Episode #31: Published June 24, 2019
Stories in this episode: Vai Sikahema was a small boy in Tonga when his family sold everything they had to go to the temple in New Zealand to be sealed—and decades later, that experience helps him be the right person at the right time in a meeting that could very well decide the fate of another temple. When Keala Sikahema decides to put the temple at the center of her family life, she sees its power emanating in ways she didn't expect.
President Howard W. Hunter's message "A Temple-Motivated People"
Click here to view the ChurchofJesusChrist.org's temple landing page.
KaRyn: Hey friends, I wanted to jump in really quickly before this episode begins to give you some sad news and some happy news. I'll start with the sad news: This is going to be the last episode of This Is the Gospel for season one. We're gonna take a quick break over the summer so that we can compile more stories and get them ready to tell.
And here's the good news. We made season one of a podcast. We did it! Can you believe that?
That's worth celebrating. And don't worry we're going to be back in September with season two with more great stories about the gospel that will touch you and make you laugh. And in the meantime, if you want to know what we're up to, including bonus episodes, behind the scenes of season two, and upcoming story themes for the pitch line, be sure to follow us on Instagram and Facebook @thisisthegospel_podcast. We'll have a link to those in our show notes. And if you're catching up on past episodes make sure you tell us in the review section of iTunes which episode you loved and what you loved about them; things you wish you could see more of; that will help us as we try to plan more great stories for season two. Now on with the show.
Welcome to This Is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay.
So this is fun. I'm a bit of a dictionary nerd and I recently looked up the word "temple" in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. Here's how they define it: A building of religious practice, such as (a) two successive national sanctuaries in ancient Jerusalem (b) a building for Mormon sacred ordinances, and (c) the house of worship of reform and some conservative Jewish congregations.
So, clearly, good old Merriam and Webster haven't gotten the memo from President Nelson about our name yet, but how cool is it that we're helping to define the category? Since that first temple in Kirtland Ohio in 1836, I think we really have been, as President Hunter said, "a temple-motivated people."
There are currently, as of the day we hit publish on this podcast episode, 156 dedicated temples with 53 more either under construction or in the works. And while watching those beautiful buildings dot the Earth is an exciting thing, I think the most exciting part of that growth is the blessings—the spiritual power—that flows to the people in the places where temples are. It's felt by everyone—those who are members of our Church and those who aren't.
Well, today's episode is about the power of temples in our lives and specifically the way one family was prepared and positioned perfectly to serve the Lord in the building of one temple. First, we'll hear from Elder Vai Sikahema and then from his wife, Keala, both of whom have often shared their love for the temple in their ministry.
When Vai was growing up in Tonga, he had no idea that his life path would lead him from that small island in the Pacific to become the first Tongan to play for the NFL in the US. But regardless of what he couldn't know about his future, he always knew that no matter what he did, the temple would be an important part of his life. And it all started with sacrifices that his family made so they could receive their temple blessings when he was just a small boy. In order to be sealed together, the entire Sikahema family had to fly from their village in Tonga to New Zealand where the closest temple was located. This would require a significant sacrifice from everyone in the family and how the story of that sacrifice came to influence the building of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Temple decades later— Well, that's a story you have to hear to believe.
It was my mother who taught us as we grew up that the temple would serve to protect us physically, spiritually, emotionally, and every other way that that you could be protected.
My mother felt strongly about that and she looked forward to a day when her children would see the blessings that would come from making covenants in the temple.
As a child, I'd watched my parents, and helped them, sell everything that we could sell for our passage to get to New Zealand. I have the luxury and I had the blessing of remembering, as a child, sorting melons that we grew by size. My job was to sort them by size so that they could be sold and people would come from all over the village and other places to come and buy melons in my home—tomatoes, squash, cucumbers.
When we had sold everything, we lived in a wooden home which was nicer than probably most homes in our village—lot of people still had thatched roof and thatched huts. So if you had some wood you could use it for all kinds of things. And my dad started peeling off sides of the house to sell. I suspect my father would have sold the entire, you know, it would have just been four posts and a roof.
Whatever could be sold was sold for our passage to go to New Zealand.
There were probably about 100 people in our traveling party from Tonga and of the 100, There were probably 40 kids... and I remember being in a nursery in the New Zealand temple with Tongan kids who had never played with toys before and it was like... it was like a zoo in there. I'm sure that the nursery leaders were going out of their minds with these Tongan kids because we outnumbered them probably, you know, 10 to 1.
People would come in and call us by name and people would leave when they were going out to be sealed to their parents.
I remember that the person came and asked for the Sikahema children and we walked down this long hallway in the New Zealand temple. When we got to the to the sealing room, it was like a scene from a movie. The doors opened like this and we're standing there and all dressed in white and my mother and father were kneeling at the altar facing each other and my mother turned and saw us.
And she gave out just a sigh. In fact, what she said was, "Oh Yahweh!" you know it's just, "Oh my gosh."
And she just burst out in tears. And we came into the room and all knelt around the altar and placed our hands together. And seeing them in white, and we were all dressed in white, and coming from a country that's so poor that nobody really has these kinds of clothes, it was just this seminal moment in my life.
That little memory has served me well through the last 50 years of my life. In our marriage, we expected and we had planned for, I think most of our lives, to marry in the temple and that it was going to be... the temple's going to play a big part in our lives. When we made course-altering decisions, decisions that would have an impact 5, 10, 20 years from, you know, beyond like your career, we would go to the temple.
We would fast and pray and then we would go and we would sit together in the celestial room and just hold hands—not ever speak. We'd just sit there and think through all the reasons and, you know, make a mental checklist of the pros and cons. What was fascinating is that when we left the temple, we got in the car, we drive home having never spoken a word about it, but, we went into the temple with the same question that we'd come to the same conclusions. This happened when we left Phoenix and signed with the Green Bay Packers. We felt directed that we should go there. And then after Green Bay, we felt guided that we should come to Philadelphia.
So, October 2008, I got a call from my stake president who asked me, "Hey, headquarters..." (he worked for the Church. He was the director of [the Church's] public affairs in New York.)
He said, " . . . the Church, they need a good number that they can reach Mayor Nutter." And I said to my stake president, you know, I'm his counselor, "What for?" I said, "Is this about a temple?"
He goes, "That's beyond my pay grade, but they need a number." I'm doing the calculations in my head... "They're about to announce the Philadelphia temple at the October conference!" He said, "Oh, by the way, don't say a word to anybody, but get me that number if you can." I told my stake president, "I actually think my son has his number."
And here's why he had his number. The mayoral race was in '07 and my son was a senior in high school. My son is at the same Jesuit prep school that the mayor had graduated from. So the mayor's staff had come and asked for volunteers to come and work at his election office. My son raised his hand because he's thinking, "I got to apply to BYU. This would be nice to put this on my resume." Right? So he goes and he applies but he's playing baseball so he can never go during the week. The one day that he can go volunteer the mayor's office is Saturday morning. Just so happens, Mayor Nutter would roll in on Saturday morning. I'm sure he was there during the week, too, but he noticed just this kid was there every morning. Asked to find out who he is—finds out he's my son. Mayor knows who I am because I work in television.
So I called him and said, "Hey son, you wouldn't happen to have Mayor Nutter's number?"
"Oh yeah. I got it my cell phone. You know we would go grab breakfast Saturday, most Saturday mornings."
I said, "Son, I need that number." So, my son says, "What for, Dad?
"I just need to get hold the mayor."
"Why, what's happening?!?"
"None of your business."
"I won't send it to you unless you tell me."
(loudly) "Son, just send me the number!"
He sends me the number.
I call Mayor Nutter. I say, "Mayor, this is Vai Sikahema."
"Hi, Vai, how you doing?"
"Good. Listen, you should be aware that the church that I belong to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, people at our headquarters are trying to reach out to you." So, the mayor says, "Do you know why?"
I said, "I don't know and I don't have the authority to tell you why." But I said, "I can only guess because there's not a temple in Philadelphia they might make an announcement, but they want to give you a courtesy call."
And the mayor's response was, "We got temples here. There is Beth Shalom... " I said, "No, no. It's a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." And he says, "Oh. Is this a big deal?"
I said," If that's what it is, it's a big deal. And they will want you to know that. Frankly, I don't... I don't know the reason. I'm just speculating with you." He says, "When do you think they're gonna call me?" I said, "Well, they'll probably call you before Saturday."
So, he says to me, "Hey, the Phillies are playing Friday night. You want to come to my box Friday? Maybe they'll call then." I said, "Yeah. I'm going to be at the game anyways. Yeah, I'll come up to your box." So, I go up to his box, right? And there in the mayor's box, if it's a box for 30, there's 100 people in there. It's packed. The mayor sitting down. There's two rows of seats and he's sitting down.
He's watching the game and I make my way down there and all the sudden somebody gets up and I scoot in and scooch in and I sit down and the mayor says to me, "I haven't gotten that call yet."
And we're sitting there chatting and all of sudden his phone rings and he turns his phone to me and he shows me the number and it's an 801 number, 240 and I know that that's the prefix to Salt Lake. And he says, "Is this it?" I said, "I think so." So, he says, "Hello..." and then he gets up and walks away and he comes back 10 minutes later.
He says to me, "Yeah. They're about to announce tomorrow that there's going to be a temple in Philadelphia. That's a big deal, isn't it?" I said... I just started crying. He goes, "Are you all right?" I said, "Yeah, I'm OK. But this is huge. You have no idea how big this is."
He goes, "Well, that's great. I'll look forward to talking to more of your leaders." Then a couple of years pass and no temple. The announcement was made in '08—now it's 2010, 2011.
I get summoned to come to a meeting with the mayor and leaders of the Church.
So, I find out as we're sitting in the meeting that, that a city agency had been created to try to take the property back from the Church and I was, you know, "Holy smokes. Is this thing going to happen or is it not gonna happen?"
Well, the meeting goes on and, and the mayor keeps looking at his watch.
And I knew, you know, he's getting antsy. It didn't seem to be going especially well.
Meanwhile, there's dead time that we're just sitting there so I had this... I had this impression that I should just... "Tell the mayor what happened to you and your family." I raised my hand—we're sitting in this conference room and I'm in the back end of the table.
I raise my hand. I said, "Mayor Nutter, can I say something?" And he said, "Sure, Vai. You know, what would you like to share?"
So, I pushed the chair back to the table. I stood up and I said, "Mayor, I just want to tell you that as a child, I was 5 years old, my family sold everything to go to New Zealand to the temple. I don't know and I don't think that any of your constituents will have to sell everything to come to this temple, but they will make, many of them will make significant sacrifices to come to the temple.
And that sacrifice, mayor, will create a better citizenry and it will be better for Philadelphia." And then I said, "If I may be so bold, Mayor Nutter, If you approve this project, this will be the capstone of your career. And it will be a blessing to the people in Philadelphia and it will be a blessing to you personally. I promise you that."
And I cried as I'm doing now as I said this and I was standing and I said my piece. I sat down and, and the mayor seemed quiet, maybe reflective.
Then he turned to Dean Davies and said, "Mr. Davies can you... can we talk about the cost of the temple-square footage?"
A bunch of other questions that he had. At this point, we're supposed to be with the mayor for, I think, for a half hour and at this point, we're past the hour mark. And he was still asking questions. And when it concluded at about an hour and a half, the mayor said, "I'm satisfied with what you come to share with me." The moment I knew that things had gone well was he turned to Dean Davies and said, "Mr. Davies, I feel impressed to ask you, given the setting and the reason why we're here, if you would offer a closing prayer."
And I just... I... I just cried. I just sat in my chair and wept. I bowed my head and just wept. And Dean Davies got up and blessed the mayor and blessed the city of Philadelphia. He blessed the project would go forward and that's how it ended. Then we parted ways and I didn't know, you know, what was going to come of it.
I honestly didn't feel like I had an impact on on the proceedings other than Brother Davies called me and said, "Your message to the mayor may have been the turning point."
You know, I didn't know what would compel the mayor to change his mind on this issue and I think what impacted him was that he was moved upon by the Holy Ghost and that we were all supposed to be there together.
Three or four five months later it was announced that they were going to start digging dirt. Now, the postscript to this is that the mayor came through... I didn't personally take him on the tour of the temple but he came through and we met afterwards and I've got pictures of the mayor and I... and we embraced and we held the hug and he whispered in my ear, he said, "Vai, this is an amazing building."
He said, "Had I known, I would have approved this years ago."
If you've ever been in a setting where you've had dinner with a friend or be around family and you never want that day to end... we've all had those.
Just imagine if the day never ends and you... you have the ability to be with that person, with that family, with that friend forever and ever and ever. It's hard for us to get our minds around that... wrap our minds around that... because we're living in a mortal world where we measure things. But when time is not measured and you just with your family and your friends, your loved ones just all the time we would do it, right? That's the power of the temples. That it provides and it creates eternal families and friendships. Our close associates, those whom we love the most, can be with us and we with them for eternity. That's a powerful thing.
That was Elder Vai Sikahema.
I'm from Philly where Elder Sikahema has become a household name ever since he played for the Eagles and then became an anchor on the local NBC affiliate. I can vouch for the fact that Philly loves Vai Sikahema as much as he loves Philadelphia. It's no coincidence that his temple-loving heart was exactly the one that the Lord needed to help soften the other hearts that held earthly authority over the building location. If you've ever been there then you'll know that the Philadelphia temple now stands magnificently in one of the most visible spots in Center City, just a stone's throw from the famous "Rocky" steps at the Museum of Art. It is a testament to the glory of a God who will make use of us to bless the lives of others when we decide to dedicate our lives to Him.
Remember when Elder Sikahema promised the mayor that the people of Philadelphia would be blessed by that temple? Well, the next part of this story comes from Keala, who shares just how the temple has blessed her life and how she's seen it bringing goodness to the lives of those around her in Philly.
Keala: My mother was a return missionary. My dad didn't serve a mission. He was in World War II and they had each been married previously, so they'd come off of divorces when they married each other... when they met and married each other.
So, I think all of those things—it made them a little less active. So, I was about 9 or 10 when they both started to come back to church. I heard my parents' testimonies of the temple and we would have these wonderful conversations about going to the temple because we had not been sealed... the three of us.
So, we began to make plans for that and they, you know, they would talk to me about - "What do you think we need to do to prepare? Let's talk about that. Let's read. Let's study. Let's be prayerful." And so for a couple of years, we did it as, as a family. The three of us. I had older siblings but they were half-siblings and weren't able to go through and be sealed.
So, it was the three of us and we studied and that was really a tender time for me. So when I was 12 is when we went through and we, we flew to California—from Hawaii to California—and the plan was to take a cross-country trip and come out to Palmyra to come and see the pageant—The Hill Cumorah Pageant—and we camped all along the way but our first stop was to Salt Lake to be sealed.
So, we were sealed in the Salt Lake Temple.
So, that's when it really started for me because I remember it so vividly. Remember the day where I was brought in and to kneel at the altar with my parents. That was so special to me that I just wanted it from the very beginning for our family.
So our closest temple in Washington D.C. We tried initially to go once a month.
That was our goal and we thought, "Oh, it's a pretty realistic goal. Let's try to do that." And, we did for a good amount of time and then, admittedly, you know, life got in the way and all the reasons why we couldn't go every month.
Vai: Little league got in the way.
Keala: Yeah, the kids got older and, you know, we hardly had time to go to the grocery store so we weren't going as often as we wanted to. And, by the way, I think it was around that time that we started having thoughts, I think separate of each other and didn't talk about it until later.
But, we both started wondering if we would be here in Philadelphia long enough to see a temple. Because at that point, Philadelphia was the largest city in the country without a temple... because a few years later after we were here, then New York, Manhattan, got their temple. And so even though we were still in the Washington D.C. district, it was much easier and closer to go to Manhattan.
So that became our monthly temple outing was to Manhattan. All the while though, we... we kept wondering, you know, "Will we be here long enough, or will we be able to participate in some way in getting the temple here?"
As I think about living here before the temple was here and we were making our trips to Washington D.C. and then to New York... I think that actually helped prepare us to be committed and to remain committed because it was a sacrifice. You know, it wasn't anything like going to New Zealand, but for us it was, it was a full day to go and come back.
So our commitment to the temple now, we go every Wednesday. We picked the day and decided that that would be our day. Because of his work schedule, we usually don't have time to do a session together. So we'll either go in and do some initiatories or some sealings. But we try to just protect that Wednesday every week. It could very easily get filled with other things. But our commitment to each other was that we would protect at all costs that day every week.
It gives us... to be able to go together and remember the covenants we've made strengthens us individually and as a couple. We have been buoyed up and strengthened so deeply and to see the way it's blessed everyone here, especially people who have never lived anywhere near a temple. They don't, they don't know what it's like. So, for them it's just...it 's so new; it's so beautiful; it's this wonderful blessing in their lives that they never thought that they would have. And to see them, it's really just a beautiful thing.
As many moving parts that were involved in getting the temple here... to know that we had just a little, little piece in one of those moving parts has such a special meaning. It has such a special meaning to us as a family. That will never ever go away even after we leave Philadelphia.
That was Keala. Her story about camping to go to the temple to be sealed reminded me a lot of my own family's story. You might remember a little part of that from our Roots of Faith episode number 18. Apparently, that was the travel mode du jour back in the day. And I think it just illustrates the willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the temple.
The truth is that I've been lucky enough to live less than four hours away from a temple my whole life even when I was living in Seoul, South Korea. The temple was only one terrifying taxi ride away. And after you took your life in your hands with whatever race car driver was working a taxi that day, walking into that glorious peaceful building was such a gift. Like many international temples, the Seoul temple has a dormitory attached to it so it can house those who've traveled long distances to be there. And I remember meeting a couple from Mongolia who were staying in that dormitory for their honeymoon.
Let me repeat that.
Their HONEYMOON. It was so important to them to be married in the house of our God that they chose the temple over everything else that we think is necessary when we start a marriage.
In the same talk where he called us a temple-motivated people, President Hunter said this, "Let us truly be a temple-attending and a temple-loving people. We should hasten to the temple as frequently yet prudently as our personal circumstances allow. We should go not only for our kindred dead but also for the personal blessing of temple worship—for the sanctity and safety that are within those hallowed and consecrated walls. As we attend the temple we learn more richly and deeply, the purpose of life and the significance of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord, Jesus Christ."
We are a temple-loving and a temple-attending people. In fact, the Church's newly renamed website, ChurchofJesusChrist.org (take note Merriam-Webster!) has a beautiful article cataloging other modern stories of Latter-day Saints who sacrificed and traveled to make covenants in the temple, including the story of the saints in Iquitos, Peru, who longed to receive their temple blessings in the capital city of Lima. Because of the remote location of their city, air travel was far too expensive for most to make the trip so faithful Peruvian saints spent several days traveling on the treacherous Amazon River and then boarded buses that slipped along dirt roads in the Andes Mountains. Their travel to the Lima Peru Temple took a week, and I often feel like I don't have time to squeeze in the 20-minute drive to the nearest temple to me.
Now, I'm not saying that my own struggles or yours to get to the temple are not valid. I don't think it's actually worth engaging in downward social comparison because truly God understands our situations and has mercy and compassion on us, whether we're in the Andes Mountains or the Wasatch Mountains. Life gets crazy... we get that. But what I can learn from these saints in Peru and from the Tongan Sikahemas who traveled to New Zealand and the Fultz family who drove from Pennsylvania to Salt Lake is that the temple of our Lord is worth the struggle. The covenant that we make there, the service we render, the communion that we engage in: It's all worth struggling through our own Amazon Rivers and dirt roads to show up. Because when we do show up to the temple, God is there ready to bless us.
That's it for this episode of This Is the Gospel. Thank you to Elder Vai and Sister Keala Sikahema for sharing their stories and their faith. We had such a lovely experience visiting with them and feeling the Spirit in their home. We'll have the transcript of this episode as well as a link to the video of the Sikahema's at the Philadelphia temple in our show notes at ldsliving.com/thisisthegospel. We'll also have links to the talk from President Hunter just so you can revisit it and that web page of those stories from the church's website there, so head on over.
And while we're off planning season two, we want to remind you that our pitch line will still be up and running. We want your stories! So if you have a story to share, call us at (515) 519- 6179 and leave us a message with a short synopsis of your story. You'll have three minutes, so you need to plan ahead. Help us to understand what your story is and why it has gospel meaning. We'll be sharing a bonus episode with a list of themes in the next few weeks so don't unsubscribe from this podcast. There's still some good stuff coming your way during the break. And as you're catching up on past episodes on your road trips or wherever you are, don't forget to share your experience with this podcast. Please take the time to leave a review on the Apple podcast app or the Bookshelf Plus app from Deseret Book. It really will help more people find us and it will help us to know what we should do for season two.
This episode was produced by me, KaRyn Lay, with story editing and sound recording by Katie Lambert. It was scored mixed and mastered by Mix at Six studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom.