HILDALE – Some were wearing blue jeans, some were wearing prairie dresses. At the end of the day, attire and personal background didn’t matter, and all were gathered peacefully together in one place Saturday afternoon for what was, for the small border town of Hildale, a landmark event in a community that has seen much pain, much recent change and, historically, much separation from the outside world.
“We’ve had a lot of people here from out of town – a lot of people driving in from all walks of life,” Willie Jessop, owner of America’s Most Wanted Bed & Breakfast in Hildale, said. “The numbers have been staggering.”
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Videocast by Leanna Bergeron, St. George News
Saturday, America’s Most Wanted, which is housed in a compound originally built as a home for jailed Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints prophet Warren Jeffs – though Jeffs never actually lived there, as he was in prison when it was built – was the host site for a large community gathering the likes of which Hildale and neighboring community Colorado City, Arizona, have never seen. (See ed. note)
“We’ve had hundreds show up – several hundred more than we expected,” Jessop said. “The food held well, and it was yummy.”
Saturday’s event was a belated Thanksgiving feast, offered free to anyone and everyone living in and outside the two border towns, commonly known to locals as Short Creek. For some in attendance, it was their first Thanksgiving meal in many years.
Under Jeffs’ leadership, FLDS members have been restricted from celebrating holidays like Thanksgiving, Jessop said.
Even before Jeffs’ time, FLDS members have led very private lives and have been, for the most part, far removed from the outside world.
Jessop said Saturday was the first time he’s aware of that a large, public Thanksgiving feast like this has ever been held in Short Creek – an occasion when outsiders, non-FLDS, former FLDS and even some current FLDS members – who came to the event discreetly, he said – have gathered in one place to give thanks and share a meal together.
“It’s a big family reunion,” Laura Randall, a resident of Apple Valley, said.
Randall was the second wife in a polygamous marriage before leaving the FLDS church in 1984. Her tale is a common one shared by hundreds of former FLDS members who have either voluntarily left the FLDS community or been evicted from it: being separated from family members who aren’t allowed to speak to her; being barred from family events like funerals; and being generally disenfranchised from a community she was once a part of.
In addition to welcoming non-FLDS members and people from outside the community to Short Creek, Saturday’s event additionally afforded an opportunity for Randall and other former FLDS members to return home and see faces they hadn’t seen, in some cases, for decades.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about coming here today,” Randall said, “but I feel so grateful.”
She said there has been a feeling of tension in Short Creek since Warren Jeffs, and his father before him, came into power. Now, she said, there’s a different feeling taking hold in the community.
“Events like this are changing this community,” she said. “There’s a feeling of love here.”
Ben Jordan, his wife and their children traveled from Cedar City to attend the event. He said his grandparents were among FLDS members in the 1950s who had their children taken away, were driven out of Short Creek and were arrested and imprisoned for practicing polygamy. He said his grandmother was held in an internment camp that had housed Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“I think it’s a part of American history that most people don’t know about and don’t want to acknowledge,” Jordan said.
Saturday was the first time Jordan’s children have ever been to Short Creek. He said he has a love for the community and felt it’s time his kids learned about this part of their heritage.
“I want my children to see what my grandparents sacrificed for and were imprisoned for,” he said.
Jordan called Saturday’s event “a triumph of freedom.” He said he’s considering buying property in Short Creek, now that land is for sale there and changes are happening.
An atmosphere of enjoyment permeated the grounds at the former Warren Jeffs compound as community members, old friends and even some curious outsiders gathered en masse to enjoy turkey, trimmings and dessert while festive music played in the background.
A “gratitude board” hung near the area where food was being served by volunteers wearing aprons emblazoned with the message “Friends Serving Friends.” Attendees were invited to write messages of thanks on the board.
All food for the feast was donated, and other similar community events are being planned, where people of all backgrounds and religions, including FLDS, can gather without fear of persecution or discrimination.
“I’m very humbled with the idea that a facility that was created to segregate and isolate be used instead for reunification, celebration and bringing a community back together that has been through so much trauma,” Jessop said.
Ed. note: Addition made for reader clarity that this compound was built for Warren Jeffs but he never lived there, as he was imprisoned when it was constructed.
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