When the Latter-day Saints come marching in


"Outside, if you look at the LDS church, it looks pretty wacky,” says Bryan Kasik, sitting in Java Java on the Downtown Mall. “This farm boy from New York has a vision of golden plates and then he writes this entire book.” A Mormon, Kasik is talking about the founder of his church, Joseph Smith, who went before Almighty God in prayer one night in 1823.

When this new chapel is completed in November, the area’s Mormon nexus will switch to Charlottesville.
More features from this issue:

A lot on his plates
How Joseph Smith founded the Mormon Church

All in the family
The old practice of polygamy still dogs the Mormons

White and black
The Mormon Church struggles to shake the stigma of racism

“While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor,” Smith wrote afterwards. It was an angel with the name of Moroni who four years later directed him to a hill in upstate New York, where Smith received a buried ancient text that resulted in the Book of Mormon.

One hundred eighty years later, Smith’s belief system has beget the 12-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and potentially the next president of the United States of America). More than 82,000 are in Virginia alone with a segment of those residing in our region. “There’s been some great growth in the last 20-some years,” Victor Morris says. In November of this year, a new church building off Airport Road will be completed and once the chapel is finished, it will shift the area’s Mormon nexus, or “stake,” to Charlottesville from Waynesboro, where it currently sits.  “I’ve seen the changes a little bit more dramatically,” says Morris, who is now the bishop of the local church’s First Ward. (A ward is the LDS’ term for a congregation of 500-600 members or less and each ward has a bishop. In Charlottesville, there are four that are all at capacity.) “We were just barely coming up on a ward when I left.”

In 1987, Morris, a then-teenage Latter-day Saint, left to attend Brigham Young University and eventually ended up on the West Coast, where he continued full-time in the church, teaching seminary to high school and college students.

A year and a half ago, Morris returned here to coordinate a similar effort in an area that includes not only Charlottesville, but Harrisonburg, Lexington and Lynchburg as well. “The Old Testament is what we’re working through now,” he says.

Jim and Tanya Skeen are surrounded by their children and the life goals they created for them.

Six months after returning, Morris was also tapped to serve as First Ward bishop. “It came really as a surprise,” he says. As a new arrival, many in the church were still foreign to him. “It’s been a learning curve to get to know them to where I feel like I can serve them well in this capacity.”

Per Smith, Mormons believe that each and every one receives divine revelation, but a bishop has authority over an entire ward. “That’s a lot to live up to, spiritually and even physically,” Morris admits.

Some of a bishop’s duties might include serving the temporal needs of those in the ward. “It’s very rewarding because you get to see what I feel is a very powerful manifestation of the true love of Christ,” he says. “You’re put in that capacity, and it’s been quite a blessing, but it’s intimidating to me. These are real people with real needs and those real needs come at times that are not always so coordinately planned.”

Four years ago, Gretchen Patterson woke up to find her husband still sitting in his den chair, dead from an apparent heart attack. “He was gone and I knew it,” she says. After calling the rescue squad, Patterson notified members of the church who rushed over. One of those was the Relief Society’s Compassionate Service Leader, a role Tanya Skeen filled for a number of years, one she describes as “compassionate service in different aspects.”

“They still take care of me,” says Patterson of her church ward, a smattering who are represented here. These Latter-day Saints are spread throughout the community in various vocations and lifestyles. Some of them even like Metallica—early Metallica that is.

Enter night

One Friday night around 10:30, Bryan Kasik and a friend are setting up in the Brick Oven to film the last few scenes of a new segment of “Belly Flavored Candy,” a local cable access show that airs at 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. “[Susan Steedman] lets me film there,” Kasik says of the restaurant’s co-owner, who is Mormon. “She invites me, and as long as they’re closed, she’s like, do whatever.”

A couple of employees flit about in back, getting ready to leave. Meanwhile, Kasik goes to look for a bowl to use in the upcoming scene. He will be playing an obnoxious customer, and his friend a waiter who stands nearby practicing his lines. “Did you spit in my soup? Yes, I mean, no,” he says, reciting both parts.

In 2000, the current LDS president instructed parents to caution their children against having their bodies tattooed. “A tattoo is graffiti on the temple of the body,” he wrote. Ren Kasik obviously disagrees. “I have issues with people who won’t give something a chance,” she says.

Action. Moments later, Kasik sits at a table with a black leather jacket and dark shades on, his long hair pushed over his shoulders. “Hey, you want a tip?” he asks the waiter, and then challenges him to armwrestle for it. “I’m pretty sure that’s against policy,” the waiter responds. “You mean you’re a chicken puss,” Kasik says. “What?” the waiter stammers. “Wussy-y-y-y!!” Kasik shouts as the waiter covers his ears and runs from the table in fright. Then Kasik nods his head, inflating his lips. “Wussy!” Cut.

A video clip from "Belly Flavored Candy."

“I’ve always been into “Monty Python” and weird off-the-wall horror movies,” says Kasik as a way of explaining the content of the show he writes and directs. “That’s where I’ve always gravitated towards and that’s where my sense of humor is. It’s not very Mormon, but enjoyable, I think.”

On the show, characters yell, shout, and throw stuff at each other in extravagant fashion in a seeming parody of the secular world. “It’s one of those things I started just as a joke; I had some spare time, and I was goofing around with my wife and friends,” he says, mostly regarding it as a hobby, “something fun to do on the side. My friends take it a lot more seriously and want to make a living with it. If something good happens with it, that would be great.”

Every Saturday, Gretchen Patterson drives up to the Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C., where she helps baptize and marry the dead.

Kasik is a member of the First Ward, as is his wife, Ren, whom he met in the late 1990s when the two worked at a movie theater in Northern Virginia. At that point, Ren had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend when two LDS missionaries randomly rapped on her apartment door. After giving her their “spiel,” they left the 19-year-old with a Book of Mormon and a pamphlet that had a picture of Christ on it. She gathered up the material and went into her room where she sat the book down on the bed, and “for no apparent reason,” stood the pamphlet on end behind it, so that the cartoon Jesus was looking out over the book. Ren stood there for a second looking at it. “[T]hen I burst into tears,” she writes in a 12-part account of her conversion she has posted on MySpace.

“For over an hour, I bawled like a baby, like every pain I’d ever experienced in my life was suddenly trying to fight its way out at once.” Shortly thereafter, Ren began to meet regularly with Mormon missionaries and one night decided to test out their teaching. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, she asked God if she should join the church. “The thought no sooner escaped my mind than I was hit by a physical sensation that I can only describe as heat,” she writes. “It washed through me, complete, intense and undeniable, from my head to my toes. I nearly choked on my breath. My eyes started to water. I was stupefied, even mortified. It filtered away, and I lay there, stunned. Was this the Holy Ghost?”

So she asked for confirmation and it hit her again. “In a split second, my world had turned completely upside down,” she writes. Three years later, the same thing happened to Bryan. He was a freshman English major at UVA and was having a tough time of it. Ren had joined the Marines and he was very lonely. “I was kind of like, ‘What’s the point?’” he says. “Everything felt useless.”

Despondent, with his Mormon girlfriend hundreds of miles away, he decided to go before God. Then he had what he describes as a mystical experience. “It was kind of like the sensation you get when watching a really emotional movie or listening to a particular piece of music and you get chills all through your body and the endorphins are flowing,” he says. “It was like that but a lot stronger.”

My posse’s gettin’ big

Unlike the converted Kasiks, Tanya and Jim Skeen were born into the church and met at BYU. After they were married, the two made a remarkable discovery. Amazingly, they both had direct ancestors who had literally lived across the street from each other in Nauvoo, Illinois, in the 1850s. In April 1839, Joseph Smith had surveyed a tiny town along the Mississippi called Commerce and declared, “It is a beautiful site, and it shall be called Nauvoo, which means in Hebrew a beautiful plantation.” By that point, Smith was only 12 years removed from his discovery of the golden plates. The Latter-day Saints had been driven out of New York, Ohio and Missouri, and they’d come into Illinois, seeking a place where they wouldn’t be persecuted. “It was really just a swamp and no one wanted to be there,” says Jim. “We have a map back there,” he says, pointing to an ancient old city plat on the Skeens’ living room wall behind a still-decorated Christmas tree.

“It became the largest city in Illinois, larger than Chicago,” he says. “It was really magnificent.” By 1844, Nauvoo was a Mormon metropolis, informed by the revelations Smith continued to receive. That year, he announced his candidacy for president of the United States of America. By that summer, though, the prophet was dead, martyred, and afterwards the Saints were essentially invited to leave. “It went from a population of 20,000 to 20 in one year.”

Until a few years ago, the Skeen family, all 10 of them, packed up and traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, every other summer for a re-enactment of the Mormons’ time there. The pageant began more than 30 years ago, and the Skeens regularly took part in all two weeks of it. “It was a tremendous experience and a lot of hard work,” Jim says. There was singing, acting and dancing. “You worked from 8am until 9 o’clock at night or until you got it right,” he says.

There are a couple pictures in their house depicting this. In both, Tanya is in a white and red striped lollipop dress. A bonnet is on her head. Jim is in frontier gear; he is supposed to be Parley P. Pratt, an early missionary. Unfortunately, the pageant was altered a couple of years ago because it brought so many people into Nauvoo—60,000 or 70,000 over a two-week period—that the church concluded it was too much of a burden on the town, so they changed the format. “We have not done the new pageant,” Tanya says.

Instead, they now campaign for another LDS presidential candidate. “Some time back I wasn’t so sure that Mitt Romney was the person that I would want for president,” admits Tanya, despite her familial connections. Her brother was Romney’s roommate in France when the two were missionaries. “I wasn’t sure we shared the same values.” Then she met Mitt and learned more about him. “I believe he is just right on with pretty much all the issues that concern me,” she says. She needed to make sure the candidate had truly changed his positions on issues like, say, abortion. “I know he’s a very honest person; if he says he’s changed his positions, he has.”

Two of her older brothers and a sister were just out in Iowa helping Mitt. “I wanted to but I’ve been sick so I couldn’t,” Tanya says (before the Michigan primary that Romney ultimately won for the GOP). “My brother is already in Michigan right now and another is going up tomorrow.”

“Our church will never tell anyone who to vote for, our church will never endorse anyone,” she proceeds. “Our church will encourage us and does encourage us to get involved, and to go vote.”

“You would never see Bishop Morris or any bishop say, ‘Go vote for Mitt Romney,’” adds husband Jim, a local tax and real estate attorney. “That just would not happen.”

On another wall, framed in their kitchen, is the Skeen Family Creed that contains 14 goals they created for their children that say things like, “We will develop our talents,” or “We will get married in the temple.”
“We believe in eternal families but we don’t think that it just happens accidentally,” says Jim. “Tanya and I were married in the temple in Provo, Utah, and by virtue of being married in the temple we believe that we are sealed together forever, not just in this life. We believe that as a consequence that our children that are born to us also belong to us forever.”

Death is a star   

Shortly after her husband’s untimely death, Gretchen Patterson’s bishop signed her up to work at the Mormon Temple that seems to hover above the beltway outside Washington, D.C. “This is the next step in your life, Gretchen,” he told her. First, she had to be found worthy, though, which required multiple interviews, one with the bishop, another with the stake presidency and finally with the temple president. By and by, she was given the O.K., and to be set apart for service, the stake president then laid his hands on her curly white-haired head, blessing her. At first, the Woodbrook Elementary librarian worked every other Saturday. Sometimes, she could carpool with another lady who came from the area. 

Then, one day, the president of the temple came to her and said she had been called to work every Saturday. As with the other posts in the church, Patterson is a volunteer, so initially she had second thoughts, but, like a good Mormon, went before the Lord. “I prayed really hard about it and I just thought, ‘If the temple president knows something that Heavenly Father wants me to do then how could I say no?’” she says. “And I truly have been blessed.”
So every Saturday, Patterson sets out in her 13-year-old car—her tithing car, she calls it—the one with hundreds of thousands of miles on it, for the Mormon Temple in Kensington, Maryland. “We do sacred ordinance work,” explains Patterson. “It’s not secret, it’s just sacred. Most of it we don’t talk about outside the temple.” Nevertheless, according to her, baptisms of the dead and other “saving ordinances” like marriages and live baptisms are conducted inside.

Since the prophet Joseph Smith did not receive his golden testament from the angel Moroni until 1827, Mormons believe that they can retroactively baptize the dead. So if you are a convert like Patterson and her husband were, you can go to temple—the closest one is in D.C.—and with either a death or birth date in hand, baptize the dead in your family. It is all done with stand-ins, mostly the male members of the priesthood between the ages of 12 and 18 (as in many Christian traditions, women occupy a somewhat subservient role. When Mormon males turn 12 they enter the priesthood whereas women join the relief society which was started by Joseph Smith’s first wife, Emma). They stand in an ornate baptismal font and as a name of the dead is read they are immersed in the water. Each kid can be dunked as many as five times in a row for five separate people, although Patterson’s daughter, who recently served a mission in Mexico, acted as proxy and was actually immersed 15 times consecutively. “She said, ‘I thought they were going to drown me, Mom,’” says Patterson, laughing. 

Patterson explains that Mormons can also do marriages by proxy. “It’s the same thing that was said when my husband and I were married at the temple, except it’s for and on behalf of these people,” she says. At the altar, a man and woman will kneel as they are married for the departed couple. “You just take their name for that one ordinance,” she says. “My husband and I did my grandparents when we were on our honeymoon in Oakland. We were in our wedding clothes still.” She will also wed her parents, Patterson says, but “my mother’s still alive so I can’t do it for her yet. And they were divorced but I will marry them in the temple anyway.” Never mind that they were both Catholic. “My father to his dying day thought I would come back to the fold,” she says, laughing again.

And I hope we passed the audition!

Listen to "Her Bloodstained Grin" by Caustic Bloodline:
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“Sometimes my wife worries about whether her stuff will be misinterpreted,” says Bryan Kasik, “that she’ll be kicked out of the church for being a metal singer.” By day, Ren works at Michael’s framing pictures, but at night, and in her dreams, she is the lead singer for a heavy metal band called Caustic Bloodline. “I scream, I don’t sing at all,” she says. Roaring is more like it. “Her Bloodstained Grin,” the featured song on her MySpace page, is delivered with a husky growl that conjures up all sorts of mind-addled mayhem. “From adolescence on we never fit in with our peers—we got made fun of all the time—and I guess extreme music was our sanctuary,” says Bryan. He has long hair and a goatee but his wife is the one with tattoos, an ornate one that covers one arm plus one on each wrist that alternately say SOLITUDE, the other RESTRAINT.

Bishop Victor Morris returned here a year and a half ago after 20 years away. “When I came back it was really shocking,” he says of the church’s growth.

“I have issues with people who won’t give something a chance,” says Ren. She and Bryan live in a house that is decorated with movie posters of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Seven. Right inside their doorway is a portrait of a beatific Jesus. “I’ve never had anybody say anything adverse about it,” she says of her side interest. “I did have one bishop who said I’m always concerned when I hear about people being in bands, but he didn’t say you shouldn’t try to do that. Most of the Mormons that I’ve met are open-minded enough that they will seek the good in a thing.”

“I wouldn’t wear a Motorhead t-shirt to church and my wife probably wouldn’t wear a Metallica shirt to church either,” Bryan says, although he says Ren did her first time to church. “I would wear a collared shirt out of respect on Sundays. As far as Monday through Saturday, I’m more concerned about how I’m living my life and the choices I make than what I wear.”

During the week, he is a reference librarian at UVA’s law school. He does “Belly Flavored Candy” in his spare time. “Some of the stuff I do is maybe a bit extreme, maybe a bit out there,” he says of the show. “I canceled a couple of ideas because I thought it was too gross. I censored myself because I didn’t want to be perceived a certain way.”

“I was kind of worried about it because some of the stuff is really offensive and silly,” he says, although he has not met anyone in the church who dislikes it. “The bishop and the mothers tend to go, ‘You’re very talented’ because they think it’s stupid. But every dad and kid is like, ‘When’s the next episode coming on?’”

Like all Mormons, Bryan wears the special white undergarments that symbolize Latter-day Saints’ covenant with God. He got his in a store in the D.C. temple where he and Ren were married. “We don’t believe we’re the one true church,” he says of the belief system he has committed his soul to for all eternity. “We just believe we have the most truth right now and we believe that there’s a lot of stuff we don’t know. We just hope our glass is a little less dark than other churches.”