My visit to a polygamous cult

Min Ju Kang, Editor-in-Chief

Colorado City, Arizona.

Immediately, you wonder: where in the world is that? It’s hidden within a natural wonder, the Zion Canyon, and is about the same distance away that San Francisco is from the Santa Clarita Valley. Upon first glance, civilization ceases to exist. Or so it seems.

Although we live in one of the most-developed nations in the world, it’s safe to say that poverty, hunger and homelessness unfortunately exist in our nation today. But over this past President’s Day weekend, I was exposed to something I never fathomed to be pract

iced in America: polygamy.

4,818 residents, all identifying under one of five last names.

Colorado City is home to the polygamous cult that follows notorious leader Warren Jeffs. After a long run hiding away from Utah and Texas law enforcement (and eventually making the FBI Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list) in 2006, Jeffs finally got arrested and was sentenced to 20 plus years in prison for child molestation. He has 87 wives; his youngest wife was just 12 years old.

Serving the people there was an remarkably eye-opening experience. My opportunity to simply radiate optimism and the joy of life through simple everyday actions like smiling and waving was definitely different from the community service I perform back at home. It was uplifting to witness our impact on the ex-cult members just by listening to their stories without any distractions from our smartphones, social media and other modern technology. We hosted a Korean BBQ event, played with their children, went hiking with the families and helped with their house cleaning and yard work. Though I was there to serve them, I like to think that the ex-cult members, also known as “apostates,” served me in a sense by reminding me of the incredible powers of raw storytelling, empathy and grit.

On one of the mornings, I was fortunate enough to be selected to help Mrs. Helen Barlow, a former cult member and trained nurse, in re-organizing the cult’s previous esteemed medical facility, also known as the Birthing Centre. Initially, I did not realize how much of an honor my task was, but Mrs. Helen revealed to me that the Birthing Centre is the second most-valued facility among the cult members. Because their inbred children are born without official documentation like Social Security numbers, the cult is extremely sensitive about the Birthing Centre, a sacred safe where all of their hand-written records are kept.

I was extremely surprised to learn that the part of the brain related to cult brainwashing is the same part of the brain that is correlated to drug and alcohol addiction. Helen called out to us for help because a group of teenage apostates had vandalized the facility, aiming to get their hands on any drugs they could find. Ultimately, they left the place an utter mess; I had never seen that many pills sprawled out on the floor.

Though the facility is no longer functioning due to orders of the notorious cult leader and current prisoner Jeffs, the Birthing Centre still contains its medical equipment, medication and records. While the three other girls and I spent the entire morning cleaning up the place, I was heartbroken to witness a perfectly-functional hospital not accessible to a community that was in dire need of medical attention. I can attest to the unfortunate truth that the inbred population is at higher risk of physical deformities and genetic disorders such as blindness, limb malformations and schizophrenia. I was also informed that one in three births in Colorado City result in a stillbirth, and the nearest hospital is one-hour away in the city of Hurricane.

I spent the entire morning helping Helen reorganize the place. Helen left the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) with her entire family, meaning her husband, her three sister wives, and her 9 shared children. She admitted herself that having an entire polygamous family leave the church altogether was extremely uncommon. Every time she referred to her family, it was hard for me to grasp how normal polygamy was to the people of Colorado City. That’s their basic familial structure, just like how we have one dad, one mom, and maybe one or more siblings.

Helen was an open-book and absolutely enjoyed the fact that she had these outsiders, people she was previously brainwashed into believing as wicked, willing to casually converse and listen to her story. She revealed to us that her family ultimately left because of Warren Jeffs’ United Effort plan. Not only did Helen witness Jeffs splitting apart families at the snap of fingers for no logical reason, but her family itself was a victim of the policy. Only two of her children were permitted to continue living with her and her husband, and the other seven “not-as-righteous” children were scheduled to move in and live with another family, a family considered to have “less spiritual faith.”

After we finished re-organizing, one of my girls shared her box of Thin Mints with the rest of us and Helen. Although Helen is a lady in about her forties, she looked like a child opening a present on Christmas morning. She became so excited to try her first ever Girl Scout cookie. And just watching her bubble up at the sight of a Thin Mint really put things into perspective for me, especially because she was the first apostate I had ever interacted with. As we were departing from the Birthing Center, we decided to give what we had left of the thin mints to Helen. And though it was only just a new row of thin mints, not even the entire box, Helen’s eyes lit up again. And she graciously told us, “Wow. This is the most giving I’ve ever experienced in a day.” With Helen’s words, I left the Birthing Center stunned.

With the compounds of Colorado City, the concept of free will is an intangible dream. The freedom and virginities of young women are forcefully taken. Children are forcibly taken away from their legitimate families. 100 percent of the incomes of the working people are taken away and given directly to cult. The notion of true giving simply just does not exist in Colorado City.

I know, it’s incredibly hard to imagine and believe that a place like Colorado City exists in 2018. What the people of Colorado City need is the experience of receiving without expecting anything in return. Through the incredibly inspiring people I’ve met through this trip, I am determined to return to Colorado City in the near future. It is undoubtedly in need of help from us, and with Jeffs locked away in prison, the community is slowly starting to open up more to the outer world. As someone who’s interested in the medical field, I hope to periodically lead a team of medical professionals, including psychologists and therapists for the many victims of rape and abuse, into Colorado City to help Ms. Helen re-operate the Birthing Centre. I am truly optimistic about the future of the broken community of Colorado City, Arizona.