Eight years ago, as a new member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I sat in a chapel in Dallas, Texas, and watched my first General Conference. The first person to speak was our dear beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson. He began immediately by speaking of temples, those that had been dedicated and those to be rededicated. And then he said, “This morning I am pleased to announce five new temples for which sites have been acquired and which, in coming months and years, will be built in the following locations: Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Córdoba, Argentina; the greater Kansas City area; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Rome, Italy.” At the time I had no connection to any of those temples. I had no idea that four years later, after that first general conference, I would meet and marry an incredible man, and four years after that our little family of three would move to Philadelphia—just in time for the Philadelphia Temple open house and dedication to happen in the following months.
The excitement of being here, at this time, is indescribable. After three months of waiting the day finally arrived, it was our night to the tour the temple. We were the last tour of the night. We had many of our family members and friends come with us, including the elder who taught and baptized my husband nine years prior, and his wife. It was a special day. As we began the tour, the guide shared with us what a temple was. He told us that this is the House of the Lord and this is where individuals and families come to feel peace and make promises with God. He told us to pay attention to every detail as we walked through. I looked at everything, from the floorboards to the lamps, to the carpet, to the tables and chairs. Every single detail I could take in, I did. It was beautiful. As I soaked in all the details I began to look at all the visitors that were there as well. It was beautiful. They were beautiful. One of the most incredible things about Philly is the overwhelming diversity and cultural richness that it holds. As a lover of cultures I noticed immediately that there were Asians, Hispanics, Whites, Blacks, all races of people and cultures on our tour. However, as I continued to look around the room and at the details, I began to notice none of the pictures reflected any of the diversity I was seeing in the room. On one floor there was an incredible panoramic painting of Christ visiting the Americas. In the painting I expected to see caramel skinned Natives, with beautiful, long black hair. Instead I was greeted by a painting of people with light skin and some with brown hair; their skin wasn’t even tanned. There were paintings of Christ teaching and preaching those in the Middle East, they were fair skinned with European features. As we moved room to room, I hoped to see more representation of what I was seeing in my tour group, but to my dismay, every picture depicted in the temple was of white/fair skinned people, sitting with Jesus, listening to Jesus, in heaven with Jesus. I looked around the room at my family and then at my daughter I realized there were no pictures in the temple that looked like me or my beautiful daughter. I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where do we fit? Where are we?”
Closer to the end of the tour we entered in the bride’s room of the temple. As I walked in I noticed a painting of a black woman kneeling in prayer. “This is where brides get ready and,” as a tour guide told us, “feel like a princess on their wedding day.” I positioned myself directly across from the painting, though it was clear across the room, so I could stare at it. The tour guide made sure she told us that only women (and not all might I add) go in that room. By this time the lack of representation had began to weigh on me, though. I wasn’t ecstatic to see the ONE picture in the entire temple of a person of color that only a few would be able to view. Why weren’t there more? Why didn’t the art in the temple reflect the people that would be visiting it every single day? In a place that was suppose to give me the most comfort I left asking “why?”
At the conclusion of the tour, we were guided to the visitor’s center across the way. Because there were so many with us I didn’t want them to see me defeated or upset. I wanted them to know that I love the temple. I wanted them to know that this was a joyous moment and there was no other place I would rather be than there with them. As we walked into the visitors center, we were greeted by sister missionaries from EVERYWHERE around the world. It was refreshing to be reminded in that moment that the church is a worldwide church. When you step in the visitors center, you are immediately greeting with pictures on the walls of families of ALL races, nationalities etc. This made me think even more. How are we so well represented here but not in the temple? What is the difference? Who decides which pictures go here and which go in the temple? If we acknowledge that the Visitor’s Center needs to be a reflection of the people, why not in the temple? I felt like a visitor visiting my loved ones and then being told that I would be staying in the in-law quarters in the back. But don’t worry it’s just like the main house, just smaller and not attached to the main house. Why was I upset? I would have everything I needed. I couldn’t help but ask “Are we good enough for the in-law quarters but not the main house? Why weren’t these same things taken into consideration for the artwork in the House of the Lord? Why just the visitors quarters AKA the visitor’s center?”
I have often struggled with the feeling of inclusion and understanding in our church. When I mention it, people often say things like, “Why don’t you focus on what you have in common? Why don’t you focus on the fact that we’re all children of God?” I also think it’s important I add that the people that normally tell me these things are usually very well represented in the temple, pictures, paintings. Everything reflects them, even pictures of Jesus. I always have to reply, “I AM focusing on the fact that we are all children of God. God does not have children that only look one type of way. If that were how He wanted it, he would have made us all the same. But He didn’t. He loved us enough to make us all unique, and that uniqueness should be represented in His Home of all places.” Imagine for a moment you go to visit a friend, a friend that has 4 kids. As you walk in you notice immediately all the pictures are only of one child, little Timmy. Pictures of Little Timmy’s first teeball game, kindergarten graduation, riding a bike etc., it would probably make you feel a little uncomfortable. You may even begin to feel the unhealthy affects this could cause on everyone involved, the parents, Little Timmy and his unseen siblings. That’s because we understand that if a parent puts a picture up on the wall, they usually put a picture of all the children. Not just one. It wouldn’t be fair for a parent to put up a picture of one of their children and say, “Just focus on the fact that Mommy and Daddy love all of you even though we only put up pictures of your sister/brother.” No! It would be weird, not to mention pretty unfair. As the “unseen sibling” in this case I can say that it doesn’t feel good. It’s hurtful and somewhat embarrassing not to be seen in your Fathers House.
So just know this, having cultural/racial representation doesn’t change the truthfulness of the gospel, nor does it change any of the ordinances we perform in the temple. But if the temple is suppose to be symbolic of what Heaven will feel like/look like, then it’s important that there’s an accurate depiction of the people that will be there. All I’m saying is… As members we all envision what our lives will be like/look like in the eternities. Today, I find myself caught up in my thoughts because I feel like I’m being told that not very many people will look like me there.