Latter-day Saint Life

3 unlikely pioneers I’m also honoring this year—and none of them crossed the plains

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Logan Mickel boating with his late stepfather, Jim Daniel Kelly.

As Latter-day Saints prepare to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Pioneer Day on July 24th this year, LDS Living recognizes that in addition to the sacrifices of the early pioneers, there are many modern-day pioneers across the globe who have built the Church in their nations or in their families. In this new series of articles, we wish to recognize these present-day pioneers and remember all who have helped make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what it is today.

The brother in my Sunday School class almost seemed like he was apologizing when he said it: “So, I don’t have pioneer heritage. My parents converted in the ’70s. But I think…”

He then answered whatever question had been posed by the teacher. Honestly, I’ve completely forgotten what he said next, but I’ve always remembered that first part—the sheepish way he admitted to not having descended from pioneer stock.

His comment stuck out to me because in my 43 years of being in the Church, I’ve heard many statements like it. These statements are a symptom of an unfortunate mentality that seems to have permeated Latter-day Saint culture, especially in our historic Utah wards: My ancestors didn’t push handcarts across the plains, so I don’t have any pioneer heritage.

Taken to its extreme, this belief can even lead to a perception (as illustrated by that good brother in Sunday School) that those without direct pioneer heritage are somehow second-rate members.

Obviously, there is a Fort Bridger-sized problem with this mentality: it is fundamentally, colossally wrong.

A pioneer is a person who steps into the unknown, leaving behind both comfort and security to achieve a higher cause. Those incredible brothers and sisters who crossed the plains 180 years ago definitely fit the bill.

So do Lehi and Sariah. Moses, Abraham, Joshua—they were all pioneers, too.

Our list should also include Ruth and Naomi, Nephi and Jacob, Jared and his seldom-named brother, all the way back to the very first pioneers, Adam and Eve, who bravely stepped out of the garden and pioneered that radical new technology known as “clothes.”

Then, of course, we have the greatest pioneer of all in Jesus Christ, who crossed the dreaded plains of spiritual and physical death completely alone.

This wonderfully expansive definition of “pioneer” would also include hundreds of thousands more, many of whom come from our own families and neighborhoods. In fact, every member, whether your ancestors joined the Church 180 years ago or you yourself joined 180 minutes ago, either comes from pioneer heritage or are themselves pioneers.

Really, how did that good brother in Sunday School not realize that his own parents had left behind the lives they knew and were thus pioneers? You better believe a convert, even in 1970s North America, is leaving behind the known for a beautiful, but sometimes strange, new world (and I think most converts would agree with me on this).

▶ You may also like: I’m a Pioneer: How one couple grew up nearly 5,000 miles apart, found the gospel, and then each other

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf articulated this beautifully in the May 2008 Liahona: “I claim the legacies of today’s modern-day Church pioneers who live in every nation and whose own stories of perseverance, faith, and sacrifice add glorious new verses to the great chorus of the latter-day anthem of the kingdom of God.”

What’s more, pioneering is not over. In fact, I’ve been a follower of Christ long enough to know that God has a way of making us pioneers, whether we want to be one or not. The plains we cross may not be the frozen prairies of the American Midwest, but they are just as real and important to the legacies we leave behind to our progeny.

How about we use Pioneer Day to celebrate all of our pioneers—including those in our own families and neighborhoods? So with all respect due to those incredible pioneers who crossed the plains 180 years ago, here are three other pioneers I’d like to honor this upcoming Pioneer Day.

Pioneer #1: Jim Daniel Kelly

Jim was born December 21, 1933, on a lonely cattle ranch in the vast plains of North Dakota. He was intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious. Unfortunately, he was also exposed to alcohol at a very young age. He would tell me stories of his father slipping him drinks at an age when the rest of us would have been preparing for the school spelling bee.

He was an alcoholic by the age most of us graduated high school. He’d stumble through life, losing job after job and losing a marriage because of the drinking. Once, while working for Boeing, he got so drunk at work he wandered off in the middle of his shift, leaving some co-workers locked inside a test chamber overnight.

Needless to say, he lost that job.

Jim became a drifter. His path eventually led him to an exotic, lawless land called Ogden, Utah. There, on notorious 25th Street, he met a stranger who told him about an organization called Alcoholics Anonymous.

Jim sobered up. Got his life back on track. He was put in charge of the AA meetings, then became a counselor for people with addictions. By the end of his career several decades later, he was the director of the Drug and Alcohol program for Davis County Mental Health. He also served as a missionary for the Church’s wonderful Addiction Recovery Program.

During his life, he helped thousands of people overcome addiction—everything from alcoholism to methamphetamines to gambling to pornography.

Jim didn’t push a handcart, but his pioneering changed the lives of thousands of people. The plains he crossed were the devastating plains of substance abuse and addiction. His handcart was a physical body ravaged by alcoholism. His Sweetwater Rescue was that wonderful, anonymous stranger on 25th street.

Jim changed my life as well. He was my stepfather. And I’m as proud of the legacy he’s left me as I would be of any ancestor who’d crossed the plains with the Martin Handcart Company (I’ve even illustrated a short graphic essay on his life because I want everyone to know his story).

▶ You may also like: I’m a Pioneer: The perseverance of the first Black sister missionary called to serve

Pioneer #2: George Albert Smith

We don’t talk about President George Albert Smith enough.

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President George Albert Smith

He deserves far more time in our lessons, talks, and daily conversations—at least as much as we give the three Nephites or the latest season of Stranger Things. Why? George Albert Smith crossed one of the most daunting, difficult plains of all: mental illness. And he did it alone.

Born in Salt Lake City on April 4, 1870, long after the pioneers had arrived, the 8th President of the Church struggled with severe depression and anxiety for his entire life. After particularly emotional encounters—which aren’t exactly rare when you’re a General Authority—he would often need to rest for days.

Once, while serving as an apostle, he suffered a nervous breakdown that would leave him in bed for nearly three years.

What’s more, he did this at a time when there was very little understanding of mental illness. Society simply chalked it up to things like the devil, laziness, or weakness of will. In the modern day, we’ve come far in addressing the stigmas around mental health (with many members, including Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, opening up about their own struggles).

George Albert Smith had none of this. As a result, he fought against overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and incompetence for most of his life. He spent hours, days, weeks, and even years in bed, wondering why he couldn’t measure up to God’s requirements and feeling like a failure.

At one point, he even asked the Lord to take his life so a better person could take his spot as an apostle (Journal of Mormon History, 140-143).

He persevered, however. He gave what he could, took it easy on himself, rested when needed, and avoided the trap of comparing himself to others. In doing so he learned that wonderful truth that evades so many of us, that Christ knows our limits and asks nothing more than for us to place our offering on His altar, no matter how large or small it is, and that “It is not requisite that man should run faster than he has strength.”

And with the suffering came wisdom. As Smith stated, “I have been in the valley of the shadow of death in recent years, so near the other side that I am sure that for the special blessing of our Heavenly Father I could not have remained here. ... The nearer I went to the other side, the greater was my assurance that the gospel is true” (Journal of Mormon History, 115).

▶ You may also like: ‘Not a coincidence’: How one Ethiopian couple found each other and the Church, becoming modern-day pioneers

Though his issues would never fully leave him, the Lord magnified the feeble, halting efforts of His self-loathing Apostle and turned them into mighty actions of a Prophet with a capital “P.”

I wish we talked about George Albert Smith more than we do because our brothers and sisters dealing with mental health issues are some of the strongest and most valiant people I’ve encountered. As Professor Mary Jane Woodger states so well:

“His story deserves telling for the hope it conveys to individuals likewise suffering from physical illnesses that often bring in their wake emotional distress and the inability to serve in Church callings despite their desire to be healed, faith manifested in seeking priesthood blessings, and earnest prayer” (Journal of Mormon History, 115).

While the majority of us aren’t related to him, President George Albert Smith can be considered a direct spiritual ancestor for anyone dealing with the ravages of depression, anxiety, or feelings of inadequacy.

Pioneer #3: Ben Schilaty

Born in Everett, Washington, in the mid-80s, there was something different about Ben. While pregnant with him, Ben’s mother had some complications and received a priesthood blessing. In it, she was told her son would be born into the world just as God intended for him to be. This truth would be important later on.

Ben grew up loving God and the Church, but the difference remained. He tried to hide it, to deny it, to change it, but he couldn’t. He was different from everybody else, it seemed—especially in the church.

Ben was attracted to other boys.

(You can read about him in this article published by LDSLiving.)

He served a mission, thinking if he worked extra hard, God would “fix” him as a reward. So he threw himself into the work. Upon returning, he was distraught to find that nothing had changed.

He felt torn between two communities—one that claimed he couldn’t be his true self unless he cast away God and the Church, and the other that sometimes made him feel like God wouldn’t accept him—and Ben didn’t know what to do. On the brink of leaving the God and church he loved, he came to an important realization: God loved him just as he was and there was a place for him in the church.

Ben chose a third path: being open about who he is and same-sex attraction, but still adhering to the teachings of the Church.

Now Ben serves as a mediator between those two sides. He teaches courses at Brigham Young University. He also works in the Honor Code office. He’s been a temple worker, has written a book (published by Deseret Book), has a podcast, and frequently gives firesides helping members understand the complexities of same-sex attraction. I’ve gone to him for advice on my own students, and his open, loving, jovial nature positively beams Christ’s love.

Ben’s pioneering in spite of his own forms of opposition has helped thousands of God’s LGBTQ+ children understand that same, vital truth—that God loves and cherishes them and has a place for them in His church.

It’s helped many of his heterosexual children understand that too.

▶ You may also like: What can you say when a family member comes out as gay? 7 ideas from a Latter-day Saint mom

So there you go. Jim, George, and Ben. Three modern-day pioneers blazing new trails through difficult plains and treacherous mountain passes. There are thousands upon thousands of stories like theirs, both in our neighborhoods and in our own families.

Any son or daughter of heavenly parents who leaves behind the safe and known for a higher cause is a pioneer. It’s time we fully recognize that part of our heritage because the pioneer spirit is alive and thriving in the Church today.

I’ve seen it in the newly called Relief Society president who doesn’t think she’s good enough for her calling (even though the rest of us know she is). In the missionary giving his or her farewell talk, trying to put on a brave face while internally trembling. In the new bishopric member wondering how they can ever shoulder that mantle.

I’ve seen the pioneer spirit in the young wife who follows a prompting to bring a soul into the world and turns her body over to the travails of pregnancy. In the couple facing the heartbreaks of the foster care program. In the elderly sister who hates computers but learns to use anyway so she can do her family history work.

I see the pioneer spirit in the 50-year-old, empty-nester mom who—scared stiff—forces herself to go back to college anyway (not realizing college holds no horrors worse than what she’s already been through). In the returned missionary from Idaho, who opens up to his English teacher about dealing with same-sex attraction. The woman who finally opens up about sexual abuse suffered decades earlier in a college essay.

In the retired couple called to cross the terrible plains of cancer. The middle-aged father of three called to lose his wife.

And the couple who convert to the church in the ’70s, stepping into a new world because God asked them to.

So go ahead and celebrate this July 24. Light fireworks. Eat your burgers and bratwurst. Sing “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.” Celebrate those incredible, hardened pioneers who crossed the American Midwest 180 years ago.

But let’s also celebrate the thousands of other pioneers whose legacies we’ve built on, both in our communities and in our own families.

Because every follower of Christ has a rich pioneer heritage.

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