BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — When natural disasters occur in the South, there’s usually two groups who show up to help — the Mormons and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At least that’s what people who aren’t familiar with the Church often say, said Severia Bauchand, a Latter-day Saint from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
For many non-Latter-day Saints in the South, the Church is identifiable by two key things: temples and the yellow Helping Hands T-shirts that members wear when volunteering with disaster relief.
The funny thing though, Bauchand explained, is that people don’t always realize those two things are reflections of the same faith. But that is beginning to change.
The Church of Jesus Christ has established a positive reputation with people in the Louisiana over the years through the many ways they have contributed to disaster relief efforts, but as local leaders and members explained, the respect from non-member communities has increased even more over the last few months.
After undergoing extensive renovations during the last 22 months, including changes to improve the overall structure and design and incorporate new technologies, the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple was rededicated on Sunday, Nov. 17, by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Cook was accompanied at the dedication by his wife, Sister Mary G. Cook; Elder James B. Martino, a General Authority Seventy of the Church and president of the North America Southeast Area; and his wife, Sister Jennie B. Martino; and Elder Kevin R. Duncan, a General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Temple Department; and his wife, Sister Nancy S. Duncan.
The rededication — broadcast to the nine stakes that make up the temple district throughout Louisiana and Mississippi and part of Arkansas — came after a week-long open-house that welcomed people from all across Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and beyond to tour through the newly reconstructed holy edifice.
As Randy Bluth, a former Area Seventy and the executive secretary of the temple’s rededication committee, explained, the renovation and rededication process brought about an increased respect and appreciation for the Church and its members from the surrounding communities.
The public interest in the temple open house was remarkable, Bluth said. Around 12,000 visitors came to tour through the temple during the two weeks prior to the rededication and among them were the mayor of Baton Rouge, Sharon Weston Broome, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Following the rededicatory session, Elder Martino explained how many Latter-day Saints in attendance had expressed their appreciation not only for the renewal and rededication of the temple, but also for the opportunity to have a second open house and the opportunity to again invite the local communities to learn more about the Church, its temples and its members.
“They were able to invite a whole new group of friends to come,” Elder Martino said.
Elder Cook said he was delighted to spend his Sunday afternoon shaking hands with Latter-day Saints from all over Louisiana and Mississippi following the rededication.
Presiding over the temple rededication was a special experience, said Elder Cook following the temple’s rededication ceremony. Explaining it was his first time to preside over a temple rededication, Elder Cook noted how appreciative he was for the opportunity to offer the rededicatory prayer and spend time with the members in the area.
“I have been to a lot of dedications, and I have assisted in a lot of them,” he said, “but it has been very special to be able to give a dedicatory prayer for the house of the Lord.”
The last time Elder Cook visited Baton Rouge was 13 years ago during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — a Category 5 storm that caused catastrophic damage in Florida Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in August 2005. At that time, Elder Cook accompanied President Boyd K. Packer, then acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then-Elder M. Russell Ballard, and other Church leaders to assess damages in the area and offer aid to those affected by the storm.
“We felt heartsick at the consequences of the storm but were incredibly impressed by the resilience of the people and the love and concern for each other that was evident,” Elder Cook said, reflecting on that visit.
In the months and years after Katrina, the temple has served as a place of refuge from the damages of the storm, he explained. Similarly, in locations all over the world today, “the temple is also a place of refuge when we face challenges,” he said.
“We are making an enormous effort to include families in both temple and family history work,” he said. “I believe that the youth of the Church will have greater protection from the adversary if they will immerse themselves in searching for their ancestors, preparing their names for the sacred vicarious ordinances available in the temple, and then go to the temple to stand as proxy for them to receive the ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost or, pursuant to new guidance from President Russell M. Nelson, act as a witness.”
Originally dedicated on July 16, 2000, by President Gordon B. Hinckley, the temple has long stood as a symbol of refuge and hope for Latter-day Saints in the Southern states, explained Reuben Clark, a local member and historian for the temple’s rededication committee. Despite many hurricanes over the years — including Katrina, Ike, Ida and Gustave, as well as other tropical storms and periods of flooding — which have often negatively impacted the Baton Rouge area, the temple has never been seriously impacted by the storms, Clark explained.
For the members who had grown to depend on the peace and refuge of the temple, it was difficult to not have a temple close by during the months of renovation. But having experienced that time without it, they are more grateful than ever to have the rededicated temple ready to open once again.
The Church in the South is growing, said Elder Martino. The growth may be slow at times, but there are strong foundations of faith in the South, and having a temple again will only add to the blessing of that faith, he said.
Witnessing the many members who expressed gratitude for having a temple of the Lord in their midst once again, Elder Duncan said there are many reasons people go to the temple. Some go to serve, others to find peace, he said. “But it’s a house of hope that is now again open for these wonderful members and workers who love this house of the Lord.”
Speaking about the membership of the Church in the area, Elder Cook said, “It’s been an incredible blessing to be here and see the great diversity of people here.”
While other parts of the country have diversity, there is something special here, he said. “You see people from different cultures and races, and they are all united by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that is a marvelous thing. … It is the commitment to the Savior and the gospel of Jesus Christ that just unites us.”