“Have you seen it? It’s gigantic! And who’s that golden guy on the steeple?”
“I think that’s the man they worship. I’m not sure how I feel about them being in the area…”
With every brick, every coat of paint, every pane of glass placed into the new LDS temple, these conversations grew more insistent, more frantic. Confronted with such a large and visible building project, my congregation members couldn’t help but wonder who these Mormons really were. Would they be good neighbors? Do they count as “real Christians”? Could one of “them” be trusted as our President? And again, what was up with that golden guy with the trumpet on top of the temple?
My church folk had big questions, and in order to quell their fears and be better neighbors, they needed good information. I knew a fair amount about the LDS tradition, but only in an academic way. So, when the opportunity arose to tour the temple, I jumped at the chance.
Before ever setting foot on the temple campus, I was struck by the scope of the PR campaign run by the LDS church. Months prior to the May 2012 temple dedication, faith leaders from around the Kansas City region were mailed formal invitations to meet with LDS leaders and tour the facility. And it didn’t stop there: in the weeks leading up to the big dedication day (after which only Mormons in good standing can enter the building), thousands of volunteers were brought in to handle the public tours that took place several times a day. It seems the LDS community here knows what is at stake; because their beliefs are so often misunderstood, in order to get along with their surrounding community and perhaps obtain a few new members, they must make a special effort. Consequently, they have made hospitality an art form.
Thanks to a friend whose congregation did a Lenten study on Mormonism with the local LDS Bishop, I was able to get a spot on one of the VIP tours, led by the Bishop himself. When we arrived together, it was clear that everyone including the Bishop thought that my friend was the pastor and I was his girlfriend or wife. This awkward situation was made differently awkward whenever he introduced me as one of his clergy colleagues – but the Bishop recovered swiftly and throughout the rest of the tour made a point of addressing the role of women in the LDS church, always while making sure to catch my eye. My sense of this is that he wanted to make sure I was comfortable, and he wanted to address my presumed concerns about LDS womanhood while also being clear about his beliefs. Though awkward at first, it was also a relief to have some of this out on the table.
The tour started in the new LDS church building that sits next to the temple. Weekly worship takes place in these local meetinghouses as the temple is reserved for very particular ceremonies and rituals, including weddings, sealings and baptisms. On this day, the meetinghouse had been turned into a welcome center with rooms set up for basic introductory classes on Mormonism and reception areas readied for post-tour snacking and fellowship. We settled into one classroom and watched a rather slick video on basic Mormon history and faith as well as the history of temple building. The video stressed the Abrahamic roots of the LDS faith, as well as the strong family focus that is often a hallmark of Mormonism. As one of the leaders in the video teared up while talking about his family (“It wouldn’t be heaven if I couldn’t be with my wife and children.”), I could see a bit more clearly why the idea of a “sealed marriage” that lasts beyond death into eternity is such a cherished belief in the LDS faith.
After the video, we walked across the parking lot and prepared to enter the temple by putting protective booties over our shoes. This is not normally the protocol when entering an LDS temple, but because they were anticipating as many as 70,000 visitors in the month leading up to the temple dedication (ultimately, more than 91,000 came), this step was added in order to protect the new hand-carved carpets that weave throughout the building. Once our shoes were covered, we entered the space.
The temple was, in a word, overwhelming. The detail and craftsmanship of the woodwork, the vastness of the space, the grandiosity of the baptismal font (which sits atop twelve life-sized sculpted bulls), the dazzling light reflected through thousands of crystal droplets in the chandeliers found inside the holiest of rooms – on their own each of these facets would be impressive, but together they made the building difficult to take in. Though pictures do not do justice to the space, you can see some of the interior by clicking here: http://kcur.org/post/inside-new-mormon-temple.
There were many moments when the aesthetics of the space simply did not suit me. The most sacred of rooms, which Mormons believe is one of the closest reflections of what heaven will be like, struck me more like a luxurious funeral home with its brocaded couches, golden lamps and mirrored walls. But the blinding light from the large chandelier and the humbling devotion spread across the Bishop’s face as he silently stood watch in the room reminded me that beauty and inspiration are in the eye and heart of the beholder. This was not my sacred space, nor were these sacred symbols etched into my heart from childhood – so I was not touched in the same way as those guests who share the Mormon faith. I left the room wondering how unchurched visitors regard our sanctuary – a sacred space that I find so wrenchingly beautiful.
As we wound our way through the temple, the Bishop continued to describe the Mormon faith and ceremonial practice. In a sealing room, where marrying couples kneel facing one another and stare into mirrors that provide the visual effect of eternity, we learned more about the practice of celestial marriage. In the bride’s room, we were told more about the role of women as leader of the home and family (according to the Bishop, this is a more important role than his own because Bishops only serve terms in leadership but women are leaders of the home and family forever). In these discussions, it became all the more clear to me that I find portions of LDS doctrine deeply troubling – and yet, as the Bishop shared his heart with us, I also felt a growing respect for him and his faith.
As a result of the tour, I’ve been able to better answer my congregants’ queries, as well as a few of my own:
-Yes, the Mormons in our area will be good neighbors.
-Do they count as “real Christians”? That depends on your definition – but they sure do love Jesus!
-Could a Mormon be trusted as President? Of course! It all depends on the Mormon in question, just as it would depend on the Christian or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist in question.
I’m still not certain what I think about many of the LDS beliefs, and I am still wary of their understanding of womanhood – but I’m also very certain that these Mormons in our midst are our brothers and sisters. The more we know about one another the better – and these tours were a fantastic beginning of a conversation that should continue regardless of who wins the 2012 election.
As for that golden guy with the trumpet? That’s the Angel Moroni. And no, they don’t worship him.
Photo by Guillaume Paumier