Today’s guest post comes from Rob (@RobTmanJr). He is a convert to the LDS Church, has three kids, and lives in Salt Lake City.  He can’t read something without wanting to make edits.

With the recent heartbreaking news of a Young Women leader dying of heat stroke during an LDS pioneer trek event, I have been thinking of all the different types of devotional religious physical experiences. There are parallels in other religions, impressive and moving in their sense of the sacred, but often physically strenuous for believers, such as the Hajj, or various Catholic pilgrimages.

Over 100,000 Catholics gathered for the Pope’s visit to Denver in 1993

In all of these, I believe a major part of the intent is to form and solidify a religious/cultural identity. There’s a message of “you can do hard things” and “you can sacrifice for your faith” and also there’s “You are Mormon/Muslim/Catholic/Jewish, just making sure you knew that” for whichever faith is performing the commemoration. As a convert to the LDS faith in my young adult years, I’ve never participated in trek. But as a young Catholic, I attended Catholic World Youth Day in 1993, a week of events that culminated in a large, outdoor Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II.

I recall stories highlighting the sacrifices people made to get there and be present for Mass with the Holy Father. Afterward, stories in Catholic publications had a major theme of young people feeling a renewed commitment to their faith. Mass in Cherry Creek State Park was packed. We slept outside the night before (worst night of sleep of my life). Mass with the pope was a wonderful experience and one I will always treasure. I felt the Spirit of God there.

Sadly, I later read someone died at the Mass and that the heat and the crowds were major factors. Logistically, it was a whirlwind with all the events going on that week. Our group of five had to go through crowds like a conga line just to stay together. So the event had its splendor and its drawbacks, even tragedy. No matter the setting, tragedies and other difficulties should prompt us in our humanity to see what can be done differently to make sure people have good and safe experiences, even if that means you have to look at changing something you view as a vital act of piety or rite of passage. On a much larger scale last year in Mina, Mecca, over 2000 people were crushed to death in a crowd stampede during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. I have no problem with faith traditions staging acts of devotion to help renew people’s commitment. But I believe there are things to keep in mind:

(1) Keep the focus where it needs to be. World Youth Day was meant to be about following Christ, but it was easily tempting to say we were there for “the pope.” (A pre-World Youth Day retreat at a Catholic seminary was more my speed as a faith-strengthening experience). Trek is supposed to be about being a disciple of Christ, but it could turn into ancestor worship (not confusing that with respect and love) and making sure people know they are Mormon and others sacrificed for their faith so they need to honor that. I don’t consider either case nefarious or ulterior, but the events unwittingly move the focus of faith away from where it needs to be.

Why are they in the river? WHY ARE THEY IN THE RIVER??!

(2) Keep it safe and sensible. Religious zeal gets dangerous when it translates into ill-advised and unnecessarily excessive rigorous activity. I’m thinking of the dichotomy of my mission president’s wife speaking in zone conference and telling us not to go out proselytizing when we’re sick, and five minutes later they show the faith-promoting video of Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball leaving for their missions when they and their families have diphtheria. With all respect to those who led the church in those early, difficult days, PLS STOP SHOWING THAT VIDEO TO MISSIONARIES THX.

(3) It has to be relevant to those participating. What will this motivate you to do? Will it give you greater empathy for others? Will you love as Christ did, unconditionally? Will you help those who are suffering for whatever reason?

What are your thoughts?