With a new temple coming to Philadelphia, local Mormons hold symposium explaining their faith

With a Mormon Temple planned for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, The Book of Mormon running on Broadway, and church member Mitt Romney running for president, the Philadelphia Region of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a recent symposium to answer questions about their faith.

Keynote speaker Ahmad S. Corbitt, director of the New York Office of Public and International Affairs for the church, and president of the Cherry Hill, N.J., Stake (meaning he oversees multiple congregations in that area) started with basics:

“Are Mormons Christian?” is among the most frequent, and sometimes bothersome, questions that church members are asked, he said. The simple answer: Yes. Like other Christians, Mormons believe “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and also our personal savior.”

The Sunday night event was held at the Broomall meeting house, also called a chapel. Such spaces are where Mormons worship each Sunday and hold social activities, explained Philadelphia Region spokeswoman Corinne Dougherty.  There are 180,000 such buildings around the world, including 40 in the Philadelphia region. A new one has been built in Chester, and another is coming to Camden.

Temples like the one to be built at 17th and Vine streets are much rarer, and serve as the site for the most sacred of occasions, including marriage for eternity and baptism for the dead (more on those concepts later). There are 137 operating Mormon temples in the world, and 23 under construction or announced, Dougherty said.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, who joined the LDS Church when he was a student and football player at Brigham Young University, was host of the event.  “It’s a tremendous privilege to have the temple here,” he said during the reception following the formal program. He was thrilled the city supported its construction, particularly in such “prime property.”

“From a personal standpoint, we as members of the church love going to the temple and doing the Lord’s work, so that’s a privilege and an honor for us,” he said.

Eagles Coach Andy Reid on what it means to him to have a Mormon Temple in Philadelphia

Dougherty said the start of construction for the Philadelphia temple has been pushed back a bit, because the permitting process has been more complex than was anticipated. But the hope is that it will begin by the end of this year, and that work will be completed in 2014.

Reid told the 284 people gathered at the Broomall meeting house that, unlike some of his teammates, his conversion to the faith was about religious ideas, and not about the pursuit of a “ a goodlookin’ girl.” 

“Obviously, I didn’t go in that direction,” he said, then quickly clarified, “Not that I didn’t have the goodlookin’ girl!”  The audience broke into laughter.  Reid’s then-girlfriend, now wife, Tammy, was in the audience.

In addition to Reid, who served as a master of ceremonies, and Corbitt, who talked theology, attendees heard presentations on the active role of women in the church from BYU sociology professor Renata T. Forste. While women are not ordained ministers, they serve every other role, she said. And while Mormon couples tend to split home duties along traditional lines, with women as the primary childcare providers and men as the primary wage earners, that is changing somewhat, in part because of the recession. No matter how duties are divided by couples, she said, men and women are to be equal partners in marriage.

The audience learned that Mormons donate vastly more money and volunteer hours than the general population from Ram A. Cnaan, a professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice who recently published a study on Mormon volunteer practices, which can be read here. Cnaan is not an LDS church member. “Being a member is hard,” he told the audience. “You give a lot of your resources and a large amount of your time.”

Downingtown East High School senior Kiersten Beitler spoke about how growing up Mormon has helped her deal with the temptations of the teen years. Mormons eschew alcohol (and also caffeine). These days, when she’s offered something she shouldn’t have, she usually doesn’t even have to say no. “My friends will say, ‘No, she can’t. She’s Mormon.’” 

Mormons believe that Christ was buried, rose on the third day and ascended into heaven, Corbitt said, and that people can earn a place in Heaven, too –  although the LDS understanding of  heaven is different from other  faiths.  Mormons believe in a multi-leveled Heaven, and that those who achieve the highest level are “in the presence of the Heavenly Father, and in the presence of the family unit.”

After several presentations, panelists took questions from the audience.

The family plays a very important role in Mormon faith. A marriage that is solemnized in a Mormon Temple is not “till death do us part,” Corbitt said. It is eternal. And that couple and their children will maintain their family bond in the next life.

Mormons also believe that people who have already died can be baptized in the faith. This belief is partly why Mormons have compiled so many genealogical documents – documents that anyone, Mormon or not – can use to find family information. Visit a website here. This baptism can also only occur in a temple.

Mormons believe that God is the spiritual father of every human soul, and that we all have a spiritual Mother as well. “We don’t talk about her very much, because we don’t know very much about her,” said Dougherty during the reception. “I hope to meet her one day.”

The church believes that God has a physical body – a perfected one – and that every person lived with God before birth, and chose to be born with a physical body so as to become more like God. Because humans are imperfect, sinful creatures, he said, we need Jesus to get us there.

Mormons “seek to treat all people as brothers and sisters in humanity” regardless of differences such as ethnicity, race, religion or orientation, he said. 

Mormons believe in the Bible, but also in additional scriptures, collected in The Book of Mormon.

It is the Book of Mormon, named after the saint who compiled those scriptures, that gave members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints their nickname. And with a formal name like that, they needed one, Corbitt joked. “We may get the award for the longest name in all of Christendom,” he said.

In the full name, “saints” means members of the church. The name comes from the belief that Christ’s return to earth is coming soon. “We believe we are members of Christ’s Church in the last days, or latter days, before the second coming,” Corbitt said.

Corbitt also addressed two misconceptions about Mormons. “I don’t think there is anyone in the thinking world who continues to mistake Mormons with polygamists,” he said.

Still, he took the time to explain that while there may be polygamists who call themselves Mormons, they are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which prohibits polygamy.

Mitt Romney may be among the world’s most well-known Mormons right now, but from what Corbitt said, he shouldn’t count on the votes of all his fellow church-members.

“We are not a political monolith,” he said. There are seven U.S. Senators who are church members, he noted, four Republicans and three Democrats. One of those Democrats, Harry Reid, is a chief architect of the Obama agenda, Corbitt said. 

PlanPhilly will follow the planning, permitting and construction of the Mormon Temple through 2012

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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