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.

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.

Why learn about other religions?

Pastor France A. Davis (Calvary Baptist Church)

“It’s important to learn about other religions so we can learn to appreciate differences and help people who do things different than us, to celebrate those differences. That’s absolutely essential. That’s absolutely essential.”

“Utah is perhaps more critical for that than most other places because we have a dominant religious group that outnumbers the whole community. Without tolerance and some sense that others have a place, a meaningful place, we would be in real serious problems.”

“We have to agree to disagree on some things. We have to be able to acknowledge differences and appreciate them based on the way other people see things.”