For the most part Salt Lake City behaves like any city around the world. It’s true that it is surrounded by the beautiful mountains and has a high percentage of chapels, but business is still business and play is still play like any other city.
Until General Conference.
Twice every year the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hosts a massive two-day conference in which its members can hear sermons from its leadership. The topics vary from salvation, to missionary work, to temptation and pornography. During this conference Salt Lake City sees a drastic change to normality that only locals can appreciate.
The first change begins on the Friday night before. Chapels and restaurants across the state are booked as thousands of returned missionaries attend various reunions. Grown men hug and smile as they meet up with old friends with whom they spent up to two years in various missions around the world, all eager to catch up and show off the one thing they couldn’t have on their missions- their girls.
Residents of Salt Lake City know that on the following Saturday the last place to be is downtown. Thousands of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flock downtown to Temple Square and its neighbor, the Conference Center. The entire two-block area takes on the appearance of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, only suits from Mr. Mac replacing the zombies. Traffic within three blocks of the area grinds to a near standstill and parking is about as realistic of an idea as finding a Coke among the crowd.
Crowding the sidewalks around Temple Square and the Conference Center is one of the most interesting pieces of the conference – the protestors. Police barricades keep back several different denominations as they scream curses to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the generations of Latter-day Saints that have come after.
The members of the church have been instructed by their leaders to not acknowledge these attacks, so it’s interesting to see crowds of people marching back and forth across the streets being called various vile names and slurs and not paying attention. Young adults from across the valley usually gather alongside the Temple to sing church hymns in an effort to drown out the protests. The entire scene is a tribute to the faith of the Latter-day Saints through ongoing persecution – and is incredibly entertaining to watch.
Restaurants over the weekend take on a different feel as well. On Saturday at 11 a.m. the restaurants are usually slow to minimally crowded, then at noon they are flooded with armies of white shirts and modest dresses. They stay busy until about 1:30 p.m., when as quickly as they fill, they suddenly empty as the church members rush to catch the next session. The same happens at around 4 p.m. as the next session gets out. That evening at around 6 p.m. the restaurants see an even more unusual pattern, as they are then flooded with women. The Priesthood session, a male only session of General Conference is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday night – so many Latter-day Saint women use it as a girl’s night out. Afterwards though, the restaurants flood once again, only this time with hungry men, fresh from Conference.
General Conference is a time of reflection and inspiration for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Speeches from the conference are taught, pondered and talked about for years to come. With the talks, stories of surviving Conference in Salt Lake City are passed right along with them.