Vai's View: Vai's View: Philadelphia temple groundbreaking was a day to remember

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 11:24 a.m. MDT

With Pres. Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency after he dedicated the Camden, N.J. groundbreaking. (Bill James) With Pres. Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency after he dedicated the Camden, N.J. groundbreaking. (Bill James)

One day in early August, I received a call on my cell phone from Elder William R. Walker of the Seventy as I was headed to work.

I had met Elder Walker 18 years earlier when he was President Walker of the Tokyo South Mission. At the time, I was heading into my final year with the Philadelphia Eagles and we were scheduled to play a preseason game in August of 1993 in the Tokyo Dome against the New Orleans Saints. In May of that year, the Eagles asked me to fly to Tokyo on the NFL's dime with my wife for a week to promote the game in August. Randall Cunningham didn't care to travel and Reggie White was a free agent (who eventually signed with Green Bay), so though I was only the team's punt returner, the organization appreciated I was a good spokesman and representative of the franchise, so we were invited to travel to Japan. My wife was pregnant with our last child and would give birth in August, but her doctor cleared her to travel with me in May. We spoke at a fireside for President Walker's missionaries and their investigators while in Tokyo.

Loni Sikahema, who visited for the Philly Temple groundbreaking.  (Samantha Muller) Loni Sikahema, who visited for the Philly Temple groundbreaking. (Samantha Muller)

I watched with interest after the Walkers' return, as he was called as a General Authority in 2002 and his more recent assignment as the executive director of the Temple Department.

I hadn't seen or spoken to Elder Walker since our Tokyo visit nearly 20 years ago. I was impressed he remembered our visit and he seemed pleased that I remembered eating dinner in the mission home and that I had stayed in touch with the two assistants he dispatched to pick us up from our hotel, years after they returned home. But I was wondering why he was calling out of the blue, so I asked, "What can I do for you?"

"I'm calling on behalf of President Eyring," he said. I almost drove off the road, but I remained silent, knowing we had just been told that President Eyring was assigned to preside over the upcoming Philadelphia Temple groundbreaking.

With Pres. Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency after he dedicated the Camden, N.J. groundbreaking. (Samantha Muller) With Pres. Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency after he dedicated the Camden, N.J. groundbreaking. (Samantha Muller)

"He'd like you to speak with him at the groundbreaking. You'll have five minutes. Can you do it?"

"Yes sir," I stammered. "I'd be delighted and I recognize what a special honor it is, Elder Walker. I'll do my best."

"You'll be great," he replied. "I look forward to seeing you again in September. We love you brother." And with that, Elder Walker was gone.

I've spoken thousands of times in thousands of settings, but never at a temple groundbreaking.

Given how close temples are to most of us no matter where we live, I knew immediately I would share our family experience of going to the New Zealand temple as a child. Mostly, I wanted Philadelphians, especially new members of the Church, to appreciate the sacrifice my parents made to take us to a foreign country to be sealed. I hoped to share my belief that their sacrifice is directly linked to how richly we've been blessed as a family. I felt it was important that we not take for granted the close proximity of temples. I also wanted to give a nod to the Founding Fathers, whom I was certain would be present because of their history with Philadelphia.

Because of limited space and parking, members of the Philadelphia temple district in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware were encouraged to watch the ceremony from local chapels, where it was being broadcast via satellite. Perhaps 500 to 600 people were actually on the site for the groundbreaking, including Mayor Michael Nutter and Councilman Darrell Clarke, as the temple is in his district. Both men, but especially Clarke, championed the building of the temple in Philly.

My dad came alone from Seattle, where they recently moved to live with my sister and her family, without mom because of her ailing health.

At the conclusion of the temple groundbreaking, we had another groundbreaking for a chapel just across the Delaware River in Camden, N.J. — a unit in our stake.

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.

It took them six years because three children had come along and it was important that we were together for those ordinances.

As a 5-year-old boy in 1967, I accompanied two younger siblings along with my parents and a dozen other families on a trip to the New Zealand temple. It was a long, arduous, three-day journey. The first day, we sailed by boat from Tonga to Suva, Fiji, sleeping on the boat where ever we could find space. Families with young children, such as ours, were allowed and encouraged to huddle closer to the middle of the ship to avoid being swept overboard.

When we arrived in Suva, the capital city, we were warmly greeted by Fijian Saints who fed and housed us for the evening. However, in the middle of the night, we were roused from bed for the three-hour bus ride to the other side of the island, where the international airport is located. The drive took us on a mountainous, one-lane road to the city of Nadi, where we flew to Auckland, New Zealand. From Auckland, we boarded buses for the two-hour drive south to Hamilton, where the temple is located.

It wasn't until I was much older that I understood the sacrifice my parents made to get us to New Zealand. They had saved for years but as the trip drew closer, they were still short, so they started selling everything, including produce from our garden. I remember my mother's grateful prayers for how bounteous our crops were that particular season. I remember the floor of our little thatched-roof home filled with watermelons and people milling around our one-room hut thumping melons while my parents watched pensively, hoping for a sale. They made enough for our trip with exactly $15 pa'anga or dollars to spare for pocket money; that's the equivalent of about $5 or $6 American dollars. My mother told me we returned from New Zealand with the same $15 pa'anga because of the generosity of family members and Saints in New Zealand.

I cannot discount the role their sacrifice played in the way our lives unfolded in the 40-plus years that followed that seminal event in 1967.

All three of us children are college graduates from prestigious American universities; my siblings even have graduate degrees. We all served missions for the Church and we've married in the temple, without having to marry civilly first or traveling great distances at great personal expense, as my parents did. Our children have served missions in Asia, Europe and the South Pacific. More of my parents' grandchildren will serve missions in the coming year; they're in college, marrying in the temple and starting their own families. I don't know if Mom and Dad had any idea what lay ahead of them when they took us to New Zealand and later immigrated to the U.S.

How blessed we are to be on these hallowed grounds, where the Founding Fathers of this great nation lived and toiled.

Today, as we gather to celebrate this historic event, I know that those who signed the Declaration of Independence and those who drafted the Constitution mere blocks from here are smiling upon us. So are modern and ancient prophets: "Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments.

"And let us arise, and go up to Bethel (which was a hallowed or holy place); and I will make there an altar unto God ..." (Gen. 35: 2-3)

Today, so few of us have to make the kinds of sacrifices that my parents made. But temple worship does require some sacrifice on our part — perhaps even giving up the "strange gods" that may afflict us such as immorality or addiction.

I pray that we will find the courage to do so.

I close with a play on the words of a popular ad campaign: I'm an immigrant and a naturalized citizen. I'm a Tongan-American.

I'm a sportscaster. A columnist. A father, husband and brand new grandfather. I'm a BYU Cougar. I'm a Philadelphian ... and I'm a Mormon.

In the sacred name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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