The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently invited about 4,000 local and national dignitaries, leaders and members of the media to tour the new completed Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple prior to the public open house, which concludes this week.
About one-third of those special guests consisted of religious leaders and representatives from a broad spectrum of faiths, including Jewish, Muslim, Catholics, Amish, Methodist, Lutheran, Evangelical, Seventh-day Adventist and others. Their collective response to the invitation and tour was overwhelmingly warm and positive, and opened doors to stronger interfaith relationships, said John Taylor, director of interfaith relations for the LDS Church.
"It is the City of Brotherly Love. We felt that during this whole process," Taylor said. "It gave them an opportunity to see one of our sacred spaces, and I think that is something that we very much have in common with so many faiths. Whether it's a beautiful mosque or cathedral, a magnificent synagogue or a simple structure, we are all united in our desire to go to special places where we can feel closer to the God we worship. It was a remarkable experience."
When dedicated on Sept. 18, the new temple featuring Georgian and historic Philadelphia architecture will become the LDS Church's 152nd operating temple. Its beauty and centralized location — both in the heart of downtown and on the East Coast — provides the LDS Church with a prime opportunity to build interfaith friendships, Taylor said. The director and others recently recounted some of the memorable moments and dialogue that took place with these interfaith tours.
"I think it's blessed both sides. These (interfaith leaders) were able to understand better the doctrines and basic tenets of our faith," Taylor said. "It also offered a wonderful opportunity for them to share with us. There were some wonderful opportunities to share and recognize and appreciate the different beliefs of our faiths. I found that to be extremely rewarding."
Archbishop Charles Chaput was one of three archbishops to visit the temple. He and a group of priests, bishops and others from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were guided on a tour of the temple by Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder Larry Y. Wilson, assistant executive director in the temple department. The new temple is only about a block from the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church in the state. Photos from their visit were posted on CatholicPhilly.com.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop William E. Loir of Baltimore, and nuns from Little Sisters of the Poor also walked through the temple.
"Archbishop Kurtz made a special trip from Louisville, Kentucky," Taylor said. "It's those kinds of efforts that I think touched us all."
Abby Stamelman Hocky, a member of the Jewish faith at the Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, as well as executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia (online at interfaithcenterpa.org), was part of a group that toured the temple.
The hospitality exhibited by volunteers and leaders who guided the tours overwhelmed her and she called the LDS Church "courageous" for opening up the temple so visitors might learn more about its beliefs and the significance of the temple. The Philadelphia Temple will add to the "richness of our religious landscape of our region," she wrote in an email.
"We are proud to reside in the birthplace of religious liberty," Hocky said. "The presence of the LDS temple has already made a difference as a public witness to the enduring principle that guarantees that all faiths can and will flourish.
"I learned so much that I did not previously know," she wrote. "This exemplifies the beautiful curiosity we have about one another’s faith traditions and what a blessing it is to reach out and respectfully cross the threshold to experience something new. Thank you to the LDS Church for affording our community this privilege."
Elder Milan F. Kunz, an Area Seventy and local temple committee chairman, represents the LDS Church on the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, a council that includes more than 30 of the top religious leaders in the region. Many from this council toured the temple and several brought their leadership and congregations for a tour, said Corinne Dougherty, public affairs director for the LDS Church in Philadelphia.
Among those who came was Bishop Peter Hwang of the Council of Korean Churches of Greater Philadelphia. He brought about 20 members of his congregation. Sister Meehyun Park, a Latter-day Saint from the Valley Forge Pennsylvania Stake, joined the tour to help with translation, Dougherty said.
A Methodist pastor from Pennsylvania praised the commitment and faith of Latter-day Saints volunteering during the open house, Dougherty said.
"As I looked around, I was struck by the knowledge and commitment of those who were involved, and I wondered, how would our denomination stack up?" Dougherty shared the pastor's comments. "Each person we met yesterday seemed to feel honored to be present to extend hospitality to visitors. Each one was 'ready to make their defense' and share their faith if asked. Could we say the same? Could we gather such willing volunteers and would they be ready to explain their faith, their church?"
Many remarked to Taylor they were glad to see the LDS Church have a presence in downtown Philadelphia.
"Thank you for building a house of worship in our town, we need more houses of faith," Taylor shared of their reactions. "We heard that time and time again," he added.
One rabbi came away from the tour with a sense that the LDS Church had a joyful respect for life, a perspective and happiness that more people in the world need to find. "He was touched," Taylor said.
Other notable names to visit the temple included: Rabbi Noam E. Marans and local representatives from the American Jewish Committee; national representatives from the American Jewish Committee; Dr. Daniel Mark of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Robert P. George of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Dr. Ella Simmons, vice president of Seventh-day Adventists; Waseem Sayed and Usman Choudary, national leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslims; national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman; Galen Carey, National Association of Evangelicals; and the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers, a Pentecostal minister in Boston, according to the LDS Church News.
"One of the most valuable rewards of our new temple has been the positive support and encouragement from across the community," Dougherty said. "Our interfaith contemporaries have led the way with a desire to understand our faith and culture. We look forward to strengthening relationships and to working together for the common good for generations to come."
Taylor echoed similar feelings.
"There are an awful lot of good people of all faiths who are working hard to make this world a better place, who are really trying to do good things," Taylor said. "For me, this temple experience has given me a greater appreciation for the true goodness of people."
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