*Note: This is the weekend post. I have a major concert today (Saturday) and will be playing catch-up on Sunday*
Over a decade ago I worked in a Really Flat State. My flying job took me across the Midwest, and at a stop in Des Moines (if memory serves) I saw an article in the newspaper about a new Latter Day Saints temple being completed in Omaha, Nebraska. The piece described the significance of that particular location, and mentioned that it would be open for tours prior to the dedication. After the dedication, only Mormons in good standing could go inside. Being a curious sort, and having seen the museum in Florence, NE several times as a child growing up in that area, I decided to use some vacation time to go take a look.
If you are wondering, yes, I’m a little Odd. I also grew up hearing about the Mormon Trail across Nebraska, Wyoming, and into what is now Utah. A good friend of the family when I was younger was LDS, and took Sib and I to a few LDS gatherings and to worship on Fast and Testimony Sunday when she was babysitting while my parents were out-of-town (with our parents’ permission). So I had a little bit more idea about LDS beliefs and practices than most people probably do. Emphasis on little bit, because although I’ve read the Book of Mormon, I have not seen the other writings, and I’m not LDS.
So I drove to Omaha in late winter, under grey skies. It had snowed but not recently, so everything had a bit of dirty-snow look to it. The weather cooperated and the roads were dry. The temple is on a hill in the rolling area just west of the Missouri River, near a historic mill (Florence Mill) in what used to be a separate small town north of Omaha. There has been a statue of the Mormon pioneers there since forever, because it was the site of Winter Quarters, where the first waves of LDS fleeing Illinois overwintered before moving west to Deseret and the Salt Lake Valley. The mortality was high, and a cemetery and monument and small museum told the story. Well, the parking lot was full, and the museum had been greatly expanded.
Signs directed people into the visitor center and museum, where we could warm up, get a little ticket for our tour time, and use the facilities. And watch a film about LDS beliefs in general and the importance of the new temple. I’d been to Salt Lake City and St. George and seen the outsides of the temples there, and this one had a resemblance to those, but was not a copy. I bit my tongue during the film to keep from blurting something about their theology that I had not realized before, and that the other people watching wouldn’t “get.”
After twenty minutes or so, a volunteer came and collected the ten of us in the tour and we went up the long drive to the front of the temple. It was an attractive white building, with steps in front because of the hillside location. We sat in folding chairs on artificial grass and more volunteers helped us put on booties so we didn’t track salt and grit into the building. Noses were counted, tickets taken, and in we went.
A young married couple introduced themselves as our guides. We began in the lower level with a general description of the building and the local LDS community. Then we saw the baptistery, where people can participate in proxy baptism. This ritual in essence allows the Mormon’s ancestors, especially those who never had the chance to learn about the faith, to have the option of joining the rest of the family. It is one of the reasons that the LDS are very much interested in genealogy, and one of those things that some people take in a wrong way and get upset about. The baptismal pool is large, and is a replica of the great founts in the forecourt of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple. The changing rooms are also in the lower level, not just for those getting baptized, but also so people attending functions in the temple can change into temple garments (all white).
From there we went into the first lecture room. The temples are not like a cathedral or the Tabernacle, with a single large interior space. They are divided into smaller rooms and waiting areas, and the sequence and decorations have specific meanings. The believer begins in the lower, larger spaces, and as he or she progresses in knowledge and service, he moves in and up. The first lecture room was quite nice, decorated in light brown/tan, with a number of theater-style seats, and two stained glass windows, one of the Missouri River and people crossing it (the eastern window) and one showing Chimney Rock in far western Nebraska, on the western wall. It is some of the most beautiful modern stained glass I’ve seen. Both caught the colors of the land perfectly, and the artistry and design were stunning.
From there we moved into a waiting area and waited for an earlier group to finish. the window there showed the handcart pioneers in the large center panel (if memory serves) and important figures and events from that long trek in smaller panels around the border. One showed a gent sitting on a wagon tongue, writing. I asked about it, and it was the composer of “Come, Come Ye Saints” at work. The waiting area was airy and lit softly, with soothing tans and I think light blue in the furniture. The smaller chairs fit me, something most unusual these days. I was quite content just to sit and look around.
Each main room was slightly smaller, and paler, with thicker carpet. I have never walked on carpet so thick. Not shag, but a dense pile wool that gave just enough underfoot. I think that impressed me the most. Everything was the finest it could be, and you could see that the people had put a great deal of time and treasure into designing, decorating, and furnishing the temple. It was an impressive display of faith and tradition, and very much like the spirit that led to the building of cathedrals in Europe in the 1100s.
The final space was at the apex of the building (not in the tower, but close). Pure white walls and carpet and furnishings set the room apart, and a hushed sense of focus filled the space. This was special, very special. An altar sat in the center of the room, and the diffuse light gave a feeling of being outside of time. The couple were quite reverent, and explained that this was the sealing room, where marriages and family connections are sealed for all time, allowing the family to be reunited after death. It is not meant for talking or instruction, but for sealings, and for quiet contemplation. Which is what we all did for a few minutes, then we left and went back to where we’d started.
The couple knew almost everything about the building, and only stumbled once, when someone asked about one of the figures on the window. The lady excused herself, disappeared, and came back with someone who could provide the correct answer.
I left a small donation at the museum and went to do other things. Yes, the place has stuck with me. This was almost 20 years ago, and I can see the sealing room clearly, and the stained glass, and a few other things. I am not LDS, and I have some serious difficulties with some of their theology (not “they are bad” serious but personal belief difficulties). However, as you can probably guess, I greatly respect Mormons. They do a lot of good, and I admire their insistence on young people doing mission work. Not all Mormons are saints, despite the formal name of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, but the vast majority of the Mormons I’ve been around have been good people. And the Omaha/ Winter Quarters Temple was certainly a testament to their faith and willingness to put their resources where their beliefs are.