“A Day in Heaven,” Ensign, Dec. 1991, 33
The spires of the Washington Temple shone white against the predawn darkness, greeting members of the Fredericksburg Virginia Stake as they arrived at the temple on the morning of 3 August 1990.
Stake president Douglas Marker and his wife, Kathleen, felt great joy and anticipation as they drove through the early morning light. Sharing this day in the temple with stake members was to be the climax of years of preparation.
Mark and Lissa Hamilton and their two children, seven-year-old Jennifer and four-year-old Mark, were excited and nervous in spite of the early hour. Mark and Lissa were attending the temple for the first time, and later that morning their family would be sealed together for eternity.
Robert and Barbara Nicholson were still at home preparing to come to the temple. Diagnosed as having cancer eight months earlier, Barbara was still sick from a chemotherapy treatment. Although it had been twenty-two years since the Nicholsons had been to the temple, their commitment was firm; they would join the temple group later in the day no matter what.
In 1980 when Douglas Marker was called as stake president, he wanted the Fredericksburg stake to be more than a stake in Zion—he wanted it to become a “Zion stake.” For several years, he and his counselors had worked toward that goal. Proverbs 29:18 became their inspiration: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Soon, the stake presidency developed a “vision” for their stake; their plan focused on the individual and included a day in the temple with as many stake members as possible in attendance. The idea began to take hold, but it took years to unfold.
Three things eventually helped members of the stake capture the same vision as their stake presidency: first, stake leaders and their wives were called to serve as excursion temple workers; second, members of the stake presidency visited members who did not currently hold temple recommends; and third, temple recommend holders were encouraged to gather family file names for the stake temple day.
Thomas Bell, president of the Washington Temple, met with the leaders of the stakes within that temple district in April 1988 and asked them to serve as temple excursion workers—special temple workers called and set apart, then trained on regular stake temple days so they could serve as ordinance workers on future stake temple days.
President Marker was among the first to respond to this request. Soon thirty-five members of the Fredericksburg stake were receiving training.
“Calling so many to be excursion temple workers helped build an attitude of temple worship within the stake,” says Michael Sessions of the Fredericksburg Second Ward. “It helped to get the momentum going toward reaching our goal of a day together in the temple.”
Wayne Thomasson, a temple worker from the Prince William Ward, says, “I had quit coming to church, but I never lost my testimony. About three years ago I decided to turn things around in my life. Along with my return to the gospel came a new dedication to temple work. My temple activity is definitely the key to my testimony of the gospel.”
Every Wednesday evening, the members of the stake presidency and an assigned high councilor traveled to one of the wards in their stake. Each one joined with ward Melchizedek Priesthood leaders or home teachers and visited with members who had been prayerfully selected earlier. They invited these members to “come unto Christ” through priesthood and temple ordinances, and encouraged them to join with other members of the stake in a special temple day. The stake presidency participated in more than 244 interviews and follow-up interviews from mid-1989 to mid-1990, resulting in about 100 more temple recommend holders than the previous year.
“You don’t have to do very many things,” says President Wayne Rasmussen, first counselor in the stake presidency, “if you are doing the right things. I think we caught a vision of what it means to be involved in ministering as opposed to administering.”
Because of the stake’s emphasis on the family file, members submitted about five hundred family file names of individuals whose temple work was ready to be done during sessions on August 3.
“From my viewpoint as a convert, being able to do family history has been a very special part of my membership,” says Harold Richardson, of the Chancellor Ward, who completed temple work for 105 family file names on that special stake temple day.
To supplement the family files of stake members, President Marker asked William Taylor, a former stake clerk, for help. Brother Taylor, who had been heavily involved in a personal effort to extract names of Confederate soldiers, was able to extract the records of two thousand marriages performed in Shenandoah County, Virginia. He arranged to have those names available at the temple that day. Brother Taylor estimates that about 80 percent of the one thousand grooms listed in the county marriage records had served as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
With these large family files available, most stake members were able to enjoy the blessings of performing temple work for individuals listed in family files.
High councilor Sam Bateman was given the responsibility for turning President Marker’s vision of a stake temple day into a workable plan. Well-organized and thorough, Brother Bateman compiled a questionnaire that asked members about their plans for the day at the temple, including special needs, meals, clothing, and transportation. From questionnaire responses, Brother Bateman was able to plan the stake temple day. In addition to assignments for temple excursion workers, arrangements included help from Church members in the temple laundry and in the cafeteria. Also, a special baptism for the dead session was set for single adults and new members who had not yet been endowed.
As the plan unfolded, all the wards in the Fredericksburg stake experienced a surge of reactivation. “The result of the preparation—what it did for our ward—was the highlight for me,” says Richard Greco, bishop of the Culpeper Ward, where 85 percent of the endowed members in the ward have current temple recommends.
Bishop Paul Redd of the Lake Ridge Ward says, “A big challenge for many people in our stake was developing a testimony of tithing.”
A member of the Church since she was thirteen, Chris Tunbridge of the Fredericksburg First Ward decided it was time for her to go to the temple. “I had been divorced ten years,” says Sister Tunbridge. “I finally realized that my eternal salvation is my own responsibility. Paying my tithing was my only real hurdle.” The first week after Sister Tunbridge decided to pay her tithing, the man next door chopped down his tree and it landed on her daughter’s swing set. “I wondered if I should pay my tithing or buy a new swing set,” she remembers. “But I decided to pay my tithing. The next day the man next door handed me a check to buy a new swing set for my daughter.”
Bishop Mark Worthington, of the Woodbridge Ward, feels that most people really do want to do what’s right, and with a little encouragement they can make significant progress.
Twenty-two years ago, Robert and Barbara Nicholson, of the Lake Ridge Ward, were married in the Arizona Temple. “We somehow just never went back to the temple,” says Brother Nicholson, who is retired from the Washington, D.C., police force.
“Being diagnosed as having cancer was only one of several problems in the last two years that have overwhelmed us like an avalanche of nightmares,” says Sister Nicholson. “We felt that going to the temple would fortify us spiritually and help us withstand some of the things we could see coming.”
The youth in the Fredericksburg stake also participated in three trips to the Washington Temple to do baptisms for family file names prior to August 3. “I think it is important for the youth to take part in the temple and feel worthy to do so,” says Brother Harold Richardson. “My two daughters have participated in baptisms for the dead. I usually tell them about their ancestors before we go. They often say they have felt a special feeling when they are baptized for a family name.”
The young women also provided baby-sitting on the stake temple day. “Baby-sitting for ten or more hours was a real commitment for these girls,” says Sheila Watson, Young Women secretary in the Lake Ridge Ward. “We had boys volunteer to help, too.”
Had it not been for the free baby-sitting on August 3, some families would not have been able to attend the temple. In one ward, a mother came into a Young Women meeting the week afterward, and, with tears streaming down her face, thanked the girls for the service they had rendered.
“One thing that took us by surprise,” says President Robert Brown, second counselor in the stake presidency, “was the overall improvement that took place in the stake by emphasizing temple worthiness. President Bell told us that ‘temple worship could do more for an individual in all facets of his Church life than anything else,’ and he was right.”
The home teaching experience of Michael Sessions of the Fredericksburg Second Ward was typical of the life-changing events taking place throughout the stake during preparation for this day.
Muriel Hewitt had been a widow for twenty-five years. Though she grew up in the Church, she had never attended the temple because of the distance involved. Brother Sessions had been Sister Hewitt’s home teacher for eight years. However, their friendship extended beyond home teaching; eighty-year-old Muriel had become an adopted grandmother to the Sessions children.
“She was hesitant in March when I suggested that she attend the temple with our stake on August 3,” says Brother Sessions, “so we talked about her getting her patriarchal blessing instead. She did. Next, I invited her to attend the temple preparation class. She was hesitant, but I said my wife and I would come by and pick her up. Gradually, she decided to go to the temple. A niece helped her get the family group sheets together.
“My wife and I participated in the sealing session with Sister Hewitt. Words can’t express my joy during that sealing. She was sealed to her parents and her husband. A son, who had died at age two, was also sealed to her.”
When the Hamiltons arrived at the temple, they took Jennifer and Mark to the children’s room. Then Mark and Lissa proceeded through the temple, receiving their own endowments. A few hours later, the four of them, dressed in white, knelt at an altar in a mirrored sealing room to be sealed as a family unit for time and all eternity.
“There were times when I felt as if the Savior were right there,” says Brother Hamilton, a member of the Fredericksburg Second Ward. “I felt so pure. I don’t know why we didn’t do it sooner.”
When Sister Sheila Watson arrived, she was one of many stake members who were attending the temple for the first time. “Though my husband isn’t a member of the Church, he was very supportive,” says Sister Watson. “He even sent me flowers on my big day.” Nervous about attending the temple, she felt peaceful once she was inside. “I felt overwhelmed by the love that the Lord had for me,” continues Sister Watson. “I knew this was a step for us toward becoming an eternal family. My soul is happy.”
Robert and Barbara Nicholson arrived at the temple in the afternoon in spite of Barbara’s ill health. “I kept thinking about the early prophets who left on missions when they were sick,” says Sister Nicholson, “so I decided I could do it, too.”
“Returning to the temple helped cement our relationship against our day-to-day struggles,” says Brother Nicholson. “I can’t imagine where we would be now if we hadn’t prepared ourselves to go to the temple.”
All day long, the 550 Fredericksburg stake members who attended the stake temple day shared sacred spiritual experiences with each other. For most, the day was wonderfully long. “My wife and I got up at 3:00 A.M. to get to the temple,” says Brother Sessions, “and we didn’t get home until after midnight. Yet there was something about the Spirit that sustained us.”
Many expressed the same feelings about the day—they felt as if they were in heaven.
“We were all dressed in white,” remembers Sister Watson. “It was so quiet. Watching as everyone walked down the spiral staircase was like being in heaven.”
As evening came, stake members gathered in an assembly room. This meeting was the culmination not only of the day but of all the many months of preparation. The meeting included several songs by a stake choir and talks by President Bell and President Marker.
“There were more than five hundred people in the audience, and most of them had tears streaming down their faces,” says President Brown, who was seated on the stand. “I will have that image before me forever. I felt especially close to those members I had worked with individually. After the meeting, many of those people came up to me and hugged me, saying, ‘Thank you for helping me in my life.’ I think the temple has far more impact in our lives than we realize.”
For many, the music was also a highlight of the meeting. Several months previously, President Marker had asked Geniel Thompson, of the Lake Ridge Ward, to organize a stake choir.
“Our little choir of about forty people seemed excited,” says Sister Thompson. “They were not perfect, but they sang the spirit of the music.”
Congregational singing served as an important part of the meeting. An advocate for memorizing hymns, Sister Thompson feels that “there is a great spirit when the words and the music are yours and you can sing from your heart.” At one point in the program, the congregation sang “The Spirit of God” while the choir sang the “Hosanna Anthem.”
“It was a very moving experience to hear a congregation of more than five hundred sing ‘The Spirit of God,’” continues Sister Thompson. “I wondered how the ‘Hosanna Anthem’ by my little choir would be heard over the huge congregation, but it was.”
“When we sang ‘The Spirit of God,’ says Terry Metler, bishop of the Fredericksburg Second Ward, “I was too emotional to sing. Then I noticed my wife wasn’t singing. In fact, very few people were singing, yet it was the loudest, most glorious sound I’ve ever heard.
“When we came to the words of the song ‘We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven,’ I realized that we were in fact literally surrounded by the armies of heaven, who were singing with us. It’s one of those experiences I’ll never forget.”