A petite, Chinese woman with a badge that reads Sister Wong scurries over to me as soon as I walk into the visitor’s center.
I had just been denied entry into the Mormon Temple, and was now looking for Space Jesus.
Sister Wong had moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, less than a year ago for 18 months of mission work. She hadn’t expected to be sent to the US since her English was limited to “Hello,” “How are you?” and “I like apples and bananas and soup.”
But she prayed and God decided her place was in SLC. It almost strikes me as deity-decided fate as well, especially when she brings up her former doubt in a higher power because of the vast inequalities all over the world.
Praise Space Jesus for bringing us together.
In broken English in that meek voice Asians are famous for, she says, “I just wondered why some people are automatically born with nothing and others very rich without doing anything.”
It’s blatantly unfair, I agree, and only the work of a seemingly racist, sociopathic dictator.
Well, Mr. Joseph Smith gives his two cents in the Book of Mormon.
“It’s like this. You don’t know sweet until you’ve tasted bitter,” she says, sticking her tongue out as if she’d just eaten a coffee bean.
Well that’s pretty elitist of you, Sister Wong. You’re telling me God’s totally OK with putting a small Syrian toddler in a boat that his all-knowingness realized would capsize, sending the innocent, bloated body onto a Turkish beach as an example for all of us in the U.S. of just how bad things could be.
I wonder if that little boy and his parents thank their God for making them a martyr for the well-off’s peace of mind?
Read here, she says, opening the Book of Mormon to the first book of Nephi. She has me read this aloud:
“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things… (most of this middle part is unintelligible, pseudo-profound bullshit). And if ye shall say there is “no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act now to be acted upon…” (trails off into more pseudo-profound bullshit).
“Maybe I can call you sometime,” she says.
“We can be friends?” I ask.
I give her my number and she says, “OK. I’ll have someone call you. What time works best for you?”
Mormon God dammit. I’m not interested in business masked as spiritual redemption; I’m interested in her friendship, which I won’t get.
Outside Temple Square, there’s a man without legs in a wheelchair, a cardboard sign propped up against his stomach, head down sleeping.
I jostle him awake and hand him $5.
“Is this a good spot?”
“Yeah. Usually,” he says, as a large group of nicely dressed Mormons walk past without a glance.
After introductions, Bill, a military veteran (although his legs weren’t lost in the service) from El Paso, Texas, pulls out a wad of cash and hands me four ones.
“You see that diner across the street? Can you go get me a diet coke?”
One might think it odd, being offered money by a homeless man, but it’s not an experience I’m unaccustomed to.
About four years ago, after a night of drinking in Washington, DC, a friend and I were walking back to the subway when a homeless man asked us for change. We didn’t have any, but I noticed a pack of menthols on the ground near him. I asked and he gladly handed me one of the few he had left.
A couple years later in New York City, another street man walked up to a date and I and asked for a cigarette. My date ignored him but I shuffled through my backpack and handed him my last one. He walked off. At this time, I was new to New York, so my date started pontificating about the rules of the city, that if you give to everyone “in need,” you’ll be broke in no time. All the sudden, the man walked back around the corner and handed me a plate with Christmas imagery on it as a thank you.
“Some people forget about their silver spoon,” Bill says.
Ain’t that the truth.
“If they really wanted to help people, besides international people, I wouldn’t be on the street,” he says.
It’s a slight towards the American people who in his mind are only interested in helping those less fortunate in what many would call the “third world,” and it’s especially pertinent today as Americans fight over whether we should accept Syrian refugees fleeing war and terrorism in their country.
“Why don’t you stay at the shelters here?”
“One has thieves and the other has bed bugs.”
“What about the VA?”
Bill tells me about the first time he went into the Veterans Affairs office and lower-ranking officials didn’t even salute him.
“Not to be rude, but I think you’re being stubborn.”
“Well, I can’t get help there anyway.”
Turns out, Bill was dishonorably discharged after punching a superior after a mission. Supposedly Bill’s team had just come back from a three-week mission (somewhere in the Middle East), where he hadn’t slept more than 10 hours the whole time. They were getting shot at and so adrenaline was coursing when the superior pushed him and told him to get back out there. To which he reared back and socked him, breaking his jaw.
That helps explain the situation. I don’t think Bill should go without services because there’s more to be concerned about. His conversation is sporadic and he tells hopefully unbelievable stories about his brother sending him guns from Arizona and killing someone in Texas. It’s clear he needs something more than the VA will offer.
Most of the vets I talk to on the street are in serious need of psychiatric help, but mental health facilities have seen of rash of state budget cuts since the recession. From 2009 to 2012, Mother Jones reports that across all 50 states, public mental health saw $4.35 billion in cuts.
And while the cost of mental health services remains a barrier for being treated, according to a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Services, 66% of people that had thought about going to a doctor, ended up not going because they thought the problem would get better on its own. In the US, there’s quite a stigma on mental illness, that one should just suck it up and deal with it themselves, which relates to the stigma on the poor, that one should just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work harder.
Sister Wong texts me later that night asking if we can hang out again. I tell her I’m having a drink if she’d like to join, playing the devil on her shoulder.
“Haha,sister missionaries we do not drink,sorry,i just want to maybe meet you again in here tomorrow,to shared a message for you about God.”
She can’t be tempted, has terrible text etiquette (my biggest pet peeve) and her conversations aren’t likely to move past what the book in my backpack says. So I won’t text back or answer her calls because I’d rather talk practical solutions for today’s problems than praying for something theoretical.