- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

The spires of Washington's Mormon Temple loom over the Beltway, causing more than a few drivers to crane their necks out of curiosity.

Up close, the temple, constructed from 173,000 square feet of white Alabama marble, also is impressive. The interior is only for certain members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the general public can enjoy the 57-acre grounds in Kensington and the Washington Temple Visitors Center, which is free of charge and open daily.

"The visitors center is a place for people who are members of the church and those who are not to come and learn about the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Washington Temple spokesman Cole Goodwin says. "In some respects, it is a very nondenominational place. It is a cultural and artistic center that helps people to feel the spirit of God."

Anyone interested in learning more about other faiths will enjoy a stop here. Among the many interactive exhibits are touch-screens that answer basic questions about the church's beliefs, how to uphold them and how to apply them to daily life.

"People have questions about who the Mormons are," says Linda Garff, an administrator at the visitors center. "This is a nice place to answer questions. One little boy who was here with his parents recently loved the touch-screens and ran around saying, 'Look they've got a God machine.'"

In the lobby of the visitors center, people can see pictures of the magnificent interior of the temple. The most thought-provoking photograph is of the ornate celestial room, where people can sit and reflect when they need inspiration, Mr. Goodwin says.

Also dominating the lobby is a huge, marble sculpture of Christ, called "The Christus." Visitors can sit in front of the statue and listen to a one-minute soliloquy recorded in 40 languages.

Another interactive display can be found in the middle of the center, where a 3-D model of Jerusalem, circa A.D. 33, can be found. Press a scene from Christ's life, such as the Last Supper or the Sermon on the Mount, and more recorded voices narrate the scene.

In the rear of the center is a model home where visitors can see how principles of the church can be applied to family life. Here, visitors can use a computer loaded with genealogical software, including the 1880 U.S. Census, which the church helped to make an important, genealogical tool. The church keeps extensive genealogical records on people of all faiths, and the church's Family History Centers are considered an important research tool for genealogists.

There is a room that explains how church founder Joseph Smith was given the gold plates that made up the Book of Mormon. The room has life-size dioramas of scenes from the Book of Mormon, as well as copies of the book translated into hundreds of languages, from French to Navajo to Croatian.

The visitors center also is host to a variety of nondenominational activities. Each Christmas, the Festival of Lights draws more than 80,000 visitors to the grounds, where 300,000 lights are displayed. This past Christmas, the lights were red, white and blue. The center also regularly schedules concerts of various types.

In conjunction with Black History Month, the center is displaying an extensive collection of photos, books and newspapers that reflect nearly 400 years of black history. The display is on loan from Washington-area collector Mark E. Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell's collection may one day be the foundation of a proposed national museum of black history and culture, Mr. Goodwin says.

The collection starts with a 1640 map of Africa, and continues through the present day, showing the impact of blacks on politics, music, sports and culture. There is a late-1700s book of poems by Phyllis Wheatley, a drawing of the interior of the slave ship Amistad, and an 1863 copy of the New York Herald that includes the text of the Emancipation Proclamation.

More recent artifacts are a World War I recruiting poster, a Tuskeegee Airman war bonds poster and a 1949 letter that baseball great Jackie Robinson wrote to his friend, Mickey Mantle, to cheer him up after Mr. Mantle was injured in the minor leagues.

The musical memorabilia also is quite impressive, with an appearance contract signed by jazz singer Billie Holiday and a letter written by saxophone player John Coltrane. Other items of note are letters that Malcolm X wrote to biographer Alex Haley and a letter Martin Luther King wrote from a jail cell in 1967 to baseball player Frank Robinson.

The Mark E. Mitchell collection will remain at the visitors center through March 31.


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