Next week, I will begin editing this Religion section each Saturday. I don't say that so you can give me a chuck under the chin but to let you know where you should direct your complaints, ideas, fears, longings and ransom notes.

I take over this section just as two of the finest writers in the city are retiring — Elaine Jarvik and Susan Whitney. That's a little like losing two key starters on your basketball team. Still, the writers who remain are of championship calibre, and we should do pretty well in the standings this year.

In the weeks ahead, our writers will be showcasing the talent and insights that have made this section a national award winner. When Rick Hall, Carrie Moore and Lois Collins started the Religion section just over a decade ago, I was asked to be the columnist. I wrote my first column about a Catholic cardinal and my second about a Shinto shrine in Japan. Then I sat back and waited for the letters to arrive complaining about our "pumping" other religions.

No such letters arrived.

More than 10 years later, I'm still waiting.

That told me then, and tells me now, that people of various faiths really do want to learn about each other. But more than that, they want to connect with each other. And I see that as the mission of this section — to help people find some common ground and look for ways to link arms in a world awash with violent and destructive forces.

I've learned that people of all faiths — Muslim, Mormon, Mennonite, Methodist — are more alike than they are different. And sounding those universal chords is the best way to make every story and every column meaningful.

Believers not only want to understand, they want to be understood. And fostering understanding is a time-honored tradition of this section. Most of our readers are LDS, of course. And for them, the Religion section has provided a context for getting to know and appreciate people of other faiths. And our section writers who belong to other religions have done a wonderful job of presenting other traditions as they deserve to be presented.

Meanwhile, I will keep on with my original goal for this column — finding universal truth at the heart of people's beliefs and trying to enhance the belief at the core of each human heart.

I need all the help I can get, so consider my e-mail address at the bottom of this column a "suggestion box."

After my column had run in the paper for a couple of years, I told Elder Neal A. Maxwell I was thinking about dropping the column and doing more writing about the LDS Church for LDS readers. To my surprise, he wrinkled his brow.

"I don't know, Jerry," he said. "I kind of like what you're doing now."

And so I've kept doing it.

With luck — and maybe a slight boost from beyond — we Religion section writers will learn to do it even better as we go along.


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com