There were no microphones and no impassioned statements this time just 100 strangers sitting down, face-to-face, to start a conversation.
According to Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, the conversation formally known as "The Bridging the Religious Divide Small Group Discussion Project" is the first of its kind to be organized by a municipal government anywhere in the United States. It follows three forums last fall and winter at which Utahns had a chance to vent publicly about religious divisions in the community.
Saturday's more intimate meetings kick off a dialogue that will continue for the next five months. Sitting around tables at the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center, the participants included atheists, Latter-day Saints, Muslims and Wiccans.
At one table, Unitarian Polly Stewart sat next to LDS Church member Ted Evans, who sat next to former Wiccan minister Michael Finnegan, who sat next to Presbyterian Nancy Holden. Holden has worked with the Ulster Project, which brings Protestant and Catholic youth from Northern Ireland to the United States in the hopes of healing the very kinds of rifts that sometimes divide LDS and non-LDS neighbors in Utah.
At a nearby table, Muslim Etga Ugur sat next to Latter-day Saints Linda and Ken Sorensen and across from Unitarian Frank Musgrave and Evangelical Presbyterian Mark Hausam. Ugur said he was interested in the group discussions because he had attended similar kinds of meetings in his native Turkey, a country trying to sort out its religious and secular identities.
The groups will meet at least four times between now and October. Saturday's get-acquainted session consisted mostly of introductions and logistics; the real nitty-gritty conversations will begin the next time, at meetings in members' homes. Some groups are planning potluck dinners to help break the ice.
Members were reminded that the meetings will be about dialogue, not debate. As a handout from the Public Conversations Project pointed out, in a debate "participants express unswerving commitment to a point of view, approach or idea," whereas in a dialogue, "participants express uncertainties as well as deeply held beliefs."
The Bridging the Religious Divide group discussions "will be a special kind of conversation, animated by a willingness to speak personally, even if it takes us to unfamiliar and vulnerable territory," said group facilitator Terri Martin.
As for the purpose of the conversations, Martin said she finds that a "tricky question" in which the answer is both to see how much we all share a common humanity and to "acknowledge and understand our differences."
Christine Balderas, who serves on the Bridging the Religious Divide planning committee, sees the process as a way to break down "artificial barriers."
Those who have signed up for the process about 140 people, half of them LDS "are the least reluctant to break out of their isolation," said Anderson. The mayor hopes to convince the Alliance for Unity, a group of diverse community leaders formed in 2001 during the city's tense reaction to the LDS Church's purchase of a block of Main Street, to take on the Bridging the Religious Divide project, providing funding and a full-time director. "We want to make sure it's sustained. We want to bring more and more people into the process.
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