Bryce Harper’s faith is ‘icing on the cake’ for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Philly
Andy Reid, Vai Sikahema, Scott O'Neil — now, Bryce Harper, are among the big names in the faith with ties to Philadelphia sports.
Bryce Harper, Philadelphia’s $330 million man, wants you to know he’s God-fearing.
It’s the first bit of information listed on the baseball superstar’s Instagram account — a platform that could be used to spread any kind of message to his 1.6 million followers. But, for him, faith is apparently No. 1.
When Harper agreed to a 13-year contract with the Phillies in March, the most expensive free-agent signing in Phillies history, he joined the ranks of other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with big names in Philadelphia sports, including former Eagles coach Andy Reid, NBC10’s Vai Sikahema, and Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil.
And the end of Harper’s first season with the Phillies comes three years after an important milestone for LDS Church members in the region. The Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple, one of 166 temples worldwide and the only one between New York and Washington, was dedicated in September 2016. It supports about 41,000 members in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
Harper may not have made himself highly visible in Philadelphia’s Latter-day Saints community, but leaders and members are encouraged, nonetheless, by his presence. There’s no denying the power of Harper’s reach to spread messages, including about his faith.
Elder Milan Kunz, the Philadelphia temple’s incoming president, says that when someone such as Harper talks, people listen.
“I spent two years in Ireland on my young mission, didn’t talk to 1.6 million people in two years,” he said. “Here, he can reach 1.6 million people with one post.”
‘That’s a clown question, bro’
Harper, whom the Phillies did not make available for an interview, is open about his faith. Members of the church — popularly known as Mormons, although they now shy away from that term — are known for their two-year missions when young, as well as abstinence from such substances as alcohol, coffee, tobacco, and drugs.
Though Harper has admitted to the occasional pregame cup of coffee, he’s also shared religious quotes on social media, and his response to a reporter who asked whether he planned to have a drink after he hit a long homer (“That’s a clown question, bro”) went viral. Harper and his wife, Kayla, a former Brigham Young University soccer player, were married and sealed — a ceremony during which couples are bonded together for eternity — at the San Diego Temple in 2016.
Temples are closed to nonmembers of the church, and even members may be denied entry — only those in good standing are allowed in. (Philadelphia’s temple was open to the general public for a short window in 2016 before its consecration.)
» READ MORE: From 2016: At new Mormon temple, 'the finest materials, the finest craftsmanship, to stand forever'
Scott Boras, Harper’s agent, used the right fielder’s abstinence from smoking and drinking to convince the Phillies his body would stand up for the long contract, Sports Illustrated reported in March. In April 2019, church Elder Gary E. Stevenson mentioned Harper in a talk about lessons to be learned from sports during the church’s General Conference in Utah, a semiannual event attended by members from around the world.
But it was meeting president Russell M. Nelson, whom the church regards as a prophet, that left Harper emotional. It was like meeting the pope is for Catholics.
“He walked into the room, and I immediately teared up and began to think if it was even appropriate for me to be in the same room as this man, because of how incredible he is,” Harper wrote on Instagram in October 2018. “He came over and shook my hand, my wife’s hand, and family’s hands and we talked for a couple minutes. By the end I couldn’t help but think when this man talks it is the truth. It is the word of God & everything that I want to be part of.”
‘Icing on the cake’
Kunz, the incoming Philadelphia president, said he’d heard second-hand that Harper has been to the Philadelphia temple, while Sikahema got word that Harper attended a local service after his son was born. Regular church services are held in meetinghouses, which are open to all.
Sikahema, also a church leader, said Harper showed up on a Sunday morning before a night home game, “so I was getting text messages from people in that congregation [telling me], ‘Hey, Bryce Harper’s here.’”
Whether his attendance will become a habit is anyone’s guess. Despite the fame and multimillion-dollar contract, Harper also is just another person balancing a new job, new city, and new baby. Either way, churchgoers are happy to have him around.
“So you have this opportunity with such a global icon, one of the great athletes of our day, here in our community, and he happens to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It’s incredible," O’Neil said. "I think it’s terrific. I think it’s terrific for the city, I think it’s incredible for the Phillies organization, and I think it’s wonderful for the LDS community.”
Though some suggest that his superstar status wouldn’t grant him special treatment.
“I think he would be treated like anyone else that comes, anyone is always welcome," said Lacey Selden, 42, a church member from Hockessin, Del.
John Traverso, 47, a Wallingford resident and a church leader in the Valley Forge area, has some experience. He said he went to Reid’s congregation in Broomall — members attend services based on geography — but Reid wasn’t treated there the way he was at the Linc on a Sunday.
Traverso, a “huge Phillies fan," called Harper’s faith just “icing on the cake."
“A lot of us see Bryce Harper as a superstar,” Traverso said. "And I think he sees the prophet as a superstar.”