Warren Jeffs’ polygamous sect, FLDS, in ‘sacred land’ standoff

Would you give up your home for your
religion? We’ve always had a place here. We’ve always called it home. The community has mostly been evicted. Short Creek. Technically, two towns:
Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The community straddles the state line
just south of Zion National Park, not called Zion by chance. These are sacred
lands to the FLDS or Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints.
The FLDS split from the mainstream Mormon Church a century ago, and settled
in Short Creek, isolated in the desert, where they could practice polygamy and
follow their fundamentalist faith, undisturbed. Their lifestyle is specific
and strict. Men marry multiple wives. Everyone obeys the authority of the
church, and the world is kept out. This is the only way of life I’ve ever known.
Because everyone around you was like you. Most of them are related in one way or
another. It was like a great big family here. Evictions are like the ultimate
spoiling of your goods. They would rather give up a $500,000 house
than sign a piece of paper that symbolized that they were violating what
they believed in. That piece of paper, it’s an agreement with a land trust that
owns almost all land in Short Creek. The FLDS Church used to control the trust,
but now the trust is in the hands of those who’ve left the church.
In 1942, members of the FLDS donated their houses and all their property to that land trust,
called the United Effort Plan or the UEP. It was land for their children, and their
children’s children, and their children’s children to grow up safe and secure in a
place to live. If they didn’t want to live our way of life,
everybody knew you could go, if you wanted to, but you couldn’t have land—
it belonged to the Lord and to the church. The UEP trust still owns most of the
land in Short Creek. It controls the town, it controls the property, controls the
fields, it controls the cemeteries and the parks. But the church no longer
controls the trust. That’s because of Warren Jeffs. Warren Jeffs is the prophet
and leader of the FLDS. He’s in prison for life for sexual abuse of minors, many
young girls who were his child brides. In 2005, when Warren Jeffs landed on
the FBI’s most wanted list and vanished on the run, the state took over the land trust. That was a direct attack on our faith.
The FLDS became even more closed off and distrustful of the outside world.
Well, Uncle Warren’s in prison on false charges. Inside the church, information is kept
limited. They’re taught not to trust the government or believe the news, so the
faithful are in fierce denial about Warren Jeffs being a convicted pedophile
and still believe he is their prophet who speaks the word of God. From prison,
he continues to control the church. Under Warren Jeffs’ leadership, rules became
stricter, and many left the faith, whether by choice or excommunication. Those still
in the church aren’t allowed to interact with former members, known to them as
apostates. We don’t talk to apostates. We feel like they’ve made their choice.
Go ahead, go live your life, don’t bother us. The ones that came back after they
already left, and came back to grab land, they should leave. Many of these
so-called apostates stay in Short Creek, living side-by-side but totally cut off
from their neighbors still in the faith. For me, I didn’t believe in the exact
same things as everyone around me. If I didn’t go to the same church that I was
gonna be ostracized. I made the decision to leave. I had no intention of ever
moving back to this place. Jeff Barlow moved back to Short Creek to
work for the UEP. He oversees the evictions. In order to stay in houses
owned by the trust, occupants have to sign that agreement with them — sort of
like a lease. But that’s a problem for the faithful because the trust is now
managed entirely by former members of the church, and the FLDS won’t interact
with them or sit on the trust’s board alongside them. Religious homes won’t
communicate at all with the trust, pay property taxes, or sign their agreement.
It’s not anything specific in the agreement, just that it means dealing
with apostates which is forbidden. So FLDS families are being evicted by the
trust. Is there anybody still inside the house? This is what they want us to sign. To sign this is like saying, “I acknowledge you own our sacred
land and therefore I no longer am part of the FLDS.” When taxes get to be five
years delinquent, the trust loses that property to the county. We’re gonna have
to take action to protect the property and give them an exact list of the
things that they need to do to stay in the home. Then we got a 10-day pay-or-vacate notice.
At that point we started packing up. I always come back to you. Always come
back to me. For the FLDS, their narrative is one of religious persecution. But from
the outside, it’s a bit like they’re opting into their plight, acting on
seemingly arbitrary restrictions. But to them, it’s real, regardless of the right
or wrongness of their ideology or the crimes of their leader. It’s what they’ve
been taught all their lives. To them, not only does going against the church mean
being ostracized by their community, it’s literally a matter of being banished
from heaven in the afterlife — that to them is worse than eviction. Pretty much
everyone in town is either in the religion or used to be — except for
Christine. Christine moved to Short Creek last year. Though never FLDS, she once
practiced polygamy herself with a man she believed to be a prophet. The
experience was extremely traumatizing for her. This is the famous crick. So now
she’s motivated to be an advocate for women in similar polygamist situations.
She runs a charity called Voices for Dignity. I just love it here. She’s taken
on the role of acting as a go-between for the FLDS in the UEP. By doing this,
she hopes to bring a stop to the evictions. And there are people that are
in desperate need of housing. They’re not just losing their home, they’re losing
their community, they’re losing their, their sacred places, they’re losing their
social support system, they’re losing everything they’ve ever known.
An FLDS food processing plant was evicted. The FLDS meetinghouse was evicted. Then, the storehouse was evicted.
Everything the storehouse had was donated or consecrated, and the
storehouse would distribute it to the needy. This was the storehouse, surrounded by
huge walls. The church built lots of walls around town. These walls are being
torn down by the trust for new tenants. This is really emotional for everyone in
town, both in and out of the religion. People stopped to watch. Gelene was kicked
out of the religion four years ago. She built these walls with everyone in the
church, so it’s weird for her seeing the walls finally come down. We’d go without food,
we’d go without clothing, we’d go without everything we could to help build those
walls. To see it all just be knocked down in minutes…
It meant liberation, but it’s hard, it’s emotional.
Overnight I was cut off. My husband was an apostate, and he had tainted me.
Although she stayed in Short Creek, she hasn’t had any contact with her friends
and family in the faith ever since. I was afraid to even get out of the car ’cause I didn’t
know if they would accept me or even talk to me here. Not everyone is sad
about the walls falling. No, I left the religion. These dear folks just don’t get
it, they think their holy prophet is a perfect priest and man, but he’s nothing
but a pedophile. I am really glad the walls are coming down. There’s a
deep and literal symbolism in these walls coming down. Norma’s home was also
posted for eviction, but she came up with a plan to keep her house, despite the
fact that she won’t sign the trust’s agreement. And I wrote up a letter of
intent. Says, “I intend to live here at this address, to pay the taxes yearly.” It
was not addressed to the reformed UEP because I don’t acknowledge that they
have any right to do it. And then Christine brings the letter to the UEP
for her. This means Norma herself isn’t violating her faith. This might seem a
bit roundabout, but it’s a huge step in bridging the chasm between those
in and out of the church. We were able to bypass this violation of their religion
through this agreement. These evictions were stopped. They have paid delinquent taxes and going forward they’ve also agreed to meet some of the minimum requirements for
occupancy. We would just ask the court to dismiss without prejudice. Once we get
that letter, we’ll update our records to show, and that the tax, they’re paid and we can avoid any evictions altogether. Helping people feel safe enough here that they dare
come back. We’ve been able to stop the eviction of four houses already with
this new method. You know, OK, when the next batch will come? We’re supposed to
be doing 20 every two weeks. What I’d rather do is give you time to talk to
him first. As long as we can find out that a letter is coming, then he can delay it
more. Does that mean they are gonna be off the posting list? Yeah, if they’re doing taxes, and
the lenders tell me it won’t take that long. Can we get the letter today? You think
you know who you are, and you’re set and stable in your life, and your religion,
and where you’re going, and then all of a sudden one day,
you have to relearn who you are, and I started looking and searching into the
Warren Jeffs files. And until that moment, I had no idea. It’s a hard road. Some people
love the changes, some people love the diversity, other people look back at the
60s and the 70s, and they long for those times where the whole town all belonged to
the same religion, and it was more homogenous, but we live where we live, we
live in the time we live, and that’s right now and right here. We’re all
family, we’re all part of the same community, we’re gonna have to find a way to coexist. I want my grandchildren to live here, and
to love it, and to be safe. We love our fences because it keeps our children in
and other people out. It’s still our sacred land. If you’re interested in more land rights issues in Utah, Bears Ears National Monument was just opened to
mining prospectors. Now anyone can stake a claim on the land, so NBC tried to.
Check out the video here.

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