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Utah group aims to heal religious rifts

Published May 19, 2014 9:34 am

Millcreek discussions bring together Mormons, Presbyterians, Buddhists, Jews and others.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Millcreek • It didn't take long for Pat Lewis to experience the Beehive State's distinct religious dynamic at a personal level — through his children.

Eager to build friendships two years ago, the new minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Millcreek reached out to other families in the neighborhood in Murray where his family had found a home. After three or four months, Lewis noticed his extroverted and well-liked 9-year-old had not been invited to any birthday parties — despite hearing about the galas' aftermath at school.

What, he wondered, could be the problem?

Turns out, most of the kids at his school went to the local Mormon church, and that's where invitations were handed out and parties arranged.

"That's not a place we would normally hang out," Lewis says, wryly.

The LDS families meant no harm or exclusion, the pastor realizes. It was just a "societal tradition, a piece of the puzzle of living here." And, Lewis believes, that's a puzzle worth exploring.

That's why he welcomed an invitation to join a monthly discussion group among spiritual leaders as part of Canyon Rim Community Connection.

On Sunday, Lewis and other members of the group will participate in a panel discussion of "Diversity and Strength: A Community of Faith" at the LDS Canyon Rim Stake Center, 3061 S. 2900 East.

Christine Balderas, a Mormon and longtime resident in Millcreek's Canyon Rim neighborhood, has been involved in interfaith discussions and neighborhood activities for more than a decade.

Balderas attended the first communion of her Catholic neighbor's son, as did other Latter-day Saints — including a Mormon bishop — along with Lutheran, Presbyterian and Episcopal friends. They all formed a choir to sing at the Mass.

Neighbors of all faiths or belief systems have reciprocated by going to LDS rites such as baptisms and baby blessings along with traditions like missionary homecomings and children's Primary programs.

"I live on a religiously tolerant street," Balderas wrote in a Salt Lake Tribune column in May 2001. "We enjoy being together — not because we think or believe the same, but because we all grow from each other's strengths and ideas."

Balderas, a retired schoolteacher, and Jane Holt, a retired minister at Inner Light Center, were invited to be part of "Bridging the Divide" discussions, launched 10 years ago by then-Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson to heal the religious rift exacerbated by the LDS Church's purchase of a block of Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City.

The two women took their experience with the mayor's effort to their Canyon Rim neighborhood, and, in 2007, persuaded the Canyon Rim Citizens Association to sponsor activities and discussions.

Their mission: "To build stronger neighborhoods by celebrating similarities, acknowledging and respecting differences, making new friendships, sharing ideas and giving service to bring out the best neighbors in all of us."

Their ultimate desire: To spread this model across the state to boost understanding and ease religious tensions — one neighborhood at a time.

The first group of Canyon Rim residents met for a year or so and sponsored several public events, including a "Mormon and Evangelical Together," with Brigham Young University religion professor Robert Millet and evangelical Pastor Greg Johnson explaining the theology of their respective faiths.

They also sponsored a "diversity dinner" and a big Halloween party, known as "Millfreaks in the Park."

The second group was equally successful, Balderas says. "We changed perceptions and showed people not to be afraid of differences."

In addition to Balderas, Holt and Lewis, the current group is made up of faith leaders who live or minister in the neighborhood, including Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Congregation Kol Ami; Paul Rytting, president of the LDS Canyon Rim Stake; the Rev. Nancy Cormack-Hughes, hospice chaplain and a leader at Mount Olympus Presbyterian; Shirley Ray, a Buddhist; the Rev. Larry Davis, the Unity Spiritual Community; John Haymond, president of the LDS Wilford Stake; and Virginia Aldrich, yoga instructor, Inner Light Center.

They've discussed openly and candidly potentially divisive topics such as: What is your most deeply held belief? How is it to live in Utah, good and bad? What is the definition of evil? And what are your pre-life and post-life beliefs and expectations?

For Schwartzman, the exchanges have been informative and supportive.

"I enjoy the discussions for my own edification," she says. "Some of the questions are really probing and make me think more deeply about my own perspective."

On top of that, the rabbi adds, there is a natural camaraderie among the attendees born of a similar assignment — being a spiritual leader. "Sometimes congregations don't know what clergy do all day. This is a group of people who really get it."

Lewis has appreciated the lowering of barriers and the changing views in the group.

"We've debunked a lot of myths," he says. "It's been a safe place to do that."

The next step is to share their newfound insights.

"By allowing religious leaders the space to discuss our understandings safely amongst each other," he says, "that allows us to step back into our communities and safely address their misperceptions of others and create an environment of knowledge."

It seems to be working for his family, too. Neighbors now come to his house to hand-deliver party invitations.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal —

'Diversity and Strength: A Community of Faith'

Leaders of various Millcreek spiritual traditions will briefly present and answer questions. The event is sponsored by Canyon Rim Community Connection and area churches.

When • Sunday, May 18, 7 p.m. 

Where • Canyon Rim LDS Stake, 3061 S. 2900 East