Faith, fury mix at Mormon temple

Anne Carlisle just wanted to get to the Easter pageant at the Mormon temple Tuesday night in Mesa.

Lonnie Pursifull just wanted to save Mormons from what he believes is eternal damnation.

But when their paths crossed, neither backed down, and Carlisle won.

Pursifull ended up with a bruised shin, courtesy of Carlisle’s electric wheelchair. But she didn’t get out of it unscathed: The 64-year-old Carlisle was cited for disorderly conduct for fighting.

The confrontations between Mormon worshipers and those who think they need saving have been going on for decades outside the Arizona Temple and longer than that at other places, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said.

But Pursifull and his fellow street preachers have ratcheted up the vitriol in the past few years, creating a toxic mix of faith and fury on the sidewalks outside the temple each Easter.

It has gotten so bad that a more moderate group of Phoenix evangelicals has vowed to skip their annual trip to preach outside the pageant until Pursifull and his crew tone it down.

But Pursifull, 42, says he has souls to save and he’s just getting started.

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Pursifull is a burly man who lays carpet for a living in Utah when he’s not leading his flock at the Wilderness Bible Baptist Church in Duchesne, a rural community about 100 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Pursifull said he was afraid when Carlisle came at him in her wheelchair Tuesday night before the Easter pageant.

Carlisle could not be reached for comment.

“She definitely was an aggressor. She came out and was yelling at me the whole time, and she was not just giving me a love tap. It was an attack with a weapon, literally with a weapon,” Pursifull said Friday as his colleagues preached. “The woman could’ve killed somebody with her wheelchair.”

But injuries weren’t Pursifull’s greatest concern.

He said that documenting what he calls the Mesa Police Department’s unwillingness to correct the situation and keep the crowd under control will ensure a more peaceful exchange in the future.

“That happens time and time again throughout the United States – when the officers have done their jobs and uphold the law, it takes the riotness out of the crowd,” said Pursifull, who travels the country preaching.

“To be honest, I’m more concerned about the police officers not doing their job because the injuries can get a lot worse the more incompetent the officers get,” added.

Mesa police Detective Johnny Lopez, a department spokesman, said the police don’t take religion into consideration when investigating a crime.

“We pride ourselves in protecting all citizens, it doesn’t matter race, color, creed,” he said.

James White has passed out leaflets outside the pageant for most of the past 25 years, and Rich Pierce has joined him for nearly as long.

In the hundreds of nights the two men have had conversations with LDS worshipers outside the pageant, White and Pierce said the interaction was tame until Pursifull’s street preachers showed up a few years ago.

“It’s changed primarily from a situation where you can have lengthy dialogue and discussion that are religious in nature,” said White, director of Alpha and Omega ministries in Phoenix. “Ever since these people showed up, it’s become much more adversarial.”

Pursifull claims that White leads a flock of sinners that he thinks rivals those in the LDS church, largely because they don’t believe the King James version of the Bible is the only trustworthy translation.

Pierce agrees with Pursifull that Mormon teachings lead people astray but said he and White simply want to have a discussion with LDS followers about Scripture.

Regardless, Pursifull’s presence has driven White and Pierce away from the temple for the foreseeable future, much as it did in Salt Lake City where the two groups clashed in an attempt to witness to Mormons in past years.

“These guys approach it by making up signs that I think are antagonistic and standing there, yelling at the top of their lungs things that are designed to offend,” said Pierce, president of Alpha and Omega ministries.

“My impression is, if you don’t think like them, you’re to be despised.”

That’s the impression Adam Hammond gets from all the preachers and protesters who gather outside the LDS temple’s Easter pageant each year.

The 31-year-old Mesa resident, like many Mormons, has heard all the criticisms before and doesn’t see the groups as anything more than an annual nuisance.

“They’re here every year,” Hammond said as he saved seats Friday afternoon for the pageant.

“It’s like they have nothing better to do than complain about somebody else’s religion. But, at the very least, it creates a slight animosity toward the people that are protesting.”

But Tuesday night, it did more than that, resulting in Carlisle’s citation.

Paul Eppinger, executive director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, said that with so many cultures and religions coming together in America, such encounters – on a street corner, outside a house of worship – will only lead to more confrontations.

“It seems to me that standing outside of a person’s church or worship center, be that the Mormon temple or a synagogue or a mosque, and use that location to condemn people because of the way they believe, because of the way they approach God, I think is totally, totally inappropriate in our society,” Eppinger, a former Baptist minister, said.

“Christians, whoever they are, need to follow the teachings of Jesus, and when Jesus was asked, ‘What’s the most important commandment?’ he replied the first was ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart’ and second was ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 9, 2007.
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