“Bridge Building in Independence,” Ensign, Apr. 1993, 76–78
Walnut Street changes its appearance dramatically as it moves from the business district in Independence, Missouri, toward River Street on the western edge of town. A grassy 2 1/2-acre tract on the northwest corner of the two streets’ intersection is of interest to three different religious groups who have buildings there.
The Prophet Joseph Smith stood on this spot on 3 August 1831 and dedicated it as a temple site. (See D&C 84:1–4.) Today, this land is owned by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot); the headquarters for the church is located in a modest white frame building on the acreage.
Across the street to the east, the large world headquarters of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) dominates the intersection. Diagonally across the intersection is the large, domed RLDS auditorium, built in 1926.
On the southeast corner of the intersection is the Independence Visitors’ Center (built in 1971) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.
All three groups trace their history back to the days of Joseph Smith, who restored the gospel of Jesus Christ and established the Church on 6 April 1830 in Fayette, New York. Beginning in 1831, the Saints began to settle in both the Kirtland, Ohio, area and the Independence, Missouri, area. By 1833, they had moved out of Independence. Most of the Saints went north to Clay County. Others went to the Bloomington, Illinois, area and later returned to Independence in 1867. Under the direction of Granville Hendrick, this group bought the land comprising the temple lot and became known as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot).
The main body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints followed Brigham Young west to Salt Lake City, Utah, beginning in 1847.
Latter-day Saints have gradually reestablished themselves in Independence with a ward organized in 1956 and a stake in 1971. Though each group is thoughtfully committed to their own teachings, friendly interaction is now the norm. That friendliness began with the churches’ leaders. “I think we have all found some common ground from which to work together,” says Gordon Goodman, president of the Independence Missouri Stake of the Church. “There is a spirit of cooperation among us. Lost is that negative aspect that has been there at times in the past.”
William Sheldon, an apostle in the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), also speaks of the cooperation among the three groups. “We have had a working harmony with each of the churches in our area. We haven’t let the differences in our beliefs stand in the way of amiable feelings between us.”
Carl Mesle, a retired presiding elder of the local Independence RLDS congregation, affirms that the good relationships among the three groups are growing toward a common purpose despite their theological differences. “With the world the way it is today,” he says, “we realize that we must ally ourselves with any group that lifts up Jesus Christ. Prejudice is melting in the light of this common purpose. Our common enemy is not other churches, it is Satan and the world.”
Yet, while the three churches are all aware of their differences and their growing cooperation, the people of Independence generally confuse the three groups on Walnut Street. For this reason, the local Latter-day Saints prefer to be called Mormons. “When I was a boy growing up in Independence,” says Gerald Harris, former stake president, “Mormon was a bad word, and other kids teased me with it. Now it is a good word, and we are respected by others.”
Past prejudices and misconceptions about Latter-day Saints are slowly being overturned as Mormons reach out to others in the community. They now participate on the Tourism Board, Chamber of Commerce, the Neighborhood Council, Ministerial Council, and VISN/ACTS Council.
“We have seen the Mormons become more involved in the community over the last twenty years,” says Dick Hetrick, chairman of the Neighborhood Council. “At first, it was just a few individuals. Now it is more widespread. ” When the Neighborhood Council wanted materials to help with family communication, they found that the materials created by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City were among the best available and the council used the materials.
Since 1979, President Goodman has represented the Mormons on the Ministerial Council, a group dedicated to creating better communications between all religions. “We try to work from the basis of things that unite us,” says Reverend Joseph A. Mancuso, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish of the Catholic church, “and on that basis we can begin to deal with the things that divide us.”
Mormon representatives are active on the local VISN/ACTS Council in Independence. VISN/ACTS is a 24-hour faith and values cable television network originating in New York City. The Church airs four thirty-minute programs several times a week for a total of six and a half hours a week. “The national LDS media has helped the local LDS image,” says one Independence resident.
Perhaps some of the largest Mormon outreach programs to the community have been started by local Relief Society units over the last three years. Helping the Newborns in Need program by sewing and crocheting infant clothing is only one of the many projects in place and growing. Other projects include making stuffed animals for disabled children at the Sunshine Center, making hygiene kits for residents of Hope House (a center for abused women and children), and making brightly colored bibs for residents of the Truman Neurological Center. One Relief Society unit turned unusable donated clothing into thirty quilts for a community center in nearby downtown Kansas City. Local wards also helped refurbish a family room at the Crossroads Homeless Shelter, and Relief Society sisters also take in dinner one day a month for those who stay there.
“We feel good doing these service projects,” says Shauna Kent, stake Relief Society president. “By fulfilling our role as Relief Society sisters, we also fulfill the goal of Relief Society—“Charity Never Faileth.”
Other community members are now noticing some of the good things Mormons have to offer the community. “My appreciation of Mormons is positive,” says Cindy Garcia, a young mother. “They bring their goals of common humanity into their service, not just their church name.”
A pageant held each June on the lawn near the Church’s Independence stake center tells the story of the early Latter-day Saints in Independence. “The staging is fantastic,” says a local resident who takes his family there every year, “and it is interesting to learn about this part of our Independence history.” Gerald Harris now serves as pageant director. “The pageant is a strong statement that we believe in Christ,” he says. “Our cast of nearly three hundred performs four nights to a total of twelve thousand viewers.”
The family history center, located in the LDS stake center, has been another means of strengthening relationships between Mormons and other members of the community. “We have an outstanding facility, and many people come here,” says Elda Mae Billings, director of the center. “We have made many friends.” Community members say that they love the “good feeling in the family history center” and that they “changed their mind about the Mormons just by talking to them.”
When Jesse Ehlers, an Independence resident, was asked what changed his attitude toward the Mormons, he answered, “The quality of the people who are your members speaks for itself.”
As families are good neighbors, children are good students, and individuals are good examples in the community, perceptions of the Mormons among Independence residents continue to brighten. “There is still a great deal of work to be done,” says J. T. Whitworth, director of LDS public affairs in Independence, “but we’ve started building bridges just by trying to be a part of the community.”