College students take advantage of interfaith initiatives

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.

Three rules for religious understanding

Krister Stendahl, an emeritus Lutheran bishop and former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, defended the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1985 at a press conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

At the time, the LDS Church was working to construct a temple in Stockholm amidst opposition based on anti-Mormon literature. Stendahl offered three rules to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding:

  1. Relevant information about a religion should be gained from the very source
  2. Compare our best with their best and not our best with their worst
  3. Leave sufficient room for “holy envy”

“These principles foster relationships between religions that build trust and lay the groundwork for charitable efforts, ” Mormon Newsroom wrote in an article.

To read more about LDS interfaith efforts, click here.

Hindu temple welcomes public with open arms

By: Sydney Jorgensen & Kristen Kerr

The sound of booming drums, fireworks and crowds of people are not uncommon for festivals occurring more than 250 days out of 365 days a year at the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple.

Members of the River Ridge 2nd Ward Relief Society located in South Jordan, Utah, have lived in homes surrounding the temple for several years. For the first time, they decided it was time to visit the temple and learn more about Hindu beliefs and practices.

The women entered through the front doors of the temple and removed their shoes before viewing the shrines. Incense filled the air as they took their seats on carpets in the middle of the room decorated with shrines.

Part of the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple structure, located outside the main building, is currently under construction. (Sydney Jorgensen)

Satish Kumar Nenmali Seshadri, a 36-year-old Hindu priest, welcomed the women and began explaining various beliefs.

“Hinduism not necessarily a religion but an eternal way of living,” Seshadri told the group.

Sri Ganesha Hindu leaders often hold question and answer sessions for the community, and Mara Urie and Cheryl Fillmore commented on the inclusive atmosphere. Nestled right in their community, the women enjoyed learning more about the temple.

Urie lives four houses away from the temple and bought her home from a Hindu family. While house hunting in the neighborhood, Urie and her husband discovered their current home and dropped in to see it. The Hindu family invited them in and left lasting impressions.

Twenty-three years ago, Hindu practices were held in the basement of Indra Neelameggham, who now serves as the treasurer of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. At that time, women served as priests because they didn’t have any male Indian priests.

Seshadri said the main Ganesha idol, the temple’s namesake, came over from India. It was left untouched in California for six months before an American Priest from Hawaii offered the idol to Utah.

In 2003, the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple of Utah was constructed.

As Seshadri explained, Hindus do not require membership as part of their faith. It’s a very personal and internal way of life and there is no conversion process. Seshadri encourages people to not leave their individual religious paths, but rather, come and worship. Hindus believe in one main entity, God. As people forget God and stray away from worship, they become evil.

Boys often start studying Hinduism at age 7. Teachings are passed from mind to mind, rather than through books or written text. Hindus have four main books, but as Seshadri said, writings are not completely accurate. Individuals participate in 16 different ceremonies as they grow up.

Each Hindu temple operates independently of other temples. The Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple relies on a board of trustees who pay priests and give donations.

Listen to Seshadri explain more about Hindu services and rituals.

To learn more about the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple, click here.

Life as a Jewish Utahn

By: Madison Butcher

Sam Winkler and his wife Amy with their daughter Perry (Madison Butcher)

Sam Winkler could be described as a husband, father, police officer, neighbor and friend. But living as a minority in a predominantly Latter-day Saint community separates him from most: Sam Winkler is a Jew.

Winkler grew up in a Jewish family in Utah. His father, in particular, was very strict. For example, everything in the kitchen had to be kosher. The Winklers used specific dishes for different foods and some dishes could not be cleaned in the dishwasher. Winkler said his dad was more of a conservative Jew, while his mom leaned more towards a reformed Jew. All of his siblings still practice Judaism in some form as well.

Winkler described his childhood as fairly normal but with a few bumps in the road due to his religious beliefs.

“I wanted to be on the football team in high school, but the biggest of [Jewish] holidays were there so I couldn’t do the football team,” Winkler said.

Winkler said his parents always expected their kids to be educated in the religion, but then it was up to them on how they were going to live it. Judaism continues plays a role in Winkler’s life despite not being as active as some of his siblings. Winkler claims to be a reformed Jew, but he likes to pray in the conservative way, in Hebrew.

The freedom to individually choose beliefs and practices within the religion has always been a plus for Winkler.

There’s not one set way that you practice, you practice what you feel which is why there are all these different sects,” Winkler said.

As a Jew in the heart of Utah, Winkler has many opportunities to explain his beliefs to others. People are usually friendly and he has spoken with missionaries of other churches, but Winkler sometimes feels like an outsider.

Upon moving into his home, LDS neighbors reached out and asked for the Winklers’ contact information for a phone directory and offered to bring by a copy.

“Of course I come to find out that it wasn’t a phone directory,” Winkler said. “It was a ward directory. I never received a copy.”

Although Winkler is not LDS, he married a former Mormon, Amy Winkler. They have two young girls, Penny (3) and Kate (10). Sam and Amy agreed to have Penny formally converted to the Jewish religion. Because of their different religious backgrounds, Amy explained they celebrate Christian and Jewish holidays.

“It’s funny because when Kate was younger, she would say that she was Jewish and (celebrated) Christmas,” Amy Winkler said.

Day-to-day living for the family typically doesn’t include religious conflict. But unfortunately, Winkler has experienced feelings of anti-Semitism.

When Winkler was a young boy, he and his brother took a UTA bus to the Lagoon amusement park. A man looked at them and asked, “Are you two Jewish? I can tell by your noses.”

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Years later, as a police officer, he handled a bike accident where a girl hadn’t yielded to oncoming traffic and crashed her bike. Winkler explained to her that although it was her fault, she would just receive a warning.

While they spoke, Winkler noticed a Star of David on her necklace. The girl became upset and claimed he must be anti-Jewish, without knowing his religious background.

Winkler said he doesn’t react in these situations, especially at work.

“When I am at work, I don’t go into that. I am police. I am not Jewish. I am not man. I am not woman. I am not democratic. I am not republican. I am police,” Winkler said.

According to Winkler, anti-Semitism still exists in today’s world but doesn’t let it bother him.  He said he believes many Jews have become paranoid.

“People feel like they have a target on them,” Winkler said. “In law enforcement, you have a target on you just because you’re a cop. They don’t know if you’re a good cop, bad cop, or whatever. And a lot of Jewish people feel like they have a target on them.”

Even though Winkler doesn’t feel a direct threat, he wants to see a change in society. More than anything, he wants everyone to treat each other like actual people instead of a label.

“I don’t want to sit on a UTA bus and have some guy identify me as a Jew because of my nose. … What I hope is that we quit looking at what makes a person, and look at what they really are. Why do I have to be Jewish? Why do I have to be white? Why do I have to be identified as something? Why can’t society get past all that and just say ‘Hey, that Sam Winkler is a great guy!’”

Interfaith music: An observer’s perspective

By Michael Barrow

An estimated 4,200 different religions exist throughout the world, each with its own beliefs, worship practices and traditions, and yet one common thread ties them all together: music.

From the entrancing Whirling Dervishes of the Islamic faith to the upbeat, energetic soul of Christian gospel choirs, music permeates the walls that divide one religion from another, joining each together in a melodic composition of worship and praise to a higher power.

On March 19, 2017, an interfaith musical event embodied this idea perfectly. A few thousand people of different faiths gathered at the historic Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, to partake in the Sacred Music Evening put on by the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable. Master of Ceremonies Carole Mikita greeted the audience before Alen Ramovic and Alan Scott Bachman of the Muslim and Jewish faiths, respectively, offered a call to prayer. Elder Michael H. Bourne of the Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then welcomed all faiths and shared a history of the Tabernacle building.

After these opening remarks, those in attendance were treated to a night of musical worship as each number brought a distinct element to the evening. The Catholic faith was represented by the St. Ambrose Choir. A joint group of men, women and children, the choir brought a spirit of reverence into the Tabernacle. This feeling persisted as the Lux Singers, a professional choir consisting of 35 men and women of different Christian denominations, took the stage. Their precise, polished melodies, accented by impressive basses and beautifully piercing sopranos, set a tone of humility and love that remained throughout the rest of the night.

The Lux Singers were followed by Kanako Ford and the Obi Festival Dancers, a Japanese folk group. They sat down to pluck the strings of large harp-like instruments called “koto,” which stood in stark contrast to the a cappella Christian music performed earlier. However, the concentration and passion illustrated in their performance echoed their dedication to the Buddhist tradition.

James Skidmore, a senior at BYU studying neuroscience, was impressed by their performance.

“I really enjoyed the Obi Festival Dancers,” Skidmore said. “I appreciated the combination of dance and music. I thought it was a unique form of religious creative expression.”

Next to take the stage were the Pacifica Institute Youth Dervishes. These young boys spun in circles for 10 minutes while traditional Islamic music accompanied them. This dance is performed to achieve “dhikr,” which is a “way to experience the intense presence of God,” according to Philip Wilkinson in “Religions.” The boys’ laser-like focus and dedication to this practice was visible and added to the evening.

Christianity was also represented by the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, the Canyon Singers of South Valley Unitarian Universalist and the Hill Top Gospel Choir. The gospel choirs brought a big presence and high levels of energy while the Canyon Singers performed in a humble and simple manner. Each displayed the love they have for God through song in their own way.

Other presentations included the Bulbuli Bosnian Muslim Choir and Khemera Dance Troupe, representing Islam and Hinduism, respectively. Muslim children sang in unison in a charming and impressive performance. The Khemera Dance Troupe wore some of the most ornate costumes of the night. They danced a traditional ceremonial number believed to bring blessings of peace and prosperity.

The night ended with the congregation standing and singing “Let There be Peace on Earth” in unison. This conclusion reflected the purpose of the event; to put aside differences and focus instead on the love that we have for our religion and for our fellow man.

To read more about the interfaith musical event, click here.

From Mexico City to Salt Lake City: Conquering language and cultural barriers

By: Taylor Jaussi

Rising from the confessional after listening to nearly an hour of confessions — all in English — Rev. Jorge Roldán felt as if his head would never stop spinning.

Roldán had only been living in Park City, Utah, a few days after being assigned to serve as a pastor in the city’s parish when the parish priest asked him to listen to confessions. It was his first Saturday in the area, and although he still did not feel comfortable with the language, Roldán agreed to fill in for the priest who was attending to business in Salt Lake City.

“I will always remember [that first Saturday in Park City] for the rest of my life,” Roldán remarked. “I arrived to the church and see a long line full of all English speakers. I don’t know what sins they confessed, what things they had done wrong, but the priest forgives the sins that are confessed. And I forgave everyone!”

Leaving the confessional, Roldán was shocked to see what his superior had just texted him: He would not be able to make it back from Salt Lake City in time for mass and asked Roldán if he could celebrate mass that evening.

Overwhelmed, but willing to accept this assignment, Roldán rounded the corner from behind the confessional and was alarmed to see that the church was completely full.

Thinking back on that stressful day when his English skills went through somewhat of a refiner’s fire, Roldán said, “That was the first experience I had where I had to say, ‘I have to do it; I can do it.’ And you know what? I did it!”

Decision to dedicate life to the church

“Sometimes people think that as priests we are born that way,” Roldán said. “But no, I grew up with a normal family and I also got into trouble at times. All in all, I had a normal life.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Roldán is the second of four children. Although his parents and siblings weren’t extremely devout Catholics, Roldán attributed the beginning of his spiritual devotion to his grandmother. He remembers her walking to mass every day as soon as the church bells began to ring out in the late afternoon.

While growing up, Roldán often attended mass with his grandmother, and it was there that he began to seriously consider becoming a priest.

“At first, the Father used to scare me. I saw the vestments he wore, the large robes, and as a child I thought, ‘He is Batman!’” Roldán remembered. “But as I observed his life, how he treated the people around him and how they looked up to him, I begin to think, ‘This is something I might like to do.’”

In the end, the possibility of being a leader and positive influence for those around him is what made Roldán want to become a priest. The impact Father Daniel, the priest of the parish where he grew up in Mexico City, had on Roldán as a young teenager made this way of living seem so rewarding.

For Roldán, it was not uncommon to hear people in his native Mexico commenting, “the Father said this” or “the Father asked us to do this.” The image of the local priest as a leader and local guide to all around him is ultimately what Roldán has sought to achieve in his service in the church.

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Difficulties along the way

When Roldán told his mom he wanted to become a priest, she told him no. He persisted, and finally she told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but he first had to graduate from high school.

Upon graduating from high school, Roldán began his religious studies at the Cuautitlan Seminary in Mexico City. These studies are not easy as they require students to study philosophy for three years, go on a mission for one to two years and then finish three more years of theology studies.

When he returned from his two-year mission in Campeche, a state in Mexico, Roldán began studying theology. After one year, he was sent to the prestigious Universidad Pontificia de México (Mexico Pontifical University).

Roldán told of a particular night that had a significant impact on the rest of his life path.

“It was there at the university during my last year of studies when a friend of mine said to me, ‘Hey Jorge, my bishop is going to be visiting and he invited us to dinner,’” Roldán recalled.

This visiting bishop was then-Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City who participating in a pilgrimage in Mexico. At dinner, Bishop Wester invited Roldán and his six companions to his diocese in Utah.

“We said to ourselves, ‘OK, let’s do it!’” Roldán remembered. “I was very excited in that moment, although I had no idea where Salt Lake City even was, and I had also realized … English was going to be a huge obstacle for me to overcome.”

After accepting the invitation from Bishop Wester to serve in the United States and waiting nearly a year for immigration papers to be accepted, Roldán began the long, difficult journey of learning English. This journey began at the Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas. Roldán honestly admitted this may have been the worst place for him to learn English.

“When I arrived to the United States and everyone was speaking English, I always had the biggest headache! [In San Antonio,] everyone speaks Spanish. I didn’t have a headache anymore!” Roldán laughed, thinking back on his language studies. “All the teachers were Mexican, the students were Mexican; this was definitely the worst place to try and learn English.”

Even without the immersion necessary to truly master the language, after a year and a half in San Antonio, Bishop Wester told Roldán he was ready to be ordained a priest. Following his ordination, he was assigned to Park City. It was during his first Saturday there — the day Roldán will never forget —  he began to observe a noticeable improvement in his English simply because he was forced to speak the language.

Celebrating mass in English for two years in Park City and for almost a year in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is where Roldán believes he has been able to develop his language skills the most.

Joy in the service

Although Roldán’s journey has not always been easy — thanks in large part to what he calls “a tongue-twister language” — there are moments when he recognizes that what he is doing is worth the struggle.

“For me, the best payment I can receive is when I leave mass and I see that the people leave happily and that they are smiling,” Roldán said. “That is my payment.”

Roldán considers his position as priest to be what truly fills his soul, day in and day out. The opportunity he has to help others and offer advice when they seek it is what Roldán hoped for ever since he made the decision to become a priest.

Regarding his service, he said, “If I was born again, I would again choose to be a priest. If I could choose again, I would again choose to serve in Salt Lake City.”

Quick facts: Buddhism

By: Michael Barrow and Kristen Kerr

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the son of an Indian king. Raised in a palace, he tired of the extravagant lifestyle and ventured outside. After experiencing the suffering that existed outside his palace walls, he resolved to put his worldly possessions aside and become a monk. While meditating under a tree, he discovered the way to escape suffering and achieve salvation. He became the Buddha, or the “Enlightened One” and spent the rest of his days traveling India and sharing his knowledge.

Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, including:

  • The truth of suffering
  • The truth of the cause of suffering
  • The truth of the end of suffering
  • The truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering

Noble Eightfold Path:

  • Right view
  • Right thought
  • Right speech
  • Right conduct
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right medication

Buddhists also believe in karma and in reincarnation. Karma is based on one’s good and bad actions. Good or positive acts lead to happiness while bad actions result in unhappiness. Reincarnation, or the Buddhist cycle of rebirth, is built on karma. Good karma enables individuals to be reborn into one of three fortunate realms: demigods, gods or men. The realm of man is considered the highest and gives the opportunity to achieve enlightenment, or Nirvana. Bad karma leads to existence is one of three unfortunate realms: animals, ghosts or hell.