THE FIRST time Vai Sikahema's family traveled from their island home in Tonga to have a sacred ceremony performed at the nearest Mormon Temple, in New Zealand, it took four days, three modes of transport, and so much money that Sikahema's parents had only enough for one-way tickets for their family of five.
Sikahema's dad sheared sheep for three months to earn funds for the family's return trip. Their faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints later took the Sikahema family to Hawaii and Arizona.
Today, Sikahema, 53, a former Philadelphia Eagle and current morning news anchor at NBC10, is a "stake president," or local leader, of the Mormon Church, presiding over 13 congregations in New Jersey.
Sikahema, a married father of four who lives in Mount Laurel, sat down with Stephanie Farr at the new Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss his faith.
The Temple is open for tours through Sept. 9. (Reserve a spot at templeopenhouse.lds.org.) After that, it will be off-limits to anyone who is not a card-carrying Mormon. Literally. Those entering the Temple will need to show a Temple "recommend card" that certifies they're a faithful Mormon.
You're from an island nation of about 105,000 people in Polynesia. Is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints popular in Tonga?
It is the nation with the highest per capita of Latter-day Saints in the world.
Do you know how that came to be?
I do. I have a very personal connection with it. My great-grandfather helped establish the church in Tonga. He was a wharf master, and in the early 1900s, two young [Mormon] missionaries came off of a boat from the island of Samoa looking for horses. My great-grandfather recognized in these two young missionaries an opportunity to teach his children. The next day, he took them [to a friend], and they chose one or two horses. According to Tongan custom, the man refused money because the buyers were brought by a friend.
As they were leaving, the two young men asked my great-grandfather, "What can we do for you?" and he responded: "Send me teachers for my children." Three months later, those same two young men came off of a boat to live with my great-grandparents for the next year, and they established a school.
You're obviously very committed to your faith, but your parents' commitment - which took your family across the world - is overwhelming.
My parents literally sold everything. That's more than a level of commitment. That is consecration. Our faith asks a level of commitment and total consecration from its people.
Was there a moment in your life that really affirmed your faith?
It was New Year's Eve 1981. My friends [at Brigham Young University] had plans to go to a church-sponsored dance, and I called to tell them, "You guys go on. I have something important I have to do." I had three or four chapters to finish in the Book of Mormon.
That night as I finished reading the final page, I closed the book, and I remember glancing up and it was just before midnight and I knelt at my bedside and I prayed. And for the first time that I can remember, I just felt this powerful feeling of warmth, and it felt peaceful, it felt serene.
How did your faith inform your football career?
I was restrained from doing things that perhaps, to others, seemed fun or some may even consider entitlements to professional athletes: being with women, spending money like a drunken sailor. I never had that. I realized the enormity of my circumstances and how blessed I was, so I wasn't going to squander that.
What is the biggest misconception about your faith that you encounter?
Maybe that we're zealous in our practice of our faith. We're a missionary church, so we proselytize. Sometimes, people can sort of look at us sideways.
Why would you urge someone who is not of the Mormon faith to take a temple tour?
It's the only time you can do it. There's a lot of bucket-list things people have, and there's a bunch of things you just can't do. Walking into a Mormon Temple anywhere in the world is one of those things you just can't do.
The second reason is people often think our faith is secretive. It's not secretive - it's sacred. Once they've dedicated the building, it's sacred, so everything that happens inside stays inside. But until then, we'll draw the curtains up and let you see the wizard. We're anxious to show people how peaceful and serene a place it is.
Are you conducting temple tours? If so, were people surprised to see you?
I did the first week and a half. Some were surprised. It was really a great privilege, a great honor.
What is your favorite spot in the new temple?