MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Following a sea of people making their way up the steps to enter the newly renovated Memphis Tennessee Temple on a sunny Sunday morning, Rosemary Kent stood out. With bright flowers in her hair and a vibrant dress, Kent would likely stand out in nearly any crowd — but around here, she is well-known for her love and commitment to the temple.
A native of Samoa and former resident of Hawaii, where she had limited access to a temple, Kent made a promise many years ago to her Heavenly Father. If ever she were blessed to live close to a temple, she would go there every day it was open.
When she moved to Memphis several years ago and realized how close the temple was, she began going each day to fulfill that promise. Before she knew it, one year turned into two, and then three. And once the newly rededicated temple is open again, she says she plans to make it four.
A member of the Memphis Tennessee Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a former temple worker, Kent arrived at the Memphis temple site on Sunday, May 5, with the intention of watching from outside as crowds from the temple district entered for the rededication ceremony.
With limited space in the temple for the rededication and no broadcasts of the ceremony planned, Kent hadn't secured a special recommend for the day's event, but said she wanted to be there all the same.
"Everything is just better here," she told the Church News as the crowds made their way inside the temple.
As the crowds disappeared beyond the doors, Kent slowly stepped back, making her way closer to the stake center on the adjoining property of the temple. But just as the last few people made their way inside, Elder Michael V. Beheshti, an Area Seventy, and the temple ushers waved for her to proceed up the steps. They told her they had found an extra seat for her inside. With tears of joy filling her eyes, she walked up the steps and into the temple.
And while Kent may stand out in the crowd, her sentiments for the temple are shared by just about everyone in the Memphis temple district. The day's events proved, even for those unfamiliar to the area, that the temple is well-loved by the people it serves, and they are grateful to have it back up and operating.
A long-awaited day
The rededication ceremony is something members in the temple district have been looking forward to for a long time. The temple's extensive renovation — done over 18 months — included stripping the building down to the foundation and a returning with almost an entirely new design.
"This particular temple got a triple blessing in all that was done to it, including more interior space with the elevated ceilings, an entirely new texture and appearance on the exterior, and beautifully improved grounds," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who presided at the day's single rededication service and both spoke and offered the rededicatory prayer. "In a demandingly short period of time, this temple has been turned into a classic."
New design details included replacing the old marble oxen in the baptismal font with the more classic style of bronze oxen, adding custom stained-glass windows and supplementing a large mural to one of the ordinance rooms. The redesign also improved the entry and tower of the temple. The steeple was raised 10 feet from its existing height to better correspond with the revised entry.
"As the area president for this area, I have seen all the anxiety of these people," Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, a General Authority Seventy and president of the Church's North America Southeast Area, told the Church News following the rededication. "They were so anxious for the temple. They prayed for this, they fasted for this, they fasted for miracles for the temple to be completed on time, and they did great."
Brenda Boston, a member from the Memphis area, explained the anxiousness many felt while the temple was being redone.
But the wait was well worth it in the end, she said, describing the renovation as beautiful, elegant and "just more magnificent on the inside."
The temple is a favorite gathering place for many of the members in the area, Boston said, adding that the workers and patrons are looking forward to their return.
For Carol Maynard, a long-time resident and temple worker in Memphis, the new temple is a testament of how much God loves her and others, wanting all to return to Him.
"It shows me how much Heavenly Father loves His children and wants them to come home," she said. "And He's provided a way for us to come home. The temple is that way, and I'm just thankful to Him that we have a temple in this area."
Filling the soul
Elder Holland said the new temple was "stunningly beautiful" and noted the day felt more like a dedication than a rededication due to the immense amount of work that was done to improve the building.
The original temple was dedicated exactly 19 years and 10 days before the rededication, he explained, adding that the temple continues to stand as a testament to the early pioneers in what was known as the Southern States Mission. Elder Holland noted with some emotion that he felt the late President James E. Faust — the First Presidency counselor who dedicated the original temple in April 2000 — and other leaders from years before who had worked in and loved this area before were surely present at the day's events.
A native of Brazil, Elder Costa quipped about why he loves the Memphis area: "I always feel good coming here because I am the guy with the really strong accent from the South."
And sharing his personal experience from the ceremony, he added, "These people are so wonderful, and today in the temple, the Spirit of God filled not my heart but soul. I felt my whole body filled with the Spirit of God and it was very special hearing Elder Holland talk about the history of these pioneer missionaries and the sacrifices they made. … It's something that is difficult to find a right word in every language to explain, but I can say, my soul is full of joy and happiness for the rededication of this temple."
Working for unity
Elder Holland acknowledged the work of early missionaries in the area, including Wilford Woodruff, who only a few years prior to his mission to Tennessee had been baptized into the Church by Zera Pulsipher, the great-great-grandfather of Elder Holland's wife, Sister Patricia Holland. Later, Elder Woodruff would baptize Elder Holland's great-great-grandmother, Ellen Benbow, in England.
"You can see what an intimate, interconnected world the Church makes for all of us, and why this is a special experience for the Hollands today," the apostle said. "So many of these moments are milestones in the personal lives of the members as well as in the Church institutionally. It is reassuring that challenging beginnings lead to happy endings — and certainly the old Southern States Mission had challenging beginnings."
Much of the day was spent with both local members and visiting dignitaries reminiscing about the early barriers that had to be overcome in the area. "We had missionaries who were killed in their service in the Southern states," Elder Holland explained. "And now to be received as we have been received here, in the immediate neighborhood as well as in the community generally, ... those are moving experiences to me in observing the growth and development of the Church. These are treasured little snapshots recording the ongoing movement of God's kingdom on earth."
On Saturday, the day before the temple rededication, Elder Holland was joined by others — including his wife, Sister Holland; Elder Costa and his wife, Sister Margareth Costa; Elder Scott D. Whiting, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Jeri Whiting; and Elder Beheshti and his wife, Sister Karen Beheshti — in a visit to the Civil Rights Museum in downtown Memphis.
As the apostle noted, their experience there provided a sobering reminder of the history of the wider Southeast area.
Elder Holland explained that seeing the painful history of race relations in the United States and the violence that has often accompanied such relationships was hard to describe. However, "the sweet men and women of color who provided that museum experience" and the diverse audience of members who attended the temple rededication afforded a beautiful contrast to that wrenching history in various exhibits.
The love he felt for and from the integrated community and congregation was a moving reminder, he said, of "the global reach of the gospel" and the "coming together, the integration and the unity" the gospel brings.
"In the temple, everyone is alike," he said. "Everyone comes with the same moral qualifications, everyone dresses the same way, everyone makes the same covenants. Truly in the temple there are no distinctions on the basis of 'black and white, bond and free, male and female ... all are alike unto God.' I don't know anywhere that you get that feeling of the united family of God more than in the temple."
He noted the United States has made some progress regarding race relations in the past century and a half, but there is much more to be done. "I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, practiced and lived, nationally and internationally, is the only real answer to improved race relations or any other kind of permanent peace," he said.
"But I emphasize living the gospel; we can't just mouth it. That integrity, that integration, that wonderful open embrace to all people of whatever background, race, culture or language — that is part of the magnificent message we have celebrated in Memphis today."