Just exactly how many wives he had – or has, since he’s only out of circulation, not breath – isn’t clear. Estimates go beyond what you can count on toes and fingers. Forty, maybe more. Youngest? One of them was just 12 years old.
Many unfinished homes haunt Short Creek. | Photo: James Schaap
Pastor Mike Menning in his red pick-up in Short Creek.
Another unfinished home in Short Creek. | Photo: James Schaap
Warren Jeffs was a long-time resident of the FBI’s Most Wanted list, right up there with major-league offenders. Today, he sits in jail in Texas, where, as mostly self-appointed prophet of his fellowship, he’d started yet another polygamous community.
Warren Jeffs told his devoted followers that one day soon Jesus Christ will break down prison walls, step into Jeffs’ cell, and spring him as if that day were yet another resurrection. Together, he said, they’ll come home. To that end, from prison, Warren Jeffs told his people to build him compounds where he and the Lord and his favourite wives will in blessed peace take up joyful residence.
So his people did. One of those “dormitories” stands right there in Short Creek, the place where Jeffs lived, a desert hamlet of 10,000 cut in two by the Utah/Arizona states lines. Short Creek spreads out lazily beneath the red rise of breath-taking sandstone mountains, a place where just about everyone in town believed in polygamy, “Celestial Marriage,” even if many didn’t practice it. Jeffs’ loyal disciples built spacious compounds for him, more dormitory than residence, because accommodating all those wives and children required dozens of rooms.
Locked doors, boarded windows
Polygamy has a long and storied history among the Mormons, a way of life that some few of the most devoted, among them the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), still practice faithfully. To them, apostate Mormons in shame abandoned what the Lord’s own voice had once commanded. Back in 1890, the prophet Wilfred Woodruff had a vision shaped, some say, more by practical realities than the supernatural. He determined – God told him – that the LDS should abandon “celestial marriage,” a change which decreased the hatred members faced from Gentiles, those heathens who weren’t LDS. Woodruff’s Manifesto undid the Principle (upper case) Joseph Smith himself had proclaimed, because he couldn’t, some say, curb what his wife considered her husband’s serial adultery.
These days, those who know something about life in Utah claim the FLDS aren’t they only ones who practice polygamy; others live beneath the radar, sometimes quite happily, with their multiple wives. Polygamy is illegal, but most polygamists are not abusers or child molesters.
But Warren Jeffs was, and that’s why he’s in prison. When he was picked up outside Las Vegas, he had 16 cell phones, three wigs, nearly 60 thousand dollars, and he was married to an estimated 70 wives. He’s serving a life-plus-20-years sentence.
When he went off to jail, his absence created a decline in his power. No longer could he determine who lived in Colorado City and who didn’t. With his kingdom diminishing, he commanded his followers to end all building. Today, around town, ghostly houses, gaping empty holes for windows, haunt almost every block.
The Great Commission Utah
In September of 2002, Mike Menning, Pastor at Mountain Springs (Christian Reformed) Community Church, Salt Lake City, UT, was writing a sermon in his office, when a woman named Danielle called, after having been directed to him by Menning’s daughter-in-law. Danielle had left the home where she’d been the second wife of a man who’d subsequently taken another. When she walked out, she’d taken all five children. She was just 26, almost totally uneducated, and had just been diagnosed with MS in a series of medical visits that constituted the first time in her life she’d seen a doctor.
“I didn’t even know polygamy existed,” Menning remembers today.
Soon, Danielle and her kids and a new husband all became family to the Mennings, who took them in, literally, as did the church.
So began what has turned into, for Menning, a passion and ministry aimed at family members who leave or are forced out of polygamous families, as so many are – men, women and children who suddenly become strangers in a strange land.
The first estranged kid the Mennings picked up from Short Creek, a 19-year-old boy, stared out the car windows at a world he’d not seen before. He seemed polite, even sweet. “Can you tell me something about this celebration of lights?” he asked them from the back seat. It was Christmas. The kid had no idea.
Soon the Mennings got themselves into the orbit of “the Great Commission Utah,” whose mission is to minister to women like Danielle and the kid who knew nothing about Christmas. How many of those men, women and kids are there? Some say about 8,000; John Krakower, in Under the Banner of Heaven, estimates 120,000.
Frequent visits to Short Creek helped Pastor Menning carve out a place in a community accustomed to locked doors and boarded lots. His red truck, he says, was the only one in town because Warren Jeffs himself had ruled the colour red to be contraband, a colour that belonged to only Jesus Christ.
Soon enough, Menning says the Lord laid a burden on him to put down a church plant. When a young couple, seminary grads Brady and Elizabeth Olson, came up on the radar screen he’d been using with a range of contacts, something clicked. The Olsons had done an internship in Utah, knew something of the region. Reluctantly, they told Pastor Menning they’d consider Short Creek, but (without telling the persistent pastor) they put the place at the bottom of their list.
God almighty had other plans, and today the Olsons are living in the Colorado City section of town, where they made history, hard as it is to believe, as the very first “Gentiles” to own a house.
No matter. This fall, Pastor Menning and the Olsons will launch a church – the very first one – right there in Warren Jeff’s front yard. Twelve churches, six of them CRC, have been helping along the way in a variety of ways.
Things are looking up in Short Creek. One of Jeffs’ own royal compounds has been turned into a fancy bed-and-breakfast with the cheeky name of “Most Wanted.”
Fences are coming down, closed doors are opening. On the first floor of Jeffs’ own place, some of those dormitory-like bedrooms were once able to be locked down only from the outside. Only. Simply to stand outside those doors makes your breath stutter.
But today, there’s this sublime twist: that Warren Jeffs’ residence, 46 bedrooms and 53 bathrooms, will soon be transformed into a rehab centre; and eventually – listen to this! – a safe place for women freed from sex-trafficking. A faith-based charitable organization, The Dream Center, whose aim it is to help hurting people find a home, has committed to begin a ministry in the prophet’s awful den.
Pardon my zeal but consider that divine irony: an institution-like, walled-in prison house created for several dozen sister-wives under the dark hand of a despotic prophet, that place will be transformed – dare I say redeemed? – into a haven of hope.
Imagine that. Just imagine.
For a couple of years already, the Olsons have been doing Bible studies – 30 or 40 people attend every Sunday. It would be nice to say that real steam is churning in the enterprise, a church plant full of rosy-ness. But men and women conditioned to believe only what one man claims to be gospel don’t take on independence or freedom with a few hours of Bible study. It’s a long haul.
But then there’s this. Remember Danielle, the 26-year-old, unschooled second wife of a man with three or four wives, the man she and her five kids left? Danielle has married again. She got herself an education, even a college degree. And this year, she’s teaching Spanish at Intermountain Christian School in Salt Lake City.
Go ahead. Try not to smile.