Mormons around the globe re-enact pioneer trek
Re-enactments help converts feel part of Mormonism's founding narrative.
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On the first day of a long-awaited pioneer trek re-enactment in 2011, 44 eager Mormon teens from Milan, Italy, were pelted by snow and wind — and it was July.

To get ahead of the weather, the little band of believers left earlier than they had planned, but it still took a few hours to cover three-fourths of a mile, pulling their nine homemade handcarts. Going down was even more arduous.

If they walked through small towns, they dressed in bonnets and suspenders as early Mormons did just to entertain onlookers. But mostly they wore modern jackets, jeans and sneakers.

During the 10-day, 100-mile journey, it rained so often, the 21 boys and 23 girls ranging in age from 14 to 18 were chronically soaked and chilled, their cold, clammy clothes clinging to them even as they slept. After walking for up to six hours a day through mountain roads or winding paths across open fields, they developed blisters across the entire soles of their feet. At night, they camped in tents or slept in concrete bunkers. Some had to be carried by others in their handcarts; others, weakened by muscle pain or illness, had to take a turn in the support vehicles.

Everybody suffered, says Marco Dal Zotto, the LDS Young Men president in Milan, who oversaw the trek. But none turned back.

Indeed, the journey's strenuousness was part of its purpose, Dal Zotto says in a telephone interview from Italy. "In the end, our young people developed a lot of respect for early Mormon pioneers and for the things that they went through."

And that is why these Mormon pioneer trek re-enactments are popping up everywhere — not just in Utah and the Intermountain West but across the nation as well as in distant places such as Mongolia, Siberia and Japan.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now has more members outside the United States than in it, and many more millions who have joined in the past half-century than who have Mormon pioneer ancestry.

Brigham Young said the original pioneer trek across America was "for making Saints." That's what these re-enactments around the world do, too, says pre-eminent religion historian Jan Shipps. "It is meant to turn a convert into a Saint. … It makes them feel part of the faith's founding narrative."

A contemporary LDS trek is actually a "double metaphor," says Shipps, a Methodist who has studied the LDS Church extensively. "The original Mormons saw their own journey as replaying the biblical story of the children of Israel and their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness."

Mormon writer Katie Langston of Holladay disliked the emphasis on heroic pioneer episodes until she read about a couple of women who feuded so much they couldn't continue in the same wagon train.

"Pioneers FEUDED? They gossiped and complained? Perhaps this reveals too much about my psyche, but I suddenly liked them a whole lot more. I saw that they were human beings, just like me," Langston writes in an essay posted at dovesandserpents.org. "And if the pioneers are like me, perhaps I am like them."

The Mormon migration is, she writes, "a beautiful allegory for what a life of faith is all about … a symbol for the profound transformation that must occur within each of our hearts in order to live in a Zion way, or in a Kingdom community."

To Langston, it draws on qualities important to the LDS faithful, especially sacrifice and solidarity.

"Sacrifice, struggle, sorrow — this is, to a great extent, what a life of faith looks like," she writes. "And it wouldn't be Zion if we didn't stand together, in love and acceptance, but lived fractured, distant lives. Every member is needed in Zion. The mothers and fathers. The children. The childless. The stalwart. The struggling. … That's what led the Mormon pioneers to march across the plains, to gather by boat and land."

These qualities were on display as the Italian young people, accompanied by 32 adults, made their way to the Swiss LDS Temple near Bern.

"They enjoyed themselves in the beginning, even with the bad weather, but around the fourth or fifth day, they became discouraged," Dal Zotto says. "In the last four days, that's when the life-changing happened."

One young girl, for example, had pain in every footstep and wanted to drop out, but another girl encouraged her to stay and agreed to walk beside her, Dal Zotto says. They set small goals — to that rock, to that street, to that turn-off — and, after achieving one, set another and another. The girl's friend had a pain in her knee and was limping, but they made it into the camp together.

"It was so moving," Dal Zotto says, "to see this girl with painful feet and one who was limping helping and encouraging each other."

Typical teenagers are fairly narcissistic, but these came together, taking on each other's burdens. They became "physically, mentally and spiritually stronger," Dal Zotto says." They realized they could do more than they thought they could."

It wouldn't be an LDS pioneer story, of course, without a little divine intervention, and the Italians believe they had some.

A few weeks before the trek, 18-year-old Adriano Galloni hurt his shoulder badly and a doctor advised against going because the stress of pulling a handcart would exacerbate the injury. But Adriano begged to go, so the leaders agreed but said he could not pull or push a cart. Stubbornly, he insisted on doing both. When he returned home to Milan, the doctor found that pulling a cart was exactly what Adriano's shoulder needed. It was healed.

Until then, the young man had only been in the church a few years and wasn't sure about serving an LDS mission. When he pulled his cart onto the Swiss temple grounds, Dal Zotto says, "he felt the embrace of Jesus Christ — and that he should serve a mission."

Earlier this month, Adriano got his mission call to New York City.

That likely will be a pioneering trek as well.

pstack@sltrib.com, Facebook.com/peggy.fletcherstack, Twitter: @religiongal