Camden is a city known for dysfunction. Three mayors have served time for corruption, most recently in 2000. In 2005, the state took the school system and the police department. In 2008, Camden had the highest crime rate in the country and for three years during the decade of 2000, it was voted America's most dangerous city.
Here's what isn't known about Camden: For years, it has been one of the highest baptizing areas of the Cherry Hill, N.J., Mission and now the Philadelphia Mission. Missionaries consider it paradise and beg to serve there, including senior couples.
A number of years ago, we established a Spanish branch of the Church there in a rented building. Two years ago, attendance at the Camden branch forced us to convert it into a ward, so we simply called the branch president, Julio Ortiz, a self-employed auto mechanic, as its bishop.
While Bishop Ortiz is bilingual, it soon became apparent that many of the converts and the newly re-activated members in Camden didn't speak Spanish, so we created the Pennsauken branch (a nearby township) to accommodate the English-only speakers. The Camden ward and Pennsauke branch would share the same rented building. Our hope was that the division would ease the burgeoning growth and buy us a little time.
But both units continued to flourish. In fact, in less than a year, the Pennsauken branch has nearly doubled in size. Initially, there were only a handful of youth in the Pennsauken branch so we consolidated the two units' youth program — a common practice here in the east. Now, they have their own programs.
Of course, with the growth comes the problem of space. And the rented hall where both units meet is bursting at the seams.
We petitioned Church headquarters for a new building, having met all the requirements, and permission was granted. We found a suitable property and it was approved.
All of this was happening simultaneously as the approvals were being met for the Philadelphia temple. Then we learned New Jersey Church members' favorite son was assigned to preside over the Philadelphia Temple groundbreaking.
We simply asked his office if President Eyring would be interested in driving the 12 minutes over the Ben Franklin Bridge for the Camden Chapel groundbreaking after he dedicated the ground in Philly. We didn't hold our breath as we knew his itinerary was jammed packed.
Imagine our excitement when his office responded that indeed President Eyring intended to stop in Camden after visiting the Philadelphia building (not an LDS chapel) where he was baptized as a boy.
As he's often prone to do, President Eyring was emotional as he shared boyhood memories of growing up in nearby Princeton. He regaled us with stories of his boyhood home doubling as their chapel and their dinner table becoming the sacrament table. His dear mother was both pianist and chorister — she led by tapping her foot loudly to keep the beat. Then, he invited all to bow and close our eyes and he blessed the ground to be hallowed and for the chapel to be a beacon of light and hope to all of Camden — that the city would regard it as a refuge and a place of peace.
When he finished, he instructed my stake president who was conducting, to announce that he'd turn over a few shovel-fulls of earth with visiting dignitaries, then rush to the airport for his return flight to Utah.
As he walked past on his way to the car, he suddenly stopped and embraced me and whispered a few sweet comments. Then, he put his arm around me for a minute and without saying a word, smiled and posed for the cameras snapping all around us. He released my arm and just as quickly, his bodyguards whisked him away and off he went.
It was an incredible day.
Text of my remarks at the Philadelphia Temple Groundbreaking
A little over two weeks ago, my parents, Loni and Ruby Sikahema, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
When they married civilly in 1961 in Tonga, local LDS church leaders encouraged them to save money to go to Hawaii or New Zealand to receive ordinances available only in temples, among them, the privilege of being sealed to one another for time and all eternity.
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