|Minerva Teichert's "Get Ye Up Into the High Mountain, O Zion" - Image from LDS.org|
I love Pioneer Day. I admit that to outsiders it may seem a weird kind of holiday, peculiar to church members living mainly in the Intermountain West. When I was young and in Primary, we celebrated it with a small parade in the town of Raymond, Alberta. I remember dressing up in clothes my ancestors never would have worn—a woman's beige blouse and a Navajo belt tied around my head like some kind of bandana, trying to look remotely pioneer-ish—and walking hot and tired down the streets. After that, we all sat down on the church lawn and ate ice cream while being taught about the pioneers, including the ones that built my town and made it a place where I could grow up happy in the gospel.
That is only part of what I celebrate.
Who exactly are we celebrating every July 24th? Who gets to be called a pioneer? We often point out that as the Church grows worldwide, converts are like pioneers, some starting faraway branches and leading new wards. But in the end, modern day pioneers are everywhere. There are pioneers, some born and raised in the church, living among us in the heart of "Zion", doing amazing things and settling new lands in our Church's landscape of belief. They often work quietly, with little to no fanfare, and most would be surprised to be honored as “pioneer."
In general, each of us is a pioneer when we listen to the prophet's call and move forward with faith into the unknown. Each of us is still settling new and unknown territories of our personal faith. For those like me who live in a land already settled, planted, and ploughed by pioneers over a hundred years ago, we can still find many places in the gospel that are unsettled and unsettling. These places call for a new generation of pioneers. When we stop to look outwards and beyond the borders of our own personal Utah Valleys, we will see that there are new frontiers of faith that are in desperate need of settling.
What are some of these unsettled territories in the Latter-day Saint landscape today?
Today the dry and sparsely settled landscapes we must settle could include the territories of mental illness, understanding and loving church members with same-sex attraction, or trying to stay in the gospel in spite of doubts, to name just a few. Like the early pioneers, there are places today where the Latter-day Saints face deserts of lack of understanding and lack of belonging. But just as the early saints looked long and hard at those deserts and saw Zion, we are a people seized upon by incredible visions of hope. We are a people who know how to make a desert blossom as the rose. We know how to pray up the seagulls when swarms of crickets come to destroy our harvest. We are a people who can irrigate our dried up gardens with water that flows down from the mountains. We are a people who can fight for a place in a hostile land so future Saints can find a safe place dwell. Indeed, the unsettled landscapes I mention are already beginning to rise up with pioneers that move forward in the gospel with great faith.
My ancestors were once called to settle the desert. They were called to Arizona, Southern Utah, Salt Lake City, and finally Cardston and the outlying towns in Southern Alberta. My great grandfather as late as the 1930s was called by the church to sell his home on a prosperous farm in Southern Alberta, pack his bags, and move his family to raise up Zion in the podunk, dried up little town of Rosemary, Alberta. My ancestors, through great sacrifice and inconvenience, were faithful to their prophet's call to settle uninhabited and inhospitable lands. They stuck it out in spite of great adversity to build up Zion. So must we.
Some of us are on the road to Zion in glorious summer, singing hymns and sitting high and comfortable in a covered wagon full of supplies and pulled by oxen. Others may limp along in a blizzard, half frozen and half starved, pulling handcarts with loose wheels. But however we go, we all go together to Zion laden with heavy burdens and the ever-present sting of sacrifice, and none of us have arrived there yet. Where is Zion? It is a place where we are all united, all pure in heart, and where there are no poor among us (Moses 7:18, D&C 97:21). We have a long way to go yet, but there is no doubt that we will get there.
As always, this Church moves forward into some unknown and difficult territories. We all have to grapple with our faith as we do so, but I am certain that future Saints, especially our own children and grandchildren, will be blessed for it. Today as we are called to expand into the new frontier, we are learning to thrive in places that the world pronounces uninhabitable. The world may say to us the same things it said to our Mormon pioneers headed to Utah, "You can't live there! It is an inhospitable place!" Likewise, the world today says, "It is too dangerous in your church for a member with same-sex attraction." "The climate is too dry in your church for a person who doubts." "The gospel is too barren for a person with mental illness." And as in days past, members of the church will grit their teeth and exercise faith and follow the call of the prophets to found new outposts in Zion, learning to irrigate the dry parts by keeping sacred covenants and, above all, learning to support and love and strengthen one another all along the way. We will make the desert blossom as the rose again and again, because miracles follow those who believe. It is happening. It will continue to happen.
Happy Pioneer Day.