Women talking to bridge religious divide

Published: Saturday, Jan. 8 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Nine women have been holding meetings to discuss why religion divides them.

Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News

Last January nine women got together in Elise Lazar's living room to try an experiment: They began a conversation to help build a bridge between Utahns who are LDS and Utahns who aren't. Not a big bridge, of course, because there were only nine women. A footbridge, maybe.

Lazar has lived in Utah for 18 years, so she has felt the undercurrent of tension that sometimes exists here — a tension that generally stays just below the surface but occasionally erupts. One of those eruptions was over whether Salt Lake City had a right to sell part of Main Street to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the lawsuits and public debate that followed, the Alliance for Unity — formed in 2001 to heal divisions in Utah's religious, cultural and ethnic communities — came up with an idea they hoped would make everyone happy: a donation of $4 million to build the city a cultural center on the west side.

"I was quite disappointed at their response," says Lazar. "They thought like men do. 'What do we do?' And they thought, 'Money.' I just thought, 'Oh my heavens, have they gone in a wrong direction.' "

What was needed, Lazar reasoned, was not dollars but dialogue. Not just dialogue between Alliance for Unity members but dialogue on the neighborhood level. So Lazar talked to an LDS neighbor, who called some friends, and eventually nine women agreed to start a group they named Woman to Woman. Four of the women are Mormon, five are not. They decided to meet for one year to see what would happen.

They started out slowly. At the first of the monthly meetings they simply got to know each other, talking mostly about the role of religion in their lives. At the second meeting they talked about raising children and aging and all the other ways they were more alike than different. It was only then, in March, after they had developed a feeling of trust, that they began to get down to business.

These were the rules: Speak honestly, keep what is said here confidential, speak without any intention to change someone else.

"Or even to convince," Linda Dunn explained when six of the women met with the Deseret Morning News earlier this week to talk about how the past year has affected them.

The women are all white and middle class and range in age from 30s to 60s. Ann Perez, Linda Dunn, Carolee Scowcroft and Kathy English are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elise Lazar is Jewish; Rosemary Holt, Beth Whitsett and Mary Draper are Protestant; Cynthia Wand grew up LDS but for the past 25 years has been following her own spiritual path.

They talked about how sometimes non-Mormons (a phrase just about nobody likes but in this case speaks to the issue and certainly is less unwieldy than "people of other faiths") feel powerless and voiceless in Utah and how sometimes Mormons feel like the butt of rude remarks. They talked about non-Mormon children who aren't invited to LDS birthday parties and LDS adults who aren't invited to their non-Mormon neighbors' for dinner. They talked about the LDS practice of "baptism for the dead," a ritual that can include deceased Jews and Catholics and atheists.

"There's something very valuable that comes from understanding what people really mean," says Whitsett. "Why did my mother's neighbor tell my mother they were going to baptize my father after he passed away? And why was my mother so offended, so angry?" What would have helped, Whitsett says, is if both the neighbors and her mother had been able to talk about why each felt the way they did — how the neighbors wanted to do the baptism out of love for her father and how her mother felt that this was a violation of her own beliefs.

"The doctrine doesn't change," says Whitsett, "but the reaction to it does."

A lot of times, she says, Mormons and non-Mormons "walk on eggshells," afraid to bring up a topic or explain their reactions when they feel hurt or ignored. Sometimes people feel attacked, get defensive, clam up, lash out.