FRESNO, Calif. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, where the soil is fertile enough to provide one-fourth of the nation's fruits and vegetables, the gospel took root in 1912, budded with the organization of the Fresno Branch in 1920 and the Fresno Stake in 1951, and has now blossomed with the dedication of a temple of the Lord.
President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Fresno California Temple, the Church's 78th operating temple, April 9 in four sessions, with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder William R. Bradford of the Seventy participating.
In addition to those Brethren, Elder Robert B Harbertson, formerly of the Seventy and the first president of the California Fresno Mission when it was organized in 1975, spoke in the first dedicatory session and participated in the cornerstone ceremony.
Clear weather and comfortable temperatures prevailed, prompting President Hinckley to exclaim to a crowd of some 1,200 as he stepped outside the temple for the cornerstone ceremony: "What a beautiful morning! I've never been in Fresno on a more beautiful morning."
By late afternoon, a total of 10,294 faithful Church members had attended the four sessions, filling various rooms of the temple itself and packing the adjacent Fresno California West Stake Center, where the session was transmitted via closed-circuit television.
From throughout the temple district they came, which comprises the Fresno, Fresno East, Fresno North, Fresno West, Hanford, Merced, Porterville and Visalia stakes. Located exactly in California's center, the district extends from the valley floor up into the Sequoia National Forest of the Sierra Nevada range to the east. From the mountain canyon, one looks down upon thousands of acres of orderly vineyards and orchards.
This verdant valley truly is the breadbasket of the nation, according to Fresno West Stake President James R. Maxwell, temple committee coordinator.
"Ours is the No. 1 agricultural producing county in the world," said President Maxwell, who owns several agriculture-related businesses. "Five of the top six agricultural producing counties in the world are lined up, back to back, up and down the San Joaquin Valley. Probably four of the five would be within this temple district. We grow 25 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States right here." Major crops include grapes (a Church-owned vineyard outside Fresno produces raisins for the welfare system), almonds, prunes, figs, pistachios, peaches, nectarines and apricots.
In preparation for the temple's coming, prospective and less-active Church members in the temple district have been nurtured with the same care and diligence as the crops in the valley. Dan Malcolm, a publisher of agriculture-industry periodicals, is elders quorum president in the Peachwood Ward of the Fresno California North Stake. Newly formed a year ago, his presidency set a goal to contact all 125 families under their stewardship.
"We thought it would take two months; it took about six to get to everybody," he said. "And they responded to it, people who, for one reason or another, had fallen between the cracks. They'd been put on 'no-contact' lists for some reason, perhaps because home teachers couldn't ever reach them and thought they weren't welcome. Many of these people are now active members of the Church, and it's exciting. We have one family that has a temple date of May 6 who, six months ago, were completely inactive. We have six brethren who have obtained the Melchizedek Priesthood in the last six months who were nowhere close to it before."
The temple has been welcome in the community, where some 51,000 visitors toured it during the open house March 25-31 and April 3-4, including government and religious leaders and other dignitaries.
"That's a pretty good indicator" of how the community feels about the temple, said Hap Cluff, security and news media liaison for the temple committee. As chief information officer/director for the City of Fresno, Brother Cluff was in a position to facilitate approval processes for the temple construction and is pleased with the fact that it is the 78th temple to be constructed though it was the 99th announced.
"I met with the mayor [Jim Patterson] on Thursday in my budget session," Brother Cluff said. "He spent most of the time asking me about what he learned here [during a tour of the temple] and talking about how nice it was."
The valley, in fact, is a nearly ideal place for Latter-day Saint families, Brother Cluff feels. "When I moved up here from Southern California, one of my friends who was living here and was helping us to find a place [to live] said, 'You're going to think you've died and gone to Utah.' And I think that describes it well. In Clovis, a suburb northeast of Fresno, over 10 percent of the students in high school are members of the Church."
For some people the temple dedication was a chance to renew cherished acquaintances with those who had helped introduce them to the gospel.
Outside the temple after the third session, Bryan Pratt could be seen taking a Polaroid snapshot of the Higinio and Elva Rodriguez family with children Ruby, 11, Higinio Jr., 10, and Efraim, 9. Now members of the Gridley 3rd Ward in the Gridley California Stake, Brother Pratt and his family came back for the dedication because they are former members of the Lamoore Ward in the Hanford California Stake, where Brother Pratt was in the bishopric. It was there, three years ago, that the Rodriguezes investigated and then joined the Church.
"I took a long time," Brother Rodriguez reflected. Then, he declared: "I was not converted by the elders; I was converted by Alma [in the Book of Mormon]. No one can [knowledgably] say the Book of Mormon is not true; anybody who says so has not read it!"
You can reach R. Scott Lloyd by e-mail at [email protected]