They lined the protest zone as LDS Church members poured in and out of their semiannual General Conference. They stood outside the gates of Temple Square, on the sidewalks and near the designated “free speech” areas.
Their message to passing Mormons: “Good morning.”
About 80 evangelical Christians from the group Standing Together took up posts at this weekend’s LDS Conference in Salt Lake City, offering a different, more gentle approach to proselytizing than the sign-wielding, scorn-spouting street preachers who chastised Latter-day Saints for their beliefs and proclaimed that they would be cast into hell.
Members of Standing Together said they wanted Mormons to understand not all Christians are like the street preachers. “That’s the idea,” said Andy Wiebe, a seven-year Salt Lake City resident and evangelical Christian, “calm things down here and have a light presence.”
Five feet away, street preacher Dean Moore, of North Carolina, held a sign depicting the Mormon’s Angel Moroni and other church luminaries burning. He told passers-by, “Read the Bible, it’ll scare the hell out of you.”
A white undergarment used in sacred LDS Temple ceremonies hung from his sign.
Wiebe said the assailing approach is not the way to reach people. “If you blast a bright light in someone’s face, they’ll look away. What we need to do as Christians is light candles.”
LDS Church members seemed to like the effort by Standing Together. “Thank you,” 19-year-old Holly Clark, a Mormon, told a group member during a midday conference break. “I really appreciate what you’re doing.”
The group’s president, the Rev. Greg Johnson, says they may be back for future conferences, hoping to assure Mormons that evangelical Christians are kind and loving. The effort may be “small and innocent,” but people responded warmly, Johnson says. As he spoke, he was interrupted more than a dozen times in a few minutes by LDS Church members saying thanks.
Church spokesman Dale Bills said, “Many conference visitors have expressed their appreciation toward these good people who gave up their weekend to do nothing more than express good will.”
Police said the weekend, even with scattered protests by street preachers, was relatively uneventful.
“It’s been a quiet and, for the most part, peaceful conference weekend,” Police Chief Rick Dinse said while standing in the median of North Temple street observing the large crowd. Dinse had 50 of his officers assigned to the event.
One skirmish broke out later Sunday. LDS Church member Sheila Hunter filed a police report alleging that Baptist preacher Lonnie Pursifull was sexually harassing her by calling her a “whore” in front of a crowd. Pursifull denied the accusation, but acknowledged he did say something about the LDS Church “whoring after another God.”
Hunter says a church security guard asked if she was OK and offered to testify in court about the incident. Another man, Mike, who wouldn’t give his last name, was almost cited for assault for pushing a preacher. Mike denied the preacher’s claim and the preachers declined to press charges.
Last year, two conference visitors attacked Pursifull for desecrating a Temple garment. But most attendees on Sunday ignored Pursifull’s wooden cross from which he hung another garment. There were no reported incidents of violence nor any tickets issued, according to police.
But observers had plenty to watch Sunday by standing outside the conference. One LDS member brought his bagpipe and played almost constantly for two hours. Another man, Luis Huitron, held a sign that said. “I love America. Do you want to marry me?” His girlfriend, America Monta-o, accepted.
Protest zones limited confrontations between preachers and passers-by, but Pursifull said it also limited his group’s ability to speak with LDS Church members. He vowed that it would be part of a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals lawsuit the group filed against the city for implementing the protest zones. The court denied Pursifull’s group a restraining order against the protest zones.
“Our constitutional rights were totally shut down,” Pursifull said.
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