SALT LAKE CITY — Reminders of the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics are visible all along the Wasatch Front and Back — the bobsled track, ski jumps, speedskating oval, curling arena, the remodeled University of Utah stadium, even the upgraded freeways.
But one legacy that’s not so visible, and yet has a staying power up there with any of them, is the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable: a coalition of Utah’s widespread and varied religious traditions.
The Roundtable was organized in 1999 by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee to satisfy a requirement of the international Olympic charter that called for the host city to provide religious support for participating athletes and their families.
Some 22 faiths represented by 45 members participated in that original coalition, working together to make sure visitors from around the world were aware of the faith outreach available when they visited Utah. The members compiled a database that included a directory of religions, their meeting times and other services. Additionally, chaplain support was made available for athletes and an interfaith website was established.
No mandate required the group to remain after the Olympics, but the coalition leaders jelled so well that when the Games ended the organization didn’t.
Fourteen years later, the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable is going stronger than ever. Membership has more than doubled. The roster in 2013 runs the spectrum from Quakers to Baptists to Buddhists to Mormons to Catholics to Muslims to the Pagan Society and all gradations in between — some 49 members in all. In its post-Olympic incarnation, this diverse group concentrates on issues closer to home: joint service projects, food drives, socials, musical celebrations and other collaborative activities that help bring Utah’s people of faith closer together while serving and connecting the greater community.
No one has watched the Roundtable’s progress any more closely than the Rev. Father Elias Koucos, priest of the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church in Holladay. A Roundtable board member since its inception in 1999, the unassuming religious leader was asked to take over as chairman this past spring, succeeding longtime chairman Alan Bachman. In a conversation with the Deseret News, the Rev. Koucos talked about the evolution he has seen in the organization and the differences it has made in Utah’s faith culture.
Q: Thank you for talking with us today. You go back to the beginnings. Did anyone in 1999 envision that the Interfaith Roundtable would still be around 14 years later?
A: Truthfully, I’m not sure anyone thought it would continue after the Olympics. That was all the early focus was on. In the beginning we all had a lot that we were trying to learn and experience as far as how we could extend ourselves to be more inclusive to everybody coming for the Olympics. Thankfully we enjoyed being together and it started to grow into what it is today.
Q: So it was the original members who kept it going?
A: Yes. We came from such different backgrounds, but as we started to work together we got to know each other better and found out we had many common practices and ideas and we could share those commonalities and grow and still respect our differences. We didn’t try to persuade or proselytize or do that kind of thing; we banded together to help. In the process we got to know each other so much better. I learned about faiths I didn’t even know existed when we first started.
Q: And you’ve continued to grow from there?
A: At the meetings when we started there were probably 20-30 people who were there most of the time. Now we have 50 to 60 who regularly attend our monthly luncheon meetings. The growth we’ve seen has been tremendous.
Q: What are the most prominent “commonalities” that you speak of?
A: I think we all have a tremendous gratitude for the gift of life and we all love to share in that joy. We all espouse the golden rule, and we enjoy the fellowship with one another and a desire to serve others.
Q: So the associations among the board members have turned into friendships?
A: It’s just amazing. We meet not only at lunches, but we’ve gone bowling together, socialized together. We’ve formed strong friendships. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the people who work in the capacity of public relations in the LDS Church. They’re a big part of this. They provide the facilities for us to meet and lunches and the venue for our annual musical tribute at the Tabernacle, so they’ve been very supportive. Because the LDS faith is the predominant faith, it’s sometimes hard for those not of that faith to get to know LDS people. I know I didn’t have any close relationships until I become involved more ecclesiastically. That’s unfortunate because we can learn so much from each other and become friends. We really need to break down our own personal inhibitions in not wanting to extend ourselves beyond our own ethnicity or faith tradition.
Q: What do you consider the greatest benefit of the different faith traditions coming together?
A: We’ve realized we can all learn and emulate what others are doing. We’re not looking at ourselves as the only way things can happen. Together we’ve been able to provide a larger base for people to count on as far as needs. Hopefully we’re setting an example for not only our families but also for our parishioners and our community that we practice what we preach as far as reaching out to everyone.
Q: How did you become chairman?
A: They asked me and I said I’d be honored. I asked if there was going to be an election process ,and they said nope, it’s all yours.
Q: Your goals as chairman?
A: To continue the growth, continue our involvements in the community, continue to strive to create an environment where we can all come together to feel relaxed and grow in fellowship.
In our faith, God is love and he set the example for us. When Christ came into the world he broke down barriers with women and gentiles, and that’s the example he’s given us to live by. He didn’t exclude anybody. I believe that’s common with all faiths. I would hope we can continue to be inclusive, to share in our common ideas, and to respect and honor our differences as we provide civic support and help for those in need.