Sunday, September 4, 2016

stopped in to a church I passed along the way

I am not a religious person at all. I find religion to be silly. I regularly make fun of all religions. If you find that offensive, I suggest you do not continue reading.  If you are Mormon, you probably shouldn't even have started to read this. — JPiC

A few weeks ago, my pal and co-worker Pat asked if I'd like to accompany him on a tour of the new Philadelphia Mormon Temple that recently opened in Center City (that's how Philadelphians refer to the downtown area of the city). The recently-built and newly opened temple is offering free tours of the massive facility to the general non-Mormon public for a few weeks before admission is limited to a select group of card-carrying Mormons  and that's not a joke. You, literally have to present a card to enter.

The Mormon temple is just a short walk from our office, but on the day of our scheduled tour, we got busy and had to reschedule. Then we got really busy on the rescheduled day, so Pat rescheduled again. On Thursday, Pat checked the calendar and noticed that the tours come to an end just after Labor Day, so our opportunities were running out. We were going that afternoon, no matter how busy we got. Around noon, we stealthily slipped out, along with two other co-workers, Junior and Sly (you remember Sly, don't you?) without telling anyone where we were going. The four of us navigated the streets and sidewalks of our fair city, most of which were under some sort of on-going renovation. Once we turned the corner on to 17th Street, we spotted the temple's slender spire soaring high above the bustle of the approaching lunch hour.

First we had to check in at the small meeting house across 17th Street from the actual temple. As we walked two-by-two across the gray, interlocked brick path, I feared the possibility of Sly and me setting off the "Jew alarm." I imagined being denied entrance and afforded the explanation that they didn't want their new carpet to burst into flames at the mere touch of our Semitic feet. We were, in fact, greeted by a pair of fresh-scrubbed young ladies with enormous grins stretched across their flawless faces. We were instructed to join a group that was just exiting the building to begin their tour. Circling outside again, we crossed 17th Street and entered the large, walled forecourt of the temple.

"Thou shalt track no dirt into
the house of the Lord."
The building itself, while neutral in color and plain in construction, is notably imposing. I understand that its design was inspired by the typical, historical architecture of Philadelphia. It was reminiscent of the type of movie set-like structures in Liberty Place at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, except true-to-scale instead of stunted by forced perspective. The courtyard was spotless and stark and dotted with gentlemen in suits and ties, smiling at no one in particular. Our cheerful (and smiling) tour guide informed us that, in order to preserve the floor and carpets in the new building, everyone would be required to wear disposable paper coverings over their shoes. She quickly added that the shoe coverings have no religious significance whatsoever. I whispered to my colleagues, "That thought never crossed my mind. If she's making a point to say that there is no religious significance to the shoe coverings, you know damn well that there is some religious significance to the shoe coverings." The queue line snaked past two smiling young ladies who were tasked with stretching the shoe covers snugly around visitor's feet. Judging from their smiles, they seemed to be quite pleased with this responsibility. Although, it was apparent that everyone associated with this place was smiling.

"Please have your IDs ready."
Finally, we entered. There was an eerie quiet inside, considering we were just a few feet from the heavily-traveled Vine Street Expressway, a major east-west thruway connecting I-76 with the busy Benjamin Franklin Bridge and all things New Jersey. The foyer sported an assembly of chairs on both sides of the polished marble floor. Straight ahead was a large, dark wood reception desk. Several smiling men and women were scattered around the room... just smiling. Our tour guide explained that once the temple opens, the public would no longer be permitted to enter. As a matter of fact, everyday, run-of-the-mill Mormons could not just enter. Only members "in good standing" (whatever that means) were granted access to the facility. Some mysterious identification card — the details of which were glossed over — must be presented to the Mormon-in-charge to prove "good standing" status. Behind the desk was a giant painting of a smiling Jesus. I would soon observe that Jesus was well represented in the temple's art collection. 

Our group was escorted out of the lobby to a long hallway that ended at a flight of stairs, carpeted and fitted with heavy brass carpet rods at the base of each riser. This was another obvious attempt to mimic the style of the authentic historical buildings that surround the temple. We climbed the stairs to the first landing. We were lead to a room where, again, two smiling young ladies invited us to take seats. They gave a rehearsed speech, mentioning "Jesus Christ" several times in the course of their brief recitation. (I am very creeped out if someone uses "Jesus Christ" more that three times in the same sentence. Sort of like "Beetlejuice".... but I digress.) Before the actual tour began, we were forced invited to watch a short film I think was called "So You Decided to Become a Mormon," though I could have gotten the title wrong. The room lights were dimmed and the ten-minute video began. It featured an abundance of smiling faces — young and old, male and female, white and white — all extolling the basics of the Mormon faith, or as they prefer, The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. It was, by no means, an overview or introduction to the brand new temple in Philadelphia, the first one in Pennsylvania. No sir! It was a propaganda piece showing that Mormons are just like you, except smile- ier and Jesus-ier. A young couple in the film spoke about how Mormon families remain together forever in life and in death The woman of the couple explained that when a man and woman marry (she over-stressed "man and woman" so their stance on same-sex marriage was made perfectly clear), they will be together forever. This statement prompted her husband to practically do a double take. A confused look came across his face, as if to say, "Wait just a second! Forever? I don't remember signing up for that! Can I read that thing I signed again?" The scene quickly jumped to a wide shot of one of the other Mormon temples.

After the film, our actual tour began. The group was informed that photographs were not permitted. Photos, however, were available on the temple's website. A fervent rule-follower, I stowed my phone in my pocket. Except for two, the photos accompanying this post were culled from the Philadelphia section of

"On some nights, we dip twice."
The hallways were unnervingly sterile, all lined with smiling people. The Eagles tune "Hotel California" played in my head, specifically the line "You can check out any time you like/but you can never leave." There was something inherently cult-like about this place and we all felt it. We entered the Baptismal Font Room. In the center, surrounded by a circular banister broken twice to allow for small flights of tiled access steps, was a round turquoise-tiled pool, its crystal-clear waters faintly bubbling through an unseen filtration system*. The group filed in, each person taking a spot around the railing. Looking down, the pool was supported by twelve immense sculptures of oxen. The tour guide explained that the oxen represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Baptisms, we were told, are very important to Mormons. So much so, that a baptized Mormon can serve as a proxy for a deceased loved one or ancestor that never had the opportunity to be baptized. Without a baptism, you will be locked out of Heaven when you die. That's the Mormon rules, baby. There's evidently a sign on the front door of Mormon Heaven that reads "Your head must be this wet to enter." As we left the Baptism room, I asked Junior, "If you're building one of these places, where do you order a dozen huge ox statutes?" He shrugged his shoulders and replied, "I don't know... The Book of Mormon?" I looked at him. "I don't think that's a catalog.," I said.

We moved on, climbing stairs and parading into a series of brightly-lit, though plainly-decorated rooms. We passed several changing rooms where, as we were told, Mormons shed their street clothes to adorn themselves in plain white garments, so everyone appears the same in the eyes of Jesus. And speaking of Jesus, he was depicted in numerous paintings in nearly every room and hallway of the labyrinthine building. And he was smiling in every one. We were momentarily detained in a so-called Ordinance Room, where religious services are held. In a corner of the room, a large organ pumped out low, ethereal tones without the aid of hand on the keys. I was reminded of the player-less organ in Disney's Haunted Mansion. Pat joked, "There may even be a gift shop at the end of the tour." "I wonder," I asked,"if they have souvenir shirts that read 'I spent eternity with my family and all I got was this lousy t-shirt'?" I must have spoken too loudly, as Junior was forced to stifle a laugh.

Our next stop was the majestic, yet just as surreal, Celestial Room. Here, Mormons can quietly contemplate, reflect and pray while seated in one of any number of chairs and sofas that look like they came from your great-grandmother's living room. The high ceiling and colossal chandelier are supposed to remind Mormons of the peace and harmony of Heaven. It reminded me of the lobby at the place where my brother's Bar Mitzvah reception was held.

We ascended yet another flight of stairs. I speculated to my co-workers that, at the top of these stairs, there would be a glowing white door labeled in large, raised, gold letters: "God," and below that, in smaller type: "Private." A secretary would inform us that God is booked solid for the rest of the day and will be leaving early to beat the traffic. Even with pleas of "I'm sure he's expecting us!," we would be denied entry. I'm really surprised the Mormons didn't kick me out of this place.

JC and JPiC
After the tour and after descending all the steps we climbed, we departed through a reception area. There were more Jesus paintings and sculptures. There was also information available for signing up to become a Mormon, just in case the tour affected you in a way that it didn't affect me, I did, however, get my picture taken with the Big Guy himself. A little bewildered, as though waking up from a dream that didn't make sense, my pals and I headed back to work.

When I got home, my wife and I talked while we prepared dinner (read: decided which neighborhood restaurant to order from). "Guess where I was today?," I asked.

"I have a few things to tell you first." she said.

"That's okay," I said, smugly, "Take your time. You'll never guess anyway."

Mrs. P told me about an incident at the post office, a strange conversation she had with her parents and a few unusual items that she sold on eBay that day. I patiently listened and commented when appropriate.

When given the opportunity to guess where I was today.... well, she couldn't. Not in a million years.

No, make that an eternity.

* This thing could very easily double as a mikveh, except there's no way any Jews would be able to get past the strict "Mormons in good standing" policy.

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