On March 22, the LDS prophet and his counselors were among the dignitaries cutting the ribbon for the controversial new City Creek Mall in Salt Lake City, leading an enthusiastic crowd in a chant of “Let’s go shopping!”
Since then, I have read and heard a great deal of mall-related murmuring in some Mormon quarters. But there was so much disagreement about even the basic facts of this new mall (how much it cost, what funds the Church used to pay for it, etc.) that I didn’t want to raise any concerns until I had done some research.
Last week I had the chance to see the mall for myself. I was in Utah for a conference, so I made a point of stopping by when I had my requisite lunch at the Lion House Pantry in the neighborhood (Best. Rolls. EVER.)
In the mall I saw Michael Kors, Porsche Design, Coach, Sephora, Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom, and a host of other luxury stores. The point of this mall is to be blingy, not quotidian; its upscale ambience is repeatedly mentioned in promo literature as a source of pride. Its retractable roof is the envy of other outdoor malls. Its fountains are beautiful, its skybridge convenient. The mall is a class act in every way.
Religion & Ethics Newsweekly put the cost for the new mall at $1.5 billion. Because the funds came from the Church’s development arm, which oversees its international investments, members’ tithing money was not used to pay for it, and the Church can expect to recoup at least some of its costs over the years through the sale of condos and the posh rents for more than 900,000 feet of retail space. Moreover, such profits are tax-exempt.
There’s been grumbling that the Church has invested too much money in a dying retail breed—the shopping mall. I don’t know enough about the future of retail stores to comment on that. (Well, I know something about bookstores, and thirteen years in the book industry have taught me that bookstores are in deep caca.) I also don’t know enough facts about the anecdotal rumors I hear that the Church is currently cutting back on its assistance to some Welfare recipients. That may not be true at all, and even if it is true there may be very good reasons for it. I have no way of knowing. It is certainly true that the LDS Church has done some good things for poor people in Salt Lake City. And I’m trying to be positive about what the Church has emphasized about the importance of revitalizing SLC’s downtown.
However, it all concerns me greatly. Maybe I am so bothered because a friend of mine just returned from a short-term mission in Haiti and told me that just a few hundred dollars can provide a stable cinderblock house for a Haitian family; hundreds of thousands of Haitians remain homeless two years after their devastating earthquake. Maybe I am so bothered because the week before the mall opened, one of Utah’s news stories was a federal judge’s decision to overturn the state’s law prohibiting begging on the streets. The fact that Utah tried to prevent its homeless from panhandling in public, rather than doing more to solve the underlying problems of homelessness and poverty, is depressing. The day I visited, a homeless woman sat across from the mall by Temple Square, dejectedly holding a sign that announced she was eight months pregnant and had no money or food.
But I think the most powerful reason this has hit me so hard is that right now I am tweeting the Book of Amos in the Twible.
More than any other single biblical book, Amos is obsessed with the problems of injustice and poverty. The prophet rails mightily against those who don’t help the poor (2:6-7; 8:4-8), who focus on their pious religious meetings and buildings instead of the poor (5:21-24), and who enjoy prosperity but treat the weak as less than nothing (8:4-6).
I feel a strange admixture of passion and guilt when I read Amos’s rants. I agree with him about so much but then have to look hard at my own comfortable life and confess to God my complicity with injustice. I feel burdened, weighed down with the discrepancy between what I say I believe and the fact that I am building a 401(k) nest egg.
Amos has that effect on people. His very name in Hebrew means “burden” and is related to the verb for “to load.”
So this is where we are: The LDS Church has spent approximately $1.5 billion on the nation’s largest retail project of recent memory. Interestingly, the $1.5 billion figure is just over the $1.3 billion figure that the LDS Church has spent in humanitarian aid since the international Humanitarian Fund began in 1985. And by coincidence, 1.3 billion is also the figure released this month about the number of people around the world who qualify as living in “extreme poverty”—a statistic that has improved sharply over the last decade, but that is still around a sixth of the world’s population.
Given those facts, spending a billion and a half dollars on a den of luxury consumption is a moral failure. It just is. A more modest, scaled-down plan to revitalize Salt Lake’s once-thriving downtown would have been enough. The rest is vanity, calculated to impress. It is palpably ironic that the mall contains a luxury store called True Religion jeans (opening Summer 2012). Whatever else it may be, this mall is not true religion.
Amos prayed, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” (5:24). Somehow I don’t think he was referring to the Bellagio-like fountains that grace the City Creek Mall, which I sat watching, mesmerized.
The image of a shopper is used by permission of Shutterstock.com.