PANAMA CITY, PANAMA
A work request was issued to several stakes in Panama asking for 10 women from each stake to help assemble the chandeliers that now hang in the newly-dedicated Panama City Panama Temple.
Each stake responded, dispatching the requested 10 sisters — along with 40 more. For every one person who was assigned to help with the chandeliers, four more volunteered for a task some might call menial. That impulse to serve, that need to perform some role in preparing Panama's first temple for dedication is an apt symbol of the excitement felt by thousands.
"This is our opportunity," said Francisco Phillips as he stood, misty-eyed, outside the ornate China-stone temple that President Thomas S. Monson dedicated on Sunday, Aug. 10. "We are going to see just how brave and valiant we really are as we take care of the house of the Lord and proclaim the gospel to every Panamanian."
Thousands shared Brother Phillips' enthusiasm to pass a Sabbath Day celebrating the dedication of their sacred edifice — and then spend the remainder of their days in happy labor in the Church's 127th temple.
President Monson made his first trip to Panama to dedicate the temple in four sessions and offer prophetic direction and support to the members who call this Central American nation home. The Church president was accompanied by his second counselor in the First Presidency, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, and Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve. Also participating in the dedication events were Elder Don R. Clark, Elder Enrique R. Falabella and Elder Shirley D. Christensen of the Seventy and who serve as the Central America Area Presidency.
President Monson's daughter, Sister Ann M. Dibb, who is second counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, attended, as did President Uchtdorf's wife, Sister Harriet Uchtdorf.
The Panamanian people "now will have a dedicated temple of God where you can do ordinance work," said President Monson at a cultural event held on the eve of the dedication.
The temple site where thousands of people arrived via car, taxi and bus for the dedication is quintessentially Panamanian. Located atop a placid hill that flanks a rolling cemetery for American servicemen once stationed here, the temple is partially surrounded by a lush tropical forest that defines the word "green." Palm trees and native flowers beautify the temple gardens that offer views of the Panama Canal and the bustling Port of Balboa below.
Panama City Panama Temple President Ronald D. Jamison had been told the temple was being built in a world-class spot.
"But when I got here, the temple site exceeded my imagination," he told the Church News. "The setting is absolutely gorgeous. It's quiet. You don't have the hustle and bustle of cars and trucks."
The tranquil surroundings could not mute the excitement of the thousands who participated in the Aug. 10 dedication. Many arrived early, umbrellas in hand, to witness the cornerstone ceremony. They were reminded that Panama City is passing through its wet season. Moments after President Monson and the other leaders stepped from the temple to conduct the cornerstone ceremony, a cloudburst brought heavy rain. Lightning and a single, ear-ringing clap of thunder added drama to an already historic moment as President Monson placed the first layer of mortar that would seal the temple's symbolic stone.
Later, the sun would shine on the temple for an hour or so before the clouds again gathered and more rain fell. Still, many remained at the temple site, savoring the day as they waited to wish President Monson and their other special visitors a warm Panamanian farewell.
"The temple dedication was a divine experience," said Jacinta De Frias as she gathered her family for photos following one of the sessions. "This temple will bring many blessings, not only for our members, but for our entire country."
LDS Panamanians such as Sister De Frias have waited and prayed for a temple in their own land. Some speak of long ago "excursions" to the Mesa Arizona Temple to claim their temple blessings. Such trips were shortened incrementally in recent years as temples were constructed in Mexico City, then in Guatemala City and, most recently, in San Jose, Costa Rica.
"(The members) have struggled and struggled to get to a temple," said President Jamison. "They have made great sacrifices. I feel they are so deserving to have their own temple now where they can come as often as they want. I'm convinced they will come often and really enjoy the temple in their lives."
Elder Clarke noted the excitement the Panamanian members felt listening to the counsel of President Monson, President Uchtdorf, Elder Scott and the other leaders. "It was a wonderful occasion — a great demonstration of what a temple does to bring people together."
Local leaders have worked to help all in their respective units realize the blessings of the new temple. San Miguelito Panama Stake President Isidro Vergara said much emphasis has been placed on preparing the one. Helping individual members navigate their own path to the temple doors has already yielded results.
"You can speak at the pulpit, but you change hearts when you speak with people one on one."
President Vergara's colleague, Panama City Stake President Brent Lamb, is excited about using the temple to help retain new members. He is counseling them to work on their family histories and submit those names for temple work. He is also promoting frequent temple attendance.
Counted among the thousands who traveled to the temple for the dedicatory services were many men and women who had served missions to Panama or lived in this nation when the Panama Canal was owned and operated by the United States. They returned, they said, because they love the Panamanian members and were anxious to worship alongside them in Panama's first and only temple.
Americans Jim Dame and John Morgan served as missionary companions in Central America and were assigned to Panama in the early 1970s. The work was tough then. Neither man witnessed many baptisms during his tenure here. The blessings of the priesthood were not yet available to all worthy male members, so teaching proved difficult in a land where many are of African descent. At that time, Elder Dame and Elder Morgan never imagined attending the temple in Panama — but they knew they were serving in a very special place.
"(Serving here) was the high point of my mission," said Brother Dame, a Florida resident who joined Brother Morgan of Utah for the dedication. The two spent much of their time in Panama meeting up with old friends and investigators they had lost contact with long ago. Many were now serving faithfully in their wards and stakes.
The new temple brings with it new responsibilities. Much is expected here. But like those Relief Society sisters who came together to assemble celestial room chandeliers, faithful Panamanians are anxious to perform their duty.
"We have been waiting for this day, and now it is here," said Brother Phillips. "A dream has come true for many members and for the future of Panama."
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