Latter-day Saint Life

Imperfection, dedication, and inspiration: What you get to see and feel as a custodian on Temple Square

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Sarah Uhlstein buffing floors in the Conference Center at night.
Photo by Matthew Taylor

While I was at home getting ready for my night custodial shift at Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City on October 20, 2021, I got a text from my lead asking me to clock in at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building instead of the Church Office Building. I didn’t find the request unusual and figured that the custodial crew at the Memorial Building was short staffed and needed an extra pair of hands. Upon arrival, I learned that this was not the case.

“So,” my lead said, “the building caught fire about an hour ago.”

Was I surprised? Yes. Was I scared or panicked? No. As a member of the Special Projects Custodial Crew at Church Headquarters, disaster cleanup is part of our job description. While I’m very grateful that such events on Temple Square are rare, this wasn’t my first disaster experience.

Thankfully, the damage was minimal, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to be done. Other members of my team were extracting water from the thick carpets on the main floor—things get wet where a fire hose is used. Security officers were helping put out dehumidifiers and keep the building safe during the whole process. In order for the firefighters to get proper equipment to the scene, a window had been shattered, so I spent the better part of an hour clearing out the glass. Afterward, I went to the Church Office Building and proceeded to do one of our many day-to-day assignments: cleaning the carpets on the Temple Department floor.

When people find out what I do for work, their first reaction is usually surprise that there are people at Church Headquarters at night doing what I do. The next thing I hear is, “You must have had some pretty amazing experiences.” They’re not wrong. Name a dedicated place belonging to the Church anywhere from downtown Salt Lake City (except for the temple, they have their own crew) to Welfare Square, and at some point in the last four years, I’ve worked in it.

I’ve waxed floors in the tunnels under Temple Square. I’ve seen the original movie reels for classic Church films (think, Mountain of the Lord) in the Church History Library. I’ve completed projects in special areas that require security to let us in and remain with us until we’re done.

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Behind the Scenes at General Conference

I’ve worked during most of the general conferences since 2018, including three of the last four virtual conferences. The custodial teams assigned to the Conference Center work throughout the year to keep the building maintained for visitors, conference, and other events. Every building has a standard for cleanliness, but the standard at the Conference Center is one of the highest. And during the weeks before conference, more detail is put into everything; custodial crews work extra hard to make sure the building is ready on time. The Conference Center is actually closed to the public on the Friday before conference to maintain all the cleaning and preparation efforts.

A smaller workforce is needed for a virtual conference, but the hallways by the Conference Center Theater (located next to the main auditorium where conference is normally held) are still freshly waxed before the first Saturday session, and all the detail cleaning work given to a full in-person session is given to the areas used during a virtual one. While there is certainly less to clean during a virtual conference, members of this smaller workforce each have a shift that keeps the building staffed before the first session starts and well after the evening session has ended.

In-person general conference in the main auditorium is considered an all-hands-on-deck event. During these conferences, every member of the Church Headquarters custodial staff—a few hundred people—has a shift on either Saturday or Sunday. These shifts are for staffing both the Conference Center and all of Temple Square, which most conference guests, visitors, and other employees—well over 100,000 people—walk through or spend time in during that weekend. The custodial department has staff on site from before the first session starts to well after the evening session. Those of us on the night shift in the Conference Center work until 1:30 a.m. to prepare the building for the next day’s guests.

At times, volunteers from local wards may be asked to come and help vacuum and wipe down the 215,112 square foot auditorium—about four NFL football fields of space! With hundreds of Church-employed custodians, you may wonder why we also sometimes need volunteers in the auditorium. Well, with almost 1.2 million square feet of hallways, restrooms, trash bins, offices, lobbies, glass, stairwells, escalators, and elevators outside of the auditorium, employed custodial crews with the required chemical and equipment training have many other things they need to do.

Yes, it’s hard work taking care of these spaces. But it can also be fun, like the time I had the chance to stand behind the pulpit during a pre-conference prep. I was careful not to touch it, however, as it’s a one-of-a-kind piece that is only handled and cleaned by those authorized to do so. Trust me when I say though that while the auditorium feels a lot bigger from the pulpit, I didn’t feel daunted or overwhelmed to be there. It’s both humbling and exciting to stand in a place where so many gospel messages have been shared with the world.

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View from the pulpit in the Conference Center
Tom Smart, Deseret News

There is also a spiritual aspect to what I do. I’ve seen original paintings and samples of stained-glass windows destined for temples under construction on the other side of the world. The excitement of seeing the Lord’s work in progress is beyond description. I’ve also sat in the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall when it’s unoccupied. These experiences have helped me ponder the sacrifices of those who have gone before to give us the blessings of the gospel today. Truly, these are sacred buildings—and you can feel it. The purpose of my job is to maintain a “house of order”1 so that the Spirit can be present and the Lord’s work can be done, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. During my time in this special position, I have gained a stronger testimony of the following three truths.

1. You Are Enough in His Eyes

There is quite possibly no group on earth that sees the imperfections of the human race more than a cleaning crew. Perhaps that is why this teaching by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland resonates so much with me:

“Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.”2

Because of my work, I know that those who work in church buildings are people, who sometimes, like the rest of us, leave behind a mess (like the time we followed and removed a grease trail from an elevator lobby that eventually led us to a pair of shoes in an employee’s office). However, because I have seen their humanity, I can also testify with all my heart that the Lord will absolutely qualify all people everywhere who are striving to do His work. We should never allow our weaknesses to determine either our worthiness or our view of how the Lord can use us.

2. “The Truth of God Will Go Forth”3

My position gives me the opportunity to see thousands of offices, cubicles, and conference rooms across departments and buildings. While each has its own personality and culture, the overall dedication to the Lord and His work on Earth remains the same. Inspiring quotes are posted in the elevators, and cubicle walls are lined with more inspirational words, along with funny motivational phrases. Images and paintings of the Savior, scripture stories, and pictures of the Lord’s children from around the world are not scarce in the hallways; it’s clear that the Church workforce has both Him and His children in mind with every project they accomplish. The world can say what it wants. I’ve seen the inner workings, and the future of the Lord’s kingdom on earth is in good hands.

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Sarah Uhlstein conducting a carpet extraction in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Photo by Matthew Taylor

3. The Holy Spirit Guides Us

Working in an atmosphere where the influence of the Holy Ghost is sought after allows the Church’s work to be streamlined and shows how much can be accomplished when divine help is openly allowed. Meetings often begin with prayer and every employee is encouraged to seek the Lord’s help in their individual tasks. Spiritual thoughts and experiences are welcome and respected. Some of the most fulfilling gospel discussions I’ve had were with coworkers who had questions regarding points of doctrine. There are very few places outside of Church employment where you could say, “I followed a prompting” and not be looked at like you’re crazy. Wherever you are, whatever workplace atmosphere you may be in, I know that if you actively allow the Holy Ghost to guide you in your work, you will move at a pace that is clearer and more enlightening than it could ever be without this help.

These testimony strengthening truths may seem like gospel basics—because they are. However, being in a place where those basics are fully recognized and applied with neither shame nor fear is truly inspiring. Working for the Special Projects Custodial crew is an experience I won’t have forever, but these years are ones that I will always cherish. I’m both humbled and grateful for the experiences I’ve had and look forward to the ones to come.

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1. See Doctrine and Covenants 88:119.

2. “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2013, 94.

3. Joseph Smith, in History of the Church, 4:540c

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