By: Mariana Chrisney
LOGAN, Utah — While college campuses in Utah and southern Idaho are dominated by Mormon students, Utah State University professor Bonnie Glass-Coffin sees a diversity of faith traditions among the student body and an opportunity to tap into that interfaith resource.
The founder of USU’s Interfaith Initiative envisions a statewide network of interfaith groups on Utah campuses to build bridges and create leadership opportunities for students. For that reason, her group hosted an Intermountain West Interfaith Leadership Lab on April 20-21.
Through a grant from the Interfaith Youth Core, Glass-Coffin organized the two-day event of interfaith-promoting activities, ranging from “speed faithing” to panel discussions.
“I’ve been interested in Interfaith Youth Core’s leadership institutes and wanted to do something like that regionally,” Glass-Coffin said. “My intention was to create a safe space so people could begin to learn how to engage appropriately with religious diversity.”
Some 160 students from 15 campuses representing a range of religious and national backgrounds shared Glass-Coffin’s interest in learning about other faiths and gaining leadership skills to start interfaith clubs at their colleges.
“People can share what we believe without bashing each other,” said Nathan Beane, a USU student who affiliates with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “These events become a place where you can communicate (your religious beliefs) without fearing what people think or having a fear of reproach.”
For other LDS students, attending interfaith activities in Utah means learning about minority faiths in their communities.
“There’s always differences with other religions but there’s always a similarity,” USU student Danielle Bills said. “I enjoy learning about other faiths and we need to be able to talk about (interfaith relations) and have those conversations about similarities and differences in religion.”
Non-Mormon students expressed relief to see religious diversity at the lab.
“If there’s one thing I’ve never been close to, other than the LDS faith, is other religions,” said USU Eastern student Veronica Tita, who identifies as an agnostic but showed interest in interfaith initiatives. “It would be great to learn more about other religions since it’s hard to come across in Utah.”
Others, such as USU student Aiden Connors, saw the event as an opportunity to continue ongoing exposure to religious diversity at school.
“I grew up in a high school that I was lucky to have friends from other denominations,” said Connors, a Catholic who is involved with USU’s Interfaith Initiative.
“Interfaith activities increase our knowledge of values we share with others,” he said. “It’s an enlightening experience for sure and humbling.”
Paige Martinez, a Pentecostal Christian from USU Eastern, loves the religious diversity in Price, Utah, but appreciates interfaith events more because of the opportunities she’s had to learn from others.
“I love having an open conversation in a safe space without being judged about your religion,” she said. “In finding my own spirituality, I made it a point to visit all faiths. I went to Salt Lake and tried to learn all I could. Through this discovery I loved every faith tradition I met. We should cultivate more, and I think it’s really beautiful.”
Students who identified as agnostic or atheist see interfaith relations as important in fostering religious tolerance. USU Eastern student Jazlyn Maxwell, who identifies as an atheist, said understanding other people’s cultures leads to greater respect, understanding and empathy.
Utah Valley University student Justine Bernal, who was raised Catholic and now identifies as an agnostic/atheist, is part of the UVU Interfaith Council and encourages others to partake in interfaith initiatives.
“It’s easier to accept others and talk about other religions,” she said. “I think everyone should be exposed to interfaith work whether you’re 50 or 18.”
Bernal is studying social work and has worked closely with refugees who fled because of religious persecution. Her involvement with UVU’s Interfaith Council has helped her with social work.
Brigham Young University students also became motivated to bring interfaith cooperation to their campus.
“Interfaith cooperation is inviting and supporting other people,” BYU student Akiko Chau said. “Interfaith is not about ‘my religion,’ but looking at others and seeing what they need. Interfaith cooperation should support others who are being persecuted.”
BYU students Amy Burton and Jesse King hope younger generations will build interfaith relations with others in the future.
“We need to care about building interfaith relations now so the good habits will stick with future generations,” Burton said.
“The earlier we start to learn about other religions, the better we will be in the long run to understand people,” King added.