The “Mormon” Connection


In the desert there’s a bridge that spans centuries, and a group of young men and women who know that love links now with forever.

It was a passing down if ever there was one—third and long and late in a catch-up game. The defensive line grinned big ugly grins and licked their lips. Sack lunch time! Today’s special: quarterback.

Quarterback Jeff Brimhall took the snap and then a quick five-step drop. Reading blitz, he fired a short, tight spiral over the center of the line just as a linebacker fell out of the sky and smashed him to the turf. On the way down, Jeff caught a blurry glimpse of the ball spinning incomplete through the clutching fingertips of receiver Shaun Gifford.

Climbing to his feet, Jeff expected to meet the punting unit. Instead he saw the referee signaling a first down. He heard the home town crowd cheering. He saw John Martin holding the football high in triumph. John, who had been running along behind Shaun on the 80 slant left play, had gathered in the deflected pass and turned upfield for a big gainer.

In the bleachers, some unknown fan jumped to her feet and shouted out the words that were to become a war cry at Lake Havasu City High School football games. “Mormon connection!”

Mormon connection? Somehow the fan knew that Jeff, Shaun, and John were all members of a strange organization called the “Mormon church.” Somehow, in fact, just about everybody in high school knew it. Somehow just about everybody knew they didn’t believe in drinking or cussing or using drugs. Somehow just about everybody knew they had high moral standards. Odd guys in a way. But friendly and fun, and boy could they play football!

Just about everybody also knew that there were others of these “Mormons” in the school, a tiny to smallish group of kids who all believed in the same standards and belonged to the same church. Not a bad life-style really, but so demanding. How did they do it? Were they androids or what?

Of course there were some things that just about everybody did not know. Many did not know the real name of the “Mormon church.” Others had heard it, but after all it was eleven syllables long, compared to just two for “Mormon.” There wasn’t much doubt about which name they would use in a football cheer.

Most did not know that the hands that made the big play also broke the bread of life each Sunday, or helped to confer the Priesthood of Aaron, or had lowered friends into the waters of baptism. They liked what they saw on the gridiron, but what they saw was only the smallest part of the real “Mormon connection.” They had no way of knowing that the gospel in its fullness is that which connects heaven and earth, now and forever.

They could not be expected to know that the real, bottom-line basic ingredient of the “Mormon connection” is love—love of the Lord, of the Church, and of one another.

You can see it in a basketball shoot-around the priests are having. A less-active young man has come out to join them. As they pass the ball around, it somehow gets passed to him twice as often as to anyone else.

You can hear it in their words about the Church.

“I love the Church,” Mike Hansen, 14, says. “I’ve read some of the Book of Mormon—not all of it yet—but the parts I’ve read are true. It’s all just too good not to be true.”

Jennifer Byron, 15, says, “I’m a different person since I joined the Church. I never cared about anybody but myself. I never trusted anybody. I feel something in the Church I don’t feel in other places—the love, the caring. It’s like I have something I can cling to.”

There is also great love for family and friends. Shaun Gifford, 18, says, “Without the Church my family wouldn’t be as close. I couldn’t stand the thought of our not being together in the next life. That’s a real motivation to keep the commandments.”

Jennifer Byron adds, “We care about each other. We rely on each other. When one of us is down, the others help us back up. Sometimes we all sit around and cry together for one of us. We’re like brothers and sisters. We even fight like brothers and sisters.”

It’s a good thing they like each other, because there are no other Latter-day Saints for miles and miles. Lake Havasu City lies in the Mojave Desert, on a long rocky slope that runs down to the Colorado River valley. The Colorado has been dammed downstream to form Lake Havasu, which laps against the city—a vein of lapis lazuli in gray stone. The air is crisp and clear here, and winters are mild. But the summer sun blasts the streets like a consuming fire.

Instead of trying to conquer the desert, Lake Havasu City embraces it. Most yards are not landscaped with lawns but with carefully raked gravels and volcanic rock. For shrubs, the Havasuans have invited into town the lean, hard nomads of the Mojave—the etherial smoke tree, the stern cactus in its myriad clans and tribes, the green-trunked paloverde, solemn yuccas, tall century plants, and everywhere the sere, cruel, beautiful ocotillo.

Set against this desert backdrop, the dazzling blue of Lake Havasu is both startling and refreshing. The only thing more out of place here would be London Bridge. And speaking of London Bridge, there it is, linking the city with a man-made island which used to be a promontory. How did a nursery rhyme bridge get into the Arizona desert? A rich man bought it from the city of London and moved it here. He even dug a channel under it so it would have something to span. It has become a magnet for tourists who fish and water ski and sun and sail on the lake and shop in the pretend English village below the bridge.

The young people take full advantage of their unique location. Youth outings have included fishing, swimming, waterskiing, river rafting, off-road buggying, target shooting, desert camping, you name it. And many times, around a campfire, the conversation has turned from cars and guns and world-record striped bass to the deeper, quieter things of the Spirit. Night in the desert seems to be made for thinking deep thoughts.

On the other hand, life in Lake Havasu has some drawbacks too. Mike Hansen says, “Living here gets boring sometimes. I wish there were more things to do. You can go down under the bridge. You can fish, you can play golf, you can bowl. That’s about it.”

Another problem is that Latter-day Saints are a small minority. This is a novel state of affairs for many of the youth who grew up in areas of high LDS population.

Shannon Franks, 17, says, “In Utah there was an LDS boy or girl sitting next to me or behind me or in front of me who would understand something that happened in church, but here I have to wait till I pass a member in the hall or have a class with one. I’m closer here to other Latter-day Saints, though, because there are only a few of us, and we have to stick together.”

Like London Bridge, all the young Latter-day Saints in Lake Havasu are transplants. None of them was born here. And all came with some apprehension. All found some things to love and some to regret. Most came from places greener and more inviting. Sometimes they think fondly of that green leafy past, but the stark beauty of the desert has slowly revealed itself to them. This too has become home.

The parallels between Lake Havasu and the earth in general have not escaped them. They know that their spirits too came from somewhere else—somewhere they cannot even remember, except perhaps as a bright flicker of hope, a wordless yearning. They came to a harder and harsher place, but a place with a beauty of its own—a place with great possibilities, a place that has become home. But they have one great advantage. They know where they came from and what they are doing here.

They all agree that one of the most important things they are doing here is to share the gospel. They have baptized a number of friends over the years. Six of the current group are converts. Several people are investigating the Church right now. This might lead you to believe that Lake Havasuans are aggressive, go-get-em type proselyters, but most of them take a quieter approach.

Shaun Gifford says, “We really don’t push our religion. We usually let other people ask first. They know who practically all the Church members are at the high school, so if we’re just sitting around not doing anything, they’ll ask us what we believe in, how come we don’t do this or why we do that. We have a reputation. They recognize that we have certain standards.”

Janna Jewett, 18, says, “I think one of the best missionary tools that the young women have is girls’ camp. Just about every year at girls’ camp another girl is converted. It’s fun because we don’t have the other distractions. There are campfire discussions, tent testimonies, and a lot of good, comfortable talk.”

Denna McBrayei, 12, says, “Thursday I’ll talk to my friends about what we did at Mutual the night before, or Monday I’ll talk about what we did on Sunday, and they’ll say, ‘What’s Mutual?’ or ‘What are Beehives?’ and I’ll go into the whole thing.”

The LDS students here have an important head start in missionary work. Many of the sports stars in the school, the first-string, all-state heroes of the halls are LDS, and in the pecking order of many U.S. high schools, that means a lot.

Then there are the BYU T-shirts. Every now and then, especially on the day of a big football game, the LDS youth wear them. They aren’t even all BYU fans. The shirts are just conversation starters. Another technique is to wear CTR rings from Primary days. That’s almost always good for a question or two.

But there is something that means more than either T-shirts or athletic stardom. Sean Staddler, 13, the deacons quorum president, says, “If you’re LDS, people are watching you. Whatever they see you do, they think, ‘Well, that’s what Mormons do,’ so you have to set a good example.”

Pam Lawson reports, “People ask me, ‘How do you do it? Your standards are so neat, but they’re too hard. I’d never be able to do it.’ And yet when they come out and see there are more kids than just you who are that way, they have a more positive attitude about trying.”

The LDS kids certainly aren’t the only ones at the high school or junior high who have high standards, but as at most schools, those who do are few enough to stand out. Those standards elicit questions, and the answers to those questions are a form of teaching the gospel.

Thus, the gospel has been taught in band practice and in a math class. It has been taught while painting pictures. It has been taught while dissecting a cat in biology. It has been taught while sewing dresses in home economics. It has been taught while lifting weights. It has been taught on the football field, the baseball diamond, the wrestling mat. It has been taught in front of lockers, at dances, and in the lunchroom. It has been taught all over school. And all over town too—the beach, the golf course, fast-food places, bowling alleys, and skating rinks. In fact, the gospel has been taught just about everywhere a good Latter-day Saint would want to go—including London Bridge.

And of course it’s taught in church too. The LDS youth often invite friends to join them, and there is almost never a ward activity of any kind without nonmembers present. Young Men president and priests quorum adviser Dennis Levi says, “When I’m teaching the priests quorum I never know when I’m going to have a nonmember there, because quite often they’ll just bring someone along.”

High above the lake, up where the city gives way to rugged desert foothills, is the home of Brother Hurt. It’s late spring, and the grape arbor which hangs over his front porch is heavy with fruit. Out back he has a garden he’s very proud of. But the careful desert landscaping of his front yard has given way to a riot of uninvited bushes and weeds. His cancer simply hasn’t left him the strength to swing a mattock or a shovel as hard or often as he needs to in order to keep the area clear.

It’s late. The sun is burning into the mountains on the far side of the lake, turning the cliffs, rank on rank, to purple and blue cutouts. There is dust in the air. It glows with the sunset. The dust is from the blades of mattocks and hoes and shovels. The priests quorum is working hard, grubbing out the weeds and brush.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The rhythm is swift and even. The priests don’t stop to talk or laugh or play. Brother Hurt stands among them, pointing out with a crutch what he wants grubbed and what he wants left. Out go the cheese weed and spurge, the skeleton weed and quail brush, the bullheads and scorpion plants. Out go all their henchmen of the plant underworld.

The sun goes down and no one stops working. No one takes a break. No one complains. They just keep on grubbing until it’s too dark to go on.

The priests shake hands with Brother Hurt. They promise him they’ll be back to finish the job. They’re smiling, both because it feels good to help out, and because Brother Levi has promised he’ll treat them to frozen yogurt.

Brother Hurt smiles too. He was a strong man in his day, and he’s still strong inside, unbowed and unembittered by the illness which gnaws at his vitals. His once viselike grip is growing weak, but he knows that the strong young hands of his brothers are his without even the asking.

Now it’s a few days after the grubbing—Saturday morning to be exact—and the Young Women of the ward are under London Bridge. They could be in the middle of an old English village, except that every gabled house is full of tourists buying trinkets. It’s the kind of place where there are no shops but plenty of shoppes. In the cool shadows of the water under an arch of the bridge, panhandler carp rise for handouts. Along the river quay there are paddleboats and canoes and aqua jets and motorboats for rent. For a half dollar a man will stamp a likeness of London Bridge on your penny. Art and clothing and curios are for sale. You can get snow cones and hamburgers and hot dogs and pretzels and nachos and pizzas, and just about anything else your heartburn desires. Houseboats and speedboats nose up to the docks. Swallows dart in and out under the bridge. The bridge itself is beautiful, arching away across the channel in great gray sweeps, solid as merry old England. It refuses to look out of place anywhere, even here where its out of placeness is beyond doubt.

But the girls have not come to sightsee. They’ve come to help a friend wash a bus. And this isn’t just any old bus. It’s an authentic London doubledecker, living out its latest incarnation as a fast-food stand. It belongs to a member of the Church, and washing it can be quite a chore for one person. So the girls have decided to help, especially since they plan on having some fun afterward. They do the work, and they do it well. They get each other wet, and they do that well too.

Meanwhile, the deacons and teachers are down the quay digging out grass from between cracks in the cement. It’s their way of helping to beautify their city’s most famous landmark.

When both jobs are finished, the whole group, joined by the priests, tries out the pedal boats. In and out under the bridge from sunshine to shadow to sunshine again they go, their orange life jackets shining in the spray of their pedaling like some frozen citrus treat.

But this is all just an appetizer for the beach party in the afternoon. They meet at State Beach on the island. There, amid palm trees, they play frisbee and volleyball and football and toss-the-leader-in-the-water. Jeff and Shaun and John even team up to recreate the original “Mormon connection” pass. Once again, the football slips through Shaun’s fingers. But just as before, there is a friend handy to back him up. John takes the pass and turns upfield.

He jukes a palm tree, sidesteps a picnic table, and outruns a garbage can. Sand spraying behind him, he sprints, free and strong, toward an unseen goal line.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark

[photos] Lake Havasu City is a self-contradictory place—an arid desert stitched to a cool blue lake by a fairy-tale bridge. For fun, the youth can turn either to the water or the wilderness, and both are beautiful. The lake offers swimming and fishing, paddleboats and bumper boats, waterskiing and sailing. The desert provides hiking and camping, shooting and hunting, golf and off-road adventures. At dusk, the rugged mountains across the lake become colored silhouettes.

[photos] The LDS youth of Lake Havasu share the gospel every day, not through preaching, but through friendship and example. Many of the young men are athletic stars, and that doesn’t hurt; but more important are the standards they maintain. The gospel is shared in the weight room, on the baseball diamond, in home ec., in the library, and hallway. Every now and then the LDS kids wear their BYU T-shirts to school just to prompt a few questions.

[photos] Service is a long-standing tradition among the Latter-day Saints of Lake Havasu, and service can take unusual forms in this unusual place—anything from bathing a British bus to degrassing the quay under London Bridge. Landscaping here is done more with gravel than with grass, so in grooming the chapel grounds or working on the yards of members, a rake often proves more useful than clippers or lawn mowers. And speaking of clippers, they must be wielded with care, because shrubs are usually of the tough and thorny variety that can fight back!