A friend whose new calling has her deep in preparation for her stake’s Youth Trek this summer asked for my thoughts on a couple of Trek-related issues. With the arrogance of someone who has never been on Trek, and who can count on two fingers the number of teenagers she sees more than twice a year, I hoped these thoughts might be of interest to Keepa readers – or, more importantly, might draw some of your thoughts that would be helpful to my friend.
I am a convert. I do think our ancestor stories are very important, but the stories they will be hearing are not everyone’s story.
Even as someone with Mormon pioneer ancestry, I sympathize with this point. I resent all the attention given to two handcart companies, who were a small fraction of the ten handcart companies, who were a tiny minority of the hundreds of overland companies. My family came with a wagon company – what do I have to do with the particularities of the handcart experience? It doesn’t take much imagination to magnify my frustration to what might be felt by someone whose Mormon heritage consists of what she is passing on to her children, not what she inherited from her ancestors.
Looked at another way, though, you have more in common with the handcart pioneers than I do. Except, perhaps, for the youngest children, they were all converts. Except for the few returning missionaries among them, they had never known the Pentecost of the Kirtland Temple, never lived in Nauvoo, never heard Joseph Smith preach. The expectation that the Church would someday “return to Jackson County” must have felt a little strange – how do you “go back” to a place you’ve never been? What in heaven’s name were they doing out there on the plains of Wyoming?? Maybe you have more personal insight into that than many people who do have pioneer ancestor stories.
My favorite Keepa posts are the stories I uncover about those who are not the stereotypical Latter-day Saints. I’ve written about a Japanese woman, a Turkish man, various Germans, Norwegians, Argentinians, Tahitians, and Armenians. I don’t have personal ties to any of those places – no ancestral ties, no mission experience, not even a tourist stamp on a passport. But I claim a tie to them that is more than genealogical, because something in their experience as Mormons is something I recognize, something I take pride in, something that I share with them. They’re my people. I’m part of them. I don’t have any handcart DNA, but they’re my people, too.
I wonder if, rather than concentrating on ancestral ties, or lack of them, looking for what you (and the first- or second-generation members among the youth in your stake) have in common with them as Latter-day Saints isn’t much more important in the long run. We sing some of their songs. We pray using many of the terms they used. We carry the same Bible and Book of Mormon. We have the same hope in Christ and the same expectation for a future life. Why were they out there on the desert in the first place? What would make you leave your home, and draw you to an alien place you could reach only after great hardship? It’s that that’s the point of Trek, isn’t it, rather than any genetic descent from those people?
I imagine the pioneers thinking “why in the heck are you doing this? We did this so you don’t have to.” It feels like the stake wants the youth to have this “spiritual experience.”
I’ve never been on Trek, but every description I’ve ever heard seems to focus on what I think is exactly the wrong thing: the physical hardships of the pioneers (the stuff they did so we don’t have to!) We shouldn’t pretend that the minor (and almost certainly safe) blisters and muscle aches experienced by the youth on a weekend trek – where medical safety nets are in place, where they can count on supper tonight and breakfast tomorrow, and all the clean water they need trucked in and handed to them – gives them any understanding of what pioneers faced. Even if it did, that’s the wrong thing to emphasize – we don’t honor and love the pioneers because they endured physical difficulties; we celebrate them because they obeyed the prophetic call to gather, and they didn’t abandon their faith, either in God or in his human servants, when gathering turned deadly.
What bothers me the most about what I have heard about Trek – and which may certainly not be true of every trek – is that some youth leaders try to manipulate teens into having a “spiritual experience” by creating artificially emotional situations – the “death” of a baby doll, the historically inaccurate calling of men into the Mormon Battalion resulting in the traditional “women’s pull.” Even if they’re successful in getting the kids to feel something akin to empathy, it’s an artificial imitation of spirituality. If that’s what teens are taught to recognize as a “spiritual experience,” how are they ever going to recognize the quiet resonance in a fast and testimony meeting, or the still small voice that speaks comfort or brings a scripture to memory at just the needed moment? Unless I’m entirely wrong about what happens during Trek, I think this is more harmful than any good that could come from a jolly old weekend hike in costume.
But I don’t think it needs to be that way, if leaders don’t go for the cheap and artificial.
What if simply getting kids unhooked from electronics for a couple of days, having them do something real (the feeling of shoes on the ground, the smell of sagebrush, the sound of wind on the prairie, the sight of the Milky Way that some of them have probably never seen) clears the way to a real spiritual experience? What if in preparation for Trek leaders didn’t talk about the physical hardship to be overcome so much as about why the pioneers were willing to undergo those hardships?
What if the stake adopted as a theme something like a line from the dorky song in praise of the “Blessed, Honored Pioneer” – “every day some burden lifted, every day some heart to cheer, every day some hope the brighter” – and made it a part of Trek to do that every day? Made it a part of the evening routine to go around the circle and have everyone identify one thing that someone else did to “cheer their heart” that day, or that they saw someone doing to “lift some burden” for someone else? Or anything else you could think of to have the kids practice charity, identify gratitude, recognize some point that really is tied to spirituality more than to physical pain?
I think if leaders don’t try to force a spiritual experience by manipulating emotions, and if they create opportunities for trekkers to live some small part of the gospel that actually helps develop Christ-like attributes, the kids just might have a genuine spiritual experience. If they do, it will be the kind they can replicate over and over when they’re at home and out of the romantic world of Trek. If costumes and flour-sack “babies” and temporary family assignments help to draw the kids more deeply into the game, even though it’s an imitative game, then those props are probably worth it – as long as the game is built around some deliberate opportunities for service or thoughtful consideration of heritage — whether genetic or spiritual heritage.
But that puts a real burden on leaders not to take the easy way of focusing only on the physical trappings, and of planning for opportunities for spiritual growth as carefully as they would if they were working on a Sunday lesson. Otherwise, it’s probably too easy to get completely wrapped up in the surface fantasy and completely miss any deeper, more difficult-to-create heartfelt experience.
Is this just a tradition? or is there a sound reason for doing these expensive things?
We certainly never did anything like this – in scope, in expense, in anticipation – when I was in MIA. My ward did take expensive beach trips and ski weekends that I could never afford to participate in. I never understood the reason for those trips beyond fun. But I think that Trek – as historically inaccurate as it is, as non-essential as it is, as much as it probably is about your stake’s desire to “keep up with the South Jordans/Bountifuls/Mill Creeks” – could be more than mere fun, if leaders identified and emphasized true spirituality and didn’t stress the wrong lesson (“oh-our-ancestors-were-so-wonderful-because-they-suffered-so-much!”)
Readers, what do you think would make a stake youth trek a worthwhile experience? I know some of you despise Trek for one reason or another – many reasons being legitimate – but it would be most helpful if rather than simply listing its flaws, you made practical suggestions on how the experience could be improved. (But as always, regular Keepa contributors have much broader latitude for negative responses than newcomers who stop by only to complain.)