The version of this post I originally drafted in my head was going to be easy: I’d describe a trek activity (mob attack—more on that in a minute) that, in spite of its being clearly inappropriate, seems to be gaining currency. Then I’d have a poll, asking you what you thought about it, with lighthearted, smart-alecky answers. The end.
The post would have been good for a couple laughs and, hopefully, an icebreaker if you were on a trek committee and somebody suggested said mob attack.
But then I saw a YouTube video of the mob attack. And another. It seems to be a thing now. And it needs to stop.
Basically, what happens is this: sometime in the morning, before the kids get up, a “drunken mob” comes in, waving guns (and maybe firing blanks), threatening the kids, and trying to get rid of the Mormons. A couple examples:
(Note that, in the second video, the relevant part starts at about 12 minutes, 42 seconds; I can’t get it to embed at that point, though, so you can also access it here.)
So I realize that simulated mob attacks aren’t a new thing: the Deseret News reported on one (as part of a Boy Scout proto-trek) in 1979.
It’s not clear to me from the videos whether the kids knew in advance that they were going to be attacked; in the (now-aborted) incident I first heard about, though, it was going to be a surprise. And not just for the kids—for the adults, too.
As an attorney, my first thought was that this could potentially subject the church to tort liability, if a kid (or, for that matter, an adult) hurt themselves running, or was emotionally damaged, or was otherwise injured as a result of the mob. And, to my knowledge, the church doesn’t enjoy tort liability. (I also thought, “Haven’t any of these people heard about what happened to Brandon Lee while he was filming The Crow?”)
gst upped the liability risk. He pointed out that most states have a brandishing law (Utah’s is here) that makes threatening others with a firearm (whether the threat is real, and whether the gun is loaded) a crime. The members of the “mob,” then, could face not only civil, but also criminal, liability.
Other friends upped the risk even further—what if one of the adult leaders, not knowing the mob was planned, had a real gun? The risk of injury, or even death, becomes even more significant.
And I’m leaving out the potential harm to the kids because that should go without saying.[fn1]
Basically, I can’t believe that two or more functioning adults, with a responsibility to take care of and provide a spiritual experience for the youth, could actually think this was a good idea. IT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA, UNDER ANY CONCEIVABLE CIRCUMSTANCES. It just isn’t. So don’t do it.
How Did We Get Here?
Still, despite the fact that the mob reenactment is a TREMENDOUSLY STUPID IDEA,[fn2] I assume the people planning sincerely wanted to provide a valuable experience for the kids.
So how did they go from good intentions to traumatizing, potentially criminal acts? I don’t know, but two factors strike me as being significant: first, the planners didn’t think through their goals, and second, they were involved in spiritual escaltion.
Goals. Trek strikes me as a fairly pre-fab activity. Sure, we customize it to where we are, and who our kids are, but the basic outline stays the same: kids pull handcarts in period clothing for a couple days to help them empathize with their (spiritual) ancestors. I mean, there’s a ton of planning involved but, once it starts, it basically runs itself. (And there are websites out there that purport to significantly reduce the planning by giving a template for the trek.)
The problem is, a pre-fab experience lets us just put the pieces together, without trying to decide what we want to accomplish, or if the way we’re doing it is the best way.
What is the purpose of trek? It’s clearly not historical accuracy. The women’s pull, for example, is apparently meant to show the kids what women pioneer had to enure when the men were sent off to the Mormon Battalion. The problem? While members of the Mormon Battalion had to “leave wives and children on the wild praries [sic], destitute and almost helpless,”[fn3] they weren’t leaving their wives and children to pull handcarts. The Mormon Battalion existed from 1846-1848-ish; the Mormon handcart pioneers crossed the plains from 1856 to 1860.
And they didn’t face significant mob violence: the prairies were mostly uninhabited (in fact, the only violent deaths that seem to be recorded by pioneers period are four deaths from “Indians”;[fn4] while the cause was only recorded for one in five pioneer deaths, it strikes me as likely that deaths resulting from mob attacks would have been recorded), and the handcart pioneers were poor converts coming from Europe, not Nauvoo citizens fleeing mob violence. The handcart pioneers certainly did not watch the Nauvoo temple burn.[fn5] And I’m entirely sure they didn’t have portable toilets available.[fn6]
Perhaps the purpose of trek is to allow youth to better understand what the early Saints experienced, thereby allowing for a composite experience that includes pulling handcarts, experiencing mobs, and seeing the temple burn (though, again, handcart pioneers didn’t do all three of those things).
But even if so, why is a mob attack necessary? Actually experiencing what someone else has experienced isn’t the only way to gain empathy. Hearing stories, signing songs, watching movies: all have the potential for increasing our empathy. And, frankly, even trek is an imperfect version of empathy: pulling handcarts for two or three days, with the knowledge that you’ll have your iPhone and comfortable bed back once it’s done is not the same thing, physically or psychologically, as pulling a handcart for three months with no idea what you’ll have when you finish.
Maybe it’s to help kids realize they can do hard things. But again, doing a backpacking trip, or an American Ninja Warrior-style competition,[fn7] or a battle of the bands can all accomplish the same thing. Without, necessarily, the trauma that a mob attack with guns entails.
Maybe it’s to help them feel the Spirit. In which case, see my next section.
Which is to say, even though we know the contours of trek, for it to be valuable, we need to know what we want our kids to get out of it. And we need to tailor the activities so they drive toward those things, rather than throwing everything we can at the kids to see what sticks.
Spiritual Escalation. But even if you take away the historical inaccuracies, the potential criminal and civil liability, and all the other negatives I’ve talked about up until now, these ever-more-exaggerated trek activities concern me.
They concern me because, ultimately, we should be pointing our youth toward having their own spiritual experiences. And, while not every youth activity needs to have feel the Spirit as its central goal (because seriously, sometimes have some fun is a plenty-good goal), an undertaking as massive and as explicitly-religiously-oriented as this should have feel the Spirit as an important goal. And I believe that it does: most major youth activities like this end with a testimony meeting.
Maybe part of the reason for escalating the drama in the activities is to hit the kids over the head with a spiritual experience, to force them to actually engage with their religious beliefs.[fn8]
And if that’s the case, mob attacks and burning temples are precisely the wrong way to go about it.
Elijah spoke to the Lord, and there was a wind, a great wind, and the Lord was not in the wind. And there was an earthquake, and the Lord was not in the earthquake. And there was a fire, and the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still, small voice, which I describe as the whisperings of the Spirit
The Spirit, that is, is quiet. But if we teach our youth that spiritual experience somes in big, noisy, elaborate wrappings, we’re leading them in preisely the wrong direction. Instead of expecting, and looking for, that still small voice, we’re teaching them to look for ever more explosions, bigger and better metaphorical car crashes.[fn9]
I want to emphasize that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do pioneer treks. A lot of kids seem to enjoy them, and physical enactment is a legitimate, important, and underused teaching tool. What I am saying, though, is, let’s not do trek (or, for that matter, any other youth activities) on autopilot. Instead, let’s actually, carefully consider what we want the youth to get out of their trek experience, and let’s choose activities that promote those things.
And seriously, let’s not do dumb, tortious, or criminal stuff.
[fn1] To underscore: there are really two major reactions the kids are likely to have. Either they’re terrified, or they’re laughing (in the first video, I heard both screaming and laughing). I talked about the potential liability risks associated with terrified; while I like laughter, in this case, laughing isn’t terribly conducive to the empathy that the activity is presumably meant to engender.
[fn2] (and yes, I realize I’m shouting)
[fn3] Norma Baldwin Ricketts, The Mormon Battalion:U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1848 (Logan: Utah State UP, 1996), 6.
[fn4] Melvin L. Bashore, et al., “Mortality on the Mormon Trail, 1847–1868,” BYU Studies Quarterly 53:4 (2014), 122.
[fn5] (an inexplicable escalation that was praised by Utah Valley Magazine and picked up by the Deseret News. Maybe step one in deescalating these experiences is ignoring, rather than publicizing, them)
[fn6] See p. 11 of the first linked PDF and p. 5 of the second.
[fn7] Note, though, that that probably raises the same tort liability issues the mob does.
[fn8] Part of it, too, may be seeing what other treks have done, and trying to make this trek at least that good.
[fn9] And yes, I know they’re teenagers, and (a) it has been a long time since I was a teenager, and (b) my kids aren’t there yet. Maybe teenagers do prefer noisy religious experience to cut through their noisy lives. But offering that to them, I believe, does a disservice. Better is to help them experience the quietude that truly lets them experience the divine.