A Reluctant Pioneer

By Stephen Carter

Stephen Carter is the director of publications for the Sunstone Education Foundation. An earlier version of this article was presented as a sermon on 17 July 2016 at the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.



Or right-click to download the audio here: A Reluctant Pioneer



Does anyone actually want to be a pioneer?

It probably depends on the type of pioneer we’re talking about.

For example, if someone says “pioneer” at a tech conference, they’re probably referring to someone who pushed technology forward: Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg. If you’re talking music, pioneers are people like Ray Kurzweil for his keyboards, or Jimi Hendrix for his guitar work, or Billie Holiday for her blues singing. If you’re trapped in a college literature classroom, pioneers will be James Joyce creating the stream of consciousness novel, or Flannery O’Connor birthing the southern gothic tradition.

In other words, we often conceive of a pioneer as someone who makes something new or heads into previously unexplored territory. We often regard them as inspired, visionary, possibly even quasi-divine. A lot of us wouldn’t mind being a pioneer in this sense, to be honored as someone who took the next step and established a new genre, technology, or school of thought.

But let’s say that you’re living in Utah at the end of July. Pioneer means something different. It refers to the tens of thousands of Mormons who crossed the American plains during the mid 19th century and settled the Intermountain West. On Pioneer Day, you’ll see people dressed in late-19th-century-style clothing marching in parades, perhaps pulling a handcart or—if they’re really hardcore—driving a covered wagon. Some of them will be engaging in various olde tyme activities in the many pioneer parks the state has.

Watching these people, it’s obvious that they’re proud of Utah’s pioneer heritage. They portray these ancestors as visionary people who were willing to sacrifice. Willing to leave their homes in the Midwest and trek across a thousand miles, often losing some of their loved ones along the way. Willing to go settle a dusty, sagebrush-dotted place in the middle of the Great Basin, living in lean-tos until they could build a dugout, and then a one-room cabin. They are honored for their sense of autonomy and exploratory spirit. However, a deeper look at Mormon history gives us different view.

From the beginning, the Mormons were pretty much constantly on the move. Only a year after the Church was founded, Joseph Smith and his followers abandoned New York for Kirtland, Ohio. And then, two years later, another 1200 Mormons headed out of Kirtland to Missouri. But in a matter of just a few years, the Mormons were ejected from both places, sometimes through the shedding of blood. In 1839, the Mormon refugees were welcomed in Illinois, where they built what would become the state’s second largest city. But by 1846, they were chased out of town by mobs and were once again on the trail, headed west.

It seems hard to believe that Mormons, who, as one of my friends has quipped, have trademarked niceness, would be so disliked by their neighbors. But Mormons were a very different kind of people back then.

Even though they were constantly trying to gain converts, Mormons were very insular. They traded only amongst each other. They tended to vote as a bloc. And, with all the new converts streaming in, they could take an area over rather quickly.

And Joseph Smith was teaching in no uncertain terms that the Mormons were building the literal city of God, where Jesus would arrive to kick off the Second Coming. He even had the city’s plans drafted.

To see the situation from the non-Mormon point of view, imagine that a religious group with a charismatic leader moved into your town with the express purpose of populating its political system, changing the government into a theocracy run by their own leaders, and building a new city according to their plans. And they don’t see room in their city for you if you don’t covert. And then imagine that they quickly become numerous enough to start accomplishing their goals.

You can see why the Mormons’ neighbors were so uncomfortable. And since this was the American frontier, where law enforcement was sparse and unpredictable, these tensions erupted in violent ways, perpetrated by both Mormons and non-Mormons.

So, behind the triumphal stories we often hear about the Mormon pioneers, the fact is, they were reluctant pioneers: from their first move away from New York to their last into Utah. If given a choice, they probably would have preferred to stay where they had already built up homes, businesses, and farms. They wanted to stay in Kirtland, where they had built their first temple. They wanted to stay in Jackson County, Missouri, to build the city of Zion. They wanted to stay in Nauvoo where the golden age of revelation had occurred. But every time, they were forced out.


So now we have considered two kinds of pioneers. 1: Those who are pressing into various frontiers voluntarily, and 2: Those who are forced to become pioneers.

As we noted, no one minds being the first kind of pioneer. It’s exciting and ego boosting to be pushing knowledge and culture forward. But none of us want to be the second kind of pioneer. None of us want to be ejected from a place we’d rather stay. None of us want to encounter a strange land without preparation.

However, becoming a reluctant pioneer happens a lot, in big and small ways. For example, my seven-year-old daughter found out that she loves to dance, and has since joined a very dedicated dance team. So I’ve had to learn how to braid hair, and how to put it up into a bun that can withstand five hours of vigorous activity. I’ve had to learn about makeup. I’ve had to learn the social rituals of dance parents and how to navigate the labyrinth of dance competitions. It was something I would never have chosen to do.

But that’s small potatoes.

Some reluctant pioneers that have become especially visible in Utah recently are homeless teenagers who have been ejected from Mormon homes because they identify as part of the LGBT community. On the other side of that story are those children’s Mormon parents. Both are severed from their moorings: the teen from his or her home and support structure, the parents from their idea of who their child is and how he or she fits into cultural expectations, Mormon doctrine, and their family. Both are heading into territory that they never expected to enter. And both are frightened.

And certainly we should recognize as reluctant pioneers the refugees from violence and poverty in the Middle East and Central America who have received such bad treatment from the United States.

It’s true. No one wants to be a reluctant pioneer. We want to power ahead on our own steam. We want to be the master of our own fate. After all, what happens to the homeless teen? What happens to parents who ejected that teen? What happens to the refugees? The stories of reluctant pioneers end in many ways. Sometimes in death. Sometimes in reconciliation. Sometimes in a new home. Sometimes in a new soul.


I want to talk about one more kind of pioneer, though. One that may seem counterintuitive.

One evening, a group of friends and I were shooting the political breeze. All of us have a college education; some have graduate and post-graduate degrees. And though all of us started out as orthodox Mormons, three-fourths have since left the LDS Church, formally or otherwise. All of us lean liberal, some of us having been more excited about Bernie than others, so we were having a grand time bemoaning the Trump campaign, bringing up all the recent studies, all the new articles, and all the latest tweets to show just what a travesty the man was.

As I listened to the conversation, something started coalescing in my head, and eventually I asked a question. “If you could stop Trump from becoming president by investing 1 percent of your time, would you do it?”

They looked at me like I was selling Amway, but they indulged me. Probably because I had brought chocolate chip cookies.

“It’s like that old thought experiment,” I said: “‘If you had the chance to kill Hitler before he became the Fuhrer, would you do it?’ But I’m just asking for 1 percent of your time instead of murder.”

“We’re all liberals here,” I continued. “We’re all educated. We’re all white. We’re all male. We all live a middle-class lifestyle. But only three of our dozen go to church. From what I’ve read, that’s pretty normal for people like us. Liberals are far less likely to be churchgoers than conservatives are. Something like 30% and 70% percent respectively. This means that liberals are missing from a major site of social fabric building.”

Social fabric is made up from the interaction people in a community have with each other. It is woven at bowling leagues, at PTA meetings, at the Kiwanis Club, at church. It is woven in places where we pursue a common goal together, where we share a particular theology or philosophy. Like a single thread woven into a piece of fabric, we aren’t connected at just one point, but many. At church, we are bound by a shared sacred language and mythology. At the Kiwanis Club or the PTA, we are bound by the work we do together on a fundraiser or an event. At the bowling league, we are bound as we cheer each other’s scores, knowing that the success of our teammates adds to the team’s success. In these places, we build relationships with each other in multiple ways so that when something like politics strains one connection, we have others that can hold us together—that can help us remember that we are all multifaceted beings. For example, even if the person sitting in the next pew votes for a candidate you disapprove of, you’ve still worked in the youth program together, or you still have a great time at the book club with her every month, or you brought them food when their family was sick, and they did the same for you. (When the rash of articles about Prince ran through my Facebook feed, the most interesting one to me was the one about his relationship with the people in his church. Prince wasn’t just a rock star; he was a social fabric weaver.)

I continued to harangue my friends. “I’ve read that the divide between liberals and conservatives has grown hugely during the past decade or so. Part of it can probably be blamed on the Internet and cable television. But I wonder if a significant part of it can’t also be blamed on the simple fact that so few liberals go to church. We’ve dropped out of one of the major social fabric construction sites our culture has to offer. So when your neighbor sees that Bernie sign on your lawn, she has nothing else to think of you through. And if a Trump sign goes up on her lawn, you are in a similar position. You have nothing to relate through except our deeply divided political discourse.”

That’s the grenade I lobbed into the middle of my friends. Instead of committing murder, I contended, go to church, join a service club, join a bowling league. Hang out with people you’re different than. Because if you’re engaged with some kind of social fabric building for a few hours a week, suddenly those crazy conservatives start becoming more human to us. And we crazy liberals start becoming a little more human to them. We’re not able to dismiss each other out of hand because too much already binds us together. We’re more likely to give each other the benefit of a doubt. We’re less likely to defend our political identity at all costs. Perhaps we would still wrestle over politics, but—as in wrestling—even if we’re trying to pull a move on the other person, we’re still locked in a tight embrace.

Here’s the funny thing. As far as I could tell, my friends were completely nonplused by my idea. They had moved out of the Mormon Church for good reasons, and they were completely unwilling to go back inside one of those buildings. Of course, I wasn’t asking them to go back to a Mormon church; I was asking them to go to any church, any service club, any bowling league. But they seemed unwilling to take me seriously.

Frankly, I don’t blame them. Though I go to my local Mormon church most Sunday afternoons, the fact is, whenever I put on my shirt, tie, and slacks, whenever I approach the prefab building with its “We should be a reverent people” lettering on the front door, my chest tightens a little. I feel as if I am walking into a prison. Probably because Mormonism was a prison for me for such a long time.

But I go in anyway. Why? Probably because I get to teach my own class.

If you’ve gone to an LDS church for any length of time, you know that Mormons practice recycling. Not of cans and plastics, but of ideas and stories. Everyone knows how the lesson should proceed, and everyone knows which stories will fit comfortably into which slots. It makes for an environment where everyone can feel that the ground is stable beneath their feet. Many Latter-day Saints must enjoy this practice because they keep going to church, and they willingly participate in these semi-scripted classes (which, admittedly, can help build the social fabric, providing us with stories to hold in common).

However, my goal is different. I want to help my class attain what Parker Palmer calls “troth” (as in, “I pledge thee my troth”), where we “engage in a mutually accountable and transforming relationship, a relationship forged of trust and faith in the face of unknowable risks. . . . To know in troth is to allow one’s self to be known . . . to be vulnerable to the challenges and changes any true relationship brings.”1

It’s a small class, ten participants at the most, and sometimes zero. I put the chairs in a circle, and, using the various pedagogical strategies I’ve learned over the years, I work to build a conversation space where people feel safe talking about their own lives, ideas, and challenges instead of grabbing onto the nearest faith-promoting story. Watching how my class members transform as they come into troth with one another never ceases to amaze me. They become both brave and vulnerable. We start to see beyond each other’s veneers, perceiving the divine spark within each other. When we bump up against a sensitive topic like women and the priesthood, or polygamy, or the November exclusion policy, we actually make a little headway in talking about it. One day, one of my class members started talking dismissively about the people who had left the Church over the exclusion policy. When he finished, I said, “There’s one, single reason I came back to church after that policy came out. It was because I knew some people here would be suffering, and that they would need comfort. That was the one reason.”

You probably realize that something very important was missing from my statement. You’re supposed to come back to church after a challenge because you have a testimony of its truth. My statement implied that such a testimony didn’t come into play, which is quite a startling thing for a Sunday School president to say. Later I wondered if it would come back to bite me—if someone in our class would go off and tell the branch president. But it didn’t happen. And the class member I responded to came back the next week and we continued to talk. Though we had disagreed on something significant, the social fabric kept us together, and we’ve had some good conversations since then.

So far, it has not gotten easier to step back inside an LDS church building. There are times when I’d be more than happy to just get my day of rest back. To get out from under the responsibilities Sundays bring, to escape the tensions that inevitably arise from interacting with the Church as a member. But I keep going back because it provides a space where children of God can possibly see each other more purely, and understand a little better what it means to be one in heart. We don’t necessarily agree with each other, but, as often as possible, I hope we try to understand one another.

My reluctance to go into a church building brings me back to pioneers. For many decades after the Mormons trekked to Utah, they harbored an understandable enmity toward the states that had persecuted and ejected them. A vow to avenge the martyrdom of Joseph Smith was even built into the temple ceremony. Illinois’ Extermination Order—basically declaring open hunting season on Mormons—wasn’t rescinded until the 1970s. So the Mormons were loathe to return to these areas. The friends I’ve been speaking about, and others who has left the Mormon Church, probably feel the same way about religion. You don’t want to go back to a place where your questions were construed as apostasy, where people were more concerned with maintaining the status quo than in engaging with you.

We all have something similar in our lives: contexts, groups, and institutions that ejected us or became an unhealthy place for us to be. Places we don’t want to return to. This is where the journey of the third pioneer starts.


Joseph Campbell is famous for collecting myths from all over the world and showing that they had a similar structure, which he called the monomyth or the hero cycle. The structure in its most simple form goes like this:


The protagonist, or the protagonist’s community, is somehow ill or in trouble.

The protagonist is lured into taking a journey outside the community.

The protagonist explores an unfamiliar land.

The protagonist meets and wrestles with various antagonists, all of which are aspects of the protagonist.

The protagonist finds an elixir and is healed by it.

The protagonist returns to his or her community, bringing the elixir along for their benefit.


You’ll recognize that structure in many popular movies and books such as Star Wars: Episode 4 and The Lord of the Rings.

In the Mormon blogosphere, there is a genre called the exit story, where people describe how they left the Church. However, as far as I know, no one has yet identified the re-entry story genre. I know of a few stories like that, but only a few.2 It’s because finding that healing elixir requires everything—not just effort, but change. It’s always easier to settle for a different identity that leaves your ego intact than to actually undergo a transformation. But finding the elixir means that you have become an entirely different person—one who has transformed almost beyond recognition.

Probably all of us have embarked on the hero cycle in one way or another. All of us have headed toward what we hope is Zion (or away from what we think is Babylon). But where are we on our journey now? Have we settled for simply inhabiting a different land while remaining the same person? Or are we truly encountering all aspects of ourselves as we seek to become the kind of person who could drink the healing elixir if we found it? And then, the most important question: if we have received the elixir, are we completing the hero cycle? Are we willing, even reluctantly, to go back to our ailing communities and bring the elixir with us?

Our families are our community. Our neighbors are our community. Our church is our community. Our city is our community. Our state is our community. Our nation is our community. And each ails in some way. Many of us have left these communities—whether literally or metaphorically—to find healing. If we have found it, if we have become whole (and only you can know if you are), it may be time to make the return trek: re-entering our communities not as the person we were when we left, not to step into the role we once played, not to take up the behaviors we once engaged in, but as a new person, as a whole person, as a healer (though not a converter or a persuader).

For example, Mormons aren’t perfect, but we’re not nearly as difficult to live with as we once were. We went into the wilderness of Utah and gained some experience. We’ve become more comfortable in our skins. We’ve mellowed out a lot. That’s why we’re not getting kicked out of every place we try to live. We can return to the places and people that once persecuted us with a little more to offer, with a little more self-awareness. We can start to heal the rift, not by avenging the blood of the martyrs, but by being more whole and contributing to the social fabric in our own unique way.

But that certainly won’t be where the story ends. In a way, that’s where it begins. You will soon find out if you really are as whole as you thought you were. You’ll soon find out if you’re still operating from your ego. The work of connecting never ends, and there will always be new challenges. The only way you can keep going is if you are your own wellspring—if you receive your energy from the here and now instead of from social approval or the prospect of future success. And we also have to realize that the elixir isn’t some magic potion that heals on contact. You’re not bringing rest to the community; you’re bringing an invitation: “Go on your own hero’s journey.” Because, really, that’s the only way to be healed.

And everyone who hears the call will become a reluctant pioneer—wanting to stay home, but finally being ejected into the most important—and most demanding—journey of their lives.



1. Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 31.

2. One of them is John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, “A Gay Mormon’s Testimony,” Sunstone 141 (April 2006), https://sunstone.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/141-52-57.pdf (accessed 23 July 2019.)


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