Jason Swensen: Remembering Elder Pinegar’s inclusive invitation — ‘Please join us’

I was both saddened and honored to write the recent Church News obituary of Elder Rex D. Pinegar.

During his decades of Church leadership, Elder Pinegar bettered many lives through his example, testimony and teachings. I never worked with Elder Pinegar in a Church News capacity. Instead, our brief interactions were personal. Some might say coincidental. But for me, they were always blessings.

Years ago, Elder Pinegar toured my mission in North Carolina multiple times. I remember Elder Pinegar telling us that he loved us, but he also expected much from us. We were his fellow servants in the gospel. Our callings to teach God’s children in North Carolina mattered.

Several years later, when my wife, Josefina, and I were raising two youngsters, I crossed paths again with Elder Pinegar in an unexpected place (Reno, Nevada) and in an unexpected manner (read on).

One early morning in April 2000, we left our Salt Lake-area home for the 11-hour drive to visit my parents, who were serving a mission in Northern California. 

Our westbound route that day ran along Interstate 80, covering the width of Nevada. If you’ve driven that lonesome stretch of highway you know it can be a long haul, especially with little ones. Not much to see.

We left hours before dawn hoping the kids would sleep through the front end of the drive. My daughter Carla was 4. Little brother Christian was 2. We transferred them directly from their beds to their car seats while they were still in pajamas. Josefina and I also dressed for a long road trip — hoodies, sweatpants and sneakers.

Elder Rex D. Pinegar and Sister Bonnie C. Pinegar. Elder Pinegar died June 24, 2021. Sister Pinegar passed away on Feb. 6, 2021.
Elder Rex D. Pinegar and Sister Bonnie C. Pinegar. Elder Pinegar died June 24, 2021. Sister Pinegar passed away on Feb. 6, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It was almost midday when we reached Reno. The kids were awake and restless. We all needed some fresh air and a good leg stretch. I knew that the Reno Nevada Temple was just weeks from being dedicated. Josefina and I agreed it would be an interesting place for a quick stop. So we changed plans and exited I-80 in search of the newly built edifice.

It was easy to find. We were met at the entrance of the largely empty temple parking lot by a friendly guy wearing a reflective vest. He said they were preparing for a public open house to begin. I likely told him we were weary Utahns in need of a brief walk before continuing our travels. He smiled and waved us through. 

As the four of us were strolling around the temple we passed an awning assembled outside the temple entrance. A volunteer asked if we wanted to sit for a moment and watch a short film about temples. 

The grounds were essentially empty at that moment. We didn’t seem to be interrupting anything. Why not? 

We found some seats and waited for the film. Another volunteer told us that other guests would be joining us and then the film would begin. 

The “others” soon began arriving — and I began eyeing the nearest exit. All the men were in handsome suits and ties. The women, all sharply dressed. Everyone appeared to know one another. 

I realized my little family had unwittingly crashed one of the Reno Nevada Temple VIP tours.

My conclusions were confirmed when Elder Rex D. Pinegar arrived. He introduced himself, welcoming everyone to the temple. He would be their host. 

I whispered in my wife’s ear: “Once everyone turns left to start the temple tour, we turn right and disappear.”

The film ended and Elder Pinegar invited everyone to follow him for a tour inside the temple. Josefina and I waited for everyone to file out from under the awning before scooping up the kids and darting for the parking lot.

I didn’t expect anyone to notice our escape. Then a question at our backs stopped us both: “You’re not leaving yet are you? The tour is just starting.”

It was Elder Pinegar.

A bit rattled, I quickly explained that we were California-bound and had simply stopped for a brief walk around the temple before continuing on our way.

“Please join us,” I remember him saying. “We want you with us in the temple.”

Before I could protest, Elder Pinegar reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of cellophane-wrapped candy and offered it to my 4-year-old. Carla popped the treat in her mouth and smiled at her new friend.

And with that, my disheveled little family joined the Reno Nevada Temple VIP tour. I feared my children would start acting up at some point. But they seemed to sense they were someplace special. Neither made a sound.

I marvel at the memory of being in the celestial room and watching Elder Pinegar reverently teach his guests about temples and eternal families. Some of Reno’s most influential (and dapper) residents stood steps away from my two small children — who were still wearing their jammies. But everyone seemed to be where they needed to be at that moment.

Now whenever I am challenged to see people as God sees them, I think of that spring morning in Reno. I remember Elder Pinegar’s inclusive invitation: “Please join us.”

Our family’s link to Elder Pinegar did not end in Reno. There is an addendum.

Almost two decades after our unexpected temple tour, my son Christian was serving a mission in Taiwan and facing a health challenge. It was frightening. Our son was struggling, and Josefina and I were almost 7,000 miles away. But peace arrived in the form of almost daily updates from Sister Shelley Pinegar Peterson — the wife and missionary companion of recently released Taiwan Taipei Mission President Michael Peterson.

Sister Peterson is Elder Pinegar’s daughter. We knew Christian was in caring hands.

Jason Swensen is a senior reporter for the Church News.