Intolerance in Zion

When I hired on at the Salt Lake City Public Library, I was hired for the morning schedule. But my department has been short handed lately, and I have been more than willing to help out covering some evenings. It is a different feel at the library at night, a little different crowd which haunts the shelves in the evenings. Its been kind of refreshing becoming familiar with a different batch of regulars.

Last night, as I was wandering the floor and picking up books left on the tables and chairs, I was approached by an unfamiliar face. He politely introduced himself, and with concern pointed over to another patron.

“That man over there,” he insisted, “is making a racket. I can’t concentrate.” I recognized the culprit as one of our eccentric regulars, a plain looking man in perhaps his late fifties. I’d always thought he looked vaguely familiar, but never bothered to determine from where. He frequents the library in the evenings, perpetually mumbling to himself as he pulls seemingly random books from the stacks. Occasionally he gets agitated and becomes a little loud. When that happens, we discreetly calm him down, and he never presents a problem. Last night his ramblings had been within a volume acceptable by our library’s standards.

When I expressed this to the concerned patron, he became indignant. “You aren’t going to do anything about him?” He demanded incredulously. He wasn’t interested in moving to another of the couple hundred seats around the library. He just wanted the offender removed. When I confirmed that I indeed would not take action, he demanded my name so that he could report me. “This is outrageous! I’m leaving and never coming back here again. This is why the taxpayers, whose taxes pay your salary, get upset; the library is becoming a refuge for crazies and the homeless.”

I told him I was sorry he felt that way, and that he was more than welcome to share his concerns with administration.

As I went about my responsibilities, I couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange. The more I thought, the more exasperated I became. This isn’t the first time I’d seen the library criticized for tolerating the “crazies and homeless.” Those crazies and homeless are people too, citizens and fellow brothers and sisters. They may have problems more visible than the “average” person, but that doesn’t mean their problems justify ostracism. They too deserve to be accepted as human beings. Conservatives like to talk about being self-reliant; how are these people supposed to become self-reliant and lift themselves up if they are banned from the very places where they can learn? The arrogance, the gall of this person to insist that simply because this person wasn’t “normal” that he had no right to community resources, such as a library!

When I returned to the reference desk, I related the experience to my coworker. Once again, I got an incredulous response.

“He wanted us to throw Kim out?”

This “disruptive” patron was none other than Kim Peek—the Rain Man.

I wonder What might this man have done had he been told that this was no homeless schmuck, but a brilliant (if challenged) man who has travelled the world? That he might be labeled by some as a “crazie,” but that he was still a functional member of society who posed no threat to anyone—on the contrary, who was seen by not a few as an inspirational figure? Would he still want him tossed, or might he show Kim a little compassion and empathy? Too bad we will probably never find out, that this man will not have his prejudices challenged.

How sad that so many in society are so willing to judge and exclude others. If they act strangely, they must be homeless or crazy. If they are poor, they must be lazy or immoral. If they have an addiction or suffer emotional illness, they are obviously weak-willed and corrupted. We don’t want that around our families or communities. Banish them, so they don’t inconvenience us with their existence.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what the Savior would do. I remember him gladly accepting, even seeking out, the outsiders, the poor and disenfranchised. He did not seek to further disenfranchise others. Perhaps if we sought to empathize with and serve these purported “crazies and homeless, as He did, we could work the same sort of miracles among them as did He. At the very least, we could ease a lot of suffering and pain.

I’m glad to be working for an institution that consciously chooses to pursue a policy of liberal acceptance and inclusiveness. It just makes me love my job that much more.

15 Responses to “Intolerance in Zion”

  1. Aaron Orgill Says:

    That is too bad, and this is an area I can definitely agree with you. My last couple of years at USU, I worked with individuals with disabilities. Some of them were born that way, and some had had accidents or made poor decisions. But without exception, even when things got tough (like when one client physically attacked me), I found something, usually several things to appreciate about each client I worked with. Often, their afflictions had made them sweet, humble, salt-of-the-earth people. Unfortunately, many people just wish that this segment of society would just disappear. But I sometimes wondered if they hadn’t been receiving support through their families or the government, how many of them would have been homeless “crazies”. And I have come to contemplate it even more as I have dealt with my mildly autistic oldest son (who is 3 1/2), who will require some special attention at least for the next few years. It is so funny to me how often we hear that we are to love our brothers, yet are so quick to see them as less, or not even human. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Jeremy’s Jeremiad » A Reminder About Being Compassionate Says:

    […] This post by Derek at ‘A Liberal Mormon’ is the best post I’ve read in Utah’s bloghive this year. […]

  3. Craig Johnson Says:

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing the experience. I hope you wouldn’t mind if I use this in a church talk sometime 🙂


  4. Jesse Harris Says:

    This reminds me of a guy that used to live in our ward, Jeff. Jeff had some kind of disability, but he would often get up on Fast Sunday to bear his testimony. It usually took him a good ten minutes to eke out a barely-audible three or four sentences and you could always tell it was an ordeal for him to form the sentences and get the words out. Yet, every Fast Sunday, he was up on the stand to do it again.

    At first, I was sitting in the congregation uncomfortably waiting for it to be over and done with. As time passed, however, I gained an appreciation for the kind of dedication and bravery he had to get up there every month and do something that most of us haven’t done in years.

    It’s been well over a year since he and his wife moved away to Midvale, but I think about him from time to time. He left a good example that we all have worth, even if it takes a while for some of us to recognize it.

  5. cb Says:

    Derek, this is a great post. I am ashamed to admit that there have probably been far too many times where I have reacted similarly to the man in your story but kept my mouth shut about it. Almost without exception (and it’s only the lawyer in me that makes me use the word “almost”), I have regretted my response when the emotions of the moment subsided.

    I am also reminded of a Stake President that I had when I was single. At our first Stake Conference he quoted the Savior’s statement that an act of service directed toward another was one directed toward Him as well. He emphasized, however, that the Savior was specifically talking about service to “the least of these” of our brothers and sisters. The “least of these” among us are often shamefully ignored, probably since we perceive that they have little to offer us in exchange for our kindness. I imagine, as you suggest, that if the man in your story had anticipated that there would be any “story value” or “prestige” associated with meeting (or even being in the same building as) Kim Weeks, he (along with perhaps many of us) would have reacted differently. That selfish attitude likely prevents many of us from seeing or experiencing the kinds of miracles–in others AND ourselves–that we read about in the scriptures. I believe that it all starts with interaction–especially with “the least of these” or others who are simply different than ourselves. That kind of interaction builds the love and respect that Jesus had for all he encountered.

  6. Allie Says:

    As long as we don’t have to get to know people individually, we can judge them without feeling any guilt over it.

    “The illegals”

    “The crazies”


    Thanks for the post Derek.

  7. Jared Price Says:

    Derek, I suppose I should comment, since you’ve actually written something I completely agree with. One of the reasons I got out of customer service was that I also have a tendency to replay conversations in my mind, and it used to really aggravate me.

    In the job I started last July, I have the opportunity to work with the homeless quite a bit. i actually enjoy this, and have asked to take most of the load working with this population. I know a lot of the regulars around The Road Home and the Weigand Center, and these are good people who I enjoy talking with. Most of them are no different than myself, except that in many cases they have experienced some sort of trauma that has put their life in a downward spiral.

    I’ve heard people complain about the way the homeless use our library system, particularly the downtown library building you work in. I like to say that, even if a person hasn’t been able to bathe recently, I would rather share the library with that person than know they are out in the cold somewhere. And believe it or not, the homeless pay taxes, too. In fact, when they pay nearly 7 percent sales tax on a purchase, they feel it a lot more than the rest of us do.

    Thanks for the thought.

  8. mfranti Says:

    I started to write something like this a few weeks ago. I’m glad you did it because your story is better.

    I’m glad there are people out there like you that remember that being Christian doesn’t just mean being “pro life”. When we can look upon our fellow (wo)man with charity and love, we can then say “I am disciple of Christ”

    i will now link to you–hope you don’t mind.

  9. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Thanks for the compliments and I appreciate your comments.

    Aaron, you’re right. Far too often, people just want to keep these people out of sight and out of mind. Not very a very appropriate attitude for those who want to be disciples of Christ. And yes, were all parties in our communities (families, neighbors, private entities and governments) more supportive, there would be far less homelessness and craziness. I doubt Kim would be a functioning member of society had his father and his community not made the commitment to make it work. Its an important point to emphasize. Thanks.

    Jesse and CB, I appreciate your stories and the admissions in them. I certainly cannot say I’m perfect in my tolerance for those who are different. I think it is a natural human reaction for us to be uncomfortable with or even resentful of those who differ. The important thing is that we all work to overcome those natural reactions, rather than succumb to them. And great observation on the role of selfishness, CB.

    I’m glad you liked the story, Jared. Now I just wonder why you think it is so acceptable to try to keep such people excluded and separate from the City Creek Center. Corral them off in the library so they won’t bother those spending money, eh?

    Oh, I suppose I won’t mind if you bookmark me, Mfranti 😉 The tunnel vision of U.S. religious communities on abortion when talking about “pro-life” is a particular peeve of mine, as I mentioned in “Real Support for the Sanctity of Life.”

    Sure Craig, go ahead and use the story in a Church talk–just keep in mind that I expect 10% residuals, 5% off the back-end, full attribution, and I reserve the rights to international licensing…

  10. greenjenni Says:

    Awesome story, Derek!

  11. MagnaMan Says:

    Great post! We all need to be more considerate and less judgmental.

  12. Dave Calder Says:

    I didn’t know Zion was in the Salt Lake City Public Library. Tell Enoch hello.

  13. Helping the Homeless in Salt Lake County « A Liberal Mormon Says:

    […] sad to see how widespread is the sort of bias which I described a couple weeks ago. Despite the mandate to lift the wretched from their terrible circumstances, so […]

  14. Christina Van Rye Says:

    Re:Welcome to Zion I was a patron in the main library some time back, doing research which precluded my moving to a different area of the library. Kim approached me and was enormously persistent in demanding that I engage with him. He was harassing to say the least. When I spoke to the librarian, I received this worshipful response as if to say “He is allowed to do anything he wants to. His father drops him off in the morning and he rambles (mumbles) around here most of the day.” No other 50ish man in the library would be allowed to verbally harass a female patron. This is special treatment for a celebrity who is behaving poorly. I was not asking you tokick him out . I was asking you to ask him to stop badgering me so I could do my research.

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