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A woman who grew up Mormon revisits her faith by touring D.C.'s LDS temple

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It shoots up from the trees - a marble facade, golden spires, like something out of a fairy tale. If you have driven on the Beltway north of Washington, D.C., you've seen it - the Latter-day Saint Temple. And for the last few weeks, the public has been allowed a rare peek inside. NPR's Lee Hale accompanied one couple who have a unique connection to the faith.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: Kerry Pray and her wife, Heather, live in Maryland, not far from the D.C. temple.

KERRY PRAY: It's a beautiful building. It's intense.

HEATHER: There's definitely another-world vibe to it.

HALE: This will be Heather's first time inside one of these temples. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has nearly 200 of them worldwide. Kerry, on the other hand, spent most of her life as a practicing member of the church. Ten years ago, she had a slip of paper called a temple recommend that allowed her inside to worship.

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

HALE: As we talk, Heather makes a prediction.

HEATHER: There's going to be tears at some point during the day, so...

PRAY: Maybe. It all depends.

HALE: The temple is open to visitors following years of extensive renovations.

PRAY: Mormons have very good landscaping.

HALE: We make our way to the entrance through well-manicured grounds, download a QR brochure to help guide us through the building and put booties on over our shoes to protect the carpet.

PRAY: Put the booties on.

KENT COLTON: I think a lot of people look at that structure and they think they're going to come in and there's going to be a gigantic cathedral.

HALE: Kent Colton is a church volunteer who helps run this open house. He says many visitors are surprised that the building is so segmented.

COLTON: And it has seven floors and a lot of stairs. And so it's different than what people think.

HALE: Inside the temple, Latter-day Saints make promises to live according to church tenets; things like paying tithes, keeping sexual relationships between a husband and wife and obeying church leaders. Temples are different from the meeting houses where Sunday services are held. They're holier places.

COLTON: There have been over 120,000 people that have come through so far.

HALE: And it will remain open to the public until June 11. Kerry, Heather and I walk the halls freely. Descriptive signs welcome us to 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 we enter a space on the fifth floor, the celestial room.

PRAY: That's a pretty cool chandelier.

HEATHER: It is. It's beautiful.

HALE: It's a stunningly bright room with plush sofas. Latter-day Saints come to this room to pray, seek inspiration and experience the presence of God.

PRAY: You come here and you're very, very, very quiet.

HALE: And up next, the last stop on the tour, the sealing room.

HEATHER: The sign says sealing room - a man and a woman are married for this life and for eternity.

HALE: There's a waist-high altar at the center where couples kneel across from one another during a wedding ceremony known as a sealing. The walls are mirrored, creating an infinity effect, helping symbolize that marriage lasts for time and eternity.

(CROSSTALK)

HALE: After we exit, we find a nearby bench to debrief. Heather goes first.

HEATHER: It was interestingly beautiful and plain at the same time.

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

HEATHER: I don't feel like you have to go into a building and have - kneel before someone or at this altar with mirrors to feel like you have that eternal bond.

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

HEATHER: And it's helpful to understand and know kind of some of these things because it helps me to be able to respond in the appropriate way.

HALE: Do you appreciate the context you get from a day like today?

HEATHER: Yeah, I do.

HALE: As we talk, Kerry's eyes begin to well up.

HEATHER: The tears - I told you they would come.

PRAY: Nobody had to know (laughter).

HEATHER: But there's true, like, loss behind those tears and grief.

HALE: Kerry says being back inside a temple was bittersweet but not so bitter.

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

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

Lee Hale, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.