HOUSTON — Elder S. Gifford Nielsen beams as he shares a favorite post-Harvey memory personifying “the spirit of Texas.”
The General Authority Seventy and longtime Houstonian was accompanying then-Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on a tour across Houston shortly after Hurricane Harvey inundated the region.
At a Church-sponsored work project the visiting Brethren encountered two sister missionaries clad in yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” t-shirts and mucking out a waterlogged home. Standing face-to-face with a veteran apostle was thrilling, unexpected moment for the sisters. But they still had a job to do.
“They both said, ‘Elder Ballard, it’s great to meet you — but now I’ve got to get back to work,'” said Elder Nielsen.
That Christian spirit — adhering to sacred impulses “to brighten the lives of people who were suffering” — continues to lift a devastated community in the aftermath of last year’s historic catastrophe.
Sunday, April 22, signaled another key moment in Houston’s ongoing recovery when now-President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, rededicated the Houston Texas Temple.
The continuing emergence from the disaster “is a tribute to the people of Houston,” he told the Church News. “It’s a tribute to the Church and to many other churches — and to the volunteers who have donated so much of their time to clean up this mess.”
Closing — and reopening — a beloved edifice
The rainfall of Hurricane Harvey began falling upon southeast Texas in late August. Then it kept raining and raining and raining — damaging more than 200,000 homes, claiming dozens of lives and temporarily shuttering many schools and businesses. The images of people being rescued from their suburban homes by a volunteer armada defined the disaster’s perilous breadth.
Almost 1,000 Latter-day Saint homes were damaged to varying degrees. Then came the all-but unimaginable closure of the Houston Texas Temple. For local Latter-day Saints, it was like the proverbial left hook a boxer never sees coming. For almost two decades, the temple has been their spiritual anchor — a fortress from the cares of the day.
Many members and missionaries chose to keep the lessons of the temple open and alive by forgetting their own troubles, looking ahead to better days and serving others. Volunteer work crews adorned in yellow “Mormon Helping Hands” t-shirts became ubiquitous, welcome sites across Harris County.
When President Ballard toured Houston after the hurricane, he pulled on his own “Helping Hands” vest and began visiting the gutted homes of several families who had lost almost all they owned to the flood. Some of the affected were Latter-day Saints. Others were not. No matter. At each work project he reassured people that they were not alone.
At one stop, a local minister asked President Ballard to offer a prayer for his parishioners. At another, an elderly man began to cry when the veteran Mormon leader took his hand before saying: “We’ve come here to help you.”
President Ballard would never wish for another Hurricane Harvey. But in an era defined by bickering and division, unity and fellowship has emerged.
“When people are in trouble, it’s amazing to see what others are willing to do to help them,” he said.
“An honor” to preside
President Ballard called his return to Houston to rededicate the temple a personal privilege. “It’s an honor to be able to preside at this rededication and get this temple operating again.”
Compared to most temple dedications and rededications, Sunday’s event was quiet and understated. There was only one session and the majority of Houston-area Mormons participated in their traditional Sunday meetings in their local meetinghouses.
The recovery is not complete. Many here are still dealing with the damage wrought by Harvey. But the reopening of Houston’s only temple — dedicated in 2000 by President Gordon B. Hinckley — doubles as a symbol of resilience.
Much of the refurbished edifice “is just like new,” said Elder Larry Y. Wilson, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Temple Department.
New artwork throughout the temple celebrates the life of Jesus Christ and uplifting moments from the scriptures.
Restoring the temple to working order in about seven months “is nothing short of a miracle,” said Bishop W. Christopher Waddell of the Presiding Bishopric.
Temple officials and contractors enlisted equal measures of capacity and dedication to restore the temple quickly “and well under budget,” he added.
Elder Nielsen seemed to always be smiling Sunday. Participating in the temple rededication was no routine assignment. Yes, the Utah native grew up in Provo, but he spent over 30 years in Houston playing pro football and developing his career as a television journalist.
“We raised our family here … this is home to us,” he said.
It pained him to witness a wounded community and a damaged temple. Rededicating and reopening the Houston Texas Temple marks a key moment in the region’s ongoing recovery, he said.
“When you walk into this temple, you see the beauty of what can happen if you work hard and stay the course.”
President Ballard emphasized “everything President Hinckley pronounced” in his dedicatory prayer in 2000 remains in full effect.
Souls to recover
In the moments after the rededication ceremony, Conroe Texas Stake President Robert Goodman called the temple’s reopening “a renewed blessing for our saints — we’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
The events of the day mark “a rededication of our own hearts and minds and spirits,” said his wife, Sharon Goodman. “What a blessing it is to again have this beautiful temple to remind us of heaven.”
Houston’s recovery stretches beyond rebuilding homes and even reopening the temple. There is spiritual ministering to be performed. “We still have many souls to recover,” he said. "There are many that need to come back to this temple.”