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Mormons, non-Mormons clear the air

Published January 21, 2006 1:09 am

Religious divide: A report documents a year's conversations on hurt and misunderstandings
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Correction: "Bridging the Religious Divide: Pain and Hope in Open Dialogue" project was initiated by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and coordinated by a 15-member citizen committee. A story in Saturday's Salt Lake Tribune mischaracterized the project's origins.

To some, Utah's lines of demarcation are drawn by religion. It plays out in who we befriend, who we date and marry, and the way we work, socialize and worship, or not worship.

Tensions have long smoldered beneath the surface, shared only in private meetings of one group or another. But deep hostility ignited when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased a block of Salt Lake City's Main Street in 1999 and turned it into a church plaza. Many Salt Lakers felt disenfranchised by the move, while members of the LDS Church felt beleaguered and misunderstood.

Frustrations boiled over at city-sponsored open forums about the plaza, exposing hurt on every side. City leaders established the "Alliance for Unity," a committee of civic and religious leaders, to address some of the issues.

A few clear-headed citizens decided it was equally important for ordinary people to start talking about it. So Rocky Anderson initiated and a 15-member citizen committee coordinated a program called "Bridging the Religious Divide: Pain and Hope in Open Dialogue," and today they are releasing a report, in the form of a letter to the community, on a year's worth of conversations about shared pain, life experiences and misunderstandings.

"It is not a comprehensive accounting; nor does it represent a consensus report," Martin, of no particular faith, and Kesler, a Mormon, write. "The dialogues were much too far-ranging and diverse for that." (The full document can be read at http://www.sltrib.com.)

Starting in April, about 120 people, including Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Buddhists, humanists, atheists and others met monthly in homes, libraries and restaurants. They were organized into 13 groups, with about 10 members each, equally balanced with Mormons and others and led by a hand-picked facilitator trained in conflict resolution.

Sitting across the table from one other, the stories and hard questions came pouring out. They worked hard to get past the "patina of politeness," Martin said.

Nila Horton's children, who were shunned by Mormon kids in the neighborhood, have no interest in ever living here again. Her husband, Jim Reidy, finds himself outside the Mormon network that often gives special business perks based on a ward association.

Francine Mahak's extended family is LDS but she was raised outside the church in France, then converted to Islam and married an Iranian man. She has relatives on many sides of Utah's religious divide. And she doesn't see Mormons as a monolithic whole.

Brent Wallace is a devout Mormon who recently moved from Salt Lake City to Utah County. Within a few minutes of unloading the moving van, neighbors were at his door asking whether he was LDS.

Working in economic development for the state, Chuck Spence has seen employers refuse to bring their business to a place where their children might be viewed as outsiders.

Some panelists were hesitant to open up for fear of being trampled. Others worried that some might take offense at their beliefs - or their candor. Conversations could be raw and wrenching, personal and real. Abstractions and disdain for groups or other people's assumptions had to be abandoned when one was confronted with another's individuality. Eventually, most felt catharsis and trust.

"I was so tired of the pretend listening, even pretending to agree, while you can have a knife in the back," Mahak said. "As much fun as it is to spew polarized opinions, it's much more fulfilling to be talking across that table. It's fresh air, oxygen."

Person after person recounted a sense of relief at being able to face a would-be adversary and say how much they had been hurt. To be acknowledged and heard at last.

"It didn't change my beliefs," Mahak said. "But it did put the brakes on my making broad one-sided assumptions. You can't put people in boxes like that. I feel so much more textured in ways I look at things."

But these discussions proved repeatedly how complicated and multifaceted the so-called divide is.

"Too often we define it as a Mormon/non-Mormon issue," said Tina Hatch, a group facilitator. "But there are people who straddle both those worlds, particularly LDS members who are not actively participating."

Perhaps the gulf's greatest victims are the children drawn into the fray.

"My feelings come from 20 years of watching prejudice against my children evolve in a number of ways," Horton said. "It can be open, like having my daughter's cross torn off her neck by another little girl, or subtle, like not getting invited to birthday parties."

Her group experienced a real breakthrough, she said, when a young LDS man urged the non-Mormons to describe all their bad experiences with members of his faith.

He told them, "I want to hear it and I want to hear it all. I need to hear it. I'm not going to argue about it. I am not going to make it smaller, no matter how hard it is."

That and many moments like it in every group provided some measure of compassion and forgiveness.

Spence found himself repeatedly apologizing for the behavior of his fellow Mormons. Wallace was surprised by how deep the hostility toward the LDS Church goes.

Mormons "have blinders on," he said. "They live their lives in their own little world and don't pay attention to what's going on outside that world."

Participants made various suggestions for continuing to awaken the community.

"Maybe we could start assigning everyone to a group - kind of like jury duty," Mahak said.

Organizers have their own plans for more bridging.

Kesler has launched the Salt Lake Center for Engaging Community, a nonprofit organization that will continue to sponsor large and small group discussions about the religious divide. The center also is working on a documentary film, featuring interviews with people across the spectrum of belief.

"Hope lies behind this letter - hope that by sharing some of what took place in the Bridging the Religious Divide dialogues others will be moved to take up their own conversations," Martin and Kesler write. "Dialogue can sometimes be difficult, but it offers an opportunity to speak and be heard, to listen and respond. Out of such simple acts, profound possibilities can emerge."

Spence put it simply: "Perhaps if we can't bridge the divide, we can at least learn to live with it more respectfully."

To read the unabridged version of this letter, or to learn more about other groups working on bridging religious difference, go to http://www.slcbridges.com.

Don't say that, it's hurtful

Some points of tension named in the letter from organizers of "Bridging the Religious Divide":

* Referring to the LDS Church simply as "the Church" bothered people of other faiths, as did being referred to as "non-Mormons."

* The claim that the LDS Church is "the one true church" implies that all other faiths are inferior, and it's offensive to those of other traditions.

* Proselytizing, though an important part of Mormon practice, makes other Utahns feel expressions of friendship may be contingent upon their openness to joining.

* Many Utahns feel that LDS Church members are unaware of how their church's dominance culturally and politically gives them a privileged status and how difficult it is for minority voices to be heard.

* Legislation on issues such as same-sex marriage, gay adoption, benefits for unmarried partners and liquor sales seem to some like an exercise in democracy, where the majority rules. Others see it as inappropriately imposing the majority's moral belief system on every resident.

* Stereotyping Mormons as "obedient, followers or sheep" is offensive and fails to recognize individuality and intelligence.

* Mormons feel that they are targets of disparaging remarks (and at times actions) that offend LDS belief and culture, and that other Utahns do not speak out against such remarks and actions.