For a while now, John Kesler has been carrying a little piece of paper in his wallet, in the plastic sleeve that holds his credit cards, right on top so it's the first thing he sees. It's a short reminder from LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, urging compassion and respect, not just Mormon-to-Mormon, but Mormon to everyone else.
The church's prophet, who died earlier this week, is being remembered for his many calls for inclusiveness, a public reaching out unprecedented in a church that was historically known for its isolation and that is often criticized for its claim to be "the only true church" a declaration that Utahns of other faiths, in particular, often react to personally.
President Hinckley's messages to put friendship over proselytizing, to reach out with love and helpfulness put Latter-day Saints on notice that he expected something better than what existed when he became president in 1995. His reminders coincided, at the turn of the last millennium, with Utah's preparations to host the world during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The prospect of that global visit, with its scrutiny of Utah by the world's media, made residents take a closer look at one of their most distinctive characteristics a chasm most easily symbolized by the delineation of "Mormons and non-Mormons."
President Hinckley didn't invent inclusiveness and was by no means the only prominent Utahn to encourage it. But he is credited with making it a priority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and with helping Mormons understand that they have a Christian duty beyond their own inner circle.
He didn't mince words.
In an address during the church's general conference in April 2000, he specifically instructed members to "reach out to others not of our faith. Let us never act in a spirit of arrogance or with a holier-than-thou attitude. Rather, may we show love and respect and helpfulness toward them."
But that wasn't all. He added a mild chastisement that cut directly to the heart of what critics and observers alike had long said: "We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making. We can be more tolerant, more neighborly, more friendly, more of an example than we have been in the past. Let us teach our children to treat others with friendship, respect, love and admiration. That will yield a far better result than will an attitude of egotism and arrogance."
As a majority in Utah, many Latter-day Saints had become tone deaf to the protests and needs of minority groups whether political, ethnic or religious. So this was a wake-up call that perhaps no other Utahn could issue without being dismissed as irrelevant. And he sounded it consistently during his time as church president.
Now, six winters after the Olympics, the desire to bridge all of Utah's divides is flourishing in Salt Lake City. Kesler, who has helped spearhead a group called the Salt Lake Center for Engaging Community, and its "Creating the Culture of Connection" initiative, has identified more than a dozen groups working in some way to bring people together who might otherwise think it's all "us vs. them."
Kesler lists the divides: "ethnic issues, immigrant issues, wealth issues, east-west issues. ... Any given person will find they're on some side of a divide."
As a man steeped in the history of his faith, President Hinckley realized the rich irony of LDS people persecuting or marginalizing a minority even if the persecution came in the form of restricting a child's playmates based only on faith. Many of his generation remembered stories told by grandparents who had suffered at the hands of those who hated them for being different.
He exposed the unspoken hypocrisy for what it was, and he did it kindly.
"I feel he raised the bar," says Verlan Nielsen about President Hinckley. Nielsen, who has an "interfaith relations" calling in the East Millcreek Stake in Salt Lake City, says that Hinckley "taught us how we can be helpful to other people."
Not just helpful with the hope of getting another convert, but just plain helpful. Which is not to say that Latter-day Saints haven't been motivated by genuine altruism in the past but certainly the impression of many non-Mormons has long been that the casserole brought over for a sick nonmember might come with a price.
With both dissension and hope in the air, the turn of the millennium saw the emergence of several efforts to build bridges, including the Interfaith Roundtable, made up of members of many local faiths; the Alliance for Unity, to bring together not just religious faiths, but Utah's power brokers; and Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson's "Bridging the Religious Divide" community meetings in 2005.
Elaine Emmi has lived in the Salt Lake valley for 25 years. She's a Quaker and the chair of the Interfaith Roundtable and, she says, "I'm one of those weird non-Mormons that actually listen to conference." That would be the biannual LDS general conference, which is televised but mostly draws an LDS audience.
When Emmi first heard President Hinckley speak about inclusiveness, she heard it as a message of love. She also imagined that it was a relief to Mormons: that they could just be friends with their neighbors and co-workers without having to figure out how to get them to convert.
In the many Interfaith Roundtable meetings she has attended meetings that include clergy of many Salt Lake Valley faiths, including LDS she says, "I have never felt I would be loved better if I were LDS."
The current push to come together is not about a specific goal like the 1980s fight against the MX missile or the 2002 Olympics, notes Emmi , but is ongoing and broad.
Roger Keller, a former Presbyterian minister and a religion professor at Brigham Young University, says he's seen a dramatic change in attitude and interfaith cooperation. Before serving as an early member of the Interfaith Roundtable, he approached President Hinckley and other LDS leaders as a Protestant with concerns about the way Latter-day Saints were portrayed in a film called, "The Godmakers."
"He was very appreciative that someone from another faith tradition would be concerned about being sure things were appropriately stated about any other faith. That's what I've seen in him that desire. Even if we disagree with someone, we need to do it in a way that doesn't disrespect or undercut."
President Hinckley's urging for understanding and love for those of other faiths "made my work a whole lot easier" teaching a world religions class at BYU. "It led to an openness to other faith traditions we didn't have before," he says.
Keller saw a dramatic shift when Utah hosted the Olympics, and the efforts of many over time to create some harmony came to fruition. President Hinckley "was not necessarily the catalyst, but by his permission he changed the climate."
When he first started teaching at BYU, Keller quickly learned that with various faculty and many students, there was "always kind of a little chip on their shoulder about other faith traditions. They were always a little needley in what they had to say."
What he termed "that bastion mentality" has "diminished considerably" during the past decade. "I have a feeling that his stamp is on the Quorum of the Twelve and the next prophet. President (Thomas S.) Monson has certainly done his share in that realm. We won't see a change if anything it will accelerate."
It's clear that the LDS Church's Office of Public Affairs is committed to the dialogues that take place at the Interfaith Roundtable and a similar group called the Lunch Bunch, says the Rev. Steve Goodier, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church. The Rev. Goodier also points to the LDS Church's standing invitation to Interfaith Roundtable members for an annual dinner and Christmas concert at the LDS Conference Center (with great seats, he says), and a $10,000 gift his church received from the LDS Foundation to help remodel Christ United Methodist.
"I find myself more heavily involved with other faith communities in Salt Lake City than I ever was in other places I've lived," the Rev. Goodier says. "I believe that is directly due to the vision of tolerance of President Hinckley, and I personally appreciate that legacy he has left behind."
President Hinckley's call for "tolerance" among Mormons has been featured in several news clips shown in recent days. It's a word that the Rev. Goodier says, in his faith tradition, "doesn't mean to just abide them. In our church it means to try to understand and accept."
But the word disheartened Elise Lazar every time she saw it on the TV news. Tolerance is only a first step, she says, and she thinks President Hinckley meant much more than that. Tolerance, she says, is "a bare minimum of 'OK, you're different than I am, and I'm just going to put up with you.' I want much more than that." Defensiveness can be found on both sides of the religious divide in Utah, and both sides "need to hear words like acceptance, honor, appreciate, in order to be able to relax our defenses."
Lazar, who is Jewish, has lived in Salt Lake City for 21 years and says she has "been on my bandwagon" for inclusiveness that whole time. Not long after she moved here she gave a talk that was printed in the progressive Mormon journal "Sunstone," and after that she was surprised to be invited to the Beehive House to meet with several LDS Church authorities.
"They wanted to hear what I wanted to say," she recalls.
Many years later, not long after the 2002 Olympics, Lazar helped form Woman to Woman, a group of nine four Mormons, five not who met once a month to have a conversation about their beliefs, their differences and their common ground.
Some of the group's members have met several times with LDS Church authorities, including Elder Merrill Bateman of the Presidency of the Seventy. At their final meeting, Lazar presented Bateman with a tempered glass mosaic she had created, inscribed with this line from an Emma Lou Thayne poem: "The pillars of my faith are still intact but the roof has blown blessedly off the structure to reveal a whole sky full of stars."
About a year ago, Lazar and others formed another Mormon/non-Mormon dialogue group, this time made up of men and women, who meet once a month. The group has become close, she says; one member recently introduced the group to his fiancee and invited everyone to his upcoming wedding reception.
Lazar's hope is that lots of Utahns will form such groups, and when she speaks next summer at Women's Week at BYU, she'll make that suggestion. And she'll talk about the basics: listen, be respectful, don't come in with an agenda, "talk because you want to understand. ... It's like pure research," she says, "not knowing where it's going to take you."
Local, grassroots efforts like these can often spread beyond the borders of a neighborhood, a city or a state.
And President Hinckley's words from October 2003 could serve as the foundation of a playbook for interfaith efforts anywhere: "We cannot be arrogant. We cannot be self-righteous. The very situation in which the Lord has placed us requires that we be humble as the beneficiaries of His direction."While we cannot agree with others on certain matters, we must never be disagreeable. We must be friendly, soft-spoken, neighborly and understanding."