Being in Utah, faith is part of the discussion. I don't think a day goes by that you don't hear religion talked about in some way, somewhere. —Alan Scott Bachman, SLIR chair.
It is completely appropriate that the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable will cap off its monthlong 10-year anniversary celebration with a 90-minute Interfaith Musical Tribute at the Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle on Feb. 26 at 6 p.m.
If SLIR is about nothing else, it is about harmony.
"We're not interested in putting all of the area faith groups in some kind of ecumenical blender and creating something new out of all of them mixed together," said Alan Scott Bachman, assistant state attorney general and current SLIR chair.
"We want to harmonize one with another, with each note independently strong and true.
"I've heard it said that one note cannot harmonize with another if it loses its identity," added Bachman, himself an acclaimed musician. "So that's what we're trying to do: Bring all of these religious groups together in harmony, without losing our independent identities."
At present there are a lot of independent identities to maintain within the SLIR organization.
"To be honest, I'm not really sure how many different faith groups are currently participating in Interfaith Roundtable functions," Bachman said. "We don't count them. I just know there are a lot of them, representing a lot of different faith groups."
A lot of different faith groups? In Utah?
"I know," Bachman says, smiling, "the prevailing Utah stereotype is that we're not very diverse here. But we are an excellent example of just how diverse Utah really is."
It was that diversity that inspired the creation of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable as part of the community outreach effort associated with the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"We were the 'God Squad,' " said Elaine Emmi, one of the original 45 faith leaders who formed the first Interfaith Roundtable in fulfillment of the Olympic Charter requirement to provide religious support for athletes and families participating in the Olympics.
When Emmi was invited to participate in the planning and organization of the Olympic SLIR, she admits that she was skeptical.
"I'm a Quaker," she said. "There are, like, 100 of us in the whole state. I couldn't understand why they would invite me."
But her apprehension melted away as she worked and planned and organized shoulder-to-shoulder with Catholics, Unitarians, Jews, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Buddhists and Mormons, among others.
"We all had a place at the table," Emmi said. "No one faith group was any more prominent than the others."
And that was sort of surprising, given that the Olympics were being held in the city that serves as world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"At the time, there was a strong general feeling that these were going to be the Mormon Games," Emmi acknowledged. "And it could have been if they had wanted it to be. At the first meeting I went to, I noticed that everyone kept looking at the LDS people when it came time to make decisions. But they refused to take the reins. They said, 'You set the agenda, we'll provide whatever resources or support you need.' And that's the way it was. I never felt directed by them. I always felt that the direction came from the entire group."
The group was so successful and shared so many outstanding experiences during the course of their shared Olympic ministry that when it came time to disband, they were reluctant to do so.
"We had a final wrap-up meeting — we had been formed to be the Olympic faith outreach, and now that work was done," Emmi said. "But none of us wanted our interfaith work to be over. There was so much good that came from our working together, we felt there had to be a way to keep those good things going."
Especially in Utah, where religion is a topic of daily conversation more than any other place in the world, except maybe Vatican City, according to Bachman.
"Being in Utah, faith is part of the discussion," he said. "I don't think a day goes by that you don't hear religion talked about in some way, somewhere. So rather than being forced or uncomfortable, religion can be easily and comfortably discussed in a very sane and natural way here more than in any other place I have ever lived."
And so it was decided to keep the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable alive and functioning beyond its Olympic mandate. For 10 years the group has kept those good things going through monthly meetings, interfaith service projects and a variety of activities and events aimed at increasing understanding and broadening perspective.
"This is the first time there has been a truly interfaith group functioning on a continuing basis in Utah," Bachman said. "There have been other short-term groups formed for specific purposes, like the interfaith alliance against the MX missile. But this is the first long-term, continuing group to exist simply for the purpose of increasing understanding and expanding interfaith dialogue and outreach.
"Our topic is NO topic."
The monthly lunch meetings, for example, usually feature a program or discussion of some sort. "But that's not the important thing," Emmi said. "When you look around the room and see people sitting at a table across from people they would never interact with in any other forum, you realize that the important thing is just that we are there, that we are together and that we are talking to each other."
As a result of the relationships cultivated at SLIR, some truly remarkable things have happened. During the Gaza War in 2009, Bachman said there was tension between the Jewish and Muslim communities even here in Utah. But through the efforts of SLIR members, Utah Jews and Muslims came together in extraordinary ways, praying for each other and singing together in what Bachman said was a spirit of "love and respect and caring."
"It turned out to be a very beautiful thing," he said.
More recently, the Jewish Congregation Kol Ami invited Baptist Rev. France Davis to speak about the Jewish exodus and slavery.
"All of these things happen as a direct result of the Interfaith Roundtable," Bachman said. "It's an amazing thing to see. When faiths work together, all faiths win. And when faiths fight each other, all faiths lose."
And an interesting thing happens when faith groups work together, Bachman said.
"While you are learning some appreciation for someone else's faith," he said, "you also learn to love your own faith more. I've seen it happen again and again. People who participate in interfaith activities generally get stronger in their own faith."
Which is why he and Emmi urge people of faith to participate in one or more of the special activities being sponsored by SLIR during February's Interfaith Month.
"There are a wide variety of activities that will inform, entertain and inspire you," Bachman said.
"But if you only choose one, please come to the Interfaith Musical Tribute at the Tabernacle. It really is a microcosm of the religious world, with dance, song, sacred text and prayer all packed into one event. You come out of there a different person than you walked in."
"And bring your children," Emmi added. "Let them experience this. Let them see there is no reason to fear other faith groups, and every reason to admire and appreciate them. If we can just plant seeds of mutual respect and admiration and trust, our children will grow up to be better than us."
For more information on the Interfaith Musical Tribute and other Interfaith Month activities, go to www.interfaithroundtable.org.
Interfaith Month activities
Feb. 5 — Greek Orthodox: Pan Orthodox Vespers with Greek, Serbian and Antiochian clergy, Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, 5335 S. Highland Drive, Holladay (5:30-7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 5 — Congregation Kol Ami: Cooking Together: Muslim and Jewish Traditional Cuisine," 2425 East Heritage Way (2760 South), SLC, (2-4 p.m.)
Feb. 7 — Hindu: Sri Ganesha Temple visit and faith discussion, 1142 W. South Jordan Pkwy., South Jordan (6-8 p.m.)
Feb. 8 — Utah Interfaith Power & Light: Tour and discussion of LEED Silver Certified LDS chapel, 495 S. 1525 West, Farmington (9-10:30 a.m.)
Feb. 11 — Salt Lake Buddhist Temple: Naikan Day, "Cultivating Humility and Gratitude in the Midst of Difficult Times," 211 W. 100 South, Salt Lake City (1-5 p.m.)
Feb. 12 — Sikh Temple of Utah: Prayer service and lunch, 4897 Redwood Road, Taylorsville (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.)
Feb. 17 — Khadeeja Islamic Center: Imam Mohammed Mehtar, "Women, Children & Elderly – An Islamic Perspective," 1019 W. Parkway Ave. (2495 South), West Valley City (7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 18 — Human Rights Education Center of Utah: "Bridging Religious Divides with Civility and Respect," 231 E. 400 South #345, Salt Lake City (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.)
Feb. 19 — Cathedral Church of St. Mark: "Choral Evensong," 231 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City (4 p.m.)
Feb. 21 — Cathedral Church of St. Mark: "Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper," 231 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City (5-7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 24 — Pacifica Institute: "Gülen Movement," speaker James C. Harrington, Turkish cuisine to follow, 363 W. 2720 South, Suite A, Salt Lake City (5:30-7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 25 — Trinity AME Gospel Church: Gospel Extravaganza, 239 E. 600 South, Salt Lake City (6-9 p.m.)
Feb. 26 — Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle: Interfaith Musical Tribute, Temple Square, admission is free, tickets are available at www.lds.org (6-7:30 p.m.)