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Vai's View: 40 years 'wandering the wilderness' not too much to keep neighbor from coming home

Published: Friday, Sept. 20 2013 12:35 p.m. MDT

For at least a dozen years, I have jogged daily through my neighborhood and a neighboring development with my dog. It's a circuitous route with hills but designed to keep me and my dog off busy roads with speeding motorists. People honk, wave or stop me to say hi or chat as they leisurely walk for exercise with their own dogs. I run with an iPod as a diversion so I can listen to the music of my youth ­ — Elton John, Bee Gees, Earth, Wind & Fire.

For years, I noticed the husky guy walking the big dog with the red pullover but was never close enough to notice it had the distinctive Utah drum logo. Lots of people wear red in Philadelphia — ­ it's the Phillies' and Sixers' colors.

One morning in January, my Jewish neighbor, Barry Sabol, stopped in his SUV to chat with me. As we talked, I noticed the big, barrel-chested guy with the big dog and the red fleece walking toward me. As he approached, I noticed for the first time his red pullover was a Utah Utes fleece. I smiled. He asked, "You're Vai Sikahema?"

"I am. And you are?"

"Rich Daniels." He pointed toward his home, "bought that house in 1991 and been here ever since. I'm LDS but been inactive. Can we talk?"

Barry, my Jewish neighbor, interrupted us. "I'll let you two Mormon guys catch up." Then, he drove off.

I invited Rich over that same evening. I learned his parents, Spencer and Ruth Daniels, recently died within 18 months of one another; Ruth in February 2011 and Spencer in December 2012. He returned to Salt Lake City to bury them. In doing so, he felt the stirring of their spirits urging him to return to the church.

Rich told me when he drifted from the church in college, he held the office of priest in the Aaronic Priesthood. He hoped to be advanced to the Melchizedek Priesthood. His four siblings remained active in the church and he longed to join them. I asked why he left.

"I decided not to serve a mission when I was in college. I felt ostracized and shunned. I was young. My wife, Ann, grew up in Salt Lake in a part-member home. Her parents are in their 90s; LDS father and Methodist mother. She traces her lineage to Joseph Smith. But because her father married outside of the church, they were basically shunned. At least it felt that way. They never really recovered from it and they're in their 90s!

"That had a profound effect on her family because Ann grew up feeling she was an outcast ­ as a Joseph Smith descendant in Salt Lake City, for heaven's sake! So she and her siblings gravitated towards their mother's Methodist faith."

Rich and Ann Daniels have become my good friends. I stop at their home when I run with my dog to check on them and to chat. They've come for barbecues. In the spring, when Elder John Groberg and his wife, Jean, spent an evening in my home, I invited the Danielses and a few close friends to come meet the famous general authority of the book and movie fame, "The Other Side Of Heaven." Rich had never heard of Groberg or his story. He was captivated. He went out and bought the movie that night and watched it with his family.

I interviewed Rich for the Melchizedek Priesthood and invited him to share his reactivation experience in stake priesthood meeting. He's the executive secretary of his ward, serving a bishop who is a landscaper, a man with calloused hands and sunburned skin. Rich is a business executive with years of administrative experience, yet he tells me he's learned more from his laborer-bishop than he did in MBA school.

"Bishop Hans Feuz has taught me so much about humility, church government, how to exercise the priesthood and the difference between ministering and administering," Rich said. "I've been away since the early 1970s, so it's all new to me. But I absolutely love it. And I've learned the difference between the church and its people. As I young man, I didn't know that. I allowed people to offend me, and it kept me away for 40 years!"

In August, Rich returned to Salt Lake City, and for the first time in their lives gathered with all of his siblings and did endowment work in the temple. "Our parents were with us. It took their passing to bring me back. I know they were pleased."

Rich also enjoys the approval of his non-LDS wife, Ann, and their children. "Ann loves me unconditionally and knows this is something I had to do."

Saturday night, the Danielses are coming over for our annual Y./U. Tailgate Party. U. grads decorate half the house, Y. grads decorate the other. We'll watch Bryan Rowley's highlights, then my Legends segment from BYUtv. Then we turn to the pre-game shows. I smoke my famous dry-rub baby back ribs, grill teriyaki chicken and pulehu shrimp. The Danielses are bringing dessert, ­ a huge sheet cake Rich ordered with a life-size Utah helmet facing a miniature BYU helmet. We'll eat, laugh, banter and cheer.

Win or lose, we'll hug at game's end, then kneel in prayer — grateful for a bountiful harvest and that we're allowed to participate in each other's rescue. Even when it takes 40 years.

Shalom.

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