Photos by Page Johnson and Todd Schvaneveldt
“It was as if we had put a hand on each other’s backs.”
Springtime hikers and cyclists in the Washington D.C. area expect to see cherry blossoms, dogwoods, and azaleas on the trails around the capital. But the serendipity on April 20 was the sight of 163 LDS youth from the McLean Virginia Stake “walking to the temple” on these historic footpaths. The young men and women and their leaders were trekking from the Arlington Chapel in Arlington, Virginia to the Washington D.C. Temple in Kensington, Maryland–nearly 14 miles.
The youth made their way through tree-lined neighborhoods where homeowners were still picking up the morning’s paper, past joggers on the old canals of the Potomac River, and around shops in city centers. Over bridges and through tunnels, and across a few busy intersections, they traversed the greening landscape carrying water bottles with the inscription Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved. D&C 87:8.
Stake youth leaders spent two months planning and preparing for this five-hour journey, and when it was over, the young walkers were weary in body but buoyant in spirit. They said they were more united as a stake, more understanding of the concept of sacrifice, and more thankful to live near a temple. In particular, they were more aware of others who need assistance–spiritually, physically, or financially-to also be able to enjoy the blessings of the temple.
“It was as if we had put a hand on each other’s backs,” observed Makenna Matos, a Mia Maid in the McLean Second Ward who said sharing this day with her friends and feeling their support to reach a worthy goal was a powerful experience.
According to President Tim Stewart, second counselor in the McLean Virginia Stake, Sister Matos had learned the essential meaning of the walk.
“When we first started our planning with the stake youth leaders, we realized we needed to make this more than just a long walk or a hike for the youth,” said President Stewart. “So we really encouraged the adults to match their youth’s efforts with a contribution to the Temple Patron Assistance Fund. When these two goals were connected, the youth realized that while they were making a physical sacrifice to reach their temple goal, they were actually helping someone else–someone they will never meet–receive their temple blessings too.”
Inspired by their youth, McLean Stake members contributed funds to help over 30 Saints elsewhere in the world to travel to their closest temples and receive their own blessings.
“Those were the goals we wanted to reach and we did it,” President Stewart emphasized.
Those who couldn’t make the entire trip, walked as much as they could. Or willing hands helped them, as they did with Jacob Devore, a deacon from the McLean First Ward with cerebral palsy, and autism. His father, other adults, and youth pushed Jacob’s wheelchair the whole way.
McLean Stake President Robert Hall said the lessons of sacrifice and service on the walk not only strengthened the faith of these young men and women but also united them as youth in Zion.
“We challenged the youth to remember this journey and to make a commitment to prepare themselves to be worthy and receive the ordinances of the temple,” he said.
Angels to guide the way
Roland Springer, a cyclist from the Falls Church Ward, planned the route to use local jogging/biking trails and avoid major highways. Tom and Sharise Anderson of the Falls Church Ward organized 65 volunteers-many from the Langley Singles Ward–to keep the walkers accounted for, hydrated, and safe.
“Safety was our number one concern,” said Sister Anderson. “When the walkers left the Arlington Chapel, they were initially escorted by the local police. Along the route, we helped the wards staff five aid/rest stations and the walkers had to check in so we could track their progress. This helped us project the pace of the frontrunners as well as the tail-end Charlies, and we communicated that information to other volunteers by texting. At each station, walkers could get water, fruit, and needed medical supplies.”
Brother Anderson added that different volunteers were stationed at junctions along the trail to keep the walkers from making a wrong turn. Cyclists like President Stewart traveled between groups to check on their progress, while some volunteers and missionaries simply placed themselves at the end of a tunnel or on a hillside to clap and cheer as the walkers came into view.
Leaders in the Stake Young Men’s presidency said that hearing those cheers and seeing the light after emerging from a particularly long and dark tunnel was a profound experience. As they followed the encouraging sounds of applause and happy voices, they said they thought of the ways that both earthly and heavenly families also cheer on their loved ones.
Beehive Cait Zobrist of the Arlington First Ward especially noticed that everywhere the youth went that day someone was waiting with a smile to point them in the right direction.
“These people represented the principles and ordinances, leaders, and living prophets that help us return to our Heavenly Father and not get lost on the path,” she said.
The youth met at the Arlington Ward Chapel at 8:30 in the morning for a prayer, breakfast, and last minute instructions. Before they left, they donned yellow T-shirts designed by Addie Lloyd, a Laurel in the Falls Church Ward.
“Follow the trail leader and stay to the right!” President Stewart shouted to the yellow swarm that left the building.
The stunning weather seemed an answer to many prayers observed Olivia Hartt, a Laurel from the Great Falls Ward.
“It was cold and stormy the day before, yet we were determined to go,” she said. “But when I woke up, the sky was blue and the day just got better and better. I loved the chance to be in nature and have the time to think about eternal things. As we walked, some people asked us why a bunch of youth would give up their Saturday, and when we explained our purpose, they were really impressed to find out we were doing something so great.”
Other youth mentioned the peace and beauty of the day, which gave them a chance to contemplate the peace and beauty of the temple, both inside and out.
“We’re told to stand in holy places,” said Tanan Yesunmunkh, a Laurel from the Arlington Second Ward. “The temple is a refuge and safe place where I can feel the spirit of God. My parents are from Mongolia and when I recently did my grandmother’s work in the temple, I could feel her spirit. Being on this walk brought me peace knowing that I am destined to go to the temple someday.”
Many youth like Linda Maldanado are preparing to go on missions. She’s a Laurel in the Spanish-speaking Bella Vista Ward who invited an investigator to walk with her. They read the trail markers along the way that listed interesting facts about the Temple Patron Assistance Fund and the sacrifices some members make to get to the temple.
Trail leader Jared Nelson of the Falls Church Ward, easy to spot in his scout hat, set the pace at around three miles per hour. But he had been skeptical at first that such an undertaking could even be pulled off.
“Then I started to fall in love with the idea,” he said. “There was just an energy about this project and my wife and I and our daughters decided to make this a family event. We prepared for it by joining other members on smaller walks in the weeks preceding the event.”
When they finally neared the temple and saw the sun-lit statue of the Angel Moroni gleaming through the trees, many began singing “I Love to See the Temple” while others bolted up the last hill.
“We all made it and we did it together,” added Sister Matos, who was able to finish ten miles of the walk despite having lupus. “I’m glad I live close to a temple and I’ve come to realize that many saints don’t have a temple nearby and they need our help to be able to attend with their families.”
“I didn’t know what to expect when they arrived here,” said Ann Bazzarone, Stake Young Women’s President, who was waiting to greet them. “But when the first ones came over the hill and ran towards us with absolutely exhilarated faces, I knew they felt good about themselves and what they had accomplished. They had learned that together they could do hard things.”
Stake leaders waited for the youth at the Washington D.C. Stake Center with hugs and ice-cream, and some parents who had been in the temple during the walk joined their children. As the youth stretched out on the lawn and high-fived each other for enduring to the end, all seemed tired, although Zane Mason and Nicolas Casillas, priests from the Falls Church Ward, said the walk was easier than they anticipated because they were with friends. Sister Maldonado felt her legs aching near the finish, but when the entire group gathered in the Temple Visitor’s Center to hear the leaders bear testimony of the temple and the blessings it offers for all Saints, she said she began to feel the spirit.
“I felt rejuvenated and my legs didn’t hurt anymore.”
At Sacrament meetings across the stake the next day, several youth bore their testimonies. Sam Clayton, a priest in the McLean First Ward, said he considered the walk to the temple a metaphor for his journey back to his Father in Heaven because he needs the living water and whole armor of God, the strength to endure, and good directions. He observed that as some of the walkers began to struggle, their friends put into practice the commandment “to comfort those that stand in need of comfort” by offering encouragement and assistance so everyone could complete the journey.
Likewise, Sister Matos voiced the feelings of many on that day, “I did it. I was there. Now I want to help someone else experience the joy I felt.”