HIGHLAND — Linda Walton is a word person.
A 1976 graduate of Utah State University in journalism and public relations, she has made a career of using words to inform, educate, motivate and inspire as a newspaper reporter, public relations professional, community activist and teacher. As president and owner of the Walton Group, a Utah County-based public relations and advertising company, she worries about words — heck, she worries about syllables — knowing through decades of experience that using the right word at the right time in the right way can make all the difference.
So when she says she prefers one word to another, you tend to listen.
“I know what people are talking about when they refer to religious tolerance,” said Walton, who is chaplain for Utah Valley University’s Interfaith Club and is chairwoman of the Utah Valley Ministerial Association. “And religious tolerance is certainly a value to be cherished. But when we’re talking about interfaith dialogue and activity, I just don’t think ‘tolerance’ is the right word.
“You tolerate Brussels sprouts. You tolerate that loudmouth at the office. But you shouldn’t tolerate someone for what they believe. You should love them and respect their beliefs and their ways of worship, even if they are vastly different from your own.”
Walton’s feelings are reflected in the theme of the Utah Valley Ministerial Association: “Tolerance to love.” According to the organization’s website, “the Utah Valley Ministerial Association cooperates through interfaith and social service agencies to move from tolerance to an attitude of love in the Utah Valley community.”
“It’s really all about love,” Walton said.
Interfaith conversation and interaction has been going on in Utah County for decades, with varying levels of success. While Walton said they have identified about 38 different faith groups in the county, it is an unavoidable fact that county demographics are dominated by one religious denomination: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Utah County is the second-most Mormon county in Utah — and the entire United States — trailing Morgan County by just a fraction: 88.9 percent to 88.6 percent.
For some, the preponderance of one faith group in Utah Valley makes any attempt at interfaith dialogue seem futile.
“There are some who sort of figure, ‘What’s the use?’” Walton acknowledged. “Others just don’t want to mingle.”
Having grown up in Utah County as part of the religious minority (“As a chaplain,” she said, “I don’t designate what I am”), she understands the non-LDS perspective. But she doesn’t see the LDS influence as “a big issue.”
“My perspective is, ‘Yeah, there are Mormons here. Get over it,’” she said. “You have to adapt, wherever you are.”
And UVMA is adapting.
“There are always those who don’t want to play together in the sandbox,” said Tami Harris, a past UVMA president and current chaplain at Heritage Schools Inc. “But I think that is more rare now. During the past few years we’ve really seen relationships improve as we’ve spent more time together learning about each other.”
And that, according to Walton, is the key.
“We’ve really tried to focus on educating each other,” she said. “So many times religions are identified by stereotypes. So anything we can to do educate people about different faith groups is going to increase understanding, and understanding leads to compassion, and compassion leads to love.”
“When we understand each other, we inevitably find that it’s much easier to get along,” Harris added.
UVMA leaders have chosen to increase interfaith understanding by “lingering on the things we agree upon,” Walton said.
“This is not an attempt at ecumenism,” she said. “We’re not trying to eliminate theological differences. We’re just trying to understand them, and to focus our attention on the things we have in common.”
For example, for a number of years Utah Valley Ministerial Association has sponsored a National Day of Prayer gathering in Utah County, having identified prayer as one of those things that people of faith have in common. A wide variety of faith groups have been represented at the event, from Catholic to Hare Krishna, from Baptist to Baha’i, and from Methodist to Mormon.
Bringing all of these faith groups together to pray for America is, to Harris, the most natural thing in the world.
“There’s a lot of evil that we’re all facing every day,” she said. “The world can be a scary place. So when we come together to pray for our country, we’re drawing strength from each other and from whatever our higher power is.
“We’re not trying to blend theology, we’re trying to blend faith,” she continued. “We all believe. We may believe differently, but we are linked by the act of believing. We can appreciate our similarities and honor our differences. But in the shared act of praying we come together as one, even if we all pray in different ways.”
Another commonality among UVMA faith groups is the desire to serve.
“What we’ve found is that virtually every faith group, from atheists (whom she characterizes as a faith group because “they believe in not believing”) to Zoroastrians, are usually involved in some kind of charitable activity,” Walton said. “They work with senior citizens, they work with the homeless, they do humanitarian work in third-world nations — whatever it is, everyone seems to have something going on in terms of charity.”
So UVMA is trying to harness that shared benevolence on behalf of homeless people in the area with a quarterly outreach that will also serve as a way of drilling and preparing for unforeseen emergencies.
“Whenever there’s a crisis, religious and civic organizations swing immediately into action providing food, clothing, shelter and medical attention for everyone, including the homeless,” Walton said. “The VOAD group (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters) does drills during the year to prepare for all kinds of possibilities, only they do tabletop drills. We’re saying, let’s practice our emergency response on the homeless.”
The plan is to “tell all of the religious and service organizations to bring their homeless,” she said. “We’ll have everything set up like it was a crisis, and we’ll have doctors there to check them and we’ll get them food and clothing and bedding — whatever they need. It’s a great opportunity to practice, and it can bless the lives of so many people who really need our help.”
It also gives people of all faith groups to be at their very best.
“In times of crisis or disaster everyone pulls together,” Harris said. “Such times have a way of bringing out the best in people. You see that differences don’t matter — people matter.”
And that, she said, is the essence of interfaith activity.
“The bottom line for me with interfaith collaboration is we need each other,” she said. “When there are emergencies and disasters a person’s faith preference doesn't matter. In fact, it doesn’t really matter if they have any faith at all. What matters is their need, and our response to that need.
“That’s true even when there is no crisis,” Harris added. “Together, working as an interfaith community, much good can be done.”
Through love, as opposed to tolerance.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company