The seven-story Washington D.C. Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints looms high above the I-495 Beltway in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., where on an adjoining wall, someone spray-painted “Free Dorothy,” a message harkening to “The Wizard of Oz.”
Built in 1974, the four gold tip spires of the Mormon Temple stokes intrigue like Emerald City in the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland. Part of the attraction is that the temple is off-limits to the public except for a recent open house, which had not taken place in 50 years.
There are about 280 Mormon Temples across the country. Unlike a regular church or “stake center,” these facilities are dedicated to the “House of the Lord.” Church members use them for various ordinances that include marriages, baptisms and proxy baptisms for those who have died.
While the Temple has been closed for renovation for several years, church officials delayed the re-dedication of the Washington DC Temple in order to host two months of public tours. Once the Temple is dedicated it could be years before non-Mormons can visit again.
I held my Eventbrite ticket high as I drove through the white metal fence and I was surprised to find parking. I was more surprised when several LDS ushers offered me a wheelchair because there would be seven stories of steps to climb and so being wheeled into an elevator was a much better deal.
I wasn’t there as a journalist. I was just a hefty man in a wheelchair. I was just like others from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer to NAACP President Derrick Johnson and from members of Congress to Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Larry Savoy, president of Archbishop Carroll High School in Northwest, also took the tour.
“I have always wanted to take a tour inside the temple and what amazed me was that there was not a lot of open space for meetings but rooms for smaller ceremonies like baptisms and weddings,” Savoy said, adding that “the people were so nice.”
Savoy’s comments reminded me of Cole Godwin, a researcher at the Temple visitors center who helped me complete research on my great grandfather. Godwin was a wonderful man who died a few years ago.
Jonathan Affeltranger was also very helpful. Even though he didn’t know that I was a journalist, he pushed my chair during the entire tour and back to my car. In addition to sharing he, too, was a Free Mason, I found we had plenty in common.
As he pushed me into the temple we came up to a beautiful picture of an African-American woman with her child. I thought about how African Americans were not allowed full membership in the Church of Jesus Christ until 1978. I couldn’t wait to call a friend Brian Powell, who is the only African-American High Priest in LDS.
“They usually have an open house before a building is dedicated,” said Powell. “I just don’t have much to say, good or bad.”
But Jonathan had plenty to say especially about the practice of baptizing people on behalf friends and loved ones who have died.
As people entered the Temple grounds an usher gave me a flyer that said, “Jesus Christ himself was baptized and taught us baptism is required to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5). In our church meeting houses, baptism are performed for the living after their eight years old. Through family research we also identify our ancestors and perform baptisms in their behalf in our temple.”
On the second floor of the temple there was large baptismal font mounted on 12 marble oxen symbolizing the twelves tribes of Israel. As a Christian I too believed in Baptism, but I didn’t embrace everything that I saw.
According to a Mormon teachings, “The practice of baptism for the dead is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:29,” which states: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”
The 3rd floor of the Temple was devoted dressing rooms filled with white baptismal robes and towels and the 4th floor is devoted to the bridal dressing room and the gathering place prior to her wedding. I noticed that the higher the floor the brighter the lighting got. It was pointed out that the building was designed with thin marble to allow sunlight.
One of the most sacred places in the temple is the “celestial room,” on the sixth where people come, sit quietly and pray. The Mormon leaders say this is a place to “feel close to and commune with God.” There are no ceremonies in this space.
On the 7th floor is the Sealing Room where couples are married The church leaders say the authority to seal and bind families is mentioned in the New Testament book of Mathew (Matt 16:19).
More than 330,000 people have visited the Mormon Temple since April and visitors ranged from members of Congress to the Justices of the United States Supreme Court. While the Temple was ornate what was more beautiful was the site of small children putting on shoe covers to walk on the floor.
As Jonathan pushed me to the elevator and I prepared to leave the Temple, I realized that most of the work done in the Temple was the work of the church compared to sitting and listening to sermons.
When I looked across the parking lot I thanked Jonathan and we promised to stay in touch. I may never see inside this Temple again but I saw many smiles and reasons to hope in humanity. I also hope to see my new friend again.