INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — There is an open patch of grass at the intersection of River Boulevard and Walnut Street in this Kansas City suburb. It looks like a vacant lot — no structures, no landscaping, no fence.
But this 2.5-acre site is sacred to a number of religious groups, all of which trace their origins to Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet. It is here, Smith declared in 1831, that Jesus will return — and soon — to rule his kingdom from a beautiful temple.
For now, there is no temple — construction never got past the laying of cornerstones. But the three largest Mormon denominations have presences in and around Temple Lot: The 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs a visitors center on one corner across the street; the Community of Christ, with 200,000 members, has its world headquarters and an auditorium on two other corners; and the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), which has just 5,000 members, has a low-slung sanctuary a few steps away.
The world has no shortage of contested religious sites. From the Temple Mount and Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to the former Babri Mosque built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple in Ayodhya, India, different faiths have both tried to share — and waged bloody conflicts over — spaces considered sacred to their traditions.
Here in the U.S., the three Mormon denominations present at Temple Lot have found a way to peacefully share the contested space, as well as two other sites nearby.
The roots of their disputes may not be as deep as the ones that entangle contested sites overseas. But they are certainly complex and emotional, and the Mormon factions’ efforts to come to terms with their conflicting claims has only come about through gestures of magnanimity and evolved thinking on the part of believers…