A Quaker, an Episcopalian, a Mormon and a "none" (spiritually motivated but not religiously affiliated) were sitting around a table.
No, really. They were.
It wasn’t a joke awaiting a punch line, but a gathering of some of the hard-working believers who have key assignments in association with the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable’s annual Interfaith Month, which will fill the February calendar — and part of March — with events that celebrate the theme “Many Faiths — One Family.”
“As a culture, we’re very good at misconceptions,” said Elaine Emmi, the Quaker at the table. “Interfaith Month is an opportunity to correct misconceptions and learn the truth about different religions from the people who live them.
“This goes beyond tolerance. We’re not gritting our teeth and putting up with something,” Emmi continued. “We’re learning to love what someone else loves about their faith. We’re looking at faith through their eyes and learning to appreciate it in a different way.”
And all of the different faith groups involved in Interfaith Month activities are anxious to provide this opportunity for public scrutiny and exposure, according to Episcopalian Josie Stone, Interfaith Month chair.
“They want people to know and understand them better, and they want to understand other faith groups better,” Stone said. “That’s really the essence of what we’re trying to do with Interfaith Month. We’re not just trying to inform. We’re trying to increase respect and understanding through real, meaningful experience.”
Judy Wright, who is LDS, recalls seeing a BYU professor bring his rather large family to the Interfaith Month event at the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan last year.
“It was so fun to see the faces of the kids as they were introduced to a culture that is completely different from what they are used to. They were eating it up,” Wright said. “We would love it if people would look at this as a way to introduce their children to new things. This is a great place for understanding and acceptance to start.”
What Interfaith Month is not, says Alan Bachman, chairman of the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable — who would have added a Jewish element to the table had he been able to attend the gathering — is an attempt at ecumenism.
“We’re not trying to create a religious melting pot here,” he said during an earlier interview. “We acknowledge our differences even while we celebrate our similarities. And the end result, I believe, is you come away edified and strengthened in your own beliefs and culture even while you gain greater appreciation for others.”
This year’s Interfaith Month calendar of events officially begins on Friday, Feb. 1, with a special “Blessing Ceremony” at the Utah State Capitol Rotunda at 9 a.m. Gov. Gary R. Herbert will be in attendance to launch Interfaith Month with an opening statement, and Salt Lake Interfaith Rountable board member Lacee Harris of First Nations will conduct the blessing ceremony with a peace pipe and sage.
“The blessing ceremony will be a first for us,” Stone said. “Lacee does such a wonderful job representing his Native American beliefs. This should be a remarkable experience for everyone who comes.”
Another first among Interfaith Month activities will be a Feb. 6 guided bus tour of four places of worship in downtown Salt Lake City, with stops at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church’s Cathedral of the Madeleine and one of the historic downtown LDS meetinghouses.
“We are especially encouraging people who are new to the city to come and get a sense of the different faith groups that make up the downtown community,” Wright said.
The 2013 Interfaith Month will also feature a first-ever event in Park City: a Feb. 26 presentation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church from Utah Interfaith Power and Light about climate change.
And if that doesn’t capture your religious fancy, perhaps you’ll be more inclined toward another first-time event: the “Utah Yoga Rave” on March 9, with an emphasis on “spirituality through movement and meditation.”
“Interfaith Month has evolved,” Wright observed. “It used to be mostly a spectator sport, with lots of lectures and speeches, and people would sit and watch. Now we’re trying to do more interactive things to get those who make the effort to come more involved in experiencing the different faith groups. So its less of a sit-down, formal thing.”
Other Interfaith Month events will feature tours and presentations by area Muslims, Hindus, Episcopalians, Christian Scientists, Catholics, Lutherans, Mormons, Baptists and Greek Orthodox observers. For a complete listing of titles, times and locations of Interfaith Month activities please go to http://interfaithroundtable.org/2013events.htm.
As always, the crowning event of Interfaith Month will be the Musical Tribute in the Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square on Sunday, March 10, at 6 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public, featuring music, dance and devotionals from a wide variety of Utah faith groups and cultures. In the past, the Musical Tribute has been held the fourth Sunday of February, but this year it was moved into March so it would not interfere with the Jewish Purim observance.
“The concert is sort of a microcosm of what we’re trying to create during the month, with all of these religious groups coming together to share their culture and traditions,” said David Sharp, the aforementioned “none,” who is in charge of putting together this year’s show.
“We always put out fliers for the show, and we usually get a number of guests who come because it’s in the Tabernacle and they happen to be in town,” Emmi said. “Inevitably, they are amazed that in a state known for being so Mormon, we have this amazing event where we’re celebrating this wonderful diverse religious population that people don’t realize is here, and we’re doing it right there in the Mormon Tabernacle.”
This year, Sharp is especially excited about a group of students from BYU who have put together a gamelan orchestra, which he said is a traditional Indonesian musical ensemble consisting of metallophones, xylophones, bamboo flutes and drums.
“This will be a unique musical experience,” said Sharp, who is also a musician and plays dulcimer in the ethnic/folk musical group Idlewild.
There will also be a children’s dance group from the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple Dharma School and three children’s choral groups: the Salt Lake Children’s Choir, the Juan Diego Choir and the Hindu children’s choir. “And the Turkish Muslim group promises a ‘whirling dervish,’” said Sharp, referring to the whirling dance traditionally performed by Sufi Muslim holy men.
“Come curious,” Emmi said of the concert and all of the other Interfaith Month events. “Invest a little time here and you’ll learn something, you’ll feel something and you’ll understand your neighbors a whole lot more."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company