" in the temple, and according to their faith, families will be reunited in heaven.

Devin and Kelsie's wedding highlights a struggle for converts. The ceremony later this month will be in the Utah temple where Devin's parents and two brothers were married. As non-Mormons, Kelsie's family can't attend.

"I know it's hard for them," she says. "It's hard for me. They're my family, and I love them, and this is one of the most important decisions I will ever make."

But, she adds, her family will host its own reception in Wisconsin later in the fall. They've come to accept her new faith.

"They've realized it wasn't just a phase," she says. "It's a big part of my life."

The Mormon church in Madison

Fewer than 25,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in Wisconsin, or 0.43% of the population, tied for seventh lowest in the United States.

The Madison "stake," established in 1973, spans much of southern Wisconsin and has 3,714 members. Before 1973, area Mormons were part of the Beloit stake. In general, a new stake is created when an area surpasses 2,000 members.

The local stake is broken into 15 "wards" and smaller "branches," synonymous with congregations. Branches typically have under 300 members.

Here's a breakdown of Madison's five congregations:

Ward 1: Houses a seven-year-old Spanish-speaking branch with about 100 members and a Family History Center staffed with volunteer genealogists and stocked with microfiche, microfilm and online resources.
4505 Regent St.
Created: 1965, Members: 305

Ward 2: Includes roughly 60 Hmong members.
5602 Irongate Dr.
Created 1963, Members: 396

Ward 3 and 4: Madison's newest LDS church opened in 2002. The fourth ward has grown 56% in five years, fueled by its proximity to Epic Systems.
Both meet at 701 Bear Claw Way
Ward 3 created: 1983, Members: 298
Ward 4 created: 1998, Members: 529

University ward: Also called the "singles ward," it's geared toward ages 18-30.
1711 University Ave.
Created: 2002, Members: 120

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