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For Heather and Kerry, their tour through a Mormon temple is a bittersweet experience

Kerry (left) and Heather tour the temple during a rare time when it's open to the public.
Kerry (left) and Heather tour the temple during a rare time when it's open to the public.

Kerry Pray and her wife, Heather, sit on a stone bench across the parking lot from one of the most striking buildings in the Washington D.C. suburbs.

"It's beautiful, but it's intense," Kerry says.

"There's definitely an other-world vibe to it," adds Heather Pray.

Anyone who has driven the Capital Beltway north of D.C. has seen the Latter-day Saint temple. It seemingly pops out of nowhere, a marble fortress with golden spires that shoot through the thick Maryland forest. It's like something out of a fairytale.

While it's been a reliable part of the D.C. landscape since 1974, what's inside the temple has been a mystery to most who drive past. Only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commonly referred to as Mormons — who are living according to all church tenets are allowed in. But over the past few weeks, the public has been given a rare peek inside.

The Latter-day Saint temple just outside D.C. is an impressive building.
/ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Latter-day Saint temple just outside D.C. is an impressive building.

When a new Latter-day Saint temple is built, or in this case, undergoes an extensive renovation, the church rolls out the welcome mat for a temporary open house. Which is why Heather and Kerry Pray are at the temple on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. They'd like to see inside the building that has been under construction since 2018.

For Kerry, this is a homecoming of sorts. She spent most of her life as a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A few years ago she had a slip of paper called a "temple recommend" that allowed her entrance into all of the temples worldwide (there are currently 173). But now she's returning as a member of the public.

"I have in my purse an expired recommend," Kerry says. "And I am not allowed in the temple when it is active and functioning anymore, because I am married to a woman."

Kerry was previously married to a Latter-day Saint man for 15 years. Then, in 2016, she and her then-husband Steve Spencer both came out to each other as gay. They separated on good terms, continuing to co-parent their two children, and Kerry started dating Heather soon after. The couple married in 2020.

This will be Heather's first visit to a Latter-day Saint temple. She was raised Catholic, and while her relationship with Kerry has been a crash course in all things Mormon, she doesn't quite know what to expect once she's inside.

"I'm going to be asking Kerry a whole lot of 'explain this to me' and 'why is this this way?'" Heather says.

But there's one thing Heather feels confident about: "There will be tears at some point during the day."

Kerry laughs, "Maybe. It all depends."

The couple make their way to the entrance through the well manicured grounds.

"Mormons have great landscaping," Kerry says.

They're ushered through a white tent in the parking lot where they pass through metal detectors and download a QR brochure to help guide them through the building. Just outside the front doors on the basement level, Church youth put booties over their shoes to protect the carpet.

"I think a lot of people look at that structure and think they're going to come in and there's going to be a gigantic cathedral," says Kent Colton, a Latter-day Saint volunteer who helps run the open house along with his wife Kathryn.

Kent says a lot of visitors are surprised that the building is so segmented. It has seven floors and is a maze of hallways and smaller rooms.

The baptistry in the temple.
/ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The baptistry in the temple.

Inside those rooms, Latter-day Saints make promises known as "covenants" to live according to church tenets. Things like paying 10% of their income in tithes, keeping sexual relationships between a husband a wife, and obeying the guidance of church leaders.

Kathryn says one of the most common questions is where Sunday services are held, but those take place in smaller neighborhood meetinghouses. Temples are holier spaces for church members, and they're encouraged to visit them as often as they can.

More than 120,000 people have come through the open house so far, including Senators, members of the House of Representatives and even a few Supreme Court justices. While the church is known for their proselytizing, Kathryn explained that is not the purpose of this open house.

"It is strictly to come and see what happens in the temple and understands our faith better," Kathryn says.

The experience is very hands off. Kerry and Heather walk the halls freely as signs describe the significance of each room. The first stop on the tour is the "baptistry," where an ornate baptismal font the size of a large hot tub sits in front of a mural depicting John the Baptist baptizing Jesus Christ.

Kerry explains to Heather that Latter-day Saints are baptized vicariously for their ancestors who were not members of the church or died before it was established. This gives them a chance to accept the ordinance if they wish.

It's a lot to take in right off the bat, but Heather tries her best. She says the room gives her the feeling of a "Roman bath house." Meanwhile, Kerry is swept away by the smells, everything feels so familiar to her.

"I could feel the baptistry was coming, the smell of the carpet, the marble, even the air conditioning," Kerry says. Even though she isn't sure she's ever visited this specific temple before, today she tells Heather that "every Mormon building is weirdly the same."

They head up the first of many flights of stairs, stained glass illuminating the steps.

They walk through a locker room where Latter-day Saints change into all white clothing and instruction rooms where chairs face a large curtain.

The walls are off-white, nothing extravagant. That is until they enter a space on the fifth floor, the celestial room.

The celestial room in the temple.
/ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The celestial room in the temple.

Heather and Kerry's eyes drift up to a large chandelier in the center of the room. "It's beautiful," Heather says.

The room is stunningly bright with plush sofas. Church members come here to pray and seek inspiration.

The brochure explains that the room "symbolizes heaven or being in God's presence."

"You come here and you're very, very quiet," Kerry explains.

Up next is the final stop on the tour, the sealing room. This is where Latter-day Saint weddings are performed.

There's a waist high altar at the center where a couple would kneel across from one another. On the walls are large mirrors that face each other, they're meant to create a kind of infinity effect, which symbolizes that a temple "sealing" binds a couple for time and eternity.

The sealing room.
/ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The sealing room.

Heather wonders aloud what happens if a couple is divorced. Kerry, who was previously sealed to her ex-husband Steve, says that while they're legally divorced they're still technically sealed according to church records.

They don't linger here long.

They make their way down to the lobby and out into temple gardens where they find a bench to debrief.

"It was interestingly beautiful and plain at the same time," Heather says.

She says she was surprised to see mostly images of Jesus in the hallways rather than the church founder Joseph Smith. But it's the sealing room that confuses Heather the most.

"I don't feel like you have to go into a building and kneel before someone, or at this altar with mirrors to feel like you have that eternal bond," Heather says.

Still, Heather is glad she came. She knows this faith will always be a part of Kerry's life and in that way it will always be a part of their relationship.

"It's helpful to understand and to know some of these things because it helps me be able to respond in the appropriate way," Heather says. She adds that she appreciates the context she gets from a day like this one.

Kerry and Heather are grateful the doors of the temple were open for them during this period.
/ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Kerry and Heather are grateful the doors of the temple were open for them during this period.

For Kerry, the experience was bittersweet.

"But it's a quiet bitter," Kerry says.

Latter-day Saints see the temple as almost a bridge between heaven and earth. A place where they can go to feel God's love and get assurance that they're on the right path.

While for Latter-day Saints who aren't welcome in the temple, in Kerry's case those who are in a gay relationship, the temple represents an "eternal line in the sand." It's a physical reminder of what the church accepts, and what it does not.

As they talk, Kerry's eyes begin to well up.

"The tears, I told you they would come," Heather says.

"Nobody had to know," Kerry laughs.

"But there's true loss behind those tears," Heather says, "And grief."

Despite the painful memories, Kerry says the experience was cathartic.

"It's nice to come to my childhood faith, and feel like it's something beautiful instead of something that hurt me," Kerry says. "I do appreciate that."

And although in a few weeks, Heather and Kerry will no longer be allowed inside, they're grateful the doors of the temple were open for them today.

Public tours of the D.C. temple will continue until June 11th. For more information visit www.dctemple.org

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lee Hale