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Poignant scenes are playing out in the parking lots and on the grounds around Latter-day Saint temples all over the world.
“Perhaps one of the most tender experiences I’ve witnessed over the past few months has been driving by all of our temples in Utah and seeing parked in the parking lot people wishing they could be inside,” said Elder Craig C. Christensen during Saturday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Red Cliffs Utah Temple. He is the Utah Area president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“That’s as close as they can get,” he told me two weeks earlier at the Taylorsville Utah Temple groundbreaking. “They’re really anxious.”
Church leaders began to close temples in February because of the coronavirus pandemic. They ordered all 168 of them closed on March 25. Temples began to reopen on a limited basis in May, but while thousands of people have been married, sealed and endowed in temples since then, they represent a small percentage of church members and typical temple attendance.
Members hold that temples are the house of the Lord, the holiest places of worship on earth. They report yearning for the peace they find inside temples and to perform sacred ordinances by proxy for their ancestors.
“I live across the street from the Mesa Arizona Temple and I walk around it every evening,” Kyle Richardson said. “It’s been under renovation for two years now, and I see people parked around the temple nearly daily reading from scripture and praying. There are so many who are pleading to be able to get back to temple life.”
LaFern De Molder, who lives near the Frankfurt Germany Temple, said she visited its grounds on Sunday with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
“People sit on the benches on the property and sit in front of the temple,” she wrote in a message. “Members in our area post pictures of their family at the temple on a Sunday afternoon. I once saw a youth from our stake sitting outside in front of the Christus statue for a very long time. My heart went out to him!”
Richardson echoed that thought.
“I’m mostly sad for the youth who haven’t been able to use their limited-use recommends,” he said. “They need this blessing more than ever.”
Church leaders are aware of the longing. President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, have expressed it themselves.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland prayed Saturday at the Red Cliffs Temple groundbreaking for those longing for a return to full temple worship. In his dedicatory prayer for the temple’s construction, he referred to the pioneer sacrifices made to build the St. George Temple in the 1870s.
“Father, although this temple will not require quite the same sacrifice and struggle that our earlier edifice did, we still face challenges of a modern kind for which temple attendance and worship experiences there are the sweet and soothing answer to our problems. We who are gathered here can attest to the burdens that so many in our day carry. These our brothers and sisters need the strength that only a temple of the Most High can provide. We are grateful they will have another temple in which to worship, in which to save their kindred dead, from which they can go back to their homes armed with power and with great glory.”
Afterward, I asked Elder Holland what the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles felt about fully reopening the temples. He referred to the four-phase return to full temple worship they announced in May. Now, 121 temples of the 168 are in Phase 2, which permits ordinances for living persons only in small groups following all health guidelines. The third phase will allow proxy ordinances to begin again.
“We’re very hopeful about getting back in the temples,” Elder Holland said. “We won’t put people at risk. We’re not going to do anything foolish, and we’re honoring very carefully the guidelines. We mask and we socially distance and we’re not having people in temples yet, but we’re into the second phase fully and we hope for a third soon that would allow more participation,” Elder Holland said, “but we’ll just have to be wise and medically and socially responsible, not rush that and put anyone at risk. We’re just going to have to be patient.”
That’s not easy for those who love family history work and are preparing to do ordinances for their ancestors.
“There have been quite a few days that I have just sat outside the temple and wept with the desire to feel the peace found within its walls,” Sunny Mahe wrote in a message. “I have immersed myself in family history work in the meantime, but as the names stack up with more and more work to be done, I feel the pressure to perform those ordinances mounting.”
The pandemic has not slowed temple construction. The church now has 27 temples under construction, having added three last week — Salta Argentina, Bentonville Arkansas and Red Cliffs Utah temples.
Eight more groundbreakings are scheduled by year’s end.
“It is quite interesting that at a time when most of us are unable to attend the temple, the leadership of the church has announced or initiated construction of seven new temples in the Utah Area,” said Elder Christensen, who is the area president. “So if we’re not able to go there, you can see the work is accelerating and going to continue to accelerate.”
Elder Holland referred to that work when he asked God to bless members who fund temple construction through their tithing.
“Father, would Thou please bless the faithful tithe-payers from all over the church who have made this groundbreaking possible,” he said. “May they and we continue to be mindful of where these temples come from and ultimately who pays for the great expense of constructing them. Would Thou open the windows of heaven and pour out blessings on those who have given of their tithes and offerings to see these miracles come to pass in our day of hastening and saving and exalting.”
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