Just off the historic Town Square in Liberty, Missouri, there is a spot that every year draws thousands of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It’s a replica of the jail where the Prophet Joseph Smith and a handful of his followers were imprisoned for several months through the winter of 1838 – 1839.
The story is that Smith and his flock, having migrated from New York, clashed violently with militia in the Midwest.
Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs ultimately issued an “extinction order” to expel members of the church from the state. Smith and others were imprisoned under an execution order.
More than 150 years later, members of the Mormon Church are returning to Northwest Missouri. And in the 21st century, they are integrating much better into the larger community.
Elder George Peterson, a missionary with the Historic Liberty Jail, says he believes the history is one reason why.
“There’s a special spirit here that resonates,” he says, “because of what happened here.”
Even though they still represent a tiny fraction of the overall population in the rapidly growing area, the population of the Mormon Church community has doubled in recent years. In Clay County, their numbers have jumped since 2010 from 1,082 to 1,953.
Good jobs, spacious building lots and top-notch schools are attractions.
But perhaps the biggest draw is the temple the church built six years ago off of I-435 near its intersection with I-35 in Kansas City, North.
There are 16 million members of the church worldwide., but only 157 Temples, which makes this one a draw.
A Holy Place
The double-spired temple, perched on a hill and visible from the interstate, is bathed in early morning sunlight one recent Sunday. The entire eastern façade exudes an almost mystical rose-colored glow.
The temple is reserved for the holiest rituals, full-immersion baptisms and "family sealing ceremonies," which are believed to seal a family once they've all entered the Kingdom of God. Those who've died before accepting the Gospel of the church can be baptized, represented by a living stand-in, so they may also join their families in heaven.
So sacred is this space that non-members are prohibited from going in once the temple has been officially dedicated.
But adjacent to the temple is a smaller building, known as the chapel.
This is for regular services. Young people come to weekly religious school at 6:30 a.m., known as seminary. Sunday mornings they come at the same early time to study the Bible and Book of Mormon.
A recent Sunday, some teenagers emerge from their early morning class. The girls are in Sunday dresses, the boys in dark sport coats and ties.
14-year-old Hannah Wheeler has long straight hair; her bangs just hit the top of her glasses.
“There are a lot of people who moved in recently,” she says. “We moved here like four or five years ago and since then we've seen other people move in. They live close to me and it's really cool to get to know them.”
Some of the students find themselves having to explain certain aspects of their way of life. For example, they don’t date until they’re 16. They abstain from drinking and are expected to dress modestly. When they go out, they're supposed to go in groups, to avoid temptation.
Brilee Hansen says the peer pressure can be challenging.
“Like girls hear, ‘oh you should date this guy or you should … dress this way,’" she says, "and guys [hear] like ‘oh you should do drugs,’ stuff like that.”
Members of the Mormon Church are generally among the most conservative religious followers. The large majority oppose same-sex marriage and abortion in all or most cases. Hansen says particularly in these politically contentious times, it helps to have a peer group from church.
“Everyone [can] stay true to their standards,” she says, “instead of, what’s the word, adapt to what everyone else wants them to be.”
Life at home
Rudi and Lori Garcia say interest in the Mormon Church increased when candidate Mitt Romney openly discussed his faith. There were lots of questions, say the Garcias, and they’ve never shied away from trying to educate others.
They invited me into their home during their Sunday celebration of the Sabbath. That’s how they see it, as a celebration of God and family.
Rudi, a manager at UPS, helps with the church administration. He often doesn’t get home on Sundays until mid-afternoon. This is one of those days. He left for church at 5:00 a.m. He’s just getting home around 3:00 in the afternoon.
His wife, Lori, is a take-charge former television reporter who works today in graphic design. They have two sons, Ethan and Ashton.
Rudi was raised Catholic but says he was always a seeker. Lori was raised in the Mormon Church. They met and fell in love at the University of Kansas.
Before Rudi has even changed out of his good clothes, the family gathers around the piano to sing a hymn.
On Sundays, the family will sing, study scripture, play games and talk about their week. They try not to be on their computers or watch TV.
Lori says the Lord tested them when the Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series. They did not turn on the television. They suspected victory when they heard fireworks as they went to bed, but didn’t know the outcome for sure until they checked social media in the morning.
She says she learned her lesson when she once shopped a Black Friday sale on the Sabbath.
“We had the worst trouble with that oven,” she says. “It came in, it was the wrong size, it was the wrong order. It was just a nightmare and I thought, ‘see, I shouldn’t have shopped on the Sabbath.’”
After their hymn, they gather around the kitchen table. Everyone’s looking at their smartphones where they get this week’s Article of Faith, the rules by which members of the Mormon Church live.
They start out trying to sing it with the tune, tinny and hard to follow, playing out of a cell phone speaker.
"It's just so long," says Rudi.
"Let's just say it," Ashton chimes in.
"We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous and doing good to all men," they recite as a group. It goes on for another minute or so.
Then they surf over to their digital calendars to discuss what’s happening during the upcoming week.
Growing in numbers and properties
The Garcias live not far from the new Temple and say many of the newcomers are moving into the area.
Jeremiah Morgan, president of the Liberty stake, or collection of congregations, says this isn't unusual. The numbers, he says, are nothing out of the ordinary for population growth around a new temple.
“Maybe if it was truly dramatic in terms of tens of thousands,” he says. “That would be certainly something that would draw people’s attention.”
The growth of the church is also visible in landholdings.
It's impossible to ascertain how much the church profits from these investments. A representative from Salt Lake City-based realtors Property Reserve, Inc., says the church has a “longstanding policy of not disclosing financial information.”
Morgan's ancestors were some of those who were persecuted and chased out of the state in the mid 19th century. His grandfather helped exhume the body of Joseph Smith to keep hostile mobs from stealing and desecrating it.
He says today's church wants to move beyond the story of its troubled past.
“I don’t want that to define us,” he says. “[Our struggles] changed the way we were as a church. We’re more resilient and understand what we need to do to get along with others, to be better community people,” he says.
Part of the Liberty team
The Liberty School District crosses over into Kansas City North and has grown so rapidly it opened a second high school in 2010.
The football game between the two schools is the biggest of the season. They say most everyone turns out from both Kansas City North and Liberty. Tailgate festivities start mid-afternoon.
Ethan Garcia is suited up with the Liberty Blue Jays.
Just before he runs out on the field with his team, he tells me he has one of his church buddies playing with him. But tonight it's not about the church, it's about the team.
“We want to win but we really want to maintain friends,” he says. “Like if you get a good hit, you don’t tell them ‘hey, you suck.’ At the end of the game whichever team loses, we go congratulate them for trying hard and putting all they can into it.”
Ethan turns 16 next week. He’ll be taking a Liberty North cheerleader to the Homecoming Dance that weekend.
Editor's note: The location of the temple has been clarified.