Religious unity: Los Angeles gathers faith leaders to make peace over Prop 8, other volatile issues

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 12:50 p.m. MDT

Silyan-Saba explained that the commission is tasked with resolving tensions and discrimination among the numerous cultural, ethnic, racial and religious communities in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

"We have some of the largest diaspora communities outside of their native countries, and they bring with them challenges from their places of origin. So, before you know it we are dealing with global issues," she said.

Silyan-Saba sought out faith leaders to take the lead in making peace over Proposition 8, not because of the healing work religious communities accomplished 20 years earlier, but because religion was at the root of the same-sex marriage conflict.

"The reason people were questioned on it and took a stand was their own religious beliefs and values," she said. "So, it was very natural for us to ask faith leaders to be at the table" instead of political or social advocacy groups.

The format for the meetings, which convened in 2010, was developed by the Utah-based Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, which the city became acquainted with at a religious outreach gathering at USC.

"Los Angeles has brilliantly realized that majority rule alone does not make a healthy society," said Randall Paul, president of FRD. "You have to have a respect for those who disagree to have a healthy society."

Paul explained that his dialogue methods allow opponents to understand each other so they can honestly agree to disagree while still building enough trust to work together.

"What we are about is deep change in the manner you treat someone who continually disagrees with you out of integrity," he said. "We try to hook you on the fact that most strategies that demean or belittle your rivals are ineffective."

Human vs. label

For the Way of Openness initiative, eight faith leaders representing Christian and Jewish congregations were asked to meet at USC in 2010 not to debate theological differences, but to share their personal backgrounds and views on same-sex marriage and the Proposition 8 campaign in a series of one-on-one dialogues, Paul explained.

"We asked them to talk about how religion informed their position on Proposition 8," he said, "so they could honestly express from the depths of their hearts and minds this fundamental reason why they were for or against Prop 8. It had very little to do with their politics but everything to do with their deep belief structures."

For Thomas, the sessions cleared away labels and attached a human face to the issue.

"You put a name, you put a story, you put a life, you attach all of these things to it, and what it did for me was it enabled me to build a relationship with individuals rather than a label or a perception," he said.

Thomas, who is gay and opposed Proposition 8, shared with the group his experience of he and a Jewish rabbi preventing an unruly group of protesters from storming a Mormon chapel near the grounds of the Los Angeles temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose California members were heavily involved in the campaign for Proposition 8.

"I completely understood the emotions and they were justified," he recalled of the march during the Proposition 8 campaign. "But I was also very much aware that it was sacred ground and this was not the way to behave."

Judy Gilliland, a retired school teacher and lay public affairs representative for the LDS Church who participated in the Way of Openness project, said she was intimidated by the prospect of speaking one-on-one with those who would disagree with her support for Proposition 8.

"There were so many raw feelings from the aftermath of Prop. 8 that I was worried how others would accept me and my views," she recalled.

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