MEMPHIS, Tennessee — In Memphis and the surrounding areas of western Tennessee, the early spring months of March and April mean pretty much one thing: rain.
And this year, in early March, the saying "when it rains, it pours" was a little too literal for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as workers scrambled to finish the renovation work on the Memphis Tennessee Temple in preparation for an open house and rededication.
With mud filling the parking lot and pouring rains disrupting work nearly every day, the temple grounds looked almost like a war zone, said Richard Floyd, a member who lives near the temple.
"On March 10, we had our first committee meeting, and this building looked as if it physically could not be completed on time," said Elder Michael V. Beheshti, an Area Seventy and president of the temple's open house and rededication committee for the area. "There was cement to be poured, concrete forms that were still not built, and there wasn't a blade of grass or bush on the grounds."
With the open house scheduled for a mere month away, scheduled to start on April 10, the committee contemplated postponing everything.
"But the temple engineer said that if they could just get some extra help, they would get it done," he said. "So we called the temple district to fast."
As Elder Beheshti explained it, the committee called for two district-wide fasts, and members prayed for the rain to stop and for the work to be able to continue so that the temple could be completed on time. Some wards even participated in perpetual fasts, he said.
And come April 10, "we were eyewitness to a notable miracle," Elder Beheshti said. "When we came here to do the first open house, it was beautiful."
Blessed by the temple
Comprised of six stakes from Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, the Memphis temple district covers a wide-spread and diverse area of the United States, and while the temple was under renovation, members from various parts of the district felt the unavailability of their beloved temple.
But looking at the history of the area, some members felt they were extremely blessed to have received a temple in the first place.
As David Denton, a member in the Bartlett area where the temple is located, explained it, the announcement of a temple in Memphis in 1999 came as a wonderful surprise after the announcement for the Nashville temple. But delays in finding the right property for the Nashville temple led to smaller temples being built in Memphis, Birmingham and Oklahoma, making the Memphis temple the first one built in Tennessee.
For Carol Maynard, a member whose grandfather was the first branch president of the first branch established in Memphis, having a temple is a testament to the work of the early pioneer members in the area.
"It's just been my joy. … to see how the Church in this area has grown is a testimony to the early pioneers here in the city of Memphis, and that includes my grandfather."
Back in 1915, when the first Memphis branch was established, Connie Priestly Maynard — along with his counselors W.S. Featherstone and H.L. Stewart — would work all day and then, when they were off work, they'd go to the end of the bus line and proselyte at every home they could the whole way back home, Carol Maynard said. "And this wasn't done just once a month," she said. "They did that every day."
Elder Holland called the temple in Memphis 'stunningly beautiful.' Read more about the rededication here.
Having a temple "speaks volumes to the love and dedication of the people in this area," Maynard said. "And I believe the people in this temple district have grown to appreciate the temple more while it was closed down."
And if the work members did to help get the temple ready on time for the reopening is any indication, their appreciation really has grown.
"I think that's why they're so jubilant about the temple opening," Maynard said. "Because they realize what they have missed during this time."
Serving together, serving the Lord
When the renovation was announced, the Church also announced there would be an open house and rededication, explained President Gary A. Bronson, president of the Memphis Tennessee Stake. But as the temple neared completion, "they said they weren't going to have an open house, and our members were very disappointed."
The open house was important not just to members but also for their friends, President Bronson said.
In an area like Memphis, part of the Bible belt, churches are a dime a dozen, explained President Bronson's wife, Sharlene Sheffield Bronson. Steeples from various churches can be seen on nearly every block, and with members of the Church being a minority, members knew the open house would serve as an opportunity to help raise the profile of the Church in their areas.
So after petitioning to have an open house reinstated as part of the rededication plans, the members grew anxious with worry about whether the work would be completed on time as the date for the scheduled open house in April drew near.
"It just kept raining and raining, and every time they would put the foundations for the gates and the wall around it up, it would just wash it out because it was so wet," said Brenda Boston, a member who worked in the previous temple all 17 years it was open.
But on the Sunday they announced the district fast, Boston said they all knew it would come together. "We knew it would, because this is the Lord's house and He (wanted) it dedicated on May 5 by Elder (Jeffrey R.) Holland."
Following the request of the temple construction team, in addition to fasting and praying for the weather to improve, hundreds of volunteers began regularly pitching in their time to help ready the grounds leading up to the open house. Once the cement walls and the landscaping were installed with the drier weather, Boston said she regularly saw as many as 90 to 100 people there working on the temple and the surrounding grounds at a time.
"Just a few weeks ago there were about 60 people in the yards planting and shoveling and planting grass and flowers and trees," she said. "And it just shows that when we pitch together, it comes about."
President Bronson said that when the construction team asked for 15-20 workers, the stakes would send 30. Everyone was willing to pitch in, he said. "We had a lot of volunteers engaged in all kinds of capacities, and it was … humbling, but also very powerful to see the faith of the Saints. They love their temple and it means a lot to them, so everybody is willing to help."
And considering the scale of the renovation to the temple itself and the surrounding grounds, it really was a miracle that everything was completed on time, President Bronson continued.
"It wasn't just renovated, it was practically blown away," President Bronson said of the renovation project, which made changes even down to the foundation. "So it's amazing it was all done in 18 months, but it's beautiful."
As far as raising the profile of the temple and the Church in the wider community in the Memphis area, President Bronson said the open house "did everything that we wanted it to. … We had so many people that wanted to learn more and talk more."
Sharing two key examples of the curiosity and respect garnered in the community through the open house, President Bronson explained that one visitor, a professor, asked for two copies of the Book of Mormon after touring through the temple. She wanted one for herself and one to give to her father.
In another case, after touring through the temple, a local minister called another local minister and suggested they come and see what the temple was all about, said President Bronson.
Following the rededication on May 5, temple workers will begin returning on May 7 for training and getting the temple ready for ordinance work to resume, said Maynard, who noted that the first day she'll be back and working in the temple is her birthday.
Sharing why she is so excited to return, she said, "Every time I'm within the walls of the temple I am happy. And it's more than happy — I am joyful."