A sacred building on sacred ground

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Some 160 years ago, a "Trail of Tears" led into Oklahoma. Thousands of American Indian refugees — Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — wended their way here on a forced march from the southeast. The path to what the federal government had declared as Indian Territory was marked by sickness and death. Soon, more tribes followed, and then a land rush brought white settlers.

Oklahomans have walked a trail of tears in more recent years, also. A 1995 terrorist bombing and 1999 devastating tornado brought more death, injury and heartache to this heartland of America. But on July 30, 2000, the tears became those of joy for Latter-day Saints with the dedication of the Church's 95th temple — the new Oklahoma City Oklahoma Temple.

On an atypically temperate summer day, nearly 9,000 members from throughout the temple district, which includes Oklahoma, and parts of Kansas, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, gathered here as President James E. Faust, second counselor in the First Presidency, dedicated the new edifice in four sessions. The white marble temple rests among tall green trees, adjacent a golf course and a small, quiet residential neighborhood. On the same grounds as the temple is the meetinghouse for the Oklahoma City 5th Ward, Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake.

"It's home," said Anne Pemberton of the Anadarko Branch, Lawton Oklahoma Stake, as she stood gazing at the statue of the Angel Moroni that tops the temple's spire. This tall, slim woman wearing silver bracelets is Delaware Indian, whose mother was born on the original 160-acre tract of land given her ancestors by the government decades ago. Sister Pemberton and her husband, Douglas, live on that land today. In fact, many members of the Anadarko Branch, who are mainly descendants of the children of Lehi, live on land where time has removed the footprints of their ancestors.

But time has not removed their memory. Speaking of what a temple means not only to her family today, but also to those who have gone before, Sister Pemberton added: "It is sacred and on sacred ground. Our ancestors have waited. They rejoice in this day."

"It's what everyone in our community has prayed for," added Brother Pemberton, who is Chippewa Indian, and who recently received five generations of family history and pictures from relatives. "It's a start of something we waited for and looked forward to having our family participate in."

New Oklahoma City temple President H. Jerrel Chesney emphasized the "emotional significance" of having a temple in what was once Indian Territory. "After being driven and suffering as they did, after the government then designated this as the official home of the Lamanite people, now the gospel is here for them with the full benefits [including temple worship]."

Those same benefits are available to all within the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Temple District. "You'll get all the adjectives," said Oklahoma City South stake President David Lawton. "It's awesome. [We've] been waiting so long to attend the temple here that everyone's excited."

For some at the dedication the excitement was tempered by reflection. Sitting outside the temple after the first dedicatory session was Bishop James Alen Howard of the Oklahoma City 2nd Ward, Oklahoma City Oklahoma South Stake. Bishop Howard sat in a black wheelchair. His wife, Shirleen, stood with her hands on his shoulders from behind. Three and a half months ago, he was diagnosed with cancer.

Others who speak of Bishop Howard describe him as a man full of energy. Though physically weaker now, he was determined to attend the dedication of the temple. "This day is just the climax of the struggles of a family that's gone on for a long time," Bishop Howard told the Church News. "I was honored to see four children out of six in the celestial room for the dedication. It helps my testimony to know God lives and Jesus is the Christ. This is His edifice we've dedicated so we can do His work."

Speaking of his illness, he added: "We've put it in the Lord's hands. I'm looking at it that I'm being reassigned."

With tears in her eyes, Sister Howard described a priesthood blessing given to her husband by President Lawton. "When he was being blessed, I got the feeling he was being set apart."

Despite their struggles, there was a feeling of peace and even joy with the Howard family. With their parents were Alen, 23; Debra Walker, 25; David, 21; and Sherilee, 16. Their other daughter, Tamra Ockey, 26, was unable to travel to the temple, and another son, Jonathan, 19, is serving a mission in Barcelona, Spain.

Sitting by the decorative water fountain on the temple grounds, Bishop Howard recalled how in November 1997 when he was called as bishop, he sensed that the Lord's work in Oklahoma was going to accelerate.

With his wife standing behind him, he added, "I can see more of a vision [of that] with a temple here."

Having a vision of what can be accomplished here seemed common among those attending the dedication, whether their ancestors walked paths here nearly two hundred years ago or whether they are first-generation Oklahomans.

Attending: President James E. Faust; Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve; Elder Rex D. Pinegar of the Seventy and president of the North America Southwest Area.

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