Ongoing Mormon interfaith outreach efforts aim to build friendships, solve issues

By Lucy Schouten

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 3 2013 1:20 p.m. MDT

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve spent 15 days in Europe, including the Vatican, where he met with high Roman Catholic officials Tuesday, Sept.13, 2010. Elder Ballard with Cardinal William Joseph Levada.

Photos courtesy Elder Ronald A. Rasband

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as the Brigham Young University students in the Marriott Center stood to welcome Elder M. Russell Ballard and Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve. However, the presence of Cardinal Francis George made this day different. The prominent Catholic leader came to discuss issues of common concern for people of faith.

The interfaith outreach efforts of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been ongoing and varied since the days of Joseph Smith, but the goal remains to create friendships and solve issues.

Cardinal George's visit to BYU and LDS Church headquarters in February 2010 is an example of how bridges have been built in recent years.

“I am personally grateful that, after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles and in the promotion of the common good of our beloved country,” Cardinal George said at the time.

The friendship began during a famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, said James Jardine, the LDS interfaith representative for Salt Lake City. The LDS Church added its contributions to the existing programs established by the Catholic Church.

That early effort has led to $11.2 million in joint humanitarian aid and both visits and friendships among leaders of both churches. For instance, Elder Ballard, accompanied by a delegation of general and local authorities, visited Vatican City in September 2010. They were received by Cardinal William Joseph Levada.

Referring to that visit, Elder Ballard told the LDS Church News, “The way the world is unraveling, all of us need each other to take a stand for religious liberty, which we believe is going to become a real issue. ... Those who care need to stand together and have their voices heard. People of faith have just simply got to speak out. They've got to be together."

Good feelings continue, as Elder Ballard recently enjoyed a summer day of golf Aug. 3 with the Most Rev. John C. Wester, Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City.

The chairman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable, the Rev. Father Elias Koucos of the Greek Orthodox Church, spoke with appreciation for the LDS Church’s contributions to the group, including hosting lunch meetings and providing the Salt Lake Tabernacle for the annual Interfaith Musical Tribute each February.

“I’ve gotten to know so many people in the LDS Church who have been some good friends and some good contacts,” the Rev. Koucos said. He first met President Spencer W. Kimball at an event for the Utah Blind Society, and President Kimball spoke of several Orthodox clergy members he had met over the years.

Elaine Emmi, a former chairwoman and founding member of the Interfaith Roundtable, said involving minority faiths had been a priority when Utah interfaith efforts began with the 2002 Olympics. She said that although there are few members of her faith in Utah — Emmi is a Quaker — each voice has been heard.

Emmi said she appreciated the support resources the LDS Church has provided to facilitate interfaith work in Utah. “It was kind of like having an elder in the room, someone who could give you advice on where to go for funding,” she said.

Due to the outstanding success of interfaith cooperation during the Olympics, Emmi and three other Utah representatives were invited to present a workshop at the Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona in 2004.

Josie Stone, an Episcopalian and vice chairwoman of the Interfaith Roundtable, said the diversity and cooperation among various faiths in Utah surprised her at first, but it has brought her joy.

“I think Salt Lake is a model for cities to be able to offer this in their communities,” Stone said. “And I think that that would help solve a lot of problems about religion and race.”

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