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The LDS Church, the Prophet Amos, and the City Creek Mall

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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.

Topics: Ethics, Money & Giving
Beliefs: Mormon
Tags: amos 5, amos 8, christian ethics, city creek mall, flunking sainthood, jana riess, lds, lds church business, lds humanitarian aid, lds welfare fund, let justice roll down like waters, the prophet amos

Comments

  1. Amos more than Micah, do you think?

  2. Really interesting post, Jana. I hadn’t realized the LDS church was building malls. Is this the first such project?

  3. I just read yesterday that the LDS church does pay taxes on any income-producing properties it owns, including City Creek.

  4. Interesting, and common for scholarly types, miss on the distinction between spending and investing.  In short, one causes a net reduction of funds available for other uses and the other causes a net increase of them.

  5. “$1.5 billion figure is just over the $1.3 billion figure that the LDS Church has spent in humanitarian aid”

    Or in absolute terms, it’s $200,000,000 more.

  6. Interesting that the point isn’t about a distinction between spending or investing at all, but a distinction between the “what” of the investment.

  7. Yeah.

    You miss the mark entirely on this one, Jana.

    I could go into how you’ve missed it — but my friend Nate Oman said it more succinctly than I could:

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/04/city-creek-and-the-choices-of-thrift/

  8. Comparing the $1.5 billion for the mall with the $1.3 billion humanitarian aid will be one of my favorite examples of apples and oranges. 

    It would be more than surprising if the commercial development company owned by the LDS Church wrote a check on their own funds for this development because companies of its size just don’t have that much cash.  It likely was financed by loans secured by the property, without recourse to the Church, and to be repaid from its earnings.  The Church does not borrow money for it’s ecclesiastical work but it has advised its members that prudent business loans, secured solely by the assets financed by them, are distinct from the personal debt it warns against.  There would be no reason for it not to follow its own counsel to the members.

    The humanitarian aid, on the other hand, came solely from funds on hand; none of it was financed.

    Again, thanks for the chuckle over the false comparison.

  9. It’s certainly true that the money spent on the City Creek project could, like that costly spikenard used to anoint the Savior, have been used instead for caring for the poor.  I think, though, that there are some important things to consider:

    First, as others have mentioned and as you stated in your piece, this represents a financial investment for the Church.  You say that you think the Church stands to only recoup some of its costs, but I think they’ll likely come out ahead in the long run.

    Second, you talk about the project’s stated purpose to assist in revitalizing downtown Salt Lake - but I think that’s a central issue here.  The Church obviously has a vested interest in the vitality of the downtown area.  But more than that, this project is part of the Church’s missionary and outreach efforts.  If Salt Lake is a desirable spot for vacationers and conventioneers, that means more people coming through the gates of Temple Square to clear up misconceptions about the Church and, perhaps, to even investigate membership in it.  We can certainly discuss the evils of American consumerism but, like it or not, shopping plays a big part in where convention planners decide to hold their conventions, and it plays a factor in where some decide to vacation.

    Third, consider the impact this project has had on the Utah economy during the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.  I’m not an economist, but I’d be willing to bet that the $1.5 billion that has been pumped into the Utah economy for this project is one of the major factors why the recession didn’t hit as hard in Utah as elsewhere, especially when you consider that the construction industry was among the most devastated in the wake of the housing collapse.

    Of course, Amos, as you say, rails against those that don’t help the poor and those that enjoy prosperity but treat the weak as less than nothing.  You’d be hard pressed, though, to apply those to the Church.  Show me where the church ignores the poor.  Show me where the Church treats the weak as less than nothing while basking in prosperity.

    I don’t think you can make the case that the project is a moral failure at an institutional level.  The City Creek project only becomes a moral failure on an individual level if individuals choose to revel in luxury consumption *without* working to help and bless the poor and the weak.  That’s a decision that’s up to each of us.

  10. Amen to what rtc2901 says, and many others here. I agree that this comparison is not proper. There is obviously more involved in what the Church is doing here than just basking in luxury.

    I would be MORE interested to see where the Church stands in comparison to other world-wide religions of its size in helping the poor and the needy. In my experience, there has been MUCH humanitarian aid. If you look at the amount of humanitarian aid done and given when divided by the number of members of the Church, I’m sure you’ll find that the LDS Church as a whole is doing a great deal more than other churches of its size.

    I would also advise you to watch the lives of the leaders of the Church and see what it is that they’re always doing—traveling throughout the world to cheer and to bless, not sit back and enjoy lemonade under the moveable roof of a high-end mall. I know of no other Church whose leaders are so constantly on the move and whose leaders are so constantly encouraging its members to address the needs of the poor and downtrodden. Observe the following:

    I went to the website lds.org and did a quick search on “poor and needy.” On their website I found 837 results on talks and articles encouraging members to help. I also found resources that help members learn how they can better help the poor and needy. Here’s my link to that: http://www.lds.org/search?lang=eng&query=poor+and+needy&sortBy=date

    Another interesting point is that the LDS Church, only a few years ago, turned their three fold mission into a four-fold mission: perfect the saints, proclaim the gospel, redeem the dead, and care for the poor and the needy.

    Here is a link to the LDS Church handbook of instructions on the section regarding welfare and how they seek to help people: http://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/welfare-principles-and-leadership?lang=eng#6.1.2

    I’d also like to mention that the LDS Chuch’s own “Book of Mormon” has scripture that says that they must impart of their substance to the poor, and condemns he who turns away from the beggar (look in Mosiah 4: 16-21: http://www.lds.org/scriptures/bofm/mosiah/4?lang=eng)

    Again, I must reiterate the fact that this mall was not built merely to impress, but is being used as a tool for further goals. The LDS Church has more in mind here than just looking fancy. I think it unfair to judge the building of a mall, with multiple purposes and greater ends, as a “moral failure.” This church obviously does not fall within Amos’s category of they who “turn aside the poor” when they are working so feverishly to help them. Very misconstrued judgment, I think.

    Luckily this Church also teaches forgiveness, and I’m sure no one really holds anything against you here, Jana. We just want to politely and respectfully disagree with your opinion. smile

  11. It seems as though people are always trying to find the negative or “pick apart” what the LDS church does. This new mall will keep downtown SLC a vibrant place with opportunities for missionary work, and may inevitably bring people across the street to temple square. These consumers may have otherwise never ventured over if they were not shopping at a first-class mall. I visited there last week and I have to say it is one of the nicest places to see and enjoy.

  12. Thanks Jana, this is beautifully written. I share your frustration and find it very disheartening to see the Church invest so much in a temple to excess and self indulgence. Whether or not it is a wise or prudent for the Church to investment it’s wealth is rather beside the point. It it appears that this Church which claims to be led by Christ has lost it’s way in the great and spacious buildings of the world. I pray that we can find our way back to the Christian principles that Amos taught so boldly.

  13. Ridiculous Blog;  Jana, until you’ve toured the LDS non-profit Humanitarian Center, the size of several Sam’s Club locations and seen what the Church is doing worldwide with regards to humanitarian aid; in the many, many millions of dollars—including the building of NON LDS Churches destroyed by Tsunamis and such you should keep your mouth and keyboard shut…

    You also don’t actually know the purpose behind The City Creek Center and which funds are being used for it- Not tithes. And you have NO business remarking on things that are “rumored”. What kind of TRUE journalist uses the word “rumored” and is taken seriously?-

    Z

  14. Follow up. I forgot to mention the 55,000 LDS missionaries in 140 countries serving mankind every day. Maggie….. talk about “frustration”...


    Z

  15. I think you have to be really careful about how these things are viewed.  If the $1.5 billion the church spent is ultimately an investment that turns into $2 billion for the church which it can then use to build concrete housing in Haiti and increase humanitarian aid all over the world then perhaps viewing this so negatively could be very harmful.

    I’m not saying there isn’t reason for concern, but I’d like to see more facts before this is written off as a “moral failure” and an organization is condemned for such action while it clearly does do a lot of good.

    Besides the some of the conclusions drawn in this article it was informative and well written, so thank you!

  16. Jana, I just think that you had a “guilt rush” and just pointed fingers at the Church. If you are so concerned you might need to sell everything, quit your job and go to Haiti and help them. I live in Florida and there is a sister in my Ward who went to Haiti right after the earthquake and she told us that the government “intercepts” all the help that are sent to this country and they will keep most and the “give” very little to the survivors. Whose fault??? No one has control over. The residents in Utah?? I work with the needy and most of them make a living of “putting all their efforts in getting help and not trying to get a job”. Like that pregnant girl who someone gave her $5.00 then she pulled a cell phone and a pack of cigarettes??? If that place that you mentioned creates jobs… I believe is better to employ those in need than to give… they need to be self-sufficient. I am counselor who works with DCF and many of the parents when they have to go and register at Workforce they would throw a fit. The most important part here is that in situations when we have to make a decision to help or not we need to since we are no one to judge and the best thing and the right moral thing to do is to help. Lets not point the fingers at the church because us members know that the church does help a lot more than we even know. I believe that this place that you mentioned could bring jobs and help with tourism and eventually bring money… which anyone and anyplace in the world could use nowadays. If you are looking for an excuse for apostasy you should do it on your own and not drag anyone who by this article (new members perhaps) might go less active.
    Believe me if this happens I don’t want to be in your shoes.

  17. wanditar, I just decided to apostatize because of you. I don’t want to be in a church with such a self-righteous Pharisee.  But don’t let me keep you, you must have a witch hunt to get ready for.

  18. Jana: You need to look at this in context.  The LDS Church owns several of the 10 acre blocks in downtown Salt Lake City.  Those blocks include (a) Temple Square, with the Temple, Tabernacle, Assembly Hall, and two visitor centers; (b) Church Office Building block, with the office tower, Administration Building, Relief Society Building, historic Beehive House where Brigham Young lived, the Lion House with its restaurant, and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building with church offices, restaurants, reception rooms available for wedding receptions, the Legacy Theater which caters to tourists, a branch Family History LIbrary with computer terminals, a Distribution Center which sells Church lesson manuals and supplies, and a complete LDS Ward meetinghouse which serves people living downtown; (c) the 22,000 seat Conference Center, including a medium size theater for plays, replacing the old Promised Valley Playhouse; (d) the new Church History Library and Archives building; (e) the Family History Library and the Church History and Art Museum; (f) the block with the Salt Palance Convention Center, the Salt Lake Art Museum, and Symphony Hall, which was originally leased to the City for $1 a year in return for the opportunity to use the facilities occasionally for Church events (not sure the current status of this); (g) the buildings used by the BYU Salt Lake Campus and LDS Businiess College; and finally (h) the two blocks between South Temple and First South and West Temple and State Street, where the new City Creek Center is located, with office buildings, apartment and condo towers, hotels, and retail stores and restaurants.  The two blocks in (h) have been retail malls and other stores for as long as I can remember (and I am 62).  On Main Street, the original century old cast iron facade of the Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, the first department store in America, originally conceived as a coop to help keep capital in the state, has been preserved through all these changes and affixed in its original location. 

    Let me repeat:  These two blocks have ALWAYS been primarily hotels, offices, and retail stores.  City Creek Center is an update and an upgrade of that use, but it is the SAME land use that has been there for over a century.  They are just one part of the overall land use of of the land owned by the LDS Church downtown, and contribute to making it a balanced, livable community center.  Anyplace with a Chik-Fil-A and a McDonalds is NOT that exclusive.  It provides needed services to people working and living downtown, including those who work for the Church and serve as volunteer missionaries in the many Church venues.  What is more, it will provide continuing employment for hundreds of people, preferable to giving them handouts.

    City Creek Center does NOT replace the Deseret Industries stores which dot Utah, which sell second hand clothing and other goods, as well as some new items, and employ people who have lacked important job skills.  In fact, more and larger DI stores are constantly being built.  There is also Welfare Square, which stores Church produced food for distribution around the Church to those in need.  City Creek Center is not an EXPENDITURE of Church assets, but an INVESTMENT which will provide a return even as it secures the Church’s assets.  We hear a lot about SUSTAINABILITY in connection with businesses and land use, but the City Creek Center is a means of sustaining the financial capacity of the church to be solvent and provide aid over the long term.  While there are lots of acute needs in Haiti, there are also acute needs in Chile and Japan.  And there will be even MORE acute needs in the future.  By husbanding its assets intelligently, the church is maintaining and even growing its capacity to respond to all the unforeseen acute needs that we will face in each coming year. 

    You will note that, beyond immediate survival, the church prefers to give aid that will help people sustain their own economies.  So in Japan, it has contributed trucks and equipment so fishing villages can resume fishing and paying their own way.  The church has a duty not just to people in need today, but also to others who will be facing acute needs in each year and decade.  Even if its capacities are much greater than they used to be, they are also limited.  The church cannot solve the problems of the world by itself.  And liquidating all its assets to address one problem would simply mean it would have to sit by idly unable to solve another problem next year. 

    The Mormons who end up working at City Creek will be able to contribute tithing and Fast Offerings and their own labor to sustain the Church and those in financial need.

  19. Hello, where to socialize with the standings euro 2012?

  20. “It’s certainly true that the money spent on the City Creek project could, like that costly spikenard used to anoint the Savior, have been used instead for caring for the poor.”

    Because a city mall is the same thing as anointing Christ before sacrificing Him for the sins of the world, your sins, dear commenters.

    Jana, this is a wonderful article.  Thank you.


    “Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

    These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.”
    ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

  21. Looks like the newsroom removed the 1.3 billion statistic from their site.

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